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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

Is A Chinese Military Attack on Taiwan Inevitable?

China-Taiwan Tensions
A Chengdu J-10 fighter of the People's Liberation Army Air Force.

Even though some commentators are confident that the chance of war between China and Taiwan is remote[1], the odds of military action are growing by the day. In large part because Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping has publicly vowed, again and again, to wrench control of the island from its inhabitants.

He also may have set a deadline, amplifying the pressure. It is less clear when that deadline falls. Party leaders routinely cite 2049, the centennial of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, as the date when the national rejuvenation project[2]  must be complete.[3]

Earlier this year, however, outgoing US Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Phil Davidson told Congress that Beijing might move against Taiwan far earlier than the centennial – perhaps within the next six years (closer to five now).[4] China-watchers have taken to calling this interval the “Davidson window”, meaning China’s window of opportunity to seize this prime real estate.

A leader who makes a promise in public had better keep it. Xi has deployed an extreme form of the ‘commitment tactic’ championed by the late Harvard economist Thomas Schelling.[5] To oversimplify a trifle, the commitment tactic is often on display when parties to a negotiation engage in ‘hard bargaining’ over fixed demands.

Union bosses, for instance, sometimes state their positions in uncompromising fashion at the outset of talks. In doing so negotiators deliberately take away their freedom to compromise – and demonstrate to all parties that they will not flinch under stress. If they do, they lose face.

Similarly, Xi Jinping must act lest a wrathful Chinese populace hold him accountable for failing to keep his pledge to regain every inch of ground once ruled by dynastic China.

Xi Jinping’s options

Let us go through his options in broad terms. First, Beijing would doubtless prefer to win without fighting, true to Chinese strategic traditions.[6] That is not because party magnates harbour scruples over using violence, or goodwill towards Taiwan. It is because aggressors love peace.[7] A bloodless triumph lets them get their way while sparing them the dangers, hardships, and costs of war.

But it is increasingly doubtful that Taiwan will capitulate without warfare. Polls reveal that an overpowering majority of islanders now define themselves not as Chinese but as Taiwanese.[8] As a corollary, they reject the legitimacy of the mainland’s claim to be their rightful sovereign.

Nor is Beijing helping its cause by meddling in the island’s domestic politics. Xi sometimes cosies up to leaders of Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), one of the island’s major parties. He recently sent newly elected KMT chairman Eric Chu a letter of congratulations in which he called on the KMT and CCP to work together on a “shared political basis” to achieve “the unification of the country.”[9] In remarks following his election, Chu vowed to “rebuild cross-Taiwan Strait exchange platforms and communication channels”.[10] That is a less-than-robust stand on behalf of Taiwan’s de facto independence.

One imagines the ruling, independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will remind the electorate of such cross-strait overtures again and again come election time – and, in all likelihood, prevail at the ballot box yet again.[11] The Chinese Communist Party is an adversary that routinely threatens to extinguish Taiwan’s political existence and brandishes the sabre to accent its threats.[12]

Chu missed a good chance to distance the KMT from the dark future Beijing envisions imposing on Taiwan. And Xi missed a good opportunity to keep silent and trust to the island’s politics to work in China’s favour.

Although this appears less and less likely. Compounding Beijing’s self-defeating actions, Taiwanese closely monitor events in places like Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Over the past year Hong Kong has seen personal liberty crushed under the pretence of protecting Chinese national security.[13] Xinjiang is the site of an ongoing cultural genocide.[14]

Beijing craves a short, sharp, decisive war should it decide to launch an assault

Taiwanese know a similar fate would befall them should they consent to mainland rule. As a result, cowing Taipei into submission is a long shot for Beijing and getting longer all the time. Xi stands little chance of winning without fighting before the Davidson window slams shut.

Second, should the mainland leadership opt to use force, it might resort to peripheral air or sea campaigns meant to impoverish and demoralise Taiwan’s populace into submission while enfeebling the island’s military. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy could mount a close or distant blockade of merchant shipping bound to or from the island, starving the island of natural-resource imports and the prosperity that comes with seaborne trade. The PLA Air Force and Rocket Force could bombard critical infrastructure to cripple the Taiwanese armed forces and government.

Taken alone, though, such a strategy probably would not subdue the island on Xi Jinping’s timetable. Beijing craves a short, sharp, decisive war should it decide to launch an assault. Otherwise friends of Taiwan, notably the United States and Japan, might have time to rally to reverse aggression.

Naval blockades and air offensives are the diametric opposite of short wars. These are incremental, slow-moving strategies. They make valuable supplements to more direct campaigns, chiefly those on dry land, and PLA commanders would undoubtedly use them in conjunction with a cross-strait amphibious assault.

They are unlikely to prove decisive in themselves.

Sequential versus cumulative military strategies

The masters of strategy agree. US Navy admiral J. C. Wylie divides military strategies into two broad categories: “sequential” and “cumulative.”[15] For him sequential strategies are straightforward: an armed force undertakes tactical actions in sequence, one after the other, until its final goal is in hand.

Each battle or engagement comes after the one before it in time and space. It is shaped by its predecessors and shapes the encounters that come after. Sequential strategies can typically be depicted on the map or nautical chart with a continuous line or curve pointing to the final objective.

The Allied drive across Western Europe into Germany in 1944-1945 was a quintessential sequential campaign,[16] as were the Central and South Pacific offensives against Japan.[17] They brought Allied forces to the Axis’ door, where they could compel unconditional surrender.

Cumulative strategies are scattershot by contrast. Small-scale tactical actions happen all over the place, and they are unconnected to one another in time or space. No action accomplishes much in itself; taken in aggregate, they can wear down an antagonist over time, depriving it of manpower and war-making implements.

Admiral Wylie maintains that cumulative strategies are not winning strategies. They are difference-makers in contests between evenly matched foes. Wylie classifies air campaigns and naval blockades as cumulative strategies.

The Second World War combined a bomber offensive against Germany[18] and a submarine campaign against Japan[19], both archetypal cumulative ventures. Neither defeated the Axis powers; both hastened their defeat.

Wars are won and lost on land

Nautical historian Sir Julian Corbett agrees with Wylie that naval operations are seldom decisive in their own right. For Corbett this is self-evident: “It scarcely needs saying that it is almost impossible that a war can be decided by naval action alone. Unaided, naval pressure can only work by a process of exhaustion. Its effects must always be slow, and so galling both to our own commercial community and to neutrals”, that they are inconclusive.[20] Such measures might exhaust a seagoing foe over time, but marine blockades are as apt to affront friends as to overcome enemies.

Chinese leaders are strategically competent. In all likelihood they understand they cannot score the quick knockout punch they need by applying air and sea power alone. In the end, a sequential blow constitutes the only way to wrest contested ground from its occupants in a hurry.

How can Taiwan and its unofficial allies prepare for a sudden onslaught?

Wylie and Corbett concur that wars are won and lost on land, not at sea or aloft. Humanity lives on land; therefore great affairs of state are settled there. Air and sea power contribute to the war effort by moulding the terrestrial fight to one’s advantage and the opponent’s disadvantage.

The process of elimination, then, leaves a cross-strait amphibious assault as the PLA’s sole strategic option if it hopes to prevail without prolonged warfare. How can Taiwan and its unofficial allies prepare for a sudden onslaught? By designing strategy and forces that deny China the speedy victory it covets while invoking the spectre of defeat in CCP minds.

Xi Jinping may have put himself on a deadline to gain control of Taiwan, whether peacefully or through conquest. The logic of Schelling’s commitment tactic makes failing to try to uphold the commitment nigh on unthinkable. But an even worse outcome for Xi than inaction is conceivable. What if the PLA does act, and loses?

Taiwan cannot afford to run an arms race with its giant neighbour. The good news is that it does not need to

Postponing cherished aims until more promising times is bad enough. It makes an authoritarian leader look weak and feckless in the eyes of the populace. Fighting and losing is worse. It proves to the populace that their leader is weak and feckless. Patriotic fury might lash the Chinese Communist Party – perhaps, in the extreme case, bringing down CCP rule.

That is the spectre Taiwanese and allied martial preparations should conjure in the minds of Xi and his lieutenants. Doubt and dread are the island’s friends. They translate into deterrence. Deter Beijing day by day for enough days in a row, and good things may happen in East Asia.

Simple, right? But as martial grandmaster Carl von Clausewitz notes: everything in strategy is simple, “but the simplest thing is difficult”.[7] That’s doubly true here. Taiwan cannot afford to run an arms race with its giant neighbour.

Taiwan’s strategy

The good news is that it does not need to. Taiwan’s armed forces need not and must not try to match the PLA ship for ship, plane for plane, and tank for tank to construct a force capable of stymieing an amphibious invasion. What they need to acquire are weapon systems capable of dodging the brunt of a Chinese aerial assault while striking back hard at shipping in the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere around the island’s perimeter.

Taiwan must make itself a porcupine to withstand coercion or attack.[21]

Happily, the porcupine’s quills are cheap and thus affordable in bulk. On shore, mobile anti-ship missile batteries can shift around to evade PLA strikes while lobbing firepower at lumbering transports ferrying troops and matériel across the strait. Taipei must procure them in the largest number possible.

At sea, the Taiwan Navy must accept that it can no longer win command of the sea in a major battle against the PLA Navy.[22] But it does not need to. The navy merely needs to deny China control of the sea to balk a cross-strait offensive.[23] This is feasible and affordable even on Taipei’s modest budget.

Last year Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen instituted a program aimed at building an indigenous diesel submarine force for combat in the strait.[24] This may prove to be a good move over the long haul, but it takes time to assemble the infrastructure and expertise to construct an entirely new ship type.

The pressure on Xi Jinping to act is mounting by the day

In the meantime Taipei should double down on acquisitions of sea mines, still among the most lethal armaments against shipping, especially in confined waters like the Taiwan Strait. Also invaluable are small, stealthy, fleet-of-foot surface patrol craft packed with anti-ship missiles.[25]

Military commanders, then, should gear their preparations to fending off a cross-strait attack. They should also ponder how to help allied forces reach the combat theatre without suffering debilitating damage. Keeping down the costs of intervention to the United States and other potential defenders will make it more palatable for Washington and other capitals to order their armed forces into action.

In short, the pressure on Xi Jinping to act is mounting by the day. He needs to deliver a quick triumph to avert potential catastrophe. By making wise strategy and preparing their forces, however, Taiwan and its benefactors can deny him that short war while dangling the prospect of defeat and disaster before him. And they can prosper amid turbulent times.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, U.S. Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone. This piece first appeared in Clingendael Spectator, Netherlands Institute of International Relations, Clingendael House, The Hague.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. Slack

    October 6, 2021 at 3:33 pm

    Definitely, or very likely (due to ceaseless and direct foreign meddling), BUT china should never follow USMC gungho style warfare.

    Taiwan is strictly an internal chinese affair, foreign interference, instructions and demands are seen as obscene or vulgar. You don’t order japan to listen to okinawan demands, or US to stop police shooting black and latino suspects.

    However, it would be a terrible error to stage US-style iraqi freedom operation on taiwan. Cutting off air links is wiser.

    If push comes to shove, china still has options, like ground missile strikes against targets to extreme methods like EMP or neutron strikes.

    Recent sabre rattling is due to arms sales, visits and vulgar offensive statements by jap, aussie, euro and US politicians. China had NOT even moved against near shore islands like matsu, why want to whack taiwan now. There’s a lot of trade between both, people go to mainland for jobs, investments and tours, people have friends and blood relatives either side of the strait. Why war.

    But western nations and unrepentant tokyo see interfering on taiwan as their inalienable right, and this is the root of all the trouble.

  2. Jimmy John Doe

    October 6, 2021 at 4:23 pm

    Nobody should launch a ground-based onslaught against taiwan. Anyone STUPID enough to do so MUST be put in jail.

    US operation iceberg against okinawa resulted in nearly HALF the civilian pop sent to the pearly gates, but of course this has never bothered US military.

    As for Xi, he needs to be put BEHIND BARS for the current ongoing covid pandemic that has claimed lives of over 700,000 US citizens and almost 5 million worldwide.

  3. Commentar

    October 6, 2021 at 4:33 pm

    Xi deserves to be behind bars. With a small forehead, thick lips and a speaking drawl that sounds like coming from a rural village animatronic pomposity, he is so very much like mohamed morsi of egypt.

  4. NorEastern

    October 7, 2021 at 7:46 am

    The confines of the Taiwan Straits is the perfect operating theater for US Virginia class subs. At 21k square miles there is plenty of room for shoot and scoot tactics, and only circumstantial evidence will ever be found of their presence. Xi’s calculus covering an invasion of Taiwan is extremely complex to say the least.

  5. Ted Peters

    October 7, 2021 at 8:07 am

    A Dr. Strangelove Doomsday Device would do the trick. Just have it triggered to launch a full nuke barrage at CCP military assets upon any attack on Taiwan. Oh! And don’t forget to tell Xi that it exists.

  6. Irwin Fletch

    October 7, 2021 at 9:02 am

    Last, but certainly not least, loosen private firearm restrictions and encourage responsible personal gun ownership. I know that might be a significant paradigm shift for the country, but the threat is existential, wars are won and lost on land, and an armed citizenry would prevent a quick knock out blow.

  7. Brian Foley

    October 7, 2021 at 11:13 am

    It is not inevitable that Mainland China will attack Taiwan and for obvious reasons. The first is military; there’s little doubt that the PRC could eventually over run Taiwan, but at what cost ? Anyone who tells you that a PRC invasion of Taiwan will be a “cake walk” isn’t credible enough to take seriously. There’s an old adage in diplomacy; “If it isn’t absolutely necessary to do a thing then it is absolutely necessary not to do that thing”. This adage sums up the PRC’s attitude towards a military intervention against Taiwan. In a “Risk versus Benefit Ratio Test” the PRC loses, even if they win. The international repercussions from an invasion of Taiwan would be significant, particularly at a time when the PRC’s economy is retracting (from 12% growth to 6% growth). There’s is also the probability that Taiwan puts up a good fight and even US/Australia/Japan intervention….so where’s the gain for the PRC ? There’s the possibility of the PRC attacking Taiwan sometime in the distant future but that would depend on either a significant improvement in China’s economy or significant provocation on the part of Taiwan…otherwise it ain’t happening.

  8. Chris Cha

    October 7, 2021 at 11:34 am

    “Similarly, Xi Jinping must act lest a wrathful Chinese populace hold him accountable for failing to keep his pledge to regain every inch of ground once ruled by dynastic China.”

    Really? A severe energy shortage has many in China using candles and flashlights, with a shivering cold winter awaiting many. China’s real estate market is approaching meltdown, and their ever-present food shortage is about to get much worse with factories shutting down for lack of energy.

    Hard to believe that the average Chinese citizen really gives a crap about a small island most of them have never visited.

  9. Mike Danger

    October 7, 2021 at 11:49 am

    Slack:

    Sorry but no… China must never be allowed to take Taiwan. Taking Taiwan means taking TSM which means China will corner the market on computer chips and hold the rest of the world hostage.

  10. DavidC

    October 7, 2021 at 12:06 pm

    Hmm, has the PLA ever done an Iwo Jima in their entire history?

    The Americans used 4 amphibious command ships, 12 aircraft carriers, 17 escort carriers, 14 battleships, 4 hospital ships, 10 cruisers, 40 destroyers, 9 troop transports, numerous attack transports, attack cargo ships, landing ships, landing crafts, mine sweepers etc to invade Iwo Jima. A grand total of over 600 ships were used to unload 70,000 marines and equipment. The Americans had absolute air superiority or naval dominance while all this was happening.

    What does the PLAN have to invade Taiwan?

  11. JSMIII

    October 7, 2021 at 2:47 pm

    Even if you assume that the US, Japan and other allies stand aside, military invasion of Taiwan is extremely risky for the PRC. They have never conducted an operation of this scale and complexity in their nations entire history. They may have the firepower and manpower to successfully land on the island and gain a foothold. The problem then shifts to the massive logistics to supply those forces. Aircraft and Shipping become ripe targets as they cross the strait. The destruction of a few of the right vehicles will wreak havoc on the logistics. As General Patton’s Third Army, among many others will tell you, running out of Ammunition or Fuel with stop an army as sure as a full set of anti-tank weapons. People have often criticized the US military for a low Tooth-to-tail ratio but having strong logistics capacity has generally served the US military well.
    Can China support the forces needed to subdue Taiwan. Very risky. The low risk option is massive bombardment but then you capture an island which will only be worthwhile as a stepping stone to further conquests. All the dead engineers, scientists, advanced factories which make Taiwan a desireable prize otherwise will be wiped out.

  12. L.T. Miller

    October 7, 2021 at 3:28 pm

    Is A Chinese Military Attack on Taiwan Inevitable?

    No, not even likely and becoming less so by the day despite sabre-rattling. With authoritarian, communist regimes the more intense the rhetoric the weaker the hand.

  13. Lepke Buchalter

    October 7, 2021 at 3:52 pm

    Hitler never started a war with countries he thought were strong. Japan attacked the US because of perceived weakness and their fleet out numbered the US Pacific Fleet at the time. Italy attacked countries thought to offer little resistance.
    The point is, aggressors attack weaker nations. Strength is a deterrence. The more Taiwan and the Quad build their defenses, the faster the window closes for the CCP to take Taiwan. But the attack will happen while Biden is president because the CCP views him as weak. The countries backing Taiwan need to increase their military capabilities now, not in 5 or 10 years.

  14. Geo

    October 7, 2021 at 7:15 pm

    One missing component of this analyses. China is dying. They are at the peak of their power and influence, in the days weeks and years to come they will grow only weaker. A financial collapse is imminent – it may be weeks, or months away, but certainly not decades. Their recipe for growth has reached it’s limit.
    Biden is viewed as weak and dithering. In three years we may have a stronger president.

    Taiwan is strengthening defenses – it gets harder to invade each year that passes.

    China’s median age is trending upward, their population is trending downward. The also have a large surplus of unwed males, males without much future as the Chinese economy slowly fails. They haven’t figured that out, but will soon.

    When dictators are pushed to the wall they tend to roll the dice – It is why Japan started WWII. If Xi can pull out a win in Taiwan, great. If it costs him 250,000 male casualties, no worries – there are too many young men in China anyway. If it causes an economic depression? Well, one is coming anyway. Better to face it as the conqueror of Taiwan.

    He could also split the difference – retake Kinmen and Matsu Islands and call it a day. My guess is that is what he’ll do.

  15. Brad Mueller

    October 7, 2021 at 8:28 pm

    If China can convince itself that the United States is weak – which it is under the current administration-and that we, the US won’t intervene- which under the current administration it won’t- then China will definitely invade.

  16. Joe Snuffy

    October 7, 2021 at 8:36 pm

    This article makes sense. I don’t see the US going to war with China over Taiwan. I liked that the last administration provided military support to Taiwan so they can defend themselves. It wouldn’t take much to make attacking Taiwan more painful than it is worth. Taiwan certainly should not count on President Biden to support them in an armed conflict with China. But don’t underestimate how much the CCP wants Taiwan for its own propaganda/political purposes. Wars are not fought for war’s sake. They are fought for POLITICAL ends. As Clausewitz said (paraphrase) “War is a mere continuation of policy by other means.”

  17. Bob

    October 7, 2021 at 10:28 pm

    @Brad Mueller

    So within the next 4 years, if Taiwan has not been invaded then your assessment was wrong. Or will you find some other excuse by then?

  18. Zheng Huh?

    October 8, 2021 at 3:50 am

    Well , Slack/Song chi, you may not endorse “USMC Gung Ho” tactics, yet the PLA stooped to Stone Age antics using spiked clubs on Indian troops in the Himalayas. You folks just can’t play nice with your neighbors. China’s hubris and aggression is the seed of all this “meddling” in your so called internal affairs.

  19. Mario DeLosa

    October 8, 2021 at 9:21 am

    Jap! Wow Slack! Seriously? “Western nations and unrepentant tokyo see interfering on taiwan as their inalienable right, and this is the root of all the trouble.” Seriously? So, Xi Jin Ping’s screwing of Hong Kong while breaking agreements had nothing to do with Taiwanese suspicions that maybe, just maybe, the PRC would screw them as well? Really? I don’t know what kind of ganja you are smoking but you really should take it easy with that stuff!

  20. BP

    October 16, 2021 at 10:52 pm

    How many in the USA would be willing to die or have their children die in a civil war between the two Chineses ?.

  21. BP

    October 16, 2021 at 10:57 pm

    How many people in USA are willing to die or have their children die in a civil war between the two Chinese ?

    There are tens of millions of them in mainland China who are willing to fight for the cause.

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