An imminent Sino-US war over Taiwan makes for sensational analysis, but is unrealistic and, military-wise, unsound assessment of likely hostilities. A spate of ill-informed media commentaries and the like have been published, many of them by Mandarin-speaking former diplomats who ought to know better. A former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, for instance, in an op-ed (https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-taiwan-flashpoint-in-the-indo-pacific/article36933319.ece) propagated the questionable thesis about China initiating an offensive on the grounds of a growing power imbalance — of Beijing acting sooner to forcfully reunify Taiwan with the mainland because doing so later would mean having to contend with a more powerful enemy lineup with a nuclear submarine equipped-Australia firming up the forward maritime stance of the new military alliance on the block — AUKUS (Australia-UK-US).
Further, his contention of bilateral Taiwanese capital stock worth some $188.5 billion in 1991-2020 or 15% of Taiwan’s GDP invested in China versus China’s $2.4 billion investment in the island-nation trade far from adding up as evidence actually suggests a contrary conclusion — a disincentive for Beijing going to war in the context of other sources of FDI slowly drying up, and China getting slowly economically isolated.
The massive flyovers staged in recent days by the PLA Air Force over Taiwan are, moreover, no more precursors of war than the US Navy periodically despatching its warships on freedom of navigation patrols (FONOPs) through the Taiwan Strait, or US troops regularly visiting Taiwan to jointly train with the Taiwanese armed services. As actions go, these are more show of force and symbolic than provocative. Had the Chinese planes dropped bombs or the Taiwanese air defence systems brought down an intruding aircraft or two is when the fat would be on fire. This last won’t happen because the Democratic Progressive Party government in Taipei, convinced America would offer no more than expressions of solidarity in defence of Taiwan, has no reason to challenge Beijing. And because all the talk out of China, including by Xi Jinping, about reunification — peaceful or otherwise notwithstanding, PLA simply does not have the capacity for a sustained military invasion and capture of the offshore island, especially one that, intelligence and cyber-wise, long ago penetrated the mainland defences and would have almost instantaneous knowledge of any decision to invade made by the CMC (Central Military Commission), which would void the surprise element. The PLA generals know all too well that an invasion would trigger an all-out Taiwanese response.
More than half of any Chinese invasion fleet is expected to be sunk by concentrations of shore-based Harpoon cruise missiles supported by a host of Taiwanese air and sea launched land attack and anti-ship cruise missiles — the 120 km range Hsiung Feng II, the 150km Hsiung Feng III, and for strategic deterrence the 600 km range Hsiung Feng IIE, and the 120km short range Wan Chien ballistic missile. Taipei is also developing on a war footing masses of the 2,000km range Yun Feng cruise missile to reach Beijing. And any attempts at aerial bombing is negatived by a dense and effective Taiwanese air defence. But even without the Yun Feng, Taiwan’s missile forces can, at a minimum, devastate the entire manufacturing base around Shanghai and its hinterland and up the Fujian province coast opposite Taiwan, and fully wreck the flourishing Chinese economy. Taipei knows this, and so does Beijing.
Sure, the 2049 dateline looms by which Xi Jinping would ideally like to see a reunified China with Taiwan accommodated in some version of a “One China, two systems” compromise. But while Xi may be an ideological blowhard, he is not a military idiot, however much he is urged by certain higher sections of the PLA command to once and for all and early sort out the Taiwan problem. So, where’s the question of war?
Indeed, just to clarify the Taiwan situation for an Indian audience, the possibility of forcible reunification of Taiwan with China is less of a flashpoint than Kashmir is — and this when the prospects of the Pakistan army attempting to wrench Jammu & Kashmir from India’s grasp is less than zero — whatever posturing Indian generals and militarymen eager to justify a wonky Pakistan-fixated Indian force structure and the ocassional brain-addled Pakistani politicians, may say.
From an Indian perspective, nothing would better serve India’s national interest than for China’s economy to get it in the neck and for Beijing to get diplomatically sidestreamed with a PLA misadventure against Taiwan, and one would very much hope that Xi is somehow persuaded by his military chieftains to start a real hard affray that Taipei is compelled to react violently to. But because this is unlikely, what’s next best India can do, proactively?
It has been Taipei’s policy before the DPP regime under President Tsai Ing-wen hove into view of Taiwan prudently disinvesting from China and moving its monies to more politically receptive climes. It was the context for the Taiwanese trade representative in Delhi — ambassador by another name, complaining to me some 20 years ago that the Indian government was doing nothing much, if anything, to attract Taiwanese investment capital in order to kickstart India’s development as a manufacturing hub for the world — something Indian governments Vajpayee’s onwards have been yacking about but doing little substantively to realize, and to otherwise assisting Taiwanese capitalists and manufacturers to do for India what they did for China in the Eighties and after.
The BJP government of Narendra Modi, on its part, seems entirely unmindful of the need to intensely cultivate Asian investors and companies, especially Taiwanese, Japanese and South Korean, to shift their production bases to India with attractive tax holidays, automatic “one window” clearances, and extensive language training and cultural acclimatization to speedily create a class of Mandarin-speaking Indian youth, say, to act as intermediaries, whose absence the Taiwan ambassador in Delhi long ago asserted was the single biggest obstacle — the other being the oppressive bureaucratism of all state authorities, state and central, to the flow of Taiwanese capital and production wherewithal into India. It is a problem the Indian government has failed to address.
While Modi’s ardour for Chinese infrastructure investment may have dropped down to realistic levels owing to happenings in eastern Ladakh and elsewhere along the extended Line of Actual Control, it is replaced by a hope of convincing American companies for FDI increases and manufacturing investment. Except, the Biden Administration’s priority is not India’s economic betterment, but welcoming investors from everywhere just so that the so far “jobless growth” produces more employment in the US.
Taiwan, Japan and South Korea are the biggest investment and technology sources India can productively tap, which the Indian government has done little to court and incentivize. It is time the DRDO, IISc, Bengaluru, and the IITs begin collaborating, for example, with the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology in Taipei that is designing and helping local companies produce world class weapons, platforms amd sensors to arm its own military. This is so because the Modi dispensation, unfortunately, is hung up on the US and the West as the locus geneses of these things, enabling Washington to play New Delhi like a fiddle with S. Jaishankar, the most destructively pro-American diplomat in history as first Foreign Secretary and now foreign minister advancing Modi’s harmfully overt policy tilt. Just what such policies have fetched India and how much real weight Modi packs in Washington, in the US, the West and in the world generally, as a result was evidenced from not a single major American newspaper covering the recent Modi-Biden meet in the White House, the so-called Quad summit in Washington Sept 24 — what little exposure this last event got related to the nuclear submarines to Australia-angle, and from the fact that Modi addressed a near empty hall in the UN General Assembly, September 25.
The sooner Modi appreciates that India’s future is tied to the future of Asian states whose interests too clash with those of China, the lesser will be the delay for the present counterproductive US-dependent Indian strategic security policy to correct itself and get back on track to genuine “strategic autonomy”.
Other than the necessary economic initiatives to attract Taiwanese, Japanese and South Korean investment capital and manufacturing, and technology, the Modi government can signal India’s strategic intent by ordering regular and frequent sailings of Indian warships and flotillas, through the disputed waters of the South China Sea, of course, but more meaningfully also through the Taiwan Strait with Indian naval vessels carrying out, to begin with, simple jackstay-kind of exercises with the Taiwan Navy and docking pointedly at major naval bases on the island-state’s east coast, such as Su’ao, headquarters of one of its leading units — the 124th Fleet.
Isn’t it time India responded in kind to Chinese naval sailings in India’s Indian Ocean domain and Chinese surface combatants and submarines docking at Karachi or in Humbantota at will?
Agree with your assessment that India should do more to attract investments from Asia, especially Taiwan, Japan and S. Korea. Though I must say that these investments are already taking place, what with Hyundai being the only foreign automaker in India with some modicum of success and S. Korean telecom companies investing in India. Here I think India needs to buck up and improve its infrastructure and business practices. Many investments like the Posco Steel plant, High Speed Rail between Ahmedabad and MUMBAI, Bangalore Metro etc., have languished or failed due to Indian issues. While infrastructure is improving, there is much to be done to improve Indian business practices Which remain mired in bureaucratic red tape, politicking and corruption, notwithstanding the rapid rise in World Bank rankings.
If this is addressed even US capital will flow readily (which does not really require government interventions). Hopefully, India can also grow its exports and can close some of its mini trade deals with the UK, Australia etc. the uptick in exports this year should not be an exception.
India has underperformed relative to expectations for the last 10-11 years. I’m hoping this decade is different. Otherwise we’ll always be crying as China steps up the pressure on India and the economic gap with it continues to rise.
On the dot on Taiwan issue Dr Karnad
Wonderful article Mr Karnad once again as usual. However do you think that Taiwan under a KMT leadership will be as hostile towards China as they are now under a DPP leadership ? The KMT sounds very much pro-reunification.
On the military front, what if instead of directly attacking Taiwan, PRC decides to blockade it ? It is a small Island that needs to import fuel, food and other necessary staff from the outside world. Do you think PRC can choke off these avenues if it is able to impose a naval blockade over Taiwan ?
May be not, but KMT leadership in Taiwan reflects Communist China’s views on the Sino-Indian border and Ladakh.
KMT cannot come back to power. They are from mainlander minority, and are seen by the rest as cronies of Beijing. If anything, mainland traitors need to be purged from Taiwanese society and repatriated to the mainland.
Professor Karnad, your suggestions regarding Taiwan are excellent however, no political party in India will implement them.
During the USSR days, majority of Indian policy makers, politicians, bureaucrats, prominent editors etc. were on KGB payroll since the last decade or so the aforesaid category has been completely compromised by the CIA.
Chinese intelligence has also managed to cultivate considerable clout in the power corridors of India.
Therefore, there is no possibility of a big paradigm shift by the Indian establishment regarding Taiwan.
Thank You Sir, I think Taiwan is out of our calculus despite making sense strategically. warm regards Gp Capt R K Narang VM (Retd.)
Dear Dr Karnad,
What do you think the chance of Taiwan surrendering in 6 months once they face a naval and aerial blockade from China like Israel does with Gaza ?
China is in no postion to impose an aerial and naval blockade of Taiwan.
China could grab Taiwan’s outlying islands which are much closer to mainland China’s coast. With this, China could strike a serious blow to embarrass Taiwan’s ruling establishment and expose them as impotent weaklings.
There are public sector ports to handle that traffic.
I would love to know what are your thoughts on India closing down any business with Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan ? Does it completely kill off the Chabahar project ?
Modi is on his way out and I speak that with regret , coming state elections might be an eye opener for all the people I know who had voted for BJP since it was tiny party and are disillusioned big time with inflation and all the taxes he has imposed on his baniya stronghold vote in mass block community .
It’s too late for him but, yeah, what an opportunity lost though in all fairness he and his minions don’t have IQ to grasp all the nuances needed to navigate country successfully . This article should also be addressed to rahul gandhi as I think he will have lot more leverage in framing policy in few years.
@Tony- Subramanian Swamy of Modi’s party once said that since the PM doesn’t have much education, he depends excessively on his trusted bureaucrats in the PMO.
The aforesaid says enough about the authenticity of Modi’s Masters Degree in Entire Political Science.
Another major blunder of present Indian establishment has been excessive pampering of the Armed forces. This has led to army’s top brass giving one shopping list after another of imported arms/weapons.
When the time came to put these armaments to use last year in the clash against the Chinese forces. Indian soldiers just made use of stones and sticks.
2024 General Elections will see the return of coalition era politics of the 1990’s. Congress is a dying party now and they will never be able to form a government at the centre.
Modi is not on his way out: TINA (There Is No Alternative)
Modi can be outflanked on the right, but not on the Left. People know that the Left are ideologically bankrupt and only full of stuntsmen.
@San Mann- Right wing ain’t any better. Modi and BJP don’t have any electoral prospects in Tamilnadu, Kerala, Andhra, Telangana, Orissa, West Bengal, Punjab & Kashmir.
Regional Parties in India can outflank BJP by agreeing to rotational PM ship i.e, make everyone from the coalition PM for 6 months.
India is a Parliamentary Democracy. PM in this system is the leader of the party with the maximum number of seats.
He/she should be open to discussions/consultations rather than imposing diktats on everyone (the present one)
Email from Rear Admiral KR ‘Raja’ Menon (Retd), former Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (Operations):
Thanks for sharing your piece. I agree that forcefully reuniting Taiwan ignores military realitiies
Parambir Singh as the ex top cop of Bombay must be having a treasure trove of information about the criminal hierarchy of not only Bombay but whole of Maharashtra as well as India.
He would be a prime asset for CIA, ISI, Russian, Chinese intelligence. He could have travelled to Nepal and from there taken a flight to anywhere.
Bombay is a seaport. He could have used the sea route to escape from India as well.
There is another possibility, which no other media outlet has mentioned.
Isn’t it possible that he might have been murdered and the story circulated of him having sneaked out of India?
I would like to know Professor Karnad’s view plus the opinion of fellow readers of this blog regarding this issue, which has serious security ramifications for the country.
Approximately 5 years ago, the following write up of mine on Global Times raised a lot of heat in India;
This is the present situation;
The India-China trade volume looks set to cross the record figure of USD 100 billion this year as the total has already touched USD 90 billion in the first nine months.
An excerpt from the following article;
BY email frm Major General Dhruv Katoch (Retd)
Wed, 13 Oct
This is a post which is doable, and i believe must be supported. We need to get the Taiwanese to set up chip manufacturing capability in India and to collaborate on advance technologies, in JVs. I believe this is on the cards, but we have enough fifth columnists in the country, on China’s payroll, who will do everything to sabotage such a prospect.
Earlier, you had spoken of getting the first movers advantage in recognising the Afghan Taliban government. Perhaps you may like to reconsider that POV.
Also, your proposition, which i contested in the USI, when you had come to hear the talk of the CAS, that India and Pakistan could collaborate, and isolate the Chinese!
There is a political reality on the table, and while it is fashionable to talk of out of the box thinking, it does take two to tango.
By email from Lt General Arun Sahni (Retd)
Great points. I agree we need to get over the obsession with US . Finance and technology from those willing to share needs to be exploited The Taiwan overtures over the years have not been reciprocated appropriately Why ??
A balance is necessary in our engagement with the world. Post US Afghanistan – is a live example for us to exercise prudence in our dependence on US.
By email from Air Marshal Harish Masand (Retd):
Enjoyed the piece. Thank you.
I was drafting a similar article, a little less aggressive than yours though, recommending not just economic ties but a veiled military alliance of sorts with a declaration that any attempt to change the status quo by force would not be acceptable to India. If such a declaration can come from the Quad and AUKUS, so much the better though I also do not believe the US would ever get involved in open hostilities with China or anyone for a while. Such a statement should work both for our northern borders as well as independence of Taiwan and other ASEAN countries being trampled upon by China’s aggression. I also intend to highlight China’s strategy of isolating individual countries in the garb of dealing bilaterally with each, sort of divide and rule again.
Let me see if I can rework my article in the little time I have before I move around for the 1971 War seminars and events.
By email from Commodore Anil Jai Singh (Retd)
I agree with your assessment that China’s grandstanding over Taiwan is not a precursor to war or a hostile takeover. China has too much at stake in pursuing its global ambitions and building its maritime capability tio allow itself to be distracted by Taiwan at this point in time. However, megalomaniacs are difficult to predict. If Xi starts feeling threatened internally or wants to divert attention from China’s declining economy, anything is possible though waging war on Taiwan could have major repurcussions on the BRI, its military capability and its global standing, all of which are already under stress.
As for India. we need to engage with Taiwan not because the US has stepped up its own engagement and we are therefore also expected to, but to identify the areas of cooperation and leverage its technological skills to improve our ‘aatmnirbharta’ in critical areas such as chips, semi conductors etc. The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of global supply chains which ib a more hostile maritime environment can have severe implications on India’s strategic preparedness.
As always, I enjoy reading your commentary, its provocative tone and criticism of our own military establishment notwithstanding..
Commodore Anil Jai Singh, IN ( Retd)
Senior Vice President
thyssenkrupp Marine Systems India
Super piece @Bharat.
A Taiwan invasion by China is improbable for exactly the reasons listed in the write up.
The Chinese believe in winning without fighting. The last time PLA was involved in actual combat was when they invaded Vietnam, and got a bloody nose for their trouble from mostly militias who were determined to stand their ground. Its funny how they declared victory and hot footed it out of the corner they found themselves at that juncture.
Dear Mr Karnad, What are your views regarding increasing BSF power in Punjab and WB ? Are we going to see President’s rule being imposed in these two states in near future?
I think the investments are coming in, examples include Kia Samsung Wistron Foxconn, Bullet train. But they will not give deep tech, nobody gives deep tech, the Chinese stole it. Also issues to the east of Malacca Strait are mostly maritime, here they are mostly territorial, and Our thin Naval fleet and their dependence on US, transitively results in US sitting over our heads. Also Asians never collaborate, we are way too competitive. If so why aren’t they forming a group and invite India later. I agree that the government is ignorant and have buried it’s head like an ostrich. But the other side also have faults.
An interesting development;
Excerpts from the above news link;
Senior diplomatic officials of China and Bhutan signed a memorandum of understanding on a three-step roadmap for expediting the Bhutan-China boundary negotiations during a videoconference on Thursday.
Both sides spoke highly of the progress. We hope the China-Bhutan boundary negotiations that started in 1984 could be sped up, allowing the two countries to establish diplomatic relations at an early date.
It’s well-known that Bhutan is the only neighboring country that has not established diplomatic relations with China.
Bhutan doesn’t have diplomatic relations with China, nor has it established diplomatic relations with any other permanent member of the UN Security Council. This is abnormal.
It’s because India has exercised long-term comprehensive control and influence on Bhutan, which has restricted it from developing foreign relations.
A must read post:.
When military defends the political narrative, nation must pay the price
By Sushant Singh
A couple of days before the 13th round of Ladakh border talks between senior military commanders of India and China, Chinese social media platform Weibo had images of Indian soldiers taken captive after the deadly clash at Galwan on June 15 last year. Yesterday, they released a video too. In that clash, 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers were killed, the first instance of loss of lives on the Sino-Indian border in Ladakh since 1962.
The inscription on the war memorial in Ladakh and the citation of the gallantry award offer slightly varying official versions of the incident.
The images are both disturbing and clarifying. Disturbing for the ferocity of violence, severe injuries and the dishevelled state of Indian soldiers in captivity – for someone like me, who served in uniform for two decades, it is particularly painful and distressing to see our officers and men in this state. But these images were clarifying in equal measure because they confirmed what has been hidden from the public by the proverbial ‘conspiracy of silence’.
It is believed that a few score Indian soldiers were taken captive after the clashes at the Y-nala near PP14 on the night of June 15/16.
The images clearly show that the Chinese were in possession of the Y-nala the next morning, with Indian soldiers in their custody yards away from that site. You can even see Indian INSAS rifles laid on the ground by the Chinese soldiers, which means that some of the captured soldiers were armed but did not fire even as their comrades were battered or pushed to their death.
It is believed that most of the captive soldiers were returned by the Chinese in the next 24-36 hours but for the last 10, including four officers, whom they wanted to hand over at Moldo. Three rounds of talks between major generals on June 16, 17 and 18 led to their eventual release at Galwan itself on June 18.
The Hindu was the only national daily that prominently reported the release on its front page on June 19, and almost every other newspaper, television channel and web portal remained silent till then.
Prior to that, journalists asking the Army for information on soldiers taken captive were stonewalled and asked to abstain from reporting. The journalists complied, most out of habit and a few others presumed this concession was to prevent harm to Indian soldiers in captivity.
I wrote about the media coverage of the Ladakh crisis in The Caravan in December 2020.
On June 17, the New York Times reported that dozens of Indian troops had been captured by the Chinese. The Army PRO issued a statement over 24 hours later, after the last lot had been released: “It is clarified that there are no Indian Troops Missing in Action.” Since the New York Times had never claimed that the troops were missing, but had reported that they had been captured by the PLA, the Army PRO’s clarification was misleading, though technically correct.
But an unofficial embargo on reporting even after their release made no sense. As there has been no official statement from the Army or the government till date acknowledging the soldiers’ captivity and release, the reason for non-reportage had little to do with concerns for the soldiers’ safety and was more about keeping the public in the dark.
Only a day later, on June 19, PM Narendra Modi had loudly claimed that “Na koi wahan hamari seema mein ghus aaya hai, na hi koi ghusa hua hai, na hi hamari koi post kisi dusre ke kabze mein hain.” The official Prime Minister’s Office video recording of his remarks then excised this line. Cover-up of a cover-up.
The reasons for the cover-up were clearly political, to protect the image of a ‘56-inch’ Prime Minister.
The Army benefitted, too, as it helped shield its public image and retain the public trust after a military setback. The political narrative was defended, even if Indian territory wasn’t.
Whatever be the reasons, it reminds one of the narrative dominance exercised by the Pakistan army ― in the 1965 War, 1971 War, Kargil War and Abbottabad operations ― where military setbacks were not allowed to be reported.
Unfortunately, Galwan is not an exception. We saw the same phenomenon during the Balakot air strikes and the aerial clash that followed.
That Indian missiles overshot the target to hit the trees on the ridgeline and that an F-16 was not shot down by Wing Commander Abhinandan was soon evident, but the IAF kept promoting a misleading narrative.
It concealed the fact that it had shot down its own Mi-17 helicopter until the parliamentary election results were declared. The ‘friendly fire’ incident was reported by Ajai Shukla, and rankled the IAF.
The situation was no better after the overhyped surgical strikes of 2016. The truth was far from the outlandish claims fed to the media, which gladly ran with wild stories.
In Doklam as well, the Chinese withdrew barely 150 yards from the faceoff site after disengagement, and have now undertaken massive infrastructure construction and military deployment in the area. The road to Jampheri ridge from an alternate route is also nearing completion.
The lesson is clear. Keeping the public in the dark has its consequences. Decision-makers are denied a vital feedback loop which keeps democracies going. It helps those in power to not only gauge sentiment but keeps them rooted and calibrates their moves. Else, eventually, those in government end up buying their own spin. Believing their own mythology is dangerous because when reality hits, it all crumbles. No transparency means no feedback, no room for course-correction and that ultimately triggers collapse. In matters of national security, no temporary relief by hiding the truth via misleading PR is worth this cost.
As the couplet goes, “Ye jabr bhi dekha hai taarikh ki nazron ne, lamhon ne khata ki thi sadiyon ne saza payi.” (‘History has seen this before, how the mistake of a moment led to a millennia of suffering’)
Thanks for this post from you. I have been suspecting that fiasco of IAF as well that of the Galwan clash from reading between the lines of several news reports which were available but cryptic. And you have now reported very precisely to set the record straight here. It reminds me of the statement by the economist Amartya Sen N.L. when Modi got elected in 2014, that Modi’s election will be a disaster for India. I really wonder now whose intervention was instrumental for Delhi’s move for J&K to make Art 370 defunct, which I concur wholeheartedly. Full credit to Professor Karnad also to let you publish this piece in his forum.
Yeah keeping the public in dark has its consequences. Look at China they have grown so rapidly without these stupid protests and discussions and committees. One track Han pursuit to become rich and powerful.
The problem is that we also have a lot of illiterates in our country who are easily stirred up by anything, including beneficial farm laws. Given that they can’t even understand simple economics that can benefit them, likewise they can’t digest basic concepts relating to national security. When so many of our own electorate are a gullible illiterate tribalistic easily-manipulated lot, they don’t act as a productive feedback mechanism. What instead happens is that stuntsmen-politicians get involved in between, and turn any issue into a circus for them to launch agitations against the govt. We need to first raise the temperature of nationalism in the country, in order to get more people firmly onboard with national security causes, and then more of the public can be considered reliable to their country, instead of untrustworthy chaotic rabble.
With the recovery of bodies, the army casualties suffered during the ongoing counter terrorist operation has risen to nine – highest in a single encounter in recent times in Jammu and Kashmir.
Where is our self proclaimed 56 inches chest ‘Vishvguru’?
The idea that Taiwan can bombard Chinese cities with missiles is a brain-dead wet dream…especially since they would decisively outgunned by a much larger and more capable mainland missile force. There is a reason why nobody even thinks this is viable. You don’t defend yourself by committing suicide.