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China could 'quarantine' Taiwan by air and sea

Taoyuan International Airport, Port of Kaohsiung would be replaced by Chinese offshore clearance operations

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Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning. 

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning.  (CNA photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Instead of invading Taiwan, analysts posit one scenario could involve China imposing a "quarantine" on the country's airspace and territorial waters, enabling Beijing to exercise sovereignty over Taiwan while creating a quandary for the U.S. and its allies.

In 2021, Robert D. Blackwill and Philip Zelikow authored a Council on Foreign Relations report titled "The United States, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy to Prevent War." In the report, the experts list three scenarios for a military confrontation over Taiwan, including an invasion of the nation's periphery, a direct invasion of Taiwan proper, and a "quarantine" of the country.

In the quarantine scenario, Blackwill and Zelikow explain that the term "quarantine" in this case is not the equivalent to a blockade, but rather a screening of Taiwan's air and sea borders for arms shipments and any other "contraband" or undesirable people. In this scenario, Taiwan's major international ports, such as the Taoyuan International Airport and the Port of Kaohsiung, would be supplanted by clearance operations offshore or in the air run by the Chinese government.

Chinese screeners would intercept all incoming aircraft and ships and allow anything they deemed to be "innocent traffic." Suspect ships and planes would be diverted to nearby airports and ports in Fujian or Guangzhou, where they would undergo full Chinese customs clearance procedures.

The report asserted that China excels at "domain awareness" with a vast armada of ships from its navy, coast guard, and maritime militia to conduct such screening. On Jan. 22, 2021, China's National People's Congress enacted a new law authorizing its coast guard vessels to board and inspect foreign ships in waters claimed by China, as well as empowering its coast guard to establish temporary exclusion zones "as needed" to prevent foreign vessels from entering.

The authors point out that China could use two kinds of arguments to justify this quarantine. The first would be that it is affirming its already claimed sovereignty over Taiwan and, given that most countries have a "one China" policy theoretically giving it sovereign rights over Taiwan, Beijing could claim that it is simply "confirming and asserting those rights."

The advantage of this scenario is that China could impose such a quarantine without invading Taiwan. China could claim that it is allowing Taiwanese to govern themselves, for at least a period of time, while China manages its external affairs.

A second justification for this tactic would be for Beijing to claim that it was forced to impose the quarantine to halt the import of U.S. weapons systems. Beijing could claim that it was taking this measure to prevent the import of new weapons that pose a threat to China's defense forces and commerce.

Following this logic, China could announce: “We see that Taiwan and these foreigners are preparing to send hundreds of missiles into Taiwan. We are not going to allow all these destabilizing and threatening weapons into our territory and we are going to run a quarantine to keep them out.”

Unlike a full blockade, China could try to appear magnanimous by allowing oil, food supplies, and passenger traffic to flow unhindered. However, if Taiwan's air or naval forces challenged the quarantine, China would engage them militarily or fire missiles into Taiwan to "intimidate its citizens into compliance."

This method would put foreign powers such as the U.S. or Japan in the difficult position of deciding whether to take military action while considering the domestic political reaction to a proactive military move. All nations would also be weighing their decision based on the response to China's tactics by Taiwan's populace and political factions.

Western military leaders may take pause as China would have the logistical advantage if they attempted military action. The authors believe civilian shipping companies would comply with China's orders, while the U.S. would face "problematical" military prospects if it tried to use force to send military cargo shipments.

Blackwill and Zelikow suggested that nations friendly to Taiwan could attempt a counterblockade against China, but this could risk escalation towards more intense blockades by China or war. It could also negatively impact trade among other countries inside the first island chain and China could still obtain many vital resources by land.