China Rising, Episode 8: Taiwan a ‘potential flashpoint’ for wider military conflict

Taiwan's military fires an 8 inch Howitzer and 155mm canons during a live fire exercise Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008, on the Taiwan island of Kinmen, formerly Quemoy, just 2 kilometers off of the coast of China.
Click to play video: 'China general says attack on Taiwan still an option to stop independence'
China general says attack on Taiwan still an option to stop independence
A senior general in China, Li Zuocheng, said on Friday that an attack on Taiwan was still an option to stop its attempt at independence. A 2005 law gives China the legal right to take military action against Taiwan, a method to bring it under China's control that has never been renounced – May 29, 2020

In the spring of 2020, Raymond Buxton bought his dream home.

The house is just a short walk from breathtaking beaches on the southwestern coast of Taiwan, 160 kilometres across the Taiwan Strait from mainland China.

Buxton is a Canadian and lives in Taiwan with his wife, Judy. In June 2020, they were settling into their new four-storey home and doing some renovations. It was hot so the windows were open to let the ocean breeze in, when Raymond heard a strange sound from outside.

Taiwanese F-16 fighter jets fly in formation during an inauguration ceremony in Taichung, Taiwan, Aug. 28, 2020(photo credit: REUTERS/ANN WANG). REUTERS/ANN WANG

He grabbed his binoculars and climbed up onto his roof for a better look. Buxton lives about 500 metres from a Taiwanese air force base and he watched as several fighter jets took off.

Farther in the distance, Chinese warplanes, including fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers, were heading straight toward them.

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“It’s the mainland Chinese (government) trying to demonstrate to the Taiwanese people and to the Taiwanese government: ‘Don’t push us. This is how fast we can arrive here. And we’ll make mincemeat of you,'” Buxton said.

On Episode 8 of China Rising, we’ll explore the growing tensions between China and Taiwan, which are fuelling fears of a possible Chinese military invasion and an armed conflict that risks spilling far beyond the island’s borders.

Click to play video: 'Taiwan urges international support against China'
Taiwan urges international support against China

In the 14 months since Buxton first heard those fighter jets flying near his home, he said it’s become an almost daily routine: Chinese fighter jets fly close to Taiwan, Taiwanese planes respond, issue a warning, and eventually, the Chinese jets turn back to the mainland.

“It’s military posturing, there’s no other point,” he said. “They’re basically saying, ‘See how fast we can invade.'”

Canadian Raymond Buxton lives on the southwestern coast of Taiwan and regularly hears Taiwanese fighter jets responding to approaching Chinese warplanes. Raymond Buxton

Beijing considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province, which it has long wanted to bring under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. But opinion polls show the vast majority of people in Taiwan consider themselves to be Taiwanese — not Chinese — and do not want to become part of China.

“It’s very clear to people here and they’re proud of their democratic achievements,” said J. Michael Cole, a Canadian security analyst based in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital.

“They are proud to be arguably the most vibrant democracy in all of East Asia, which serves as an example, as an inspiration for a number of countries in the region where democracy is either suffering or non-existent.”

In Taiwan’s most recent presidential elections in 2020, the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party won re-election by a landslide.

Read more: Taiwan president hopes to reduce tensions with China

Cole noted that even the Beijing-friendly opposition party, the Kuomintang, supports democracy and human rights.

“Taiwan was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage, of which they are very proud as well. So again, the trend lines are moving in the completely opposite direction, in contrast with developments in China.”

But, Cole said, even those in favour of Taiwan’s independence are wary of any attempt to make it official, fearful that “could trigger a much more muscular action on the part of the regime back in Beijing.”

A Chinese Defence Ministry spokesperson recently warned against what he called “Taiwan’s independence forces.”

“Those who play with fire will burn themselves,” Wu Qian said. “Taiwan independence means war.”

Click to play video: 'China general says attack on Taiwan still an option to stop independence'
China general says attack on Taiwan still an option to stop independence

Some analysts worry a war between China and Taiwan would risk spiralling into a global conflict, drawing in allies such as Japan and the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently warned it would be a “serious mistake for anyone to try to change the existing status quo by force,” adding that the U.S. remains committed to Taiwan’s defence under the Taiwan Relations Act. The legislation, enacted in 1979, does not guarantee the U.S. would intervene militarily if China attacked the island but pledges to help Taiwan “maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.”

Taiwan army ‘frogmen’ marines manoeuvre during a military drill in Kinmen county, Taiwan’s offshore island, Jan. 26, 2016. EPA/RITCHIE B. TONGO

Besides its written commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. would also have an economic incentive to act in Taiwan’s defence, according to Taiwanese historian James Lin.

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Taiwan is one of the world’s top suppliers of leading-edge computer chips — semiconductors used in everything from smartphones and cars to U.S. military equipment.

“And so this is a critical dependency that the United States sees,” Lin said. “Taiwan cannot fall into the wrong hands because so much of the U.S. economy, including its own national security needs, is dependent upon Taiwanese-manufactured semiconductors. And so this tremendous global economic power complicates the geopolitical position that Taiwan finds itself in and provides a little bit of leverage.”

Read more: Shopping for a new vehicle? Why the semiconductor chip shortage is making certain models hard to find

“In a period where U.S.-China tensions are particularly not looking good and then Taiwan becomes a potential flashpoint, just because it has always been there as an unresolved geopolitical issue, I really hope that there is no military conflict,” Lin told Global News.

Click to play video: 'U.S. pursues $2 billion weapons sale to Taiwan: sources'
U.S. pursues $2 billion weapons sale to Taiwan: sources

The prospect of a fight over Taiwan pitting two nuclear superpowers, the United States and China, against each other has spawned plenty of frightening, Third World War doomsday predictions. But in reality, it’s unlikely the U.S. would respond militarily, according to Robert Spalding, a former U.S. brigadier general and senior advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs on China.

“Part of the problem is that the Chinese have nuclear weapons. And so a direct confrontation or conflict in a military sense with the United States and China is terribly problematic and risky. So that’s number one. Number two, the Chinese Communist Party has built the predominance of power. So (an invasion) should be fairly quick,” Spalding said.

Read more: China Rising, Episode 7 — Hong Kong

“What people don’t understand is the Chinese have built up literally thousands, hundreds of thousands of munitions on their side of the Taiwan Strait so they can reach out, touch every single American base in the region and really take them out with those weapons. So it would be impossible, at this point, for the U.S. to mount much of a defence of Taiwan using conventional weapons.

“Now, they can essentially talk about our ‘nuclear umbrella,’ but I don’t think that becomes credible, particularly when you don’t have nuclear weapons on the island of Taiwan.”

Spalding agrees with predictions from some senior U.S. military officials that Beijing will launch an invasion within the next six years.

If that proves true, indications suggest the people of Taiwan would not go down without a fight. In a press conference in April, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu was unequivocal.

“We are willing to defend ourselves and (it) is without any question. And we will fight the war if we need to fight a war,” Wu told reporters. “If we need to defend ourselves to the very last day, we will defend ourselves to the very last day.”

Click to play video: 'China Rising: A preview of the Global News’ investigative podcast'
China Rising: A preview of the Global News’ investigative podcast

Buxton pointed to public opinion polls that suggest roughly two-thirds of Taiwanese are willing to fight for the nation in the event of an invasion by China.

“I can tell you right now, the Taiwanese will, if it ever did happen, they will go down fighting,” he said.

To subscribe and listen to this and other episodes of China Rising for free, visit Curiouscast.ca