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Why China Could Decide to Invade Taiwan, and Soon

Asian NATO Coming Soon?
CORAL SEA (July 14, 2019) Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) 3rd Class Ashley Folds, from New York, directs an F/A-18F Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 102 into launch position on the flight deck aboard the Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). Ronald Reagan is participating in Talisman Sabre 2019, which illustrates the closeness of the Australian and U.S. alliance and the strength of the military-to-military relationship. It is the eighth iteration of this exercise. Ronald Reagan, the flagship of Carrier Strike Group 5, provides a combat-ready force that protects and defends the collective maritime interests of its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Janweb B. Lagazo/Released) 190714-N-CL027-1239

On March 23, U.S. Navy Adm. John Aquilino, President Biden’s nominee to be the next Indo-Pacific Command commander, testified during his confirmation hearing that the threat to Taiwan from an increasingly aggressive China is “closer than we think” and that the United States needs to be “prepared today” to defend its longtime ally. The admiral stated his assessment was opinion, not an assertion based on new intelligence or reporting. Indeed, he acknowledged one could only speculate as to when China would attack Taiwan – “today… six years… 2045.” China’s leadership, however, may conclude that the country’s demographic trends present a “now or never” moment.

China’s Demographics Nightmare 

According to United Nations data on the Chinese population, the country will contend with the confluence of two major demographic challenges beginning in 2023.

First, the aging of China. Even as China’s economy is now the world’s largest, numerous scholars have demonstrated how China will likely become old before it becomes rich. China’s economic growth has been unprecedented but it has still resulted in two complementary consequences — rising longevity coupled with a declining fertility rate. However, the Chinese government compounded the latter by enforcing the “one-child policy” from 1980 to 2016.

Accordingly, in one generation China will grow old to a degree it took Europe to age between 1930 and 2030. Between 2023 and 2032, the elderly population aged 60–69 will increase from 158.1 million to 220 million, while the younger population aged 30–39 will decrease from 233 million to 170.3 million during the same period. Unfortunately, China will not have accrued the national wealth or have established commensurate social insurance systems to cope with the eventual number of seniors. More dauntingly, Chinese seniors will have far fewer family members to rely on and will have few employment options that do not entail rigorous physical labor.

Second, the growing surplus of males in China. The “one-child” policy inadvertently prompted families to favor male children which then resulted in unhealthy male-to-female ratios. Consequently, this societal preference will produce a sizable subclass of young males unable to find a wife and start a family; these men are currently known as guang gun-er or “bare branches.” According to United Nations data, the surplus male population in China aged 10–49 will total an estimated 36 million in 2023 and remain above that level for the next decade before beginning to decline again.

Sociologists have demonstrated that young adult men with no stake in society are much more prone to attempt to improve their situation through violent and anti-social behavior in a “strategy of coalitional aggression with other bare branches” (e.g. gangs, crime syndicates, cults, militias). The responses available to the government can be problematic. Either a government attempts to socially re-engineer the population or simply repress it, but the former is too costly and the latter would further harm the country’s international reputation.

The prospect of failing to attain the level of economic development before its elderly population places an unbearable strain on the country’s economy while simultaneously coping with tens of millions of idle and alienated young men may present the vaunted Chinese Communist technocracy with a challenge beyond its capabilities. “At some point, governments [will] consider how they can export their problem, either by encouraging emigration of young adult men or harnessing their energies in martial adventures abroad.”

Since 1989, the population’s continuing acceptance of the nation’s authoritarian leadership is premised principally on the leadership’s ability to sustain high rates of economic growth. Fatefully, however, the leadership has sought to augment its legitimacy by simultaneously appealing to nationalism. If the leadership fails to achieve the necessary economic growth to assure the future of surplus males or the security of an aging population, it will face a grave threat to its legitimacy and may turn to overtly aggressive nationalism as a corrective.

The present governing elite act is extremely anxious and monitors all nationalist outpourings very closely to ensure public anger does not rage out of control. However, in the 2023–2032 period, Chinese leadership may decide whipping up nationalist fervor would be a reasonable gamble. Instead of dealing with the prospect of an aged population foiling economic plans and disaffected bare branches disrupting the domestic peace, the leadership may ultimately decide to rally the nation — validate the Middle Kingdom’s reclamation of great power status or forgo reunification for another century — and make a bid to reclaim Taiwan by force.

What History Says Can Happen: Japan’s World War II Strategy 

A fantastic scenario, but consider the decision by Imperial Japan in 1941 to declare war against the United States despite the overwhelming industrial and military strength of the latter.

Japanese aggression was the root cause of the subsequent war, but the specific decision to attack America in winter 1941 was dictated by national pride and its threatened economic destruction in the form of the oil embargo enacted in June 1941.

The Japanese leadership concluded acceding to American demands was unacceptable as yielding would essentially entail renouncing great power status, which no self-respecting government would ever do. However, to stand still and do nothing would have meant collapse. Indeed, Japanese leaders considered the embargo itself an act of war. Faced with such alternatives, national self-respect will always prevail. “War — even a lost war — was clearly preferable to humiliation.”

Beginning in 2023, the Chinese leadership may conclude the nation is facing the same dilemma with dangerous repercussions for regional peace.

R. Jordan Prescott is a private contractor working in defense and national security since 2002. He has been published in RealClearDefense, The National Interest, Small Wars Journal, and Modern War.

Written By

R. Jordan Prescott is a private contractor working in defense and national security since 2002. He has been published in RealClearDefense, The National Interest, Small Wars Journal, and Modern War

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Wookie

    March 27, 2021 at 9:26 am

    Add to that the election of the bipedal turnip Biden who is clearly anchored on the Chinese teat and war becomes even more likely. Congratulations America – you have done this to yourselves.

  2. Matthew Schilling

    March 27, 2021 at 11:32 am

    Thanks for a great article. We should also consider the aligning of two inconvenient facts: The US has been the repeated victim of sneak attacks in the last 75 years (Pearl Harbor, China in the Korean War, 9/11) while Communist China has successfully used the sneak attack to great advantage in the same timeframe (Korean War, India, Vietnam).

    They’re good at the sneak attack and we’re bad at pre-empting one. China was a Third World nation with a third rate military when they launched their previous three sneak attacks. The dragon has grown large and ornery since then.

  3. Donald Link

    March 27, 2021 at 12:25 pm

    The one thing that would probably hold China back from an invasion of Taiwan is the nature of Taiwan’s probable resistance. US forces in the area are formidable but limited in effect unless nuclear weapons are employed, which no one wants. Had it not been for the incredible blunder that China made in effectively repudiating the Hong Kong agreement, some sort of free association between China and Taiwan was an increasing possibility. That is now a non-starter as long as Xi remains in power. Since he gives every indication that he wants to follow Putin’s example and occupy a lifetime job, the Taiwan situation seems back to square one for an indefinite period.

  4. Brian Foley

    March 27, 2021 at 1:41 pm

    It’s a moronic idea that China might, probably, potentially, maybe invade Taiwan. There are several good reason why the People’s Republic of China will not invade Taiwan; costs, costs and costs. The PRC is not prepared in equipment or manpower to take on a large scale amphibious invasion. The PRC is not prepared to risk the potential of massive casualties either in personnel or equipment. The PRC is not prepared to accept the economic fallout from the global boycott that would ensue, even if it were temporary. Remember, the Chinese economy is retracting, it’s down from double digit growth to a mere five percent, that’s a heavy hit. Combine the costs of material lost in any attempt to take Taiwan and add to that economic sanctions…and the invasion just gets to be too costly. Now, imagine what India might do while China is distracted trying to take Taiwan or what restrictions the Indians might plae of Chinese shipping transiting the Indian Ocean. Now imagine what happens if China doesn’t take Taiwan in one swift action and it degrades into a prolonged fight, weeks or even months. Now paste onto that the potential for guerilla warfare on the part of the occupied Taiwan. It gets really expensive in a hurry.

  5. Russel Nash

    March 27, 2021 at 8:45 pm

    Brian,

    I have to respectfully disagree with your assertion that the PLA is inadequately equipped. In fact, the reality is that they dramatically outnumber us is men and military hardware in all domains. They are also strategically adept. They have been preparing to assume the role as the world’s singular hegemony since 1949. In order for their system to to succeed, they must dominate the global economic system. I suggest you research their 9 stratagems from the warring states period. Sadly, war with China is likely a forgone conclusion at this point and to ignore this fact is a perilous position.

  6. David from San Diego

    March 27, 2021 at 9:41 pm

    If only we could go back to the day Kissinger convinced Nixon to go to China. China was an agrarian basket case with a handful of nukes an no effective delivery systems. Through our foolishness, we have shipped all our manufacturing jobs to China, allowing then to become rich through their own hard work. In the Internet Age, their massive population means hundreds of thousands of brilliant minds who can hack into our systems and steal the fruits of our expensive research and development, as well as military secrets. (Remember the hacking of the Office of Personnel Mgmt.?) They have the largest navy in the world, and have effectively taken over the S. China Sea.

  7. John S

    March 28, 2021 at 5:24 am

    China’s behavior since Harris’s – er, “Biden’s” – election has been alarming. It’s clear they have concluded that the current administration is either pusillanimous, incompetent, or both (they’re right). They’ve also realized that “American diversity” is not, in fact, “‘our strength,” but rather an open wound ripe for exploitation, and have been doing just that to great success (see Chicom IC’s important role in amplifying the racial strife that continues to paralyze our society). The frequent incursions into Taiwan’s airspace represents the first hard-power move in strategy that ends in Taiwan’s occupation. Defense of Taiwan isn’t a matter of “democratic values” (which is a very stupid reason to fight a war), but of national security; Taiwan makes most of the chips we need to maintain global dominance, and if it ends up in the hands of the Chinese, the jig is up. The Biden Administration must immediately cease these pointless FONOP publicity stunts and start flying joint patrols with ROCAF. If it doesn’t have the stomach for that, then we must supply the Taiwanese with the F-35 and anything else they ask for, to include the necessary funds to keep those systems fighting-fit (China’s frequent incursions are designed to tax Taiwan’s ability to keep planes in the air, and it’s working; the Taiwanese have lost several planes to accidents in the last month).

    Maybe we should tell Israel they’ll only be getting two billion dollars a year instead of their regular three, and divert the difference to Taiwan? At least then, we’d be getting something for our money.

    This is what a collapsing empire looks like. The more I get blamed for all of America’s ills past and present, the more I wonder if I, for one, should welcome our Chinese overlords.

  8. Robert Anthony

    March 28, 2021 at 8:23 am

    The U.S. Navy, to the best of my knowledge, keeps approximately 10 nuclear attack submarines and at least one carrier battle group in or around the South China Sea, for at least these three reasons.

    First and foremost, we want to ensure that the shipping lanes through the South China Sea, that constitute 25% of the world’s commercial sea traffic, remain open to every nation.

    Second, we want to maintain the option of preventing a successful invasion of Taiwan by the military forces of the People’s Republic of China. We can best do that by using our nuclear attack submarines to sink any and all military transport ships headed for Taiwan across the Taiwan Straight. Unless the Chinese Communist Party can land large numbers of ground troops on Taiwan, their other forces, air, naval, army airborne, and missile forces, alone, cannot hope to concur Taiwan. Our 10 nuclear attack submarines are fully capable of sending China’s entire land army to the bottom of the South China Sea before any reach Taiwan by sea.

    The waters around Taiwan are relatively shallow so China’s only hope of defeating us would be if they have a highly effective anti-submarine warfare capability, and I doubt that they will ever have that capability.

    Lastly, we want to have the option to successfully carry out a naval blockade of the eastern coast of the Chinese mainland should hostilities increase to the point that we see the need to begin shutting down China’s economy. The economic effects of a naval blockade would begin almost immediately and the effects would become devastating within a matter of weeks or at most a few months. A naval blockade would quickly bring China to its’ proverbial knees, which is why China is building up its’ naval and air assets in an attempt to force us out of the international waters of the South China Sea.

    China’s best hope for successfully invading and concurring Taiwan is for an impaired President Joseph R. Biden Junior to hesitate to deploy U.S. naval assets quickly enough to defend Taiwan since it should take less than an hour for the first Chinese soldiers to begin landing on Taiwan’s shores by sea, and due to his worsening dementia Biden is almost certainly already incapable of any quick and decisive action. He is a dream come true for the Chinese Communist Party, and the clock is ticking since any day Biden could be removed from office through the provisions of the 25th amendment since Biden is already sufficiently disabled mentally.

    So the greatest danger of invasion for Taiwan will be when it becomes obvious to the world that Biden’s days in office are becoming numbered.

  9. John Stuart

    March 28, 2021 at 10:18 pm

    Dementia Joe is bought and paid for by the CCP, and his “election” was rigged by the CCP. Xi would be a fool if he didn’t invade before Trump is re-elected in 2024.

  10. Ray Bednarcik

    March 29, 2021 at 7:48 am

    Not likely to physically invade because the US is destroying itself from within. The last thing they would need is to provide a rallying issue for the American people. CCP will use soft power to isolate the country. It’s an island surrounded by water within easy striking distance of CCP bombers and fighters whose Navy could easily blockade the island. Taiwan is much like Cuba… UN has recognized Taiwan as part of the CCP and will not defend the country. So would the US go it alone to break a blockade…Not likely based on what happened with Hong Kong

  11. Tony

    March 29, 2021 at 8:34 am

    China attacks Guam as a precursor to invading Taiwan. The US demands NATO invoke Article 5, as Guam is a territory of the US. NATO refuses (of course), the US withdraws from the NATO treaty, leading to Russia invading Eastern Europe. In the chaos, Taiwan is overwhelmed, and Europe is in disarray.

  12. Thomas Mazowiesky

    March 29, 2021 at 12:19 pm

    I have to agree that China would have a difficult time invading Taiwan, as they are very limited in landing craft. They’ve got 20 of a type that can land 150 troops. Compare that with a WW2 LCVP which landed 36 troops. 20 Chinese LC would be equivalent to 84 of the LCVPs. That’s no where near enough landing craft to assault Taiwan.

  13. Al Smith

    March 30, 2021 at 4:54 am

    The key to a successful invasion of Taiwan is sustainability. It will not be a walkover for the PRC; it will take time to fully subdue Taiwan. So, in turn, it will be vital to suppress and fragment any “anti-PRC” coalition that might reinforce the defenders. Look for the following to happen in the run up to “D-Day”.
    1-Massive, unprecedented hacking attacks against Western financial institutions, power grids and infrastructure. The media will label these as being “unattributed”, but they will originate from Russia, the PRC, Iran and the DPRK.
    2-The sudden appearance of a new, vaccine resistant strain(s) of COVID.
    3-Multiple western politicians (fully compromised by China) calling for a “hands off” approach.
    4-Western businessmen placed in “protective custody” within the PRC, in effect becoming hostages.
    5-Mainstream media outlets relentlessly hammering a narrative emphasizing the risks of resistance to the PRC invasion. The goal is to panic the populations of anti-PRC coalition countries.
    “Dry-runs”, on a reduced scale, of each of these strategies have already occurred, and successfully validated the effectiveness of each.

  14. David Dunn

    April 1, 2021 at 5:08 am

    I can’t imagine Japan doesn’t intervene. If China were to when how could Japan defend itself. Japan’s major shipping lanes would be easily cut by China. Japan has a very formidable air force and particularly navy. My guess is that if China were to begin massing for an invasion in the 90 day or so advance preparation that satellite would pick up Japan would spring to action and amend it’s constitution and then China would have to choose whether to invade and lose or whether to back down. Either would not be good for the CCP. Japan often reacts very slowly until it has to and then it acts quickly. Japans military assets are close whereas U.S. assets are far away. Japan probably figures it need not announce it’s intentions at this time and unduly damage it’s relations with China over a potential future issue, however if push came to shove Japan would have to protect it’s own issues and come to Taiwan’s aid.

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