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Taiwan Strait Crises: Island Seizure Contingencies

Research output: Book/Report/ProceedingsOther report

Publication date28/02/2023
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherAsia Society
Number of pages12
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Conflict across the Taiwan Strait could disrupt East Asia’s extensive trade links, sever global production chains, generate serious shocks to regional economies, upend Asia’s security architecture, and, potentially, escalate into a catastrophic superpower war. Many regional states — including U.S. allies — are beginning to seriously consider how they would respond to a potential use of force by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But analytic attention has focused overwhelmingly on the worst-case scenario of a PRC invasion, largely ignoring more likely contingencies calculated to stay below the threshold of lethal force. It is in this “gray zone” that the PRC has made strategic advances in the East and South China Seas in recent years.

This paper argues that, compared with an invasion or blockade of Taiwan’s main island, an operation to capture one or more offshore islands currently controlled by the Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) would offer Beijing considerable advantages. In an immediate tactical sense, it would offer Beijing greater flexibility and escalation control, lower risk of civilian casualties, and less likelihood of sparking a strong Taiwanese response or U.S. intervention. Strategically, such an operation could open up an array of options for further probes, faits accomplis, information gathering, and coercive pressure on ROC forces—and, in the case of the Penghu (Pescadores) Islands, substantial opportunities for enhanced surveillance, reconnaissance, and logistical support for a future invasion of the main island. Domestically, in contrast with a bloody and potentially catastrophic all-out invasion or a blockade that would risk conflict with the United States, outlying island seizure could offer Beijing a low-risk yet highly symbolic rallying point in a period of likely economic struggles and rising social dissatisfaction.

Policymakers and strategists on all sides of politics in Taiwan, the United States and elsewhere need to carefully consider how they would respond to such contingencies, in order to enable an effective international response.