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China will “think twice” before initiating a war with Taiwan, says expert on Chinese military strategies

The People’s Liberation Army, China’s massive yet untested military force since the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, is prepared but will not take rush actions despite heightened tension along China’s borders, according to a renowned China observer.

Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, author of the new book Facing China: The Prospect for War and Peace shared his insights with nearly 100 FCC members during his lunch talk at the club, digging into China’s military strategies in the past decade. The talk was moderated by William Zheng, an FCC Professional Committee member who works full-time as a Senior Correspondent on SCMP’s China desk.

The talk came just days after mainland China and Taiwan’s government representatives traded accusations over the death of two mainland fishermen, causing a new round of tension on the world’s most dangerous waters.

Besides Taiwan, the East and South China Seas, the Sino-Indian border, and the Taiwan strait are the main forefronts where China’s military stands. Across the world, diplomats, generals, scholars, and journalists analyze China’s military strategies and attempt to predict how the country would fare in these potential conflicts.

“Nuclear powers have to think twice about starting a military confrontation,” Cabestan said early on.

China, as well as 8 other countries, have nuclear capabilities. In order to avoid nuclear warfare (or any kind of warfare), Cabestan explained that China’s military strategy consists of “grey zone” tactics — movements and operations that stay under the threshold of official combat. According to him, these grey zone tactics are fueled by China’s growing military capabilities and nationalist passion.

“China’s become more assertive, more risk-taking than before, but up to a point,” he said, noting how each of China’s moves are carefully calculated.

The focus of the discussion, as well as Cabestan’s new book, was on China’s potential conflict with Taiwan.

China views Taiwan as a “renegade province” that must be reunited with the mainland — by force if necessary. After the Chinese Civil War in 1949 in which the Communist Party succeeded in gaining control over the mainland, the Kuomintang Party relocated to Taiwan and established a de-facto state with their own currency, political system, military, and infrastructure.

The rest of the world now must follow the One-China Policy and establish official ties with either the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland or the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan. As of 2024, the ROC has only 11 diplomatic allies.

“The clear admission in Taiwan that Taiwan may be part of China for some, but it’s not part of the Communist Party. It’s not controlled by the Communist Party,” Cabestan said.

Cabestan clarified that while a war between China and Taiwan would result in devastating consequences for Asia and the rest of the globe, he remains optimistic that such a conflict is unlikely to happen. Even more unworried about the risk of conflict are the people in Taiwan themselves.

A trip to Taiwan, Cabestan says, can show that the average person in Taiwan isn’t deterred by the threat of war and can still go about their daily life in peace.

“If you go to Taiwan… there’s no sense of panic or fear,” he said. “It [war] is still far away from affecting the morale of the Taiwanese.”

Still, countries including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the US are committed to defending Taiwan if the PRC were to launch an attack on the island. The US, while establishing ties with the PRC in 1979, simultaneously passed the Taiwan Relations Act which solidifies the US’ commitment to helping defend Taiwan should the PRC attack.

The US, like China, has nuclear capabilities, yet this fact is precisely why Cabestan predicts peace for the region — instead of war.

“We have to bear in mind that we have two nuclear powers here [the US and China] which are involved in the security of Taiwan — the future of Taiwan. I think the Chinese will think twice before starting a war against Taiwan,” Cabestan concluded.

Watch the full talk on our YouTube channel below:

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