Taiwan's defence minister has warned that China will be fully capable of invading the island by 2025, in the government's first clear message to the public that the country faces a threat of war.
Chiu Kuo-cheng issued the warning after almost 150 Chinese warplanes operated in international airspace near Taiwan between Friday and Monday.
“The current situation is really the most dangerous I have seen in my more than 40 years in the military,” Mr Chiu said in a question-and-answer session with lawmakers about a NT$240 billion (€7.4 billion) special defence budget for anti-ship missiles and warships.
“If they want to attack now, they are already capable. But they have to calculate at what cost it would come and what results it would have,” Mr Chiu said. “From 2025, they will already have lowered the cost and the losses to the lowest possible level, so ... they will have the complete capability.”
The remarks follow appeals by Taipei to the international community to support the country against Chinese aggression.
On Tuesday Tsai Ing-wen, the president, issued an urgent appeal to stand with Taiwan. Other democracies “should remember that if Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system. It would signal that in today’s global contest of values, authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy”, she wrote in Foreign Affairs.
Over the past year, Beijing has dramatically increased air and naval operations close to Taiwan. According to Taiwan's defence ministry, 672 Chinese warplanes have flown into Taiwan's air defence identification zone this year, far outpacing the 380 recorded in 2020.
Some US officials and many experts have played down the significance of the People’s Liberation Army flights, saying they were not the prelude to war but aimed instead at intimidating Taiwan and wearing down its air force, which scrambles fighters in response.
Gen Mark Milley, chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, in June said the probability of a Chinese attack on Taiwan was "probably low, in the immediate, near-term future".
Tiffany Ma, a Taiwan expert at Bower Group Asia, a consultancy, said it was too early to sound alarm bells.
“The fact that China may have the capability under specific scenarios and conditions doesn’t necessarily mean that the intention is there,” said Ms Ma. “For the PLA to militarily take Taiwan, it is going to be very costly. And China is developing a huge toolbox of ways to pressure Taiwan before taking a shot and raising it to the kinetic level.”
However, there are concerns in Washington. In March Admiral Philip Davidson, then head of US Indo-Pacific command, told Congress that China might attack Taiwan within six years. Other commanders have also privately expressed concern that China may act more quickly than most experts on the Chinese military believe.
But Taiwan’s government has long feared that discussions about preparing for a Chinese attack would undermine public morale. US officials and experts have repeatedly criticised Taipei for being complacent and doing too little to strengthen its defences.
Mr Chiu indicated that Taiwan’s military was not ready for full-scale conflict. “Our ability to deal with normal situations daily is absolutely there – having prepared for war for so many years, we are combat-ready,” he said. “But now the situation is extremely severe, so we must strengthen our capabilities quickly.”
The concerns about Taiwan come as US national security adviser Jake Sullivan prepares to meet Yang Jiechi, China's top foreign policy official, in Switzerland on Wednesday. People familiar with the situation said the two sides were exploring the possibility of US president Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping holding a virtual summit in the coming months. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021