In March, Chinese President Xi Jinping threatened Taiwan with the “punishment of history” for its resistance against absorption by the Chinese Communist Party, which for decades has eyed the island eagerly across the Taiwan Strait.
It seems all that now stands between China and the regime’s desire to drag Taiwan under its direct control is the strength of America’s hand, which Beijing may soon force Washington to show. Taiwan and U.S. allies in Asia hope America isn’t bluffing.
“Any actions and tricks to split China are doomed to failure and will meet with the people’s condemnation and the punishment of history,” Xi said, using common Chinese rhetoric framing the island’s independence as unacceptable “separatist” behavior.
China’s meteoric rise has put fresh attention on Taiwan and its 23.5 million residents, the island standing as a liberal democratic middle finger to the authoritarianism of the CCP next door.
The island has been independent since the end of the Chinese Civil War, serving as the last bastion of the defeated nationalist forces. The CCP has since repeatedly vowed to take control, fulfilling its “One China” policy by force if necessary.
The stand-off puts Taiwan on the front line of the simmering U.S.-China conflict.
Washington, D.C. has long pursued “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan. It does not officially recognize the country, but successive administrations and Congresses have supported the island with arms deals and military deployments.
U.S. warships regularly transit the Taiwan Strait and warplanes skirt the island, much to the chagrin of Beijing.
Taiwan is one of the potential flashpoints that could see the cold U.S.-China confrontation turn hot. U.S. deterrence has helped prevent war for decades, but an increasingly confident and capable China is constantly re-evaluating the military balance.
Admiral Philip S. Davidson, the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that China “has adopted an increasingly assertive military posture to exert pressure and expand its influence across the region,” a posture that is “particularly stark concerning Taiwan.”
“Over the past year, Beijing has pursued a coordinated campaign of diplomatic, informational, economic, and—increasingly—military tools to isolate Taipei from the international community and if necessary, compel unification,” Davidson said.
This includes flying nuclear-capable bombers around the island and regularly sending planes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone at the highest rate in almost 25 years.
China’s recent focus on “highly-publicized amphibious assault training,” Davidson added, is designed “almost certainly to exert pressure and signal resolve.”
Davidson noted Xi’s vow to turn China into a global power by 2050: “I’m worried about them moving that target close. Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before that, and I think the threat is manifest during this decade; in fact, in the next six years.”
Any Chinese invasion would have to either deter or defeat U.S. intervention or be so fast that the Americans are unable to render sufficient defensive support to Taiwan.
Tensions with China—particularly during the coronavirus pandemic—have sharpened American concerns about Beijing’s pressure on Taiwan, plus its human rights abuses in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong.
Biden has vowed to be tough on Beijing, doing his best to dodge criticism from the right on his perceived hesitation to take on the CCP. His administration has not pulled punches so far, readily raising human rights abuses, trade, and other grievances with Chinese officials.
The frosty Anchorage bilateral summit spoke to both sides’ desire to project strength and defend national values. Chinese leaders have urged cooperation but warned of consequences if America crosses its red lines.
A successful assault on Taiwan would be a huge blow for the U.S. and its regional network of allies and partners. China would have shown itself strong enough to take what it wanted despite opposition from its democratic rivals.
It would also mark the first loss of a conflict for the U.S. against the modern Chinese military, lending weight to the characterization of an empire in decline preoccupied with internal division and no longer able to project power worldwide.
American rivals like North Korea would be buoyed, and allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia left questioning the value of American protection.
Davidson told senators last month: “Our posture in the region must be demonstrative of the capabilities that the United States could and would bring to bear in a crisis…what we’re trying to do is every day that China gets out of bed and peels back the curtain and sees the United States and its allied and partner network out there in the Western Pacific assuring its own access, that it thinks, ‘I don’t want to mess with that capability.'”
Isolate and Digest Taiwan
Hung Tzu-Chieh, an assistant research fellow at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research, told Newsweek that any attempted Chinese takeover of the island would most likely “combine military invasion and political negotiation.”
“China’s goal is to unify with Taiwan, so China is likely to put pressure on the Taiwan government in several different stages of military attacks, forcing the Taiwan government to negotiate on the terms of unification,” Hung said.
Su Tzu-yun, the director of the INDSR’s Division of Defense Strategy and Resource, said China’s best hope from a military perspective is a “blitzkrieg” of the island, adding that an offensive would include “cyber storms” and use civilian ferries alongside roll-on roll-off ships, making it easier to deploy armored vehicles and heavier equipment.
It is unclear how long Taiwan could hold out against a Chinese attack, with or without American support.
Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said last month Taiwanese forces will fight “for as many days as China wants to fight,” while former Defense Minister Feng Shih-kuan estimated the island could hold out for around a week.
“This one may be the most sensitive question in Taiwan,” Hung said.
Su said Taiwan “will defend until the end,” adding that the complexities of amphibious operations offer the defenders a “great opportunity” to exploit Chinese vulnerabilities.
Still, without external support, the island is up against it. “Taiwan’s defense plan is designed to be the worst-case scenario, that is to defend itself alone without foreign aid,” Su said.
The fastest U.S. military support would be from forces stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa, he said, some 454 miles away. They could arrive within an hour, while other U.S. forces mobilized from other locations.
U.S. military support would both help repel a Chinese attack and also carry a potent political message, perhaps even undermining support for the CCP at home.
China’s People’s Liberation Army has invested heavily in weapons designed to control its surrounding waters and to project Chinese control across East Asia.
Aircraft carriers, submarines, hypersonic missiles, electronic warfare, fighter jets, and bombers will all make it more difficult for American forces to enter and operate in the Taiwan Strait and surrounding areas.
Chinese strategic thinking focuses on anti-access and area denial, a defensive strategy to stop the U.S. from gaining any meaningful foothold.
“In addition to virtual cyberspace and electronic warfare interference, the physical space will rely on anti-shipping ballistic missiles and submarines will play an important role,” Su said. “The main goal is to isolate the Taiwan battlefield and digest Taiwan.”
As time passes, China’s rapidly-modernizing military becomes a greater threat to the U.S. Beijing wants to dominate its neighborhood and is investing heavily in its navy, air force, and defense capabilities to do so.
“Time is on China’s side,” Hung said. “China’s military power continues to grow stronger, and thus it may relatively weaken U.S. military advantage in East Asia.”
But America’s military lead is a big one to overcome.
The U.S. still has far and away the largest military budget on earth, and its leading ships, aircraft and other weapons are at the forefront of modern technology. “The current U.S. military still has an advantage,” Hung explained.
Su noted that America isn’t standing still. “China’s military power is advancing fast, but the U.S. military is also advancing faster,” he said.
An Empire in Decline?
A U.S. defense official who did not wish to be named told Newsweek that American forces assess capacity, capability, and likelihood when it comes to considering a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
“The PLA’s capacity continues to grow rapidly and is increasingly to their advantage,” the official said, while Chinese forces “are increasingly becoming more sophisticated in their training design and execution, integrating different pieces to train as a joint force.”
Likelihood of action is the hardest to assess, the official said. Lack of any real consequences for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet, plus territorial disputes along the border with India and in the South China Sea and East China Sea “increasingly emboldens” China.
The official also noted that 2027 could be an important year as the interim milestone for PLA modernization—representing an eight-year acceleration from the previous 2035 target—and as the end of Xi’s expected third term.
That year will also mark the centenary of the PLA, an anniversary the defense official said “could become very important psychologically in the equation of the Taiwan problem.”
The biggest barrier to a Chinese invasion remains political stability at home. Beijing remains committed to its “One China” policy, and top officials have not hesitated to threaten invasion to bring Taiwan into the Communist Party fold.
But such an operation would be risky and has no guarantee of success.
“The major goal of the CCP is to maintain its rule in China,” Hung said. “If the CCP’s ruling legitimacy will be shaken when invading Taiwan, then the possibility of an invasion will be reduced.”
Failure could puncture Chinese nationalism, a potent weapon for President Xi Jinping and the CCP. Of course, success would be a boon for the CCP and further entrench its control.
“If an invasion will increase the legitimacy of its rule, then the possibility will increase,” Hung said.
“China is not sure of victory,” Su said. Taiwan has spent decades preparing for an asymmetrical confrontation, focusing on air defense missiles and anti-tank missiles for both armored vehicles and landing craft.
“This asymmetrical investment makes it difficult for the PLA to successfully land to get a foothold,” Su said. Taipei will not be caught by surprise.
For all these reasons, some experts are skeptical that Beijing would risk an invasion.
“I think the least likely scenario is a full-out military invasion,” Robert Manning of the Atlantic Council told Newsweek. “I think they have dozens of ways they can coerce Taiwan in a kind of an attrition strategy without using force. And I think those are more likely to happen.”
The CCP won’t find much international sympathy if it starts a war over Taiwan, and not all Chinese citizens will back a fresh conflict. “Even in a conventional military scenario I think Chinese strategy is to force the U.S. to be the ones that escalate,” Manning said.
“In the attrition strategy, it’s even more difficult because the U.S. would be put in a position of taking military action, where the Chinese have not done so. That’s a tough call for any president.”
Still, there is a pervasive belief in Beijing that the wheel of history is elevating China back to supremacy, with the U.S. headed the other way. Such a worldview risks conflict.
“They seem to have adopted this view pretty widely that the U.S. is in terminal decline and this is China’s moment,” Manning said.
“Underestimating the United States can be a dangerous game, and you have to worry about miscalculation.
“You underestimate American resilience at your peril. And I know there are a handful of America-watchers in China that have been arguing this, but I don’t think they are prevailing right now.”