House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may have left Taiwan after spending a day on the island, but the firestorm that her visit ignited has only begun. An enraged Beijing has warned the U.S. that it would “pay the price for its own mistake” and that China will take necessary “countermeasures.”
As regional analysts ponder what these “countermeasures” would be, a few believe that Beijing might seize one of Taiwan’s smaller outlying islands, despite how provocative the move would be. Though seizing an island could “test the limits of Biden’s military commitment to Taiwan,” China has done it before when it took Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012. Undoubtedly, it can do it again.
According to analysts, the outlying islands of Taiwan – Matsu, Penghu, Wuqiu and Kinmen – could be the first targets of the People’s Liberation Army. The PLA can also reach the Taiwan-administered islets in Pratas and Spratlys.
China has also poured troops onto the waters near Taiwan Strait which could come in handy if Beijing decides on the island grab. The PLA is holding a joint blockade, sea assault and land and air combat training, involving the use of J-20 stealth fighter jets and DF-17 hypersonic missiles, around the island.
Both the Kinmen and Matsu islands sit just 10 km from the Chinese mainland, while Penghu, an archipelago of 90 islets, is much closer to Taiwan — about 50 km from Taiwan.
Amid the Chinese rhetoric that the mainland will speed up the reunification process through military and political actions, there were reports that China “internally debated” attacking Taiwan’s Pratas Islands but decided to push it for later. Just after Russia invaded Ukraine, Taiwanese media were also abuzz with reports that China might take a page from Putin’s playbook and first seize Taiwan’s outer islands such as Kinmen and Matsu.
This would not only help distract from domestic issues and complete “historical duties” but also evade sanctions that would strike if it invaded Taiwan. Geo-political researchers believe the fact that these islands are difficult to defend makes them tempting targets. Seizing them will also help Beijing frighten and demoralize Taiwan’s government.
Chinese President Xi Jinping can even claim that the people of the “pro-China” islands of Kinmen and Matsu wish to return to the motherland.
If that is to happen, senior Taiwanese officials believe the island administration may not have the military capabilities to retake them, and foreign countries would be very unlikely to send in troops.
As for Penghu, China has to capture or suppress Penghu before it can launch a proper Taiwan invasion. “If China failed to suppress or capture Penghu, the main invasion force might be obliged to abort the operation, making an assault on Taiwan one of history’s nonevents—like Hitler’s invasion of England,” analysts Piers Wood and Charles Ferguson wrote in a 2001 edition of the U.S. Naval War College Review.
Pratas Islands too have a huge strategic relevance that could prompt China to seize it. The islands could function as a gatekeeper to monitor the U.S. and other countries’ ships and aircraft entering the South China Sea from the Pacific Ocean. Jinping could also use the action to demonstrate China’s will and capabilities to Taiwan and other neighboring countries, according to The Diplomat.
Though Chinese state-backed media has rattled saber about the massive drills happening around Taiwan, it is conspicuously mum about the prospects of seizing or taking over islands. The PLA has already begun a long-range live fire drill in the Taiwan Straits which they claim will encircle the island of Taiwan from all directions.