Let’s assume, hypothetically, that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) successfully conquers Taiwan. Most analyses of an attempted invasion consider only if the PRC could successfully subdue Taiwan. The consequences of an attempted invasion –even a tactically successful one – have received little thought, however. This analysis considers some likely consequences for the PRC if it attempts and/or completes an invasion of Taiwan. Likely consequences include: the direct human and economic expenditures of the invasion itself; the costs of garrisoning Taiwan; the PRC’s post-war diplomatic and economic isolation; and, finally, the significant and potentially destabilizing process of incorporating 23 million individuals into the PRC.
It is still too soon to say if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Crimea and the Donbass produced a strategic defeat or victory for Russia. However, the elements that advantaged Russia vis-à-vis Ukraine will not avail themselves to the PRC in a cross-straits crisis. Invading Taiwan would prove highly dangerous and costly for Beijing. Incorporation of Taiwan into the PRC would prove to be, at best, a Pyrrhic victory if attempted in the near or medium term.
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While the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a highly capable and formidable force, a conventional military invasion of Taiwan would prove highly costly in treasure and blood and could fail to achieve the Communist Party of China’s (CPC’s) objectives. Ship-to-shore and shore-to-shore landings are extremely hazardous for the invasion force. In the first Gulf War, American military planners were rumored to estimate that an amphibious invasion of Saddam Hussein-occupied Kuwait would cost up to 10,000 American lives, despite the considerable relative military superiority of U.S. forces. The Republic of China (ROC) possesses a much more sophisticated military than Hussein did in 1991 and, due to advances in anti-access area denial doctrine and capabilities, can impose asymmetric costs on an invader. Additionally, American forces (and, potentially, other actors) would impose punishing costs on any invasion force. A 2015 RAND study estimated that United States submarines alone could sink 41 percent of Chinese amphibious ships in a theoretical 2017 conflict.
A direct invasion attempt by the PRC would likely lead to significant – and potentially massive – casualties for all involved actors, as well as a regional or even global economic depression. In the “best-case” scenario for the PRC, a successful invasion would still suffer substantial casualties and cost tens of billions of dollars. Moreover, the consequences of an invasion would persist, as health expenses and pensions would burden the Chinese state for decades (at a time when Chinese veterans are already protesting about unpaid pensions). An invasion and the one-child policy could exacerbate an already hellish social crisis for the mainland, as wounded and deceased veterans – often only children – would be unable to support their elderly parents and grandparents.
Instead of a direct invasion, the PRC could employ a blockade or another form of so-called “asymmetrical warfare.” Russia used the tactics of asymmetric warfare to achieve short-term political objectives in Crimea, the Donbass, and, according to some reports, the 2016 United States presidential election. It may also potentially achieve the dissolution of the European Union and stimulate a worldwide financial crisis through its intervention in European elections. Leaving aside, for now, the wisdom of these actions, it is worth noting that the PRC’s invasion of Taiwan would confront an environment hostile to asymmetric means.
Several factors aided Russia’s asymmetric/hybrid invasion of Ukraine: popular support in Crimea and the Donbass for close political ties with Russia; a significant number of former Russian (and Soviet) citizens and even veterans in the invaded territories, especially in Crimea; a largely ineffective opposing military force; and the element of surprise. A PRC invasion of Taiwan would confront much more challenging conditions.
Few in Taiwan desire reunification with the CPC-dominated mainland: a 2014 public opinion poll by the ROC’s Mainland Affairs Council found that 84 percent of respondents on the island wanted to “maintain the status quo defined in a broader sense.” The PRC could surely count on some fifth-column support in the event of an invasion or asymmetric campaign but the reality is that most individuals in Taiwan fear PRC rule and would actively resist a reduction in their political freedoms and economic prosperity. Finally, the ROC’s military – and other militaries – are unlikely to be surprised by asymmetric warfare and would respond vigorously. Therefore, in the highly likely event of an asymmetric invasion’s failure, the CPC’s political leadership would have to face a hard choice: accept a massive symbolic defeat, which could jeopardize the Party’s legitimacy, or escalate an asymmetric operation into a full military invasion with all attendant risks.
The costs of invading Taiwan could, perhaps surprisingly, pale in comparison to the costs of maintaining control over it. In the best-case scenario for the PRC, the island would fall with minimal damage to its physical (not to mention human) infrastructure. It is perhaps more realistic to expect that a PRC invasion would lead to catastrophic destruction of private property (much of it owned by mainland elites); severe damages to Taiwan’s transportation infrastructure, such as railroads, bridges, ports, airports, and metro systems; ecological devastation from landmines and unexploded ordinance; and, perhaps, an anti-Communist insurgency.
As many Chinese officials and scholars like to point out (especially when they are upset at American actions), the United States has spent significant blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan and has achieved relatively few results. An invasion of Taiwan could provide the PRC with an object lesson in the difficulties of counterinsurgency (for an excellent exposition on guerrilla war in the cross-strait context, see the CSBA’s 2014 “Hard ROC 2.0” report). It is extremely difficult to pacify an invaded region. Unlike, say, Crimea, individuals in Taiwan are quite likely to actively resist their occupiers. If the PRC successfully invades Taiwan, it will likely re-learn many of the hard lessons that Washington experienced in the first two decades of the 21st century. PRC planners should perhaps consider some unpleasant questions.
Would ROC security forces be disbanded immediately upon conquest of the island? If so, does the PRC have sufficient financial resources to bribe former ROC soldiers and security officials from conducting an insurgency? If the PRC bribed former ROC soldiers and security officials, how would PLA veterans respond to enemy combatants receiving higher pensions? More broadly, given that Taiwan’s per capita PPP GDP is, at $49,400, over three times larger than the mainland’s per capita GDP, who would finance Taiwan’s reconstruction? Would these expenditures provoke or sharpen resentments on either or both sides of the strait? And how would the PRC handle Taiwan’s old political leadership? Would the PRC murder the old leadership, ensuring a massive backlash from the international community and the people on the island? Would the PLA merely imprison them, perhaps creating a sustained, symbolic threat to the Party? Or would the PLA exile the old political leadership, constructing a sophisticated opposition with governing experience, international stature, and, for the CPC, an uncomfortable historical parallel to Sun Yat-sen, founder of the ROC and one of the few individuals revered on both sides of the strait?
Subduing Taiwan would require massive investments of time, personnel, and resources. Counterinsurgency experts suggest that counterinsurgents often need to employ several times as many combatants as the insurgents. Therefore, garrisoning Taiwan would require a minimum occupying force numbering in the tens of thousands. Higher manpower requirements are probable. A PLA counterinsurgency force in Taiwan could require hundreds of thousands soldiers and paramilitary forces, tying down PRC military and financial resources for decades.
The PRC’s Legitimacy Post-Invasion
An invasion of Taiwan would signal the emergence of aggressive, might-makes-right Chinese nationalism. Indo-Pacific countries would likely respond by coalescing into a military and economic alliance aimed at countering PRC aggression. The PRC’s international isolation would constrain its economic potential and, ultimately, likely lead CPC leadership to seek an alternative legitimation model.
Under Mao Zedong, the CPC derived political legitimacy from its assertion of Chinese autonomy, Marxist ideology, and, to a lesser degree, rising living standards (the survivors of Mao experienced improvements in life expectancy, literacy, and infant mortality). Under Deng Xiaoping, the CPC increasingly tied its legitimacy to rising living standards, while notionally adhering to Marxist ideology. An invasion of Taiwan would represent the end of the Deng Xiaoping epoch. Under a new political paradigm, the CPC would mainly legitimate itself through nationalism, not economics: the state would seek to maximize China’s international prestige, perhaps even at the expense of domestic welfare. In other words, the CPC would increasingly resemble Russia under President Vladimir Putin.
Under the new legitimation model, several features would emerge. First, living standards would likely stall – while remaining relatively high. Second, China would increasingly seek to derive legitimacy from the domination of other sovereign countries. Third, China’s appetite would likely grow larger with eating: Chinese claims to former territories currently occupied by India, Mongolia, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia could grow increasingly strident.
This new legitimation model would present several challenges for the CPC. First, Chinese and Russians have different historical experiences and psychological expectations. Russians endured a profoundly scarring economic and financial crisis in the 1990s, increasing their tolerance for economic misery while largely sapping demand for free-market economics (not to mention rules-based government). Chinese, on the other hand, have enjoyed near-continuous economic and social improvements for nearly 40 years. A nationalism-induced recession – or even stagnation – could lead to a political backlash from Chinese accustomed to rising living standards. As Samuel P. Huntington wrote, “Urbanization, increases in literacy, education, and media exposure all give rise to enhanced aspirations and expectations which, if unsatisfied, galvanize individuals and groups into politics.” An invasion of Taiwan could trigger an economic crisis and political struggle on the mainland.
Second, after invading Taiwan, what would the CPC do to score more nationalist “victories” – particularly if the invasion and/or occupation of Taiwan doesn’t go well? Most countries on China’s land and maritime borders possess nuclear weapons, enjoy an alliance or quasi-alliance with the United States and Japan, or both. Third, Taiwan’s incorporation into the PRC may increase the likelihood of democratic transition. Most individuals in Taiwan possess strong normative commitments to free markets, constitutional law, and open societies. Many mainland Chinese – particularly those from the 1989 generation – support these ideas. Adding 20 million liberals to China’s political discourse could have important implications for its domestic politics.
Given the disastrous consequences of a PRC invasion of Taiwan, all sides should refrain from irresponsible actions that could lead to military conflict. The PRC should not attempt counterproductive coercion and should consider Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly in May 2017. ROC President Tsai Ing-wen should responsibly increase the island’s defensive (especially asymmetric) capabilities but also re-state the 1992 consensus and reiterate the “three nos”: no unification with the mainland in the medium term, no attempt to move towards independence, and no attempt to change the status quo by force. Finally, the United States and other countries should maintain and, if necessary, defend the status quo while also encouraging closer economic, cultural, and person-to-person ties between Taiwan and the mainland.
Wang Mouzhou is the pen name of a former NSA intelligence officer. This article represents his own personal opinion.