Taiwan Says War With China Can and Should Be Avoided

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Society | East Asia

Taiwan Says War With China Can and Should Be Avoided

Taiwanese officials largely downplay the risk of an imminent invasion from Beijing, but they are also making preparations for the worst-case scenario.

Taiwan Says War With China Can and Should Be Avoided
Credit: Ministry of National Defense, ROC (Taiwan)

Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu didn’t mince his words when asked about any potential conflict with China in early May.

“We think that war can be avoided … and we’re trying to work together to prevent war from happening,” he said.

“We will not provoke a conflict between Taiwan and China … Taiwan is not going to be a provocateur,” Wu continued. “… We will ask for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Other senior government officials repeated similar lines on a week-long press trip for international journalists organized by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Taiwanese officials emphasized “maintaining the status quo across the Taiwan Strait” and downplaying the prospect of a war with China.

While the government made its best effort to showcase a democratically free and prosperous island to foreign journalists, Taiwan’s position – both domestically and on the international stage – remains a perilous one. The ruling government led by the President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) must also balance the views of the Taiwanese people, with an impending election looming next January that could tip the scales on Taiwan’s future.

Relations with China have been in free fall since the DPP came to power in 2016 and the possibility of a war with China has become more visually apparent. Increased military incursions by China since 2021 have worsened relations, and the mood among Taiwanese people. China launched a series of military exercises surrounding Taiwan following a visit by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August 2022. Chinese military aircraft have also repeatedly entered Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, with a record 71 reported in 24 hours in December 2022.

Taiwanese people want to retain the status quo. In the latest quarterly survey conducted by the Mainland Affairs Council, 88.9 percent of respondents said that the situation with China should remain unchanged.

“They talk about the China issue on the news every single day,” said Jian Ya-qing, a 73-year-old Taipei market stall holder.

“It’s all about a big country bullying a small country. But 300-400 years ago, many of us came to Taiwan from China… my great grandfather was from Fujian, China.

“I am old already … but for the youth, like my grandchildren, when you speak about war, it’s a difficult topic. War [with China] would be catastrophic. But what can you do?”

Wu, the foreign minister, said Taiwan doesn’t want to envision any scenario of a war with China, and on the streets of the capital Taipei, it’s clear Taiwanese people don’t want to either. It’s “business as usual” for Taiwanese people every single day, according to National Development Council Director-General Connie Chang.

Making your way through central Taipei, you wouldn’t spot any signs of a potential war with China. Taiwan’s famous night markets are teeming with hungry diners – usually families and youth gathering to socialize and eat. The Taipei Metro is a hive of activity most hours of the day.

Abroad, Taiwan’s diplomatic allies continue to fall – down to just 13 countries after the latest defection by Honduras in April. This marked the ninth diplomatic ally to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China since Tsai took office in 2016.

So is Taiwan afraid of being left blowing in the wind in the event of an invasion by China?

“We are not afraid of being abandoned. And right now, Taiwan is having more support than ever,” Wu – Taiwan’s most senior diplomat – said.

“Taiwan is not getting less support. On the contrary – Taiwan is getting more support from the rest of the international community.”

As a considerably smaller nation, Taiwan cuts a sympathetic figure against the increased rhetoric and military activity coming from China. But it’s also not standing still in ramping up its military preparedness, all in the name of self-defense.

In March, the U.S. State Department approved the potential sale of $619 million in new weapons to Taiwan, including anti-aircraft missiles.

Wu wouldn’t confirm a May report that U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration was planning to send another $500 million in weapons aid to Taiwan. Instead, he reiterated that China may choose to invade “if they consider Taiwan to be weak.”

“We need to beef up our defense capabilities. And we have engaged in very serious military reform. And we have also been making more military investment in our own defense needs. And we have also been procuring military equipment from the United States for the purpose of self-defense,” he said.

“We have also been speaking with various countries on how to acquire weapons and equipment for us to be able to defend ourselves.”

Tsai’s announcement in December 2022 that mandatory conscription would be increased from four months to one year – reversing a decision to shorten the period in 2013 – has also signaled Taiwan’s recognition of the looming threat of war.

Wu said the changes to the conscription system were part of “complex preparation for any possible conflict between Taiwan and China.”

“We have tried to divide the role the professional army can play and also the conscripts can play and also civil defense. These kinds of layers … for the professional military, they will be on the frontline, and they will be the most important defense forces and for the conscripts they are considered to be the ones that can supplement the need for our professional military,” he said.

Tsai recognized in her announcement about the conscription changes that Taiwan’s existing military system remained ill-equipped to respond to a Chinese invasion. From 2024, conscripts would undergo more intense training, including operating missiles.

“Once they are extended to one year in service, they will be much better trained,” Wu said.

While he called on the international community to continue supporting Taiwan, Wu said the Taiwanese people were prepared to defend themselves.

“We are not in the position to ask other countries to fight for Taiwan. If we do not have the determination to fight for ourselves, we don’t have the right to ask other countries to fight for Taiwan.”

Other Taiwanese government officials remained steadfast in their language and tone when pressed about any defense against an invasion by China’s People’s Liberation Army,

Secretary General Hua Shi-jie of the Mainland Affairs Council, the agency tasked with handling Taiwan’s cross-strait policy, said Taiwan would continue to “counter the expansion of authoritarianism” but admitted he “didn’t have a crystal ball” to determine when and if China would strike, including the widely-reported 2027 deadline to “reunify” Taiwan.

“We are a small nation, we pose no threat to China’s government … Taiwan has been sitting here for over six decades to resist the Chinese Communist Party’s possible military invasion. Their final aim is to take Taiwan by force or by whatever means [necessary],” he said.

From an economic standpoint, Taiwan would be crippled by a war with China, with any potential blockade of the Taiwan Strait by the Chinese navy threatening to cut off the island to the rest of the world.

But it’s also this threat that Taiwan seizes on, with a message to the rest of the world: any Chinese invasion would be catastrophic to the global economy.

“If the worst case scenario happens … when China is using force against Taiwan, the kind of impact is not going to be on Taiwan only, the impact is going to be on the rest of the world,” the foreign minister said.

“Between 40 to 50 percent of the [world’s] goods are going through the Taiwan Strait. And Taiwan produces about 90 percent of the world’s total semiconductor computer chips, and therefore you can sense the kind of economic impact upon the rest of the world is going to be very serious,” Wu elaborated.

Ministry of Economic Affairs Deputy Minister Chen Chern-chyi said there wasn’t any imminent threat of a full-scale conflict with China, but Taiwan was economically prepared.

“We don’t see the immediate threat of war … there is a minimum, minimum chance of conflict. However, we do have contingency plans … We have an inventory of live support and living materials, essential materials for manufacturing,” he said.

Chen said Taiwan had an adequate food supply for its people should war break out.

“We have more than 18 months of food supply. That is pretty long,” he said.

Inspired by Russia’s weaponization of food supply in its invasion of Ukraine, Council of Agriculture Minister Chen Chi-chung said last year that Taiwan takes a monthly inventory to ensure a six-month supply of seeds, soybeans, and corn. Supplies of other products including pork, chicken, and seafood were also guaranteed for at least three months.

Another potential flashpoint in the event of a war with China for Taiwan is energy supply. Taiwan imports 99 percent of its natural gas, with natural gas and coal making up about 40 percent of its electricity generation.

“We need to make sure the supply of LNG (liquefied natural gas) to the island will be sustained even during any possible conflicts with China,” National Development Council Director-General Connie Chang said.

The G-7 joint statement released at the Hiroshima Summit last week called for a “peaceful resolution” to China’s claim to Taiwan. Earlier, the leaders of the Quad – Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – didn’t mention China by name but urged for “peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific maritime domain.”

Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, believes it’s these efforts made together with “like-minded countries” that will prevent a war with China.

“All the efforts by the United States or Japan or by Taiwan, is trying to deter war from happening. And we certainly hope that the war doesn’t happen … It’s going to mean atrocity and destruction. And that is not in our interest and that would not be in the interest of China either,” he said.