Nasty Rhetoric and Fearsome Displays Aside, Expect China and North Korea To Stand Pat

However dark, the storm clouds over Free China and the Korean peninsula are not expected to burst into armed conflict.

AP/Chiang Ying-ying
Taiwan’s minister of foreign affairs, Joseph Wu, in December 2019. AP/Chiang Ying-ying

SEOUL — Clouds of war hang over both Free China and the Korean peninsula in a challenge to democratic regimes backed by America against Communist China and its North Korean protectorate.

However dark, the storm clouds are not expected to burst into armed conflict despite all the nasty rhetoric and the fearsome weaponry that both China and North Korea might deploy. 

In the case of Taiwan, the foreign minister, Joseph Wu, warned there’s “no chance” that it “will cave in and surrender its sovereignty and democracy to the big bully.” If that claim seems rather bold for an island province of 23.6 million people, China, population 1.4 billion, is not likely to try to disprove Mr. Wu any time soon.

Sure, China this week sent 29 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, as it’s done several times this year, and Taiwan again scrambled jets to chase them away. Still, a former American defense secretary, Robert Gates, reiterated in a podcast “the likelihood of a full-scale invasion is very low.” The Chinese “have never undertaken an amphibious operation,” he noted. “It would have to be huge, and it would require a lot of softening up.” 

The ceaseless vows by China to recover Taiwan bear certain similarities to North Korea’s undying claims to South Korea. 

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, this year has repeatedly ordered tests of North Korea’s missiles, including a long-range intercontinental ballistic beauty, and may well be planning to order a seventh underground nuclear test. Still, there’s no sign he’s going to fire his missiles at South Korea, much less mount a conventional infantry and artillery attack reminiscent of the invasion launched by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, 72 years ago, on June 25, 1950. 

Mr. Kim, however, still has South Korea in his sights. At a meeting of the military commission of the ruling party, he “set forth the clear-cut practical action guidelines for bolstering the military muscle” and spoke of the need to “consolidate in every way the powerful self-defense capabilities for overwhelming any hostile forces,” according to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News agency.

Writing in English for the world to take note, KCNA said the commission “decided to supplement the operation duties of KPA (Korean People’s Army) frontline units with an important military action plan.” The commission, KCNA said, “examined and approved an important issue of providing a military guarantee for further strengthening the country’s war deterrent.”

Similarly, China isn’t about to let up on Taiwan even if its People’s Liberation Army isn’t quite marshaling an invasion force on the mainland for the 100-mile voyage across the Taiwan Straits to the nearest beachheads. The sense is that China is going to pressure Taiwan “without firing a shot through cyber and economic measures,” Mr. Gates said. President Xi, he surmised, believes Taiwan would then “have a very different attitude toward China.”

Intimidation flights, however, are hardly as frightening as Beijing imagines. China’s air force is still far behind that of America, from which Taiwan acquires planes and much other weaponry. Although no American military units are on Taiwan, American planes are within easy range on bases in Japan and Guam, and also from aircraft carriers patrolling regional waters.

There’s no doubt that Beijing is waging a campaign of intimidation, but at this stage whatever the Chinese are doing is no more worrisome to most people on Taiwan than North Korean threats to South Koreans on the streets of Seoul.

“People don’t really feel anything and don’t even care about it,” one Taiwan contact told me. “China is going to strengthen its cognitive warfare through the internet and those pro-Chinese media in Taiwan before taking real military actions.”

A Columbia University professor, Andrew Nathan, confirmed as much in Foreign Affairs: “Fears of an imminent Chinese attack are misplaced.” Looking back “for decades,” he wrote, “China’s policy toward Taiwan has been characterized by strategic patience, as has its approach to other territorial claims and disputes — from India to the South China Sea.’

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have provoked the question of whether China might follow its example and wage war for Taiwan, but Mr. Nathan believes, “Far from spurring China to … an imminent military assault on Taiwan, the war in Ukraine will reinforce Beijing’s commitment to playing the long game.”

Mr. Nathan’s logic is much the same as that of Mr. Gates, who wrote: “The price Moscow has paid, both militarily and in the form of international isolation, is but a fraction of what China could expect if it were to attempt to take Taiwan by force. Better to wait patiently for Taiwan’s eventual surrender than to strike now and risk winning the island at too high a cost—or losing it forever.”

A Taiwan writer, Yang Chien-Hao, believes China has too much to lose. To Beijing, “flying over the air-defense identification zone is merely a show which can be manipulated/used by Beijing domestically and internationally,” he told me. “It’s a way to enhance the cohesion of nationalism internally and to the world to emphasize Taiwan is a part of China.” 

Beijing’s “attitude toward Taiwan is getting stronger,” Mr. Yang said, but “China, which shares the biggest market in the world, several times bigger than Russia, has seen how devastating its economy will be affected when it takes real actions against Taiwan.”

The New York Sun

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