Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

KMT Think Tank Warns of Possible Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis

A think tank affiliated with Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT), is warning that tensions in the Taiwan Strait are at its highest in 25 years. In 1995-1996, Beijing fired two sets of missiles across the Taiwan Strait in an attempt to intimidate voters in the lead up to the country’s first direct presidential election. According to speakers at a recent seminar hosted by the National Policy Foundation (國家政策研究基金會), the probability of a Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis is now the highest since the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis over two decades ago.

Lin Yu-fang (林郁方), a former legislator and a prominent voice on the country’s defense affairs, made the ominous assessment at a public forum organized by the think tank, which Lin convenes, entitled “Risky Strait: The Possibility of Military Conflict in the Taiwan Strait“ (危險的海峽:台海爆發軍事衝突的可能性) on July 21. According to the former lawmaker and chairman of the Legislative Yuan’s Diplomacy and National Defense Committee, it is now more likely than at any time in the past 25 years for another military conflict to occur since the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996. Lin reportedly stated: “The situation in the Taiwan Strait has been indeed very tense in this period. The number of military aircraft and warships of the Chinese Communists circumventing Taiwan has increased significantly. What is particularly significant is that the number of US military aircraft and warships that have appeared in the waters around Taiwan has also been the highest in 20 years.”

Lin pointed out that after the collision between US and Chinese military aircraft in the South China Sea in 2001 (also known as the EP-3 incident), the two sides have agreed that they will observe certain codes of conduct when they encounter each other in the air or at sea. In contrast, there is no such mechanism between the two sides of the Strait. Therefore, according to Lin, the possibility of an accident has increased in light of the increased frequency and aggressiveness of these military exercises.

While most analysts would likely agree that a large-scale war in Taiwan Strait is unlikely in the near future, the United States has had an operational plan (OPLAN) in case a large-scale war broke out since as early as 2001. According to one account, it was “one of only three completed and full-fledged war plans of the US military.” [1] As an article for The Washington Post in 2006 carefully detailed:

The 5077 plan to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack dates back from the Reagan administration, and has been successively updated and expanded over the years. Until 2001, the plan was what was called a “CONPLAN,” which is an operations plan in concept only. This means that the general American courses of action were identified but the plan itself was only kept in abbreviated form, lacking either the assignment of forces or much of the details of logistics and transport needed for implementation.

In August 2001, “Change 1” to the previous CONPLAN 5077 upgraded the contingency to a full OPLAN, with assigned forces and more detailed annexes and appendices. The Pacific Command developed a new “strategic concept” for the Taiwan contingency in December 2002, and an updated plan was produced in July 2003. Last year based upon new 2004 guidance from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the joint chiefs of staff, and after two conferences worked out the assignment of US forces in detail, a final Taiwan defense plan was published.

Pacific Command OPLAN 5077-04, as it is currently known, includes air, naval, ground/amphibious, and missile defense forces and “excursions” to defend Taiwan. Options include maritime intercept operations in the Taiwan Straits, attacks on Chinese targets on the mainland, information warfare and “non-kinetic” options, even the potential use of American nuclear weapons. [2]

Also speaking at the think tank seminar was the former director of the National Security Bureau, Tsai Der-sheng (蔡得勝). According to the former intelligence chief (2009-2014), there “will be no large-scale war in the Taiwan Strait at this stage, but the chances of accidental misfire are constantly increasing.” Furthermore, Tsai noted that “If mainland [sic] really were to strike Taiwan, China would not want to completely destroy Taiwan and create a bloodbath on Taiwan; it would [instead] fight a war of paralysis.”

Another speaker at the event was the former Deputy Commander of the Taiwan Air Force Chang Yen-ting (張延廷). Lt. Gen. (ret.) Chang also believed that China would adopt a strategy of “war of paralysis” if it attacks Taiwan. However, he pointed out that if Beijing were to launch such a war against Taiwan, there would be six signals: The first is the evacuation of overseas Chinese from various countries. The second is that China would mobilize for blood donations and other provisions. Thirdly, Taiwan stocks would fall sharply because foreign investors would be well informed and quickly pull their money out of Taiwan. Fourthly, the CCP would issue warnings and their rhetoric would escalate from warnings to threats. The fifth signal would be large-scale military exercises and sixth is that China would first send its leaders to warn the United States ostensibly about intervening.

The former deputy commander and vice chief for intelligence in the general staff, Chang, agreed that the possibility of low-level conflicts between the two sides of the Strait is higher than that of high-level conflicts (full-scale war), and he believed that low-level conflicts are more likely to occur on Taiwan’s outer islands. He speculated that such a conflict could occur over Dongsha (Pratas), Taiping, and Wuqiu Islands (烏坵). Wuqiu is a group of islands administered by the ROC-controlled Kinmen county that some military planners believed PLA would attack back in 1995-1996—the closest territory under PRC control is the neighboring Luci Island (鷺鷥島), which is only 9 nautical miles to the north-northwest. According to Chang, these islands are all easy to attack but hard to defend. Moreover, the characteristic of low-level conflicts is that they tend to be quiet and end in a short time, making prevention even more necessary.

Indeed, as early as 2014, US analysts had reportedly “concluded that ‘the PLA has been given the new task to be able to conduct a short sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea following with what can only be expected [as] a seizure of the Senkakus or even southern Ryukyu [islands].” This assessment of a “short sharp war,” delivered then by Captain James Fanell, who was serving as deputy chief of staff intelligence and information operations for the US Pacific Fleet, could also be applied to a scenario involving territories administered by Taiwan and other neighboring countries in the South China Sea. In fact, this was the focus of a scenario that was gamed out in a Sasakawa Peace Foundation tabletop exercise that involved Beijing’s occupation of Taiwan-administered islands in the South China Sea.

These statements by former senior intelligence and defense officials within Taiwan have been accompanied by a rare and open dispute among Taiwan policy researchers across China. This debate is captured by the open feud between Zhang Nianchi (章念馳) and Li Yi (李毅) via online articles that may be described as representing the contrast between so-called “doves” and “hawks,” respectively, with the former promoting “peaceful unification” and the latter advocating for “unification by force.” Zhang is currently the director of the Shanghai Institute of East Asian Studies. Since 1988, he has been the secretary-general of the Cross-Strait Academic and Cultural Exchange Promotion Association (海峽兩岸學術文化交流促進會) and has long been involved in China’s cross-Strait policy research. Li is the director of the Fuzhou University’s Taiwan Research Center (福州大學臺灣研究所).

The main point: A Taiwanese think tank affiliated with the Kuomintang warns about the possibility of a Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis as former intelligence and defense officials point to China’s strategy of “war of paralysis.”

[1] William M. Arkin, “America’s New China War Plan,” Early Warning (Washington Post), May 24, 2006.

[2] Ibid.

US-Taiwan-Japan Focus on Latin America and Caribbean for International Cooperation

The governments of the United States, Taiwan, and Japan announced that they will be co-hosting the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) workshop with Guatemala this year, for the first time ever in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) and the second time outside of Taiwan. [1] In a series of statements released by the three governments on July 15, the US State Department Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Julie Chung stated:

It is an honor to announce that Guatemala will be the next host of the Global Cooperation and Training Framework. This event is the preeminent platform for collaboration between the United States, Taiwan, and Japan, and partners who share our democratic values. It is our first time bringing this event to Latin America. The theme for the event is the digital economy: options for Latin American and the Caribbean’s insertion into the chain of production and commercialization of high technology. […] The United State supports Taiwan’s relations with its nine diplomatic partners in our hemisphere, as well as the economic and cultural relations Taiwan maintains with the whole region, because Taiwan is a democratic partner committed to sustainable development.

Guatemala, and moreover the broader LAC region, was ostensibly chosen as the location for this important forum not only for its strategic importance to Taiwan’s international space as China has stepped up its diplomatic offensive but also because its encroachment on the region for over the past decade—accelerating in pace over recent years—is stoking concerns in Washington about Beijing’s growing footprint in its backyard.

The Republic of Guatemala has been a longstanding diplomatic partner of Taiwan—unbroken since 1933—and is its most significant partner in Central America after Panama broke diplomatic ties with Taipei in June 2017. Indeed, as Colin Alexander, a professor at Nottingham Trent University and author of the book “China and Taiwan in Central America: Engaging Foreign Publics in Diplomacy” wrote:

From the Taiwan perspective, Guatemala is one of their most important remaining strategic allies. It has the largest population of the Central American countries and possesses trade road routes to Mexico and into the United States for the rest of mainland Latin America. As a result, the size of the Guatemalan economy in comparison to the other countries bestowing diplomatic recognition on Taiwan results in Taiwan’s focus being more economics than arguably any of its other formal allies.

The move to host GCTF in Guatemala is consistent with the recommendations of a study published by the federally-funded US research center RAND entitled “Countering China’s Efforts to Isolate Taiwan Diplomatically in Latin America and the Caribbean The Role of Development Assistance and Disaster Relief” co-authored by Scott Harold, Lyle Morris, and Logan Ma. In the RAND study, an anonymous US interviewee pointed out:

US interests in Latin America and the Caribbean include helping preserve Taiwan’s access to the international community and ensuring that it is not cut-off entirely. To this end, the US government now coordinates across departments and agencies to ensure that all relevant parts of the bureaucracy focused on the Western Hemisphere are attentive to this interest.

Since 2016, Taiwan has lost 7 diplomatic allies to Beijing’s diplomatic blitzkrieg, three of which were in the LAC (Dominican Republic, Republic of El Salvador, and Republic of Panama). Taiwan now has nine diplomatic partners remaining in the Latin America and Caribbean with a total of 16 missions in the region. The nine countries Taiwan has maintained diplomatic ties with are: Belize; Republic of Guatemala; Haiti; Republic of Honduras; Nicaragua; Republic of Paraguay; St. Kitts and Nevis; Saint Lucia; and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Taiwan’s last remaining diplomatic partner in South America is Paraguay. This relationship has also been under significant pressure from Beijing. Asunción has—for some time now—been on the fence about maintaining its longstanding diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Most recently in April, the Paraguayan Senate voted against a proposal to switch ties to Beijing by a thin margin of 25 to 16. For its part, Taipei has been trying to shore up its formal ties with Paraguay with two presidential visits since May 2016 and President Mario Abdo Benitez’s trip to Taiwan in 2018 for the National Day celebrations. Paraguay Defense Minister Bernardino Soto Estigarribia just visited Taiwan in late November for military exchanges. It is noteworthy that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the first visit to Paraguay by a US secretary of state in 53 years in April 2019 and even more telling that during the visit, Pompeo explicitly praised Paraguay for “standing up for their own interests and beliefs by supporting a democratic Taiwan.”

The Paraguayan Ambassador to Taiwan recently openly stated that the country is maintaining diplomatic relations with Taiwan despite efforts by the Chinese government to persuade Asunción to switch allegiance. According to local media reports, the Paraguayan ambassador to Taiwan made the comments during the launch of the Taiwan-Paraguay parliamentarian friendship association at the legislature. The friendship association is currently comprised of 23 members—interestingly all its members are legislators from the opposition party Kuomintang (KMT).

As Ambassador Miguel Li-jey Tsao (曹立傑), the country’s vice minister for foreign affairs, makes clear:

Latin American and the Caribbean is an important region to Taiwan’s international relations, as the majority of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are located, and they have long supported my country’s participation in the international arena. Because of this, not only do we desire to continue deepening and expanding the Taiwan-US-Japan partnership, we also hope that the successes reached by GCTF in recent years can also be extended to our diplomatic allies and friends in the region.

The main point: With the official announcement of the first GCTF workshop in Guatemala, the United States, Taiwan, and Japan are signaling their growing focus on Latin America and the Caribbean region and underscoring the strategic importance of LAC for Taiwan’s international space.

[1] The first GCTF forum held outside of Taiwan was in Palau, a diplomatic partner of Taiwan in the South Pacific, in November 2019. Japan joined in March 2019 as a “full partner” and the Netherlands is reportedly planning to join the initiative.