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Yes, China Could Invade Taiwan

Would China Invade Taiwan
Image: Chinese Internet.

On October 1, China celebrated its National Day by sending fighter jets, bombers, and other warplanes in menacing formations off the southern end of Taiwan. The flights continued day and night for the following four days, with one massive formation of 56 planes testing Taiwan’s air defenses on October 3.

In a speech during this mock “air assault,” Chinese President Xi Jinping described Taiwan independence as a “grave lurking threat to national rejuvenation” and insisted that, while China wanted peaceful unification, “nobody should underestimate the staunch determination, firm will and powerful ability of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty.”

The immediate reaction in Taiwan of these provocations was bolstering political support for President Tsai Lin-wen. But Taiwanese leadership is worried.

On the mainland, Xi Jinping is promoting his “Common Prosperity” plan, calculated to appeal to the 600 million citizens surviving on estimated incomes of less than $1,700 a year. One primary strategy for achieving this goal will be redistributing the hundreds of billions of dollars that have accumulated in the bank accounts of the country’s billionaire class and on the books of corporations, particularly those in high tech and real estate.

But what might happen to Xi’s popularity and the Peoples’ Republic Communist Party (PRCP) if this campaign fails?

Thanks to social media, China’s population today is far better-informed today on economic and international issues. The Chinese people are notoriously patient, but if the Chinese economy does not continue to roll out advertised benefits, President Xi will need other achievements to maintain popular support.

The great danger is that these alternative achievements could be military. A massive buildup, particularly in naval and missile forces, has given the Peoples’ Liberation Army a new edge in the South China Sea, the Luzon Strait, and even the broader Western Pacific. If regime survival becomes tenuous at home, XI may choose to roll the military dice—possibly even with an attempt to conquer Taiwan.

I’ve seen something similar happen before.  In the early 1980s, during my tour as Ambassador to the Organization of American States, Argentine President Leopoldo Galtieri decided to invade the Falkland Islands (which the Argentinians claimed belonged to them). For internal political reasons and to deflect the attention of his mismanagement of the economy, Galtieri felt the invasion would strengthen his standing at home. Of course, as it turned out, he underestimated the uncompromising determination of the handbag-waving Margaret Thatcher, who promptly dispatched the British Fleet to a successful rescue of the Falklands. Shortly thereafter, Galtieri was out.

Taiwan could find itself in a similar situation – in which case, its status as a democracy, its strategic position along the first island chain off China’s east coast, as well as its hard-earned technology prowess make it well-worth preserving.

“This really is the grimmest time I’ve seen in my more than 40 years working in the military,” Taiwan Minister of Defense Chiu Kuo-Cheng recently said. He went on to predict that, though an invasion now would exact a high—and presumably unacceptable—price from Beijing, the time will come when China’s military modernization drive will produce a capability that will lower that cost to a level Chinese leadership will judge acceptable.

Other experts have concluded that China’s military power has already reached the point that a conquest of Taiwan is not only conceivable but even tempting to Beijing. They also note that, as much as the Taiwanese people may be resistant to unification with China, U.S. military dominance in the area, and its ability to protect the island, is steadily eroding.

China, the U.S., and Taiwan are now caught in a “vicious spiral,” according to Jia Qingguo, a professor of international relations at Peking University who advises the Chinese government. “The process of vicious interactions between Taipei, Beijing, and Washington resembles the forming of a perfect storm.”

Presiding over what is undoubtedly China’s most powerful military in history, President Xi is setting the stage for a third term, beginning in 2022 He is worried about the political impacts of significant debt and other economic problems and could feel compelled to conquer Taiwan as the crowning achievement of his era of power.

Recent indications of the relative strengths of the U.S. and China in the Taiwan region have not been encouraging. Last year, in a war game organized by the Pentagon, the American “blue team” struggled against the “red team” armed with the latest Chinese weaponry in a simulated battle over the island.

In war games held three years ago, American “blue” teams repeatedly lost against a Chinese “red” team, but that was mainly through design because the game was intended to simulate war in the next few years and to test the reaction of U.S. setbacks in battles. That game ended with China launching missile strikes against American bases and warships in the region, followed by air and amphibious assault on Taiwan. The finding was that, even supported by the U.S. forces, Taiwan’s defenses would be overwhelmed in two to three days.

Annual Pentagon assessments since 2000 have shown China’s military progressing from large but ineffective to modern and even surpassing the U.S. in such areas as shipbuilding, conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air defense systems. In any conflict over Taiwan, these would all be essential.

Explaining his concern about China’s growing military capabilities, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, the retiring commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, said in March that taking over Taiwan “is clearly one of their ambitions, and I think the threat is manifest during this decade.”

Debates in Washington over what to do have been influenced by Adm. Davidson’s remarks, with support growing for explicit security guarantees for Taiwan, building up military forces around China, and helping Taiwan do more of the same.

“To us, it’s only a matter of time, not a matter of if,” says Rear Admiral Michael Studeman, the director of intelligence with the Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii. “But Taiwan does not appear to be ready. Military equipment and weaponry is [sic] dated, and mandatory conscription for most young men has inexplicably been phased out. Current efforts to field a professional, all-volunteer force are struggling.”

“The training isn’t as intense as it was before,” said Chang Yan-ting, a former deputy commander of Taiwan’s air force. He suggests that decades of booming global trade—including trade with China—and prosperity have encouraged a view that the island no longer needed to maintain a heightened military alert. “That’s in keeping with the whole tide of the times,” he added.

Others have pointed out that 70 years of protection by the U.S. have resulted in a Taiwanese mindset that, whatever new weaponry is developed, the two Great Powers will continue to balance each other off.

When Defense Minister Chiu predicted a successful Chinese invasion by 2025, he addressed the Taiwan legislature, supporting an $8.7 billion special spending package. That package would include funding for building up air defenses to a strength capable of fighting off the kind of air assault demonstrated during the first four days of October. But time may be running out for making such investments.

In China, many believe that the U.S. no longer has the will to send forces—beyond the tiny groups of advisors now there—should a shooting war break out over Taiwan. They point to the U.S. “abandonment” of its commitments in the Middle East, dramatized by the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan.

Questions of Chinese strength and U.S. weakness aside, even more disconcerting is the fact that a decision to invade made can be made by one man—Xi Jinping—and he may make that decision mainly for political reasons.

Given enough time and will—the recently formed “Quad” of Japan, Australia, India, and the U.S.—may generate the level of cooperation needed to keep the cost of invasion prohibitively high for Beijing. Having successfully irritated and threatened just about all of its neighbors, China is now starting to get some long-overdue pushback across the region.

Former Secretary of the Navy J. William Middendorf II, is the author of The Great Nightfall: How We Win the New Cold War.

Former Secretary of the Navy J. William Middendorf II, is the author of The Great Nightfall: How We Win the New Cold War.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Jef

    October 28, 2021 at 10:34 am

    Get smart, Taiwan: ask to become a US protectorate and Statehood candidate. Hawaiians never wanted that 125 years ago, but have done quite well as a result. And they’d have been speaking Japanese and might have been the Hiroshima they weren’t instead..(??).

  2. Stefan Stackhouse

    October 28, 2021 at 11:09 am

    I keep seeing articles that point out all the insurmountable challenges the Chinese will face if they invade. I think we can take it for granted that experts in China have been reading those articles, too, and studying the problem closely. They are not going to just barge ahead with something unlikely to succeed. More likely, they are going to try to find a creative way around those insurmountable challenges.

    I never see anyone mentioning the possibility that an invasion fleet might loop around the island and attempt a landing on the lightly defended EAST side. Yes, I know there is a mountain range that will be difficult to cross. It will also make it difficult for Taiwan to move reinforcements (especially if under constant air bombardment), thus giving the Chinese time to build up their forces, especially with follow-on paratroop landings. Once enough Chinese forces have made it over the ridgeline and degraded enough of Taiwan’s defenses, then the main follow-up force can attempt a landing on the West side.

    Obviously, such a plan would be doomed to failure unless the Chinese had first obtained air superiority and sunk most of Taiwan’s navy. I would thus expect those to be the first moves. They could claim that they just considered the existence of these naval and air forces on a rebel island to be unacceptable, without a hint that more was on the way. Obviously, as well, the intervention of the US Navy would change the calculus substantially. I would thus expect the Chinese to issue a warning simultaneously with the first moves against the Taiwanese air force and navy. If the US did proceed to intervene, then this would give the Chinese the opportunity to deal with it BEFORE they committed a landing force. Only if they succeeded in keeping the US Navy away would they proceed with the invasion.

    I don’t know if this is what the Chinese are planning. It would be foolish to discount it.

  3. DavidC

    October 28, 2021 at 11:29 am

    China could invade Taiwan? Really how?

    Without military superiority in the air or below the waves, how they suppose to do that?

  4. DavidC

    October 28, 2021 at 11:32 am

    We are in silly season right now. There are 3 trillion plus spending bills on the cards. The Military Industrial Complex wants its share. That’s what’s happening.

  5. Duane

    October 28, 2021 at 11:35 am

    People who predict an imminent invasion of the Republic of China by the PRC just have no sense whatsoever of what it actually takes to successfully conduct an opposed amphibious landing.

    To put a few things into perspective:

    1) In World War Two, we found that to successfully conduct an amphibious invasion requires invader overmatch of at least 3 to 1 … anything less than that results in massive carnage for the invader and essentially a standoff. That was our experience in Guadalcanal until finally nearly six months after the invasion began, we finally had that overmatch against the Japanese.

    2) The Republic of China has active duty and ready reserve forces of greater than 3 million. That means in order for the PRC to successfully invade would require an invasion force of at least 9 million – considering that that is at least four times the size of the entire PRC military, and that most of the PRC’s military is required to garrison the home front to keep suppressing and oppressing the Chinese people, it’s a fantasy to think that the PRC could mount that kind of invasion force. A very bloody and long drawn out draw also would result in the fall of the ChiCom regime.

    3) The Chinese invasion force would have to cross the 110 mile wide Taiwan strait without getting destroyed by submarine torpedoes and anti-ship missiles launched from land, ships, and aircraft. Considering that that strait is more than four times with narrowest width of the English Channel that served as an insurmountable barrier to the Germans in WW Two, that’s an extremely tall order. It simply cannot be done without total control of both the seas and the air, as the Allies had when we crossed the 25 mile wide channel to successfully invade France.

    4) One of the main reasons the D-Day invasion succeeded – with over 2 million allied troops! – was that the Germans had to defend hundreds of miles of coastline from the Netherlands out to west of Normandy. We kept them guessing, and as a result spread out the German defenders. On Taiwan, there is only one narrow beach on which invaders can land – everywhere else it is mountains right down to the shore. The ROCs can therefore concentrate their defenses on that one point.

    5) Most successful amphibious invasions have involved attacks on sparsely populated if not unpopulated islands. The ROCs have over 27 million people on their island, none of whom want to be conquered by the ChiComs. When we contemplated the invasion of the Japanese home islands of Kyushu and Honshu, we also faced tens of millions of resisting Japanese civilians, which greatly pushed up our casualty projections as a result of what we had just experienced on Okinawa, with only a few tens of thousands of resisting civilians.

    6) The ROCs have allies, not just the United States, but now Japan has declared their intent to defend Taiwan as a matter of their own self-defense. Once Japan enters the fray, then Australia kicks in, and if the US gets involved that triggers NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense clause. The Indians are certainly not going to come in on the PRC’s side, and may actually enter the war on ROC’s side. The Russians are all talk but they would love nothing better than to sweep in after most of the fighting is done and claim northern China/Manchuria for themselves, just as they did at the end of WW Two.

    7) The Chinese have never successfully invaded anyone, ever, especially by sea. Instead, the Chinese are the one’s who’ve repeatedly been invaded by others over the millenia .. from mongols to Manchurians to Europeans to Japanese to UN forces. They just don’t have it in them to successfully carry off an invasion.

    The ChiComs aren’t stupid – they know all of the above too. But their belligerence is not a prelude to invasion but rather an attempt to intimidate and scare the ROCs into surrendering without a fight, obtaining a cheap, even cost free victory. Ain’t happenin’!

  6. Brian Foley

    October 28, 2021 at 12:59 pm

    There are too many reasons for China not to invade Taiwan. Firstly the Chinese economy is in contraction down from 12% growth to 6%. The economic sanction that are likely to follow the invasion could accelerate the contraction and China doesn’t want that. If China invades Taiwan they will have to devote a massive amount of their naval resources to the invasion and risk losing some of those ships. There’s the outside chance that Taiwan puts up a good fight and hold the Communists at the waterline or the Taiwanese retreat to the mountains (yes there are mountains on the island) and fight a guerilla warfare campaign. Thirdly, what happens if the US, Japan and Australia actually keep their promise to defend Taiwan, they just might sweep up all of those islands China spent so much money to build. India might just take the opportunity of a distracted China to straighten out a few border disputes. There are lots of reasons to believe China will not attack Taiwan.

  7. Anymouse

    October 28, 2021 at 1:21 pm

    How do you “invade” without destroying coveted infrastructure (e.g., Dresden, Tokyo, etc.)? It takes a massive amphib assault along with an airassault. Yes, the PLA and PLAN would have to soften up Taiwanese defenses with a preemptive cruise missle attack.

    But what does that buy the PLA and PLAN? all it would take is a couple of USN SSN’s to pop those amhibs with Harpoon ship-killers, and drop a few AGM-158C LRASM’s from a Guam based bombers at that invasion is over.

    If only 1/2 dozen Taiwanese F-16’s escape, they’d knock down the PLA airdrops.

  8. Frank Blangeard

    October 28, 2021 at 1:55 pm

    The President of Taiwan is Tsai Ing-wen not Tsai Lin-wen. A minor mistake by someone who is not familiar with Taiwan.

  9. James Drouin

    October 28, 2021 at 2:43 pm

    Duane’s comment pretty much says it all.

  10. EVA-04

    October 28, 2021 at 2:46 pm

    To Stackhouse: Taiwan’s east coast is lightly defended because it’s hundreds of miles of sheer cliffs punctuated by mountainous terrain. Add to that no deep water ports and few ready-to-sieze airfields and a very hostile local population and the PLA would be foolish to actually try this.

    To Duane: Everyone said Normandy was insane until we did it. The Chinese are serious about this and are seriously investing in the exact types of hardware they’ll need, including offshore transfer ports and reopurposed Ro/Ro ships equipped to offload armor in shallow waters, that would facilitate such a massive landing. Also in 1944 there wasn’t much in the way of airmobility for Allied forces to use in landings (except very risky and costly parachute and glider drops) while in 2021 airmobility is vastly improved and the PLA now has a lot of this, reducing the risks of an ocean-only landing. The number of forces at their disposal for this (three to five group armies, plus multiple divisions of airborne and marines) is sufficient against an ROC army with four divisions worth of late 1980s armor and an untrained reserve force. Add in the Chinese advantages in SOF, cyber warfare, an aggressive espionage game and that pendulum is already swung on the other side. Does Taiwan have allies? Of course, but Okinawa is over 400 miles away, Guam is 1400 miles away. China is less than 120 miles away with two dozen modern airbases in proximity. Unless we have a standing force at substantial strength IN THEATRE ON DAY ONE we will be playing catchup from the minute the balloon goes up. That may be a risk the Chinese are willing to take where they can roll in before we can actually do anything about it.

    To Foley: China may not want to keep Taiwan’s infrastructure, but simply to knock it out. My brother in law lives in Hsinchu, where within a single square mile seven Fab facilities make 50% of the semiconductors for mobile phones globally. China is source #2. It’s more likely in China’s interest to destroy Taiwan’s capabilities instead of capturing them. The CCP’s biggest problem with Taiwan is not their economy, it’s their political system: every day that a Chinese-speaking democracy can function freely is a threat to the CCP. They don’t want Taiwan in one piece, they want it blown to pieces.

    To everyone: China has one further advantage, the Fifth Column of the KMT Party within Taiwan itself. No one likes the KMT anymore in Taiwan, but many members are still within the army, police, the media, and the bureaucracy. The KMT is culturally Chinese and basically wants reunion with China one way or another. As long as they’re free to operate within TW they will not actively support independence, would defintitely interfere with any attempt by Taiwan to defend itself, and would very willingly cooperate with Chinese invaders. There’s enough of the KMT still in Taiwan to cause massive trouble.

    Add it all up and it’s not hyperbole. I want to be wrong but sadly I think I’m not.

  11. John Reese

    October 28, 2021 at 3:44 pm

    I love all this – Its Impossible crap, if Xi want’s it to happen it will happen period. The communist Chinese had no problem murdering millions of its people during the cultural revolution. Sending millions of troops to their death will not be an issue for CPC as long as its for the stated must have goal of reunification of the PRC and the crushing of the Taiwan rebellion.

  12. Thomas B McGowan

    October 28, 2021 at 9:28 pm

    Taiwan must take a lesson in defense from North Korea. In the event of a potential conflict on the Korean Peninsula, the first casualties would likely be Seoul and its ten million inhabitants only twenty six miles from the border. The north has nuclear weapons which serve as a credible deterrent in a conflict. Yes, the north might look like the Trump Sea, but at a horrible cost.
    To prevent a Chinese attack Taiwan needs only a handful of nuclear weapons. If Taiwan had a credible nuclear deterrent, China would be more hesitant to invade if Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai would be subject to become Chinese Chernobyls. They might be willing to lose 100,000 troops, but not Chongjin and it’s 30,000,000 citizens. That could involve another Chinese revolution and the overthrow of the CCP.
    Taiwan needs to find a Dr Khan. Or, speak to North Korea and for a great deal of money have its own nuclear capacity. They would not need the USA for protection save for conventional weapons. It would be a new chapter in MAD.

  13. alhorvath

    October 28, 2021 at 9:32 pm

    The invasion will happen sooner than later. Right now the only thing holding it back is the Chinese military. That will not last long. The Chinese realize that they may never have a weaker U.S. President than Joe Biden. They also know that the Socialist Democrat Party will act as a Fifth Column in the event of a US vs China confrontation.

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