Column | China will not attack Taiwan head-on. Good sideways

When Russia invaded Ukraine, there was much speculation that China would now also invade Taiwan. With China’s violent response to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last week, that moment suddenly seems close. China is conducting heavy military exercises close to the coast, imposing sanctions and conducting a wide-ranging diplomatic offensive. Is it preparing for war? It is unlikely.

As China grows stronger, it will defend its interests more and more confidently. Escalation is part of it. In doing so, it signals to other countries that it is prepared to go the extra mile. It increases the costs of meddling in Taiwan and thus changes the considerations in these countries going forward. Still, there are limits to how far China will go.

For China, Taiwan is an indisputable part of the country that should one day be united with China. For the US, Taiwan is a crucial ally with which to counter China’s global expansion beyond its own shores. As long as the US has the military capacity to defend Taiwan, there is a stalemate. Beijing knows how strong the US is militarily and also knows that the longer you wait, the stronger China’s position becomes. It is therefore unwise to intervene early. You should not, in the words of a Chinese professor, topple the entire chessboard for a single piece. China is playing a complex game of chess.

Geopolitical conflict has become limitless. The first book that made a good analysis of this was already written in 1999 by two Chinese soldiers, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. In the Gulf War 1990-1991, they saw the beginning Unlimited warfare, the title of their book. Even then, they realized that there is nothing in the world that cannot become a weapon: a stock crash, a computer virus or a rumor about a leader. All the components of a classic conflict – the battlefield, the soldiers and the instruments – have become limitless. Their analysis is still very relevant.

According to the authors, what is the great secret of the new warfare? Combination. They talk about combinations of old and new weapons, but especially about the thousands of possibilities when domains and actors are combined.

The authors make this idea more specific with a mysterious concept of ‘principle and page’. The side is a joke of sorts, an adaptation based on a principle that allows the opponent to be overpowered. If the sword is the principle of attack, then the side is the angle at which the sword can deal damage without difficulty. So it’s a way of not attacking head-on. It is especially important against a stronger adversary, such as the United States is against China.

We can already see how Russia is taking the conflict on several stages, from energy and food to a diplomatic offensive in the developing world. China is much more intertwined with the rest of the world and therefore has many more opportunities.

A number of options can already be distinguished around Taiwan. Diplomatic e.g. China portrays Pelosi’s visit as interference by a rich and powerful country in another country’s internal affairs. This puts China on the same page as all developing countries.

Also particularly important in Taiwan’s case is the chip industry. Robert O. Work, the former US Secretary of Defense, said earlier on chips that for the US there is a difference of 110 miles between two generations ahead of China and two generations behind. That distance refers to the Taiwan Strait and what would happen if China took control of Taiwan’s chip industry.

These are two examples of principles by which China can attack the international chessboard indirectly and indirectly. Yes, the country is becoming more and more threatening and it will try step by step to annex Taiwan. But it is more likely that it will not attack from the front, but from the side.

On the one hand, this is good news. It makes a bloody war less likely. But China is connected to the rest of the world in endless ways; it is an economic superpower in areas such as rare earth metals, solar panels, medicine and digital technology. By attacking sideways, it could cause far more disruption than Russia is doing now. Not invasion but lateral disruption is the real connection between Ukraine and Taiwan. China will not overturn the chessboard. But it has been more than twenty years of trying to devise strategies with unexpected combinations. How well are we prepared for it?

Haroon Sheikh is a senior researcher at WRR and professor after special appointment at VU. Luuk van Middelaar is absent this week.

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