Who protects Taiwan from China?: “German submarines have been on the wish list for years”

China is using Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan to consolidate its military control in the region – and to prepare for the annexation of the breakaway island. In an interview with, the China expert Maximilian Mayer explains why an invasion is not even necessary, how the US failed diplomatically and what Taiwan can do to keep the Chinese at bay for as long as possible. China has ended its military exercises after about a week. Did it defuse the situation?

Maximilian Mayer is junior professor of international relations and global technology policy at the University of Bonn.

(Photo: Volker Lannert / University of Bonn)

Maximilian Mayer: We are in a completely new situation. China has shown the ability and the will to permanently define the entire air and sea space around Taiwan as its training area through its navy, but also through the coordination of the air force, navy and missile forces. Militarily, the status quo in the western Pacific has changed dramatically. The last few days show that these maneuvers could be extended over weeks into the future. Hints from Chinese military experts point to a frequent recurrence. And the radius of future operations is likely to expand further with an ever-growing fleet that now includes three aircraft carriers.

What does this mean for Taiwan?

Officially, in the future it will not be a blockade either, but a military maneuver. Because in the event of a blockade, the law of international war would almost automatically come into effect. What is happening now, on the other hand, is rather unproblematic in terms of international law. Nevertheless, Taiwan may now find itself in a quasi-blockade more often. First, it will have an economic impact. However, China can easily continue to tighten the thumb screws. One possible escalation would be to block any arms shipments to Taiwan from the US or Europe by sea.

What effects would this have on the Taiwanese economy?

China’s military exercises have come so close to the ports that cargo ship traffic has already been disrupted. A large number of Asian airlines also diverted flights via Taiwan. If this loss of autonomy lasts a week, you can overcome it. But as soon as it is maintained for longer than two weeks or even months, the supply of, for example, oil and gas, but also food, is put at risk. The most important pragmatic question is how to respond to the threatened limitation of Taiwan’s autonomy.

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So it doesn’t take an invasion to bring Taiwan to its knees?

I believe that despite the nationalist war cries erupting on the Chinese internet, the Chinese government wants to avoid an invasion at all costs. This would be the worst case scenario, also for the People’s Liberation Army. After all, an invasion still carries great military risks. The flexible blocking approach, on the other hand, is smarter and cheaper from the Chinese perspective. In the new white paper on Taiwan, the preference for “peaceful reunification” has not changed. It remains to be seen whether quasi-blockades will ultimately be the more successful way to achieve the goal of reunification.

What can Taiwan do against such blockades?

A real jerk goes through Taiwan. It may be late, but the country is slowly waking up. This is comparable to what happened in Ukraine in 2014 when Crimea was annexed. At that point, the Ukrainian government only really began to modernize the armed forces. We could now experience something similar in Taiwan. The question is whether Taiwan can still receive much-needed arms supplies from abroad. In any case, the country needs robust military capabilities and improved response if it is to withstand the increasing pressure. The global network of Taiwanese chip producers, on the other hand, is likely to be a stabilizing factor, as China itself depends on it and the cost of a military confrontation would be borne directly by uninvolved actors worldwide.

Can Germany help too?

When it comes to Taiwan’s survival as a democracy, posture is no substitute for economic coordination and military capability. Taiwan, for example, urgently needs to expand its navy – especially its submarine capability. Asymmetric capabilities will at least add a bit more risk to the maneuvers that the Continent can throw now and again. At present, Taiwan’s submarine fleet is far too small. German submarines have been on the Taiwanese wish list for years. If Germany were to consider whether to deliver U31 boats to Taiwan, one would have to carefully weigh what the consequences would be, especially for relations with China.

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Why hasn’t the US responded yet?

There is apparently no strategy prepared for this situation. The Biden administration failed to diplomatically include Nancy Pelosi’s visit. Pelosi’s hasty trip did Taiwan a disservice. This gave China an excuse to do what is happening now. This power projection would probably have happened at some point anyway – maybe in a year or four years. But neither the US nor Taiwan was prepared for the acceleration we are now witnessing. There is also a lack of strategic coordination with US allies in the region, who are responding to the tensions in very different ways. Biden’s apparent calm could still become an Afghanistan 2.0 — a diplomatic disaster that further calls into question the credibility of the US as a protective force for other democracies.

How do you rate Pelosi’s visit?

The flying visit to Taipei was not meant to end. In light of the polarized international situation, anyone undertaking such an official, highly symbolic visit should have scenarios on how to deal with the foreseeable and clearly communicated response from the Chinese side. Pelosi has put the US president in the precarious position of simultaneously showing strength and preventing a spiraling threat. But, at least on public channels, there is none of this diplomatic cord-walking. It almost seems as if the US would initially accept the new radius of action of the Chinese armed forces.

Should Biden have stopped Pelosi?

He couldn’t. As president, he could not tell the representative of an independent body of the political system what to do or not to do. Pelosi herself should have admitted that in addition to Taiwan, this is also particularly harmful to the United States. It is quite possible that China was just waiting for such a mistake. One was prepared anyway. Even the modernized People’s Liberation Army could not have hastily launched a maneuver of this magnitude and complexity. The plans for this lay in the drawer.

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Are sanctions conceivable as a response to the Chinese blockade?

I do not believe it. Europeans and Americans are far too dependent on Chinese technology and mutual trade relations for that. Punitive measures will do us all great harm. In contrast, the effects of the sanctions against Russia are relatively small. Moreover, there is no justification for economic sanctions under international law – in fact, no one is threatening China with them. International support for this will be significantly lower than in the case of Russia.

So how should Germany and Europe respond?

Europe is in a bind. If there was a military confrontation, the effects on the global economy would be fatal. There would also be a serious loss of prosperity in Europe. To prevent this, it would be advisable to diversify the foreign trade carefully, that is to say to gradually reduce and shift dependencies on China. However, this process is full of indisputable things. It would not take months, but rather years or decades. In addition, it does not seem particularly realistic for many companies to find reliable and cheap substitutes for products, supply chains and raw material imports from China. In any case, the German economy will remain closely intertwined with China if trade with East Asia is not generally severely curtailed.

But even China cannot afford a war right now.

The Communist Party leadership is focused on the 20th Party Congress at the end of October. At the same time, China is struggling with economic and financial problems. Beijing will therefore try to keep the risk of military escalation as low as possible. China can already be seen holding back. Rockets flew over Taiwan, but no warplanes. Chinese warships have also not penetrated the 12 nautical mile zone around Taiwan. Domestically, this restraint is not without controversy. There are many Chinese people who are clamoring for war and who feel too weak to respond to Pelosi’s visit. The maneuver looks like a paper tiger to her.

Judith Görs spoke with Maximilian Mayer



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