Albert Marko and Christopher Balding are back for another #CageMatch special episode for QuickHit, where the two experts discuss the million dollar question: Will China invade Taiwan? Tony Nash is hosting this episode with Marko and Balding sharing what they think the two countries will do. Does China have the capability (and money) to invade Taiwan? If ever, will Taiwan ever retaliate? Can they afford to go to war? And how will the US fit in all these? Will this be another war waiting to happen?
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The China-Taiwan relations was briefly discussed in the first ever #CageMatch episode. Watch the Part 1 here.
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This QuickHit episode was recorded on January 26, 2021.
The views and opinions expressed in this Chinese invasion of Taiwan QuickHit episode are those of the guests and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Complete Intelligence. Any content provided by our guests are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any political party, religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.
TN: We’ve seen some build up of China’s activity toward Taiwan especially over the last month and we wanted to have a deeper discussion about one of the big questions that is out there which is “Will China invade Taiwan?” and is that a viable likely possibility or is it just saber-rattling to shake things up a little bit. With the new Biden administration and the change over there, there is potentially an opportunity for China to take a more aggressive stance toward Taiwan, the region and, the U.S.
We’re joined by Chris Balding and Albert Marco to talk about this. Let’s go through your basic thesis. Chris, what’s your position China preparing to invade Taiwan? Do you think it’s something that is possible and or likely?
CB: I would put what we think of as a full-scale invasion, where there’s soldiers and rubber rafts storming the beaches of Taiwan. I think that is relatively unlikely as a scenario. But I do think what is much more likely, and I would put it above 50% is some type of escalated conflict either in the East or South China Sea over the next 18 months as distinctly possible.
And when I say that, let me emphasize, we’re talking a range of possibilities. This could be everything from a PLA navy boat ramming a Taiwanese fishing boat. It could mean blowing up a shoal or something like that they’re fighting with Vietnam about. There’s a range of possibilities, but some type of conflict within the next 18 months is distinctly possible.
The reason I say 18 months is Xi will be going up for election of his third term in about 18 months. That is a very important time period. And I guarantee you, Xi and those around him know what basically they’re looking to accomplish within those 18 months. You have a number of complicating factors. It’s not uncommon for Chinese leadership to say: “Hey there’s a changeover in the U.S. Let’s see what we can get away with”. That’s not why they would do it. The timing is fortuitous.
So, I do think some type of escalation in the East and South China over the next 18 months is likely.
TN: Okay. Albert, what do you think?
AM: China likes the poke and they like the prod and they like to test the perimeters of defenses like most nations. When it comes to offensive capabilities, they want to test their adversary’s defensive capabilities.
Do I think that there’s going to be some kind of escalation? Well, I kind of agree with Chris there. Something might happen along those lines. But I don’t think it would be anything very serious. China would need an assurance of a quick and decisive victory if they were to attempt something like that. Obviously, a full-scale invasion is definitely not going to happen.
But even blowing up a shoal or taking out a couple fishing trawlers or whatnot, they certainly don’t want to sit there and affect their shipping lanes. Taiwan straits in that entire region, is the world’s biggest trading lanes for ships. You can’t have the United States running there with an armada just to protect Taiwan. It would adversely affect the Chinese economy. Xi at that point in 18 months, like he’s running up for election like Chris said, he can’t afford any kind of hiccups right now in the Chinese economy. And most of the CCPs elite are ingrained with Taiwanese companies. So, for them to sit there and disrupt that wealth, I just don’t see it happening.
TN: We saw over the last week where the Chinese government said that they can now defend itself in its claimed territorial waters. And with China expanding its claims, whether it’s with India, South China Sea, wherever it is, it seems to me that they’re telegraphing a more aggressive stance. Do we expect that as a warning? That is fairly hollow but they just want to put it out there or is that something that we believe they’ll act on against the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan or something like that. Could we see the claim over, maybe, the Senkaku Islands go hot at some point for some phosphorous hills or whatever?
CB: A lot of this follows a very similar pattern of what we call “salami slicing,” is over the course of a couple years, they just continue to slice away and slice away and slice away, until the last logical step in progression of some type of escalation. That’s a similar type of strategy. That’s part of why I say a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, likely no, I don’t think it is. I generally agree with Albert in that sense that I would put it as a very low probability type of event.
Are there other types of conflicts that may take place? Whether that is Taiwan or Chinese navy and fishing vessels circle islands and stuff like that. Absolutely. I think it’s relatively likely 50 percent over the next 18 months.
There’s been very under-the-radar moves in the sense that within the past year, maybe 18 months, Xi replaced key generals that oversaw the southern and eastern areas, which are very closely tied to Taiwan.
If there’s not some type of conflict, they’ve taken all the move that seemed to indicate signal that yes, they are at the very least they want to stick out their chest a lot more in these areas. And I think probably the one area where I would fundamentally disagree with Albert is that I think he’s perfectly right on “why would China do this this? This could mess up their shipping lanes they’re invested in Taiwan.?” And the reason I disagree is not that I think Albert is wrong. But I think, it’s the wrong type of rationale.
If we look at why is China picking a fight with India in a frozen ground on the Himalayas at 25,000 feet? It makes no sense. I mean there’s little logical reason. They’ve successfully turned India against. They’re kicking out in India. They’re kicking out Chinese apps as fast as they can find them. And they’re looking to start an Indian smartphone market. Very little action is proven has provoked a very large reaction from India. Albert’s rationality, in a way, is perfectly accurate. I don’t think that necessarily captures the reality of what I would call Chinese rationality of the logic that they’re using to make those decisions and the risks they’re willing to take.
TN: If we take the Hong Kong scenario and we talk about the salami slicing that Chris talked about. After the umbrella revolution in 2014, intel I was hearing out of China was that the decision was made in Beijing that Hong Kong would lose its status as a global financial center. And it was just a matter of time, right? And we’ve hit that point effectively. Okay? Hong Kong is not a place where you, unless you want risk, where you’re going to necessarily park your assets. It’s taken five years. They were patient and it seems to me they’re beyond the tipping point. It was that kind of salami-slicing approach to taking away the credibility of Hong Kong, but also injecting the inevitability of Chinese ownership. Is it possible that can happen with Taiwan?
AM: Well, of course, it is certainly possible. There’s no question about that. Do I think it’s possible in the next 18 months? Absolutely, like even Chris agrees. I don’t think that’s going to happen in 18 months.
There’s no Chinese build up militarily for Taiwan invasion. If you were to look at every single military offensive project has logistics involved. There’s just none piling up. The United States would see that in satellite images well in advance.
However, back to the Himalayas, which I think is something we should rather key on. If you want to talk about India’s slicing away stuff, there is a rationale for the Himalayan conflict. It’s the watershed. They need that water and they they’ve been piping that water into agricultural areas in China for years now and they haven’t done too much of it because it’s going to really upset India. You have a billion people in India versus a billion people in China that needs fresh water. It’s going to be a problem. They’ve built mountaintop bases. They have built up a military presence there. That’s where I would actually focus in the next 18 months as a real skirmish.
This Taiwan thing, I completely agree. It’s well within the Chinese game playbook to slice away and just wait for their time. But a Taiwanese invasion would be extremely costly for the Chinese. The risk-reward for the Chinese right now to even think about adventuring into Taiwan would cost them significant military losses, significant economic losses. It would ruin some BRI projects. It would ruin the perception of China as a growing superpower. There’s just so many negatives that I can’t see any real generals in the PLA telling Xi that this is a good idea. Now that’s not to say that Xi won’t do it anyways because…
CB: Tony, let me ask a question. So, Albert, 70 people I’ve talked to say they actually see the military risks increase significantly to Taiwan based upon hardware that’s getting onboarded in the PLA. They see the risks to Taiwan’s increase significantly post about 2022. Okay. Would you share a similar outlook?
AM: You have to understand, when it comes to offensive versus defensive capabilities, the defense always has a clear-cut advantage, right? Offensively, it takes seven dollars per one dollar of defense of offensive spending to actually take over. Now without a doubt, China would win over the long term. But at what cost will the PLA navy take? The Taiwanese defenses are no joke. They’re well equipped to at least hold them off for quite a long time and invading. Even the PLA. The PLA officers, that’s a social structure. That’s a social ladder realistically. How would it look like for Xi if the firstborn son of some of these elite families are coming home in body bags?