- Laura Osterrieth
A New Front for NATO? The Implications of a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan
I get brutally awakened by my mom banging on my bedroom door. The sound of muffled bombing resonates through the city of Taipei. The time had come, the time we all dreaded. Even then, I hoped it would all just be a dream and with all my might I would wake up soon. Sadly, there was no time to waste, as our deepest, darkest nightmare had just become reality. I thought to myself: “Have we been too naïve believing this day would never come? Is this really happening? Have they really crossed the line?”
Navigating the Indo-Pacific under the NATO mandate
That Beijing’s policies fail to align with the objectives pursued by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is old news. NATO-Chinese relations have been unsteady ever since the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Lately, NATO has formally voiced its concern towards China as a strategic antagonist, claiming that Beijing challenges the alliance’s ‘interest, security, and values’. The rise of the Chinese threat, and recent military and economic assertiveness towards Taiwan have not gone unnoticed among NATO members. Although direct confrontation between China and Taiwan has been avoided, animosities between both actors have grown ever since the Chinese Civil War guided by Mao.
NATO's mandate thrives upon the idea that collective defence and security for its member countries must be safeguarded at all times. The military alliance between North American and European countries illustrated by NATO’s holy article number 5: "an armed assault on one or more of them […] shall be regarded as an attack against them all.” This provision may have you wondering why NATO is concerned with the Taiwan issue in the first place. Considering Taiwan is indeed not a member of NATO, it seems that the organisation is not bound to, nor should, actively engage in the conflict. The regional realm of the Taiwan Strait dispute asserts that NATO is not authorised to participate in conflicts outside its member states’ borders. NATO has led foreign operations in the past relinquishing the groundwork of their operational mandate. Nonetheless, its legitimacy stems from the formal diplomatic ties NATO member states have established with Taiwan, voicing support for its democratic system and territorial integrity. Above all, NATO promotes the peaceful settlement of disputes through discussion and diplomacy and is aware of the importance of upholding a stable and secure Asia-Pacific region.
Despite the fact that China has not openly challenged a NATO member state, the intensification of tensions begs the question of whether NATO should be better equipped to counteract China as a general competitor. In this the United States (U.S.) seems willing to have a say. Considering their bilateral partnership, the U.S. expresses fearfulness that China will drown Taiwan without sorrow, equally drowning the economic perks Taiwan has to offer such as semiconductor chips, and other advanced technologies. Economic globalisation is scaling up the extent to which the economic losses of a Chinese invasion will be felt, as regional interactions trigger global impact. Although the U.S. was waving the red flag, China was too distant for most NATO members, especially those in Europe, to be considered by these as a real danger. This lack of interest frustrated Americans, who tried to convince the alliance that China represented a threat to Taiwan as well as the larger international system. The U.S. was devoted to bringing awareness to the Chinese hazard and took leadership in carrying this issue to the top of NATO’s agenda.
Unexpectedly, a change in dynamics can be traced back to the release of the “NATO 2030: United for a New Era” report. This document highlighted that NATO should commit more effort, political resources, and activity to the security issues posed by China. Recent events have lent credibility to the claims of commentators who warned that the post-Cold War peace system in the North-Atlantic region is in jeopardy. The Taiwan Strait is becoming more worrisome to the international arena. Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, attention has deviated towards the threats they believe are coming from China. At the last NATO Summit in June 2021, leaders of the alliance issued a communiqué expressing concern about China's "assertive behaviour" and its "coercive policies", including towards Taiwan. These concerns were further translated into the adjustments of NATO’s Strategic Concept in July 2022 at NATO Summit in Madrid. Before this alteration, NATO’s guiding documents included not a single mention of China.
The Biden administration entangled itself in the conflict by pledging to preserve Taiwan’s sovereignty in case of a Chinese invasion. This by extension increases the stakes for all NATO members, as in case of invasion, a conflict between the U.S. and China heightens in probability. If the U.S. finds itself on a slippery slope, and Article 5 needs to be evoked, a NATO war shall break loose. To make matters worse, concerns have amplified ever since China’s cooperative efforts with Russia have persisted post-invasion of Ukraine. Ever since the Russian invasion, many observers immediately compared the war to a possible Taiwan Strait emergency. While there are numerous differences between the two situations, there are indisputable similarities as well. These commonalities have raised some eyebrows within NATO and can no longer be ignored in the wake of a possible military confrontation.
But how much of China’s threat to Taiwan is an actual threat to NATO, or is it more a by-product of the great power competition between the U.S. and China? And when might China invade Taiwan? Common ground has not yet been established among NATO members with regard to the Chinese threat to Taiwan, as countries such as the U.S. and Canada have adopted a more combative stance whilst those in Europe have attempted to strike a balance between their economic connections with China and their security concerns. A few distinct factors have heightened the suspicion that China is organising a so-called “peaceful” reunification between mainland China, and the self-governing island of Taiwan. Albeit there is no confirmation of these rumours, U.S. military commanders have claimed that Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to be ready to attack the island by 2027.
Sooner rather than later
Increased military activity, armoured vehicles patrolling roadways, preparation of military personnel, aggressive rhetoric: the war drums are being played. All signs are leading toward an invasion of Taiwan, sooner rather than later. Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August left a sour taste in the mouth of Xi Jinping, and provoked vehement condemnation from Beijing. This at-first-glance act of kindness was met with a great military upheaval. Following perceived American provocations and violations of Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity, Beijing launched large-scale military exercises around the island. The U.S. believes this response was out of proportion and claimed that Pelosi’s visit did not influence their policy towards Taiwan. The ever-unprecedented drills performed by the PLA have furthered a vigilant global posture towards China and its supposedly peaceful intentions. One may also wonder how exactly Xi Jinping is organising a non-violent reunification with Taiwan whilst their military budget has been revised and increased by roughly 7.2% this year to “peacefully” reclaim Taiwan. China’s leader spoke at the Communist Party Congress, echoing Beijing’s pledge towards reunification, and opposing the independence of the island they refuse to call Taiwan. Above all, he admitted that the use of force will not be crossed out if it may induce the intended outcome of consolidation, a promise that was greeted with a loud and enthusiastic round of applause from the crowd. Xi Jinping’s exact war strategy remains a mystery, as the use of military force may be blatantly detrimental to China’s global and regional position.
Thinking about what is to come, it is imperative for NATO members to comprehend that there are vast disparities between Western attitudes towards the conflict, and Taiwan’s threat perception. The recurrent military threat of China has led Taiwan to cultivate a sense of normalcy in response, rather than fear. Depending on how the conflict unfolds, it could have varying effects on both the Asia-Pacific region and the global economy. There are three possible scenarios for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan: a blockade strategy involving economic coercion, an island occupation strategy focused on symbolic victory, and an air and sea incursion strategy aimed at disabling critical national infrastructure. Of these, the military incursion scenario is of greatest concern to NATO due to its potential to draw in the United States and thereby implicate the alliance. As such, careful consideration of each scenario and its potential impact on the Asia-Pacific region and global security is warranted. It is important to recognise that we all have a stake in this conflict, not just Taiwan and the U.S. While many believe that the chances of an immediate Chinese attack are low, it cannot be ruled out completely. Increasingly, other countries and international organisations are recognising the treacherous situation that Taiwan finds itself in. A potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan could give rise to a wave of panic, affecting countries all around the world. The ultimate outcome is uncertain, and it remains to be seen whether Taiwan – perhaps along its diplomatic partners – will be able to avoid its worst nightmare becoming reality.
My mother’s hand gently strokes my back as I perspire under my bed sheets. As I jolt awake from a vivid nightmare, it takes me a moment to realise that it wasn't real. My mother's comforting touch brings me back to the present, where I am once again confronted by the uncertain future of China-Taiwan relations. Whether China will actually risk invading Taiwan remains a mystery, but what I do know is that as long as diplomatic efforts remain ineffective, the constant threat of military confrontation will persist, casting a shadow over our daily life.
This article was written for the MD x EuroMUN Printed Edition.