- China’s posture toward Taiwan has grown markedly more belligerent in recent years.
- Nonetheless, there are many good reasons to be skeptical about warnings of a near-term or even medium-term invasion of Taiwan by Beijing.
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The top US military commander for the Asia-Pacific region, Adm. Philip Davidson, raised eyebrows at a recent Senate hearing when he suggested China could invade Taiwan within the next six years.
The nominee to replace Davidson at the head of US Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. John Aquilino, then went a step further, telling the same committee last week that in his view, “This problem is much closer to us than most think and we have to take this on.”
At first glance, such concerns might seem justified. The Chinese Communist Party has always viewed the annexation of Taiwan as a key strategic goal, but its posture toward the democratic, self-ruling island has grown markedly more belligerent in recent years. Chinese leaders have publicly reiterated their willingness to use force to “unify” Taiwan with the mainland, while ramping up the pace of military activities in and around the Taiwan Strait.
Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping has presided over the rapid growth and modernization of the People’s Liberation Army—particularly its navy, air force and missile arsenal. Where Taipei once enjoyed certain advantages in the event of a military conflict, including technological superiority and the benefits of island defense, many military analysts now conclude that China could take Taiwan by force, and that the United States would be hard-pressed to stop it.
Nonetheless, there are many good reasons to cast a gimlet eye on Davidson and Aquilino’s warnings of a near-term or even medium-term Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
First, the US military brass has a long history of inflating threats in order to ensure continued support from elected officials, particularly the lawmakers who fund their operations. It should be no more surprising that the head of Indo-Pacific Command is hyping the prospect of Chinese military adventurism than it is to hear the head of Southern Command opining that fragile states in the Western Hemisphere pose an “existential” threat to the United States.
The Pentagon’s own annual report to Congress on Chinese military capabilities, released last year, makes clear that an amphibious invasion of Taiwan would be “a significant political and military risk” for China.
Large-scale amphibious invasions are hard to pull off under the best of circumstances, and this would likely be the largest mass military mobilization the world has seen since D-Day. It would require the PLA to transport its soldiers across a body of water nearly five times as wide as the English Channel, all while ensuring that it maintains unchallenged control of the seas and airspace around the island.
As Taiwan-based writer Brian Hioe recently pointed out in a piece for the online magazine New Bloom, it is doubtful that the PLA currently has adequate amphibious lift capability to sustain an invasion and occupation of Taiwan.
China could try to make up for this deficiency by utilizing coast guard ships, commercial vessels and even fishing boats — engineering what some analysts have called a “reverse Dunkirk” — but that would entail its own discrete risks.
Whatever the case, it seems clear that Chinese military planners would prefer to have more time to develop their amphibious capabilities before attempting to take Taiwan by force.
Beijing must also factor in the likelihood of an intervention from the US and its allies, particularly Japan, which hosts the largest overseas contingent of American active-duty military personnel. Most of them are stationed in Okinawa, just 750 kilometers — roughly 466 miles — from Taiwan.
In recent years, the already robust bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill in favor of supporting Taiwan’s autonomy from Beijing has only strengthened, and US public opinion polls also indicate growing support for the defense of Taiwan.
Japan, too, maintains close unofficial ties with Taiwan, and would view any Chinese aggression toward the island as a threat to its own security. According to a recent report in the Nikkei, a leading Japanese newspaper, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and President Joe Biden are planning to underscore the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait in their joint statement when they meet in Washington later this month.
As the Nikkei notes, the last time Japanese and American leaders expressed such concern was in 1969. Should it wish to forcibly annex Taiwan, Beijing would have to accept the high likelihood of a war with its top two trading partners.
Even if China successfully pulls off a cross-strait invasion while keeping the US and its allies at bay, the human and economic toll would be nothing short of catastrophic. Taiwan’s technology and manufacturing sectors play crucial roles in global supply chains, and Beijing would likely come under tremendous international pressure, including economic sanctions, to reverse course.
Bonnie Glaser and Matthew Funaiole, two scholars at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, have also argued that China would have to deal with the prospect of a prolonged resistance movement on the island.
“An all-out invasion of Taiwan might bog down the PLA in a counterinsurgency effort that lasts for years, which could compromise the military’s modernization efforts, drain precious resources from the Chinese economy, and lead to dissatisfaction at home as the body bags come home, many of them likely to be their parents’ only sons,” they wrote in Foreign Policy last year.
This would be exactly the type of aggressive military intervention and occupation that China has castigated the US for mounting in the past.
None of this means that China’s threatening behavior against Taiwan should not be taken seriously.
PLA warplanes have intruded into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone with such frequency in recent months that the Taiwanese military has decided to stop scrambling fighter jets upon each incursion, opting to track them with ground-based missiles in order to conserve resources.
Deputy Defense Minister Chang Che-ping told lawmakers in Taipei this week that he considered China’s provocations to be a kind of “war of attrition,” likely referring to the fact that Taiwan has incurred hundreds of millions of dollars in additional maintenance costs to facilitate the frequent scrambling of its jets, many of which are older models.
Chang’s comments speak to a core pillar of China’s strategy: Wearing Taiwan down psychologically in the hope that, eventually, its leaders will be forced to negotiate the terms of their surrender.
Of course, Beijing itself has undermined that strategy with its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong and on the city’s autonomy, making a mockery of the “One Country, Two Systems” approach that Chinese leaders once put forward as a template for unification with Taiwan.
Going forward, China is more likely to continue and perhaps build upon its multipronged pressure campaign against Taiwan. This could mean further efforts to isolate Taipei on the world stage by trying to poach its remaining diplomatic allies and continuing to block its access to international organizations.
It could even try to test Taiwan’s resolve — and the international community’s commitment to defending it — by taking over one of the smaller islands that Taiwan administers in the South China Sea. But at least in the immediate term, it is difficult to envision Chinese leaders justifying the political, economic and reputational costs of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan.
Pentagon officials are fond of saying that the US military is a planning organization. Its job is to plan for contingencies, and a military conflict over Taiwan is certainly worth putting at or near the top of the list. There are a number of scenarios that, while improbable, could spark an escalatory cycle and change China’s cost-to-benefit calculus with regard to Taiwan.
But no one is served by publicly exaggerating the likelihood of conflict in the Taiwan Strait — not the United States and certainly not the people of Taiwan, who ultimately have the most at stake.
Elliot Waldman is the senior editor of World Politics Review.