Taiwan: China's Crimea?
In March 2014, Russia launched a campaign of hybrid warfare against Ukraine in a successful attempt to seize the Crimean Peninsula. Russia already benefited from the high ethnic Russian population resident there as well as the presence of the Black Fleet stationed in Sevastopol. Moscow denied any form of involvement, though it is clear now that Russian armed forces dressed as ‘Little Green Men’ and posing as civilian peacekeepers, had infiltrated the region and were leading coups against the local government by seizing multiple key buildings (1). Five years on, the majority of the international community still recognises Crimea as part of Ukraine, though is equally compelled to admit that the opportunity for ousting Russia now seems lost. What this scenario demonstrates is how a form of hybrid warfare, where unconventional means of battle are employed to achieve quick objectives is highly effective.
Such a successful operation for Moscow might embolden other governments elsewhere to pursue territorial gains. But why was it that Russia pushed for such a move in the first place? One such theory draws on the idea of a ‘diversionary conflict’. Diversionary conflicts are often launched by states facing domestic strife at home, acting as a means to redirect the anger and frustration of a population to an external enemy. In doing so, governments find it possible to legitimise their own position as well as stir up unifying national sentiment. As one scholar puts it, Social Identity Theory (SIT) leads to people identifying more intensely with their ‘ingroup’, and further to place greater trust and support for the leader of that said ingroup (2). This was identified by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in their 2015 Strategic Survey, where it was noted the conflict in Ukraine had greatly boosted “President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings to all-time highs, marginalising the opposition and creating a climate of intolerance” (3).
Russia achieved all of its goals in Crimea. How might other irredentist regimes react to this? Personally, I believe the most important area to focus on is Taiwan and China’s desire to retake it. Like Russia and Crimea, mainland China has historic claims to the island and has made evident its desire to seize the island multiple times since its split. In 1996 rising tensions between Beijing and Taipei forced President Clinton, fearful of a war over the straits, to deploy a carrier strike group to dissuade Chinese aggression. Beijing currently lacks the ability to seriously catch up with the hard power capabilities of the United States, though has been pursuing other means to offset American influence over this geopolitical situation. Only a few weeks ago news emerged of China’s rapid development of a third aircraft carrier (4). In addition to this, China has developed modern long-range missiles and anti-satellite capabilities. In 2007, China publicly destroyed one of its own satellites. Analysists like Martin Smith believe this was a message to Washington stating that China could ‘blind’ the US in a war in the SE China Sea (5).
Taiwan is currently the most important territorial dispute for Beijing. This is not just due to the strategic position it holds for maritime shipping routes, but also how the presence of a secondary claimant to true Chinese statehood compromises the integrity of the Communist Party. If we look back to the idea of a Diversionary Conflict, it becomes possible to predict that in the event of any domestic crisis on the mainland Beijing may press ahead with a conflict against Taiwan in order to solidify its own position and redirect national anger towards a foreign aggressor (in this case both Taiwan and the United States). This seems of particular importance given the estimates of how unstable the Chinese economy is, where many predict that there will be a crash within the next decade (6).
Indeed, if the build-up of armaments are to be believed, then regional assertiveness for China in the SE China Sea becomes both possible and likely also. After all, Asia lacks any equivalent to NATO, and the United States’ relative balance of power is slipping. George Zhibin Gu believes that the best way to avert Chinese aggression in the same way Russia did is for Taiwan to push for a federal system akin to what Hong Kong and Macau currently have (7). This however might invite Chinese aggression even further, and completely alienate the US’ ability to intervene in what would then become an internal conflict, not an international one. (1) Military Strategy, Joint Operations, and Airpower by Ryan Burke et al (2018), p277. (2) The Microfoundations of Diversionary Conflict by Tobias Thieler, in Security Studies 27(2), p319
(3) Strategic Survey 2015 IISS, p31 (4) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/07/china-third-aircraft-carrier-construction-satellite-images (5) Power in the Changing Global Order by Martin Smith (2012), p150.
(6) https://www.ft.com/content/adabd0ae-d0f3-11e8-a9f2-7574db66bcd5 (7) China and the New World Order. How Entrepeneurism, Globalisation, and Borderless Business are Reshaping China and the World by George Zhibin Gu (2006), p195.
At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a second year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.