Will war start with Quemoy and Matsu?
No one is asking President Trump or Joe Biden what they think about Quemoy and Matsu, but people ought to, because the Chinese are gearing up to attack Quemoy, and maybe even go as far as trying to do damage to the Taiwan Air Force base on Penghu (the Pescadore Islands), which are all Taiwan-controlled islands.
We all remember that in 1960, in the presidential debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, Kennedy took the position that Quemoy and Matsu were "indefensible" and that Taiwan should pull back from these islands. Nixon, however, said the U.S. should defend them. (Later, when polls showed that the American people sided with Nixon on this issue, Kennedy "revised" his opinion.)
Today, no one knows where either presidential candidate stands on this question. Unlike the run-up to 1960, the Chinese have not tried (as they did then) to attack Quemoy and Matsu. In 1949 and again in the 1950s, China twice tried invading Quemoy, and in 1958, China heavily and brutally shelled the island. (One result is that there is still today a thriving industry on Quemoy where artisans make fine chef's knives hewn from expended artillery shells).
Will the U.S. move to blunt an attack on Quemoy? Or wait and see? What are the consequences for Taiwan's independence from domination by Communist China?
China knows that the U.S., at least under President Trump, is likely to oppose any Chinese military action against Taiwan itself. But do the Chinese think the U.S. is wobbly when it comes to the outlying islands? Would President Xi seek to assert himself within China, and buttress his sagging support within the Communist Party establishment, by slamming PLA forces into Quemoy? Does he think he will get away with it?
Quemoy is the Portuguese name for Kinmen. I have been to Kinmen three times. The island is fortified with bunkers and underground systems. Even the island's main hospital is below ground and has massive blast doors. But there are only a small number of troops on the island and no fighter aircraft or modern air defenses. In Xiamen on mainland China, across from Kinmen, the PLA is practicing invading Taiwan, but this practice may be a ruse for the nearby objective of Kinmen.
Kinmen is 28.2 km from Xiamen, and even when taking into account that PLA forces will be spread around, none of them immediately needed would be more than 100 km from Kinmen. Taiwan would have to try to defend Kinmen either from Taiwan proper or from Penghu, where Taiwan keeps some of its home-built FCK-1 fighters. In the last weeks, Chinese war planes have threatened Penghu, Kinmen, and Taiwan proper. In fact, Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, visited the Penghu Magong Airbase on September 22 to congratulate the Taiwanese fighter pilots who, with only five minutes' warning, defended the island's airspace against Chinese fighter jets and bombers.
The population of Kinmen (consisting of two islands) is around 150,000. Penghu has a smaller population (it is actually an archipelago) of 102,000. Penghu is 154 km from Kinmen. Taiwan is roughly 277 km from Kinmen. While Taiwan can support Kinmen, it is likely to find the fighting difficult and painful. For sure, such an attack could destabilize Taiwan.
The wild card is the United States. If the United States rubs its hands and expresses sympathy but does nothing else, China wins. Taiwan's stability and future will be cast in serious doubt. This is what President Nixon was saying when he was a candidate in 1960 and why he supported fighting for Quemoy and Matsu. But by the time he became president, it is far from clear he kept the same opinion. After all, it was Kissinger and Nixon who derecognized Taiwan, pulled U.S. forces and closed U.S. bases on the island, and treated Taiwan as an outcast and lost cause. Congress intervened in 1979 with the Taiwan Relations Act to try to salvage the situation.
Congress does not have an Army, an Air Force, a Navy — neither can Congress perform the role of commander in chief. While Taiwan retains strong political support on Capitol Hill, the degree of support it has in the Great Power Game in Asia within the U.S. national security establishment is uncertain at best. All recent war games that tried to assess the U.S. position vis-à-vis a conflict over Taiwan have been negative for the U.S. winning such a fight. Any commander-in-chief will be deeply concerned about the outcome and the impact it would have on U.S. security interests in the Pacific.
But China also has to be worried that the U.S. would intervene and help Taiwan repulse any Chinese attack. That would throw off its barely hidden plan to launch an attack, perhaps trying to exploit the uncertainty associated with a U.S. election. In ideal circumstances, President Trump should make U.S. intentions clear: that America won't abandon Taiwan or let Kinmen or Penghu fall to the Chinese military. He can also ask Biden to join him in such a declaration to strengthen its impact even more.