Fears that China will soon launch a military attack against Taiwan have spiked.
Three factors are feeding this anxiety. The first is the assessment by many outside experts that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which includes China’s navy, air force, and strategic rocket arsenal, has reached or is very close to reaching such a level of strength that attempting to forcibly compel Taiwan to politically unify with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a feasible policy option. Among these assessments, none carried more weight than that of Admiral Philip Davidson, chief of the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command. Davidson opined before a U.S. Senate Committee in February that China might try to seize Taiwan by military means “in the next six years.”
Lonnie Henley, a former senior U.S. intelligence official and now a George Washington University professor, said he thinks the Chinese government set a goal of being able by 2020 to successfully invade Taiwan, and probably now believes it has succeeded. Oriana Skylar Mastro of Stanford University and the American Enterprise Institute reported in early 2021 that “Chinese military leaders have told me that they will be ready within a year.”
The second factor feeding fears of a cross-strait war is the recent intensification of PLA military pressure on Taiwan. Chinese warplanes flew near Taiwan almost daily in 2020. Up to 37 PLA aircraft at a time flew across the midline of the Taiwan Strait, breaking what was previously a taboo that both sides generally respected. This intimidation has continued into 2021. On one occasion in January, 13 Chinese military aircraft flew through Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. Chinese media said a PLA military exercise near the Taiwan Strait in September 2020 was “not a warning, but a rehearsal for a Taiwan takeover.” Chinese military activity prompted speculation that Beijing was preparing to capture the Pratas Islands, which the Republic of China (ROC) controls but which lie some 250 miles from the main island of Taiwan.
Military analysts say Beijing likely intends this extended period of harassment to weaken not only Taiwan’s morale — by signaling that its people will never be safe until they agree to unification with the PRC — but also Taiwan’s military readiness. The constant incursions force Taiwan to scramble its own aircraft in response, stressing the maintenance capacity of the ROC’s smaller air force.
The third factor contributing to the war anxiety is the perception of a general increase in the aggressiveness of Beijing’s foreign policy. Observers point to China’s violent border clash with India, stiffening Chinese defense of the “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea as a Chinese territorial boundary, and the rise of “wolf warrior” diplomacy. But many observers particularly believe that China’s treatment of Hong Kong has immediate ramifications for Taiwan. One argument is that Beijing’s brazen dismantling of civil liberties in Hong Kong, contravening China’s previous commitment to leave Hong Kong’s political system intact until 2047, makes clear that the Chinese government is not deterred from taking military action against Taiwan by the anticipated negative international reaction. Another argument is that Hong Kong is a harbinger of aggressive PRC action against Taiwan because both are part of the Chinese government’s irredentism project. With Hong Kong now truly subjugated, Taiwan is next because it is, in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the last large piece of unrecovered territory. Finally, some argue the lack of effective U.S. pushback against the Hong Kong clampdown will embolden Beijing to move more forcefully to impose its will on Taipei.
To be sure, the PRC threat to Taiwan has grown steadily, and the trends are still adverse. China’s military budget is estimated at $250 billion annually, compared to only $11 billion for Taiwan. The PLA has 12 times the manpower of the ROC armed forces. Last year the PLA Navy added 25 ships to its fleet, a rate neither Taiwan nor the United States can match.
For Taiwan and its friends, however, the situation is not as dire as portrayed by those warning that Beijing will soon opt for war even in the absence of a major provocation from Taiwan.
For domestic political reasons, China is extremely unlikely to embark on a war of choice against Taiwan in the next year. In February 2022 Beijing will have the opportunity to present itself in the best possible light to a massive international audience when it hosts the Winter Olympics, in which the Chinese government has invested lavishly. A cross-strait war would ruin this party. In October 2022, the CCP will hold its 20th National Party Congress. Xi Jinping will be up for a third term as CCP general secretary. It is hard to imagine Xi starting an unnecessary war with Taiwan prior to his re-appointment because of the high risk that war-related economic and even political turmoil would erode Xi’s popularity.
Even with the PLA’s improved capabilities, military action against Taiwan is an extremely risky proposition for China. An attempted invasion across the strait would involve the largest and most complex amphibious operation in history, and this by a military with no significant combat experience since 1979, when it performed badly in a border war against Vietnam. China could more confidently capture one of the ROC’s smaller outlying islands or impose a blockade on Taiwan’s major ports, but neither of these approaches would guarantee Taipei’s surrender.
Chinese analyst Cui Lei of the China Institute of International Relations recently argued that Chinese leaders feel compelled to maintain an image of toughness toward Taiwan, but have no intention to launch a military attack in the foreseeable future. Cui argued that military action is daunting because Taiwan’s people will not submit without a fight; the United States would help defend Taiwan out of fear of losing U.S. leadership in the region; China is not as militarily strong as the United States; war would cause discontent in China; and the international backlash would derail China’s progress toward modernization.
As is required of any paramount leader in China, Xi affirms his commitment to unification. But how deeply Xi is committed to the objective of making Taiwan a province of the PRC during his tenure is unknown. There are other issue areas where he could strive for accomplishments to bolster his legacy, such as cleaning up and rejuvenating the CCP, presiding over successful restructuring of the Chinese economy, ushering China out of the “middle income trap,” and of course blessing humanity with Xi Jinping Thought.
The notion that Chinese aggressiveness on other fronts presages an attack on Taiwan is questionable. The consequence of that aggressiveness is that China simultaneously suffers from poor or damaged relations with India, Japan (due to the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands dispute), Australia (economic coercion), some of the Southeast Asian states (the South China Sea dispute), and the United States (on several issues). On top of this, China is battling against accelerated economic decoupling, which could slow Chinese economic development. Already dealing with multiple crises in its foreign relations is more likely to give Beijing pause than to encourage the Chinese leadership to initiate an additional, larger crisis. The situations of Hong Kong and Taiwan, their relationships to Beijing, and the PRC’s policies toward them are completely distinct. The imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong is the culmination of political struggle that dates back to 2002 and is disconnected from PLA readiness to go to war with Taiwan.
None of this is reason for complacency. For decades Taiwan has settled for a suboptimal defense capability. But Taiwan no longer has the luxury of underperforming. The ROC military suffers from several serious but fixable problems. Under the Overall Defense Concept announced in 2018, the ROC military will evolve away from small numbers of large, prestigious, and expensive platforms and toward larger numbers of smaller, more independent, and survivable combat units along with more emphasis on mundane but important capabilities such as rapid airfield repair and mine laying and sweeping. Taiwan’s government, however, has met entrenched opposition to these reforms from some senior commanders. Moreover, military effectiveness is limited by unmet recruiting targets, insufficient training of both conscripts and reserves, and ammunition and spare parts shortages. Taiwan’s leaders must explain to their public the need to raise defense spending above the accustomed 2 percent of GNP.
With efficient use of its limited resources, Taiwan can continue to keep the risks of attempting forcible unification unacceptably high for Beijing.
A war scare, rather than actual war, remains the optimal policy for the PRC. The top leadership may see it as a chance to “win without fighting,” and it demonstrates to the Chinese masses and potential political rivals that the Xi government is doing something to prod Taipei toward negotiating unification. Unfortunately for Taiwan’s people, even if the risk of war is low, persistent tension is the best they can hope for.