This Thanksgiving, as millions of American families sat down for turkey dinner and football, a dangerous game of chicken was being played out on the far side of the Pacific. Formations of Chinese bombers flanked by fighter escorts repeatedly circled Taiwan, simulating attack operations. Meanwhile, Chinese spy planes loitered nearby, collecting intelligence needed for refining China’s invasion plan against the island democracy of 23 million people.
Per standard procedure, Taiwanese fighters scrambled to shadow their adversaries, meeting them in aerial engagements that have become more frequent and heated over the past two years. On the ground, Taiwanese generals sitting in buried bunker complexes would have tracked the course of events on digital display screens and alerted air defense missile batteries, making ready to launch at a moment’s notice.
The Taiwan Strait has long been one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints. Acts of brinksmanship here are so commonplace that they generally go unreported. In many cases, the governments on both sides intentionally downplay what is actually going between their militaries and intelligence services to avoid spinning the situation out of control.
Yet tensions are making their way back into the open. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, rose to the apex of power in 2012. Over the past five years, Xi has set China on a collision course with the American-led, rules-based international order. According to both his public statements and leaked Chinese military documents (exposed here), Xi’s primary focus is on annexing Taiwan, something that would, in theory, ensure the Chinese Communist Party could stay power for decades to come.
Located at the strategic heart of East Asia and Western Pacific, Taiwan’s vibrant democracy represents an appealing alternative to China’s repressive authoritarian model of governance. Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, belies that myth that a successful future is only possible for the Chinese if they continue to surrender their basic human rights to the state. Beijing’s narrative holds that all ethnically Chinese people must forego self-determination, freedom of religion, speech, and the press. Taiwan shows that to be a false claim.
Xi, like his recent predecessors, is a career communist and a true believer in “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (read: authoritarian state capitalism). Unlike his elders in the party, however, Xi is a nationalist hawk with a penchant for risky behavior. He has systematically purged all of his enemies, real or imagined, in the top ranks of the Communist Party and its armed wing, the People’s Liberation Army.
Tens of millions of innocent people died in China during Mao Zedong’s reign of terror. After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping, an economic reformer, made changes to the leadership system so that more expert voices could be heard before top-level decisions were made. This rule-by-consensus system allowed for China’s explosive economic growth and relative political stability. Xi has destroyed Deng’s pragmatic system, ushering in a new era of Mao-like, radical policymaking.
The implications of this for the future of regional peace are disquieting. In spite of Taiwan’s friendly cross-Strait policies, China has accelerated planning and preparations for invading this peaceful island nation. Since 2012, the People’s Liberation Army has conducted a sweeping series of changes to its force structure and updated its doctrine, training, and equipment. Internal Chinese military documents reveal that Xi’s military build-up is aimed squarely at conquering Taiwan.
Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, like her predecessors, has shown a remarkable tolerance for Chinese provocations. Rather than take actions to change Taiwan’s Republic of China constitution which would legalize independence and end the myth of “one China,” Tsai has maintained that there is no need to change the status quo because Taiwan is already a free and independent country.
By dint of its location at the center of the first island chain and professional military culture, Taiwan serves as a check on China’s naval access to the Pacific. For both political and geostrategic reasons, Beijing has long coveted this island nation. But China has never been strong enough to take it. Xi seems determined to make history.
His playbook is not to win heart and minds in Taiwan. Given the stark differences between the political value systems espoused by the two sides, that would be impossible. China will instead seek to weaken hearts and minds in Taiwan. Beijing will engage in a long and intermittent war of nerves with Taipei, using advanced psychological warfare techniques to convince the Taiwanese that they are in a hopeless situation. China will apply propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, history manipulation, espionage, and economic warfare. Ultimately, Xi’s goal will be to infiltrate and subvert key pillars of Taiwan’s democracy.
On the international stage, Chinese officials and agents of influence will smother Taiwan, completely cutting it off from outside diplomatic support. As the campaign progresses, the Chinese military will undertake a series of provocations, one or two of which may be intended to result in a localized crisis, needed for elevating military readiness levels, gauging the state of Taiwanese willpower, and testing the reaction of the United States.
Finally, when all the pieces are in place, when Taiwan appears ridden with political, social, and economic strife, when the Taiwanese military is completely demoralized and woefully underequipped, when American and international support is visibly wavering, the invasion will come.
China’s national security authorities recognize and accept that they could not successfully conquer Taiwan today. Contrary to media reports, the PLA will still not be ready for the operation by 2020. But if nothing major changes, China’s playbook for conquering Taiwan could be effectively executed over the next decade. The strategic situation could soon start to come unglued.
To prevent such a tragic future, the Trump administration should make Taiwan a central player in its newly announced free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. Like Japan, Australia, and India, Taiwan has a strong democracy and capable military. The Taiwanese have unparalleled intelligence on China’s economic and cyber warfare tactics. They also have a deep reservoir of experience when it comes to dealing with China in a high-stakes, long-term strategic competition.
There is much to be gained by closer cooperation between like-minded democracies in Asia. To get the right strategy, strategists must first ask the right questions. The question the Trump White House should be asking is: Do we want to continue emulating former president Barack Obama’s Taiwan policy, or do we want to make a change for the better?
The People’s Republic of China has its playbook. Now the United States must develop its own. There is much hard work to be done.
Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and the author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia.