Editor’s Note: This article is part of our 2023 Writing Contest called The Taiwan Offensive, which took place from March 1, 2023 to July 31, 2023. More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.
Michael A. Cappelli II is a U.S. Army All Source Intelligence Analyst that has a BA in Asian Studies and Political Science from Rice University. He has learned about Cross Strait issues from the perspectives of all parties involved through his studies in both mainland China and Taiwan., attendance of GIS Taiwan, and internship at the Baker Institute for Public Policy. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Examining Disaster Aid as Cover for a Chinese Fait Accompli Against Taiwan
Date Originally Written: July 12, 2023.
Date Originally Published: August 14, 2023.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a member of the US military currently serving in the Indo-Pacific and draws on his experience in Cross Strait issues.
Summary: China’s aggressive actions make the likelihood of conflict over Taiwan seem inevitable. However, it is possible that China may use Non-War Military Activities (NWMA) to unify with Taiwan. In particular, China may use humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as cover for a fait accompli to gain territory in the Taiwan Strait after a natural disaster.
Text: Taiwan’s location in the western Pacific makes it a disaster-prone area. Typhoons, earthquakes, and tsunamis are of particular concern, with local sources indicating Taiwan ranks first in the world in natural disaster risk. While a natural disaster, such as a typhoon, is hard to predict, the situation would provide excellent cover for Chinese NWMA. Climate change is expected to contribute to more extreme weather events in the region, and Taiwan’s geographic proximity to China makes humanitarian response an excellent guise for PLA action against Taiwanese controlled territory.
A Chinese fait accompli disguised as humanitarian aid and disaster relief will likely take on a multidomain approach, with land, sea, air and cyber warfare entities working to take territory and disrupt an already overburdened Taiwanese disaster response. Damage to undersea communications cables near Taiwan’s Matsu Islands in spring 2023 indicates that China is practicing ways to disrupt communication between Taiwan and its outlying areas. Even if China is unable to take Taiwan itself, outlying islands such as Kinmen and Penghu would provide strategic and symbolic gains for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The capture of Penghu would be especially beneficial to the PLA, giving Chinese forces territory halfway between the mainland and southern Taiwan to help secure supply lines, stage troops and weapons platforms, and extend anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) capabilities for a future invasion of Taiwan. A Chinese fait accompli against outlying, Taiwanese territory would also present a good test of international reaction to Chinese military action against the Taiwan government.
While a push on Taiwan itself through NWMA would be significantly more difficult, it is not outside the realm of possibility. China’s continued activities within Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), and major military exercises show the PLA is capable of launching air and naval units into the seas and airspace around Taiwan with the goal of not only taking Taiwan but also keeping outside military intervention at bay. These regular, grey zone excursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ by the PLA would also make it more difficult to detect the difference between another PLA exercise and a legitimate PLA push on Taiwan.
To prepare for a possible Chinese fait accompli disguised as humanitarian aid and disaster relief, Taiwan will need to ensure it has resilient critical infrastructure. Taiwan’s ability to recover quickly from a natural disaster would lessen Chinese justification for NWMA and reduce the PLA’s window of opportunity to do so. This plan is not without risk. A focus on critical infrastructure in outlying territories may result in wasted resources, equipment, and specially trained personnel positioned in difficult to defend areas. In contrast, resiliency in Taiwan’s outlying islands may prove a deterrent to Chinese military action by creating a level of uncertainty in Chinese mission success. Even if China is not deterred, the PLA could miscalculate the forces need to take Taiwan’s outlying islands. Such a miscalculation could result in a military disaster and force the PLA to over commit units to taking these outlying territories instead of Taiwan itself. This could provide Taiwan the opportunity to push back China, possibly with international support.
Taiwan could also improve civilian preparedness and disaster recovery. Traditionally, the Taiwanese military acts as the primary first responder to natural disasters. Opportunity does exist to transition disaster response away from military units, especially with Taiwan working to boost civil defense preparedness amongst the general population in case of a war with China. Private, civil defense preparation programs for civilians, with some emphasis on disaster relief, are also increasing in popularity. There is risk involved with this strategy. Shifting natural disaster response away from the Taiwanese military may result in reduced disaster response efficiency. This may also prolong a natural disaster’s impact, increasing the very justification China would need to conduct a humanitarian aid and disaster relief based fait accompli.
While a natural disaster is hard to predict, it could provide excellent cover for a Chinese fait accompli against Taiwan disguised as humanitarian aid and disaster relief. Taiwan’s outlying areas could be highly susceptible to this type of Chinese NWMA. The Taiwanese government and people have not remained complacent to the threat of Chinese military action. During Taiwan’s 2023 Han Kuang military exercise, the Taiwanese military included its first military exercise to defend the country’s main airport in additional to regular air-raid and amphibious assault preparations. Public polling in Taiwan as indicates an increased interest in defending the island, in particular after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Preparation however may not stop China if it feels conditions are in its favor to take Taiwan.
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