Small Wars Journal

China’s Securitization of Taiwan

Sat, 09/24/2022 - 2:22am

China’s Securitization of Taiwan

By James Steels


In September 2022 Taiwan intercepted and shot down a Chinese surveillance drone that Taiwan said had violated the airspace over one of the islands that they control located off the coast of China. China responded by stating that this was an attempt by Taiwan to ‘hype up tensions’. Was the shooting down of this drone a reckless response from Taiwan, or is China creating a provocation in an attempt to deliberately construct a security issue with Taiwan?

Within international security studies the constructivism theory explores the idea that a nation state can ‘securitize’ an issue with another nation state to the point where it can become an existential threat compelling them to act. An example of this was President Putin socially constructing the idea that Ukraine’s military and Nazism was a security threat to Russia. This compelled him to act by invading Ukraine under the guise that he was acting to protect the rights of people living there whilst safeguarding Russia’s security in the process.

It's no secret that Beijing wants to reunite Taiwan with China as it views the Taiwanese island as an integral part of the Chinese mainland. China firmly states that this is a sovereign domestic issue and that they will not tolerate any international interference with its internal affairs. China has published many white papers on this matter, all of which clearly state the intent that China is willing to carry out this reunification by force if necessary.

Historically China’s military has always been a huge land based force but over the past decade and more it has been carrying out a modernisation programme with its military that has seen a strategic shift from an emphasis on ground forces to maritime and air power. To facilitate this China has developed a powerful navy and air force consisting of guided missiles destroyers, frigates, aircraft carriers and 5th generation stealth fighter jets. Crucially as well, China has also been developing amphibious assault capabilities with its Type 75 amphibious assault ships. It currently has two to three of these 40,000 tonne ships operationally available each of which are equipped with helicopters and armoured amphibious assault vehicles and has plans in place to build a total of eight in the future. This gives China an offensive capability allowing maritime and amphibious force projection which is a vital military capability for China in order to bridge the sea gap between itself and Taiwan.

This capability is further supported by the growing number of marines belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps which consists of around 40,000 marines divided between six brigades. The majority of these belong to the Southern Theatre Command which is responsible for providing security in the South China Sea as well as being specifically tasked with supporting the Eastern Theatre Command with any amphibious assaults on Taiwan.

Geopolitics plays a huge role with the reunification issue however as a cold, flat out invasion of Taiwan has the potential to bring China into conflict with the United States as they have a legal obligation to defend Taiwan. However, the United States appetite for risk in this area is a matter to be questioned despite recent reassurance from President Biden that they would act if China does indeed attack Taiwan.

The ‘Loss of Strength Gradient’ is a military concept that demonstrates the amount of power that a nation state can project depends on geography and that the further away a country has to deploy its military then the less strength it has available. Here, China has the home advantage as Taiwan sits only around 100 miles from the Chinese mainland and has developed anti-access area denial (A2/AD) capabilities to challenge any foreign military forces near to its shores. In the past the United States could have been able to deploy aircraft carriers right off the coast of the Chinese mainland and would have remained relatively uncontested by the Chinese military. However now in the present day China has invested in sophisticated Command, Control, Communications, Computers (C4) and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities in order to hunt and find multiple targets (i.e., U.S. aircraft carriers). Backed up with a programme of I.T. technology, satellites, ISR aircraft and the powerful DF-26 ‘carrier killer’ anti ship missile it now has the military capability to push United States naval forces hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from its coastline and can contest and control the seas surrounding Taiwan.

A United States Department of Defense report backed up by an analysis paper published by the think tank RAND stated that the capability gap between the Chinese and United States military continues to decrease and that any conflict between the two nation states would be costly on both sides. The high cost of any conflict is a reality that China recognises as well. Therefore, it is a highly likely scenario in the future that China will construct a security issue with Taiwan where it plays the victim and is ‘compelled to act’ in order to protect a perceived security interest as cover for an invasion. This could take place in a number of different ways such as a security response to a maritime shipping clash, a geopolitical incident that Beijing could capitalise on or it could be another incident involving the shooting down of a Chinese aircraft, especially if next time it is a piloted one and there are casualties involved.

The bottom line is that China has publicly stated it is a matter of when, not if, Taiwan is reunited with China, and by force if necessary. Therefore, China securitizing an issue with Taiwan as an excuse to carry out this threat is a realistic prospect to watch out for in the mid to long term future.


About the Author(s)

James Steels is a British defence intelligence analyst focusing on Russia and East Asia defence analysis as well as international security. He holds a HNC in Terrorism Studies from St. Andrews University and is completing a MSc in Intelligence and Security Studies from Liverpool John Moores University.