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Can China Invade and Conquer Taiwan? Study Ukraine

J-20 Stealth Fighter
J-20 Stealth Fighter. YouTube Screenshot.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s rising belligerence under President Xi Jinping has raised concern about a possible Chinese move against Taiwan. China just completed a major congress of its Communist Party. Xi engineered a third term for himself as president, breaking the vague, post-Deng Xiaoping norm that Chinese presidents should only serve two terms. He now looks to be president for life, and the party congress escalated China’s rhetoric on Taiwan. 

Taiwan

Taiwan’s World War II Submarine. Image Credit: ROC Navy.

Xi likely needs some kind of legitimating move for his now permanent presidency. Post-Mao Zedong, Chinese elites have generally preferred ‘collective leadership’ to dictatorship. There will be unhappiness in the party over Xi’s move. Worse, the economy is slow because of Xi’s stubborn insistence on his ‘zero-covid’ policy. Without the mandate of an election, Xi and the party’s legitimacy rests on performance – the party’s well-known claim that its rule is more efficient and technocratic than sloppy, disorganized parliamentary democracy.

As this slips away under declining economic growth, unification with Taiwan, and the nationalist ideological satisfaction it promises, looms larger. Taiwan will never agree to unification while the communist party is power on the mainland.

So Xi, if he is to follow through on this issue which he keeps emphasizing, will find he must use force.

Is Ukraine a Model for Taking Taiwan?

Much of the current wave of anxiety turns on the size asymmetry between the two sides. Mainland China is vastly larger, particularly in population and economic weight. Its military is big and modernizing. Its navy particularly is growing to support China’s claims in the East and South China Sea. The Ukraine war too has acted as something of a model for analysts.

Ukraine and Taiwan are both small, recently democratized states on the periphery of the American alliance network. Both are menaced by a much larger, neighboring autocracy with revanchist claims denying their sovereignty. Both would be heavily dependent on outside help, particularly from the US, to win.

But Ukraine is also a model for Taiwanese resistance. Like Taiwan, its population is deeply committed to defending its freedoms and self-rule against potential aggression. Like Ukraine, Taiwan would almost certainly mobilize its entire society to resist invasion. Just as the Russian invasion is now fighting the entire country of Ukraine, so will China in Taiwan.

China is economically much stronger than Russia and – we assume – that its military is more capable. And Taiwan of course is smaller than Ukraine. So the imbalance is striking. But the Ukraine war illustrates the risks China faces. Everyone assumed, before the war, that the Russian military was skilled and fearsome, but we have since learned that it is corrupt, poorly-led, and disorganized. China’s military has not fought a major action since 1979 (with Vietnam, where it fared poorly), and corruption and officers selected by politics, not skill, are known problems in autocratic militaries. 

Taiwan Has Geography Advantage

A core problem Ukraine has faced is its tough geography. Russia abuts it directly for a thousand miles. Russia’s initial invasion moved on multiple axes simultaneously, stretching Ukrainian forces thin. It was widely assumed the Russians would win quickly.

Taiwan, by contrast, has excellent geography for defending against a Chinese invasion. It is an island. It is 110 miles from the mainland. That is five times the length of the English Channel. This means a Chinese invasion would require an enormous invasion force, on the scale of the allied D-Day effort of 1944. Amphibious operations are notoriously difficult. Successful ones are rare in world history, and China’s military has never done anything like this before. The logistical planning alone, if we take D-Day as a model, would require years. The invasion fleet would be gargantuan, making it nearly impossible to hide, and so giving Taiwan much lead time to prepare. 

The Chinese invasion fleet would not automatically enjoy air dominance either, as the Allies did in 1944. If the US were to openly help Taiwan, as President Joe Biden has increasingly suggested, it is likely that Taiwanese and US airpower could sink landing craft en route. And these invaders who did survive the crossing would face hostile beach landings and high mountains in the island’s east where defenders could hold out at length,

In short, it will be much harder to take Taiwan than Xi and the Chinese media admit. For all the growth of China’s military, there is little sign it is developing the enormous amphibious capability necessary to invade a distant, heavily-armed island. As with D-Day 1944, this would mean hundreds of ship just across the strait, substantial infantry training for a marine landing, and a massive build-up of local naval and airpower to ensure landing craft survive the long crossing. This is not happening much, no matter Xi’s bluster. Indeed, given the staggering logistical complexity of this operation, it far more likely that China just devastates the island with rocket fire out of frustration than actually takes it.

Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_KellyRoberEdwinKelly.com) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

26 Comments

26 Comments

  1. 403Forbidden

    November 1, 2022 at 11:33 am

    China need not have to follow western political script or doctrine or methodology.

    Taiwan is just a small tiny tree whereas USA and army of minions or pacific forces are the thick dark forest.

    First, no need for war or violence to claim the small tree. Crippling it would be enuff via closing down airspace.

    Second, the thick dark forest represents the back support mountain. As trump once said about Kabul, a thunderclap strike would have ended whole game for the enemy.Same here.

    The forest, not the tree is the true REAL DANGER. Everyone knows Washington has unsurpassed ability to whip up or manufacture falsehoods or fake casus belli for instigating crises & wars.

    Thus to fight forest, focus should be on it and not the tiny tree in front of you.

    Thus to fight forest, china needs to set up space-based nuke arsenal that can turn USA into a land of carrion eaters simply at the press of a button.

    • ghynson

      November 1, 2022 at 10:28 pm

      How are you able to post here?
      Did you get permission from your CCP masters to use the internet?

    • Bertram

      November 2, 2022 at 12:08 pm

      You forgot to call them
      The Running Dogs of American Imperialism.
      Isn’t that a key part of the script?

    • Hoi Polloi

      November 2, 2022 at 1:39 pm

      Is that you Emperor Xi? It is surprising you have time to post nonsense here on this board when there are far more pressing concerns for you to focus on, like China’s imploding hyper-financed economy.

    • Milton Poindexter

      November 2, 2022 at 6:25 pm

      Can Taiwan manufacture nukes, tactical or otherwise? Do they have an arsenal? Can they deliver on CCP and what circumstances would lead them to do so?
      Factor into invasion scenarios please.

  2. TG

    November 1, 2022 at 12:12 pm

    Um, I’m sorry, but in my opinion Taiwan is in a very weak position. China doesn’t need to invade, just blockade the island. Ukraine has a land border with the western allies that Russia dares not attack: Taiwan has no such secure line of supply.

    Or maybe China has no intention of invading, and this is just a pressure campaign. “Give us access to your advanced chip-making industry or else.”

    • Johnathan Galt

      November 2, 2022 at 12:27 pm

      Suppose China were to try to blockade Taiwanese shipping. Who has more to lose? China immediately becomes a pirate nation. Tai subs could obliterate millions of tons of Chinese shipping along with sinking the Chinese fleet ship by ship. Others could join in the game, protected by the anonymity of submarine attacks. Japan almost certainly would, and probably South Korea as well. The US would probably employ drone submarines and provide arms to everyone who is “not China.” China’s economy would collapse, resulting in civil war.

      I don’t foresee any military scenarios in which China comes out a “winner.”

      • Hoi Polloi

        November 2, 2022 at 1:55 pm

        I tend to agree. Even without the Kinetics of breaking a blockade, China’s attempt to impose one would result in it’s economic decoupling from the global system overnight. China would literally deindustrialize within a year. They need access to the global system far more than then that system needs them, if for nothing else to avoid widespread famine and starvation as China must import massive amounts of food and agricultural inputs to sustain it’s population. For the sake of argument, lets assume China did get it’s hands on TSMC, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. If they did they’d already be producing high end semiconductors domestically.

  3. Jim

    November 1, 2022 at 12:12 pm

    War with China is a mistake.

    Taking action against Chinese infiltration, penetration, and corrupting practices on our soil is a vital national security interest for the American People.

    It’s a necessity for the American People.

  4. Jacksonian Libertarian

    November 1, 2022 at 1:37 pm

    I agree, and will add that in the age of smart weapons Taiwan makes most of their own, and has 1,200+ anti-ship missiles. Also, amphibious assaults on contested beaches against smart weapon armed defenders is likely impossible. The US Marines have changed their doctrine to fortifying islands with smart weapons to control contested seas, and away from suicidal amphibious assaults.

  5. Omega 13

    November 1, 2022 at 4:17 pm

    Another problem the Chinese navy has? They’re untested.

  6. Friend

    November 1, 2022 at 4:41 pm

    No, the sanctions imposed on Russia would actually work on China if imposed. Ukraine is nothing like Taiwan, because Ukraine is the core of another 13 countries to be invaded, and will also become the backbone of the NeoNazi movement. Both the U.S. and Russia are dictatorships. IN the U.S. you can vote on matters that don’t matter, which is the money, while in Russia you could vote on matters of money, so you’re not allowed to vote.
    The idea of Europe is to destroy RUssia and get to its resources first, and then wreck America. It’s basically identical to Hitler’s plan. but Hitler never had the additional 300 million troops in East Europe. Now he does. The Russians are incompetent, and you’ve got a bunch of niggers pretending to be the army, to play basketball and rugby.

    • Johnathan Galt

      November 2, 2022 at 12:28 pm

      Comrade Xi, how nice of you to join us in these American forums!

  7. Jim

    November 1, 2022 at 5:50 pm

    Friend,

    You state: “Ukraine is the core of another 13 countries to be invaded, and will also become the backbone of the NeoNazi movement.”

    Which is it? Ukraine is about to kick Russia out… out of the Donbus… out of Crimea in a clean sweep of humiliation & defeat.

    Or Russia is about to move on 13 other countries…

    You can’t have it both ways… and, Friend, that’s why you’re incoherent… along with your fellow travelers.

    Friend, Ukraine has 30 years of neo-nazi involvement starting with Stephen Bandera and has continued right through, as late as 2019 the speaker of the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, was a right-sector neo-nazi.

    Neo-nazi are a small faction, but have penetrated the inner circles of government and they got the guns & the prosecutor’s office…. a powerful combo… for the corruption that runs deep through Ukraine’s government.

    Friend, you lost the plot when you support neo-nazi…

    My father piloted B-24 bombers over Nazi Germany to rid the European Continent of Nazi… and their Hated.

    He didn’t do it so the U. S. government can turn around and support neo-nazi in 21st Century Europe.

    You made a mistake my friend.

  8. Chip Henry

    November 1, 2022 at 6:06 pm

    At the start of the Russia Ukraine conflict we expected Russia’s military to hold an edge in performance. Their abilities were flawed compared to their PR. Not all Americans supported Ukraine in that war. If China attempts an attack on Taiwan we will expect the worst. China wants to break freedom. That means Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, then the US would be attacked in escalating levels. That will be completely unacceptable to Americans. I think China has no idea how much hatred they would generate in a short amount of time if they attack Taiwan. Every American who were blase on Ukraine would have an opinion on Taiwan. Many here think Ukraine is protected because of the American levels of corruption wrapped up in that country. In Taiwan it’s a whole new level. It is of utmost importance that we do not allow Taiwan to suffer. That would be a direct threat to Americans, as it is an important and strategic ally of ours.
    If China wants to see how quickly we can stop buying ‘Made in China’ product, that is how to find out. I think they won’t be so blunt headed, and in the back of their mind, they know Trump will again be in power and that’s a man they can’t win against.

    • Johnathan Galt

      November 2, 2022 at 12:33 pm

      Well stated. Taiwan will never fall militarily, but only if it falls from within – the kind of victory Demotalitarians seek here.

  9. Ross

    November 1, 2022 at 6:32 pm

    Love the trolls who think China could blockade or create a no-fly zone around Taiwan. That takes a ton of ships, planes, and massive coordination, which China’s navy does not have. And it’s not like Taiwan would sit back and not do anything. China tries to blockade Taiwan and Taiwan launches 100 anti ship missles taking out the ships.

    • Johnathan Galt

      November 2, 2022 at 12:34 pm

      And the minute they start, they become “pirates” and “open season” begins. Can you imagine how many millions of tons of Chinese shipping Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, and other submarines would sink?

  10. Oleg

    November 2, 2022 at 3:50 am

    “Ukraine … recently democratized states…”
    Are you seriously?
    USA support nazi and corruption regime.
    USA support terror around the World.
    And your view is hypocritical and lie

  11. Jack Tribolet

    November 2, 2022 at 8:46 am

    “Amphibious operations are notoriously difficult. Successful ones are rare in world history”

    You may want to retouch your history, that statement is demonstrably false. In fact, amphibious operations succeed in most cases, with the failures being outliers.

    Why is that you ask? Skill and preparation, amphibious operations do not have to be initiated if the right conditions are not met.

    Granted it is true China has never conducted an amphibious operation anywhere near the scale required for Taiwan, and Taiwan maintains the strategic upperhand due to its geography.

    • Johnathan Galt

      November 2, 2022 at 12:31 pm

      Hilarious!!!!!!!

      I think you are referring to small covert amphibious landings. The sort necessary to conquer Taiwan? Not a chance.

      But please try it! The world needs something to laugh at!

  12. Neil Ross Hutchings

    November 2, 2022 at 11:29 am

    Some good points raised in the article and in some of the
    comments, which all lead me to believe that a China invasion of China (Taiwan) is not likely to occur in the next generation, unless there are internal political issues that require distracting the population. A takeover is inevitable though, someday, but only when the potential losses to China are reduced.

  13. Johnathan Galt

    November 2, 2022 at 12:40 pm

    The only near-equivalent example in history to such an undertaking would be D-Day, using Omaha beach as the more representative sample. The allies had complete control of the air and sea. Anti-ship missiles did not exist. The Germans at the beach were outnumbered 8 to one or more, and consisted entirely of light infantry (rifles, some machine guns, a few mortars and stationary guns). They had no resupply nor reinforcements, yet for four and a half hours they staved off the allied assault, slaughtering the invaders while taking almost no casualties of their own.

    Then they ran away.

    Why?

    They ran out of ammunition.

    Somehow, I don’t think Taiwan will make any of those mistakes.

  14. Derringer Dave

    November 2, 2022 at 2:44 pm

    “far more likely that China just devastates the island with rocket fire out of frustration than actually takes it.”

    Is that supposed to be comforting to the people of Taiwan?
    Like, “Don’t worry; China won’t take over your country; they’ll just kill every single inhabitant of Taiwan.”

  15. dilbert firestorm

    November 2, 2022 at 3:44 pm

    D-Day was a massive undertaking involving 4,000-7,000 ships.

    the ships of that day were of a different size. they were small. thats why there were so many ships involved. the modern ships are much larger, I think twice or triple the size of the D-Day ships (including the Liberty class ships). they can put more troops on those ships than the d-day ships could.

    they really don’t need that many. they will dragnet civilian ships for that purpose. the civilian fleet is rather large, composing of 5,000+ ships. it still will be large tho.

    whether the CCP navy succeeds or not is a different story. they badly failed in 2 previous attempt at amphibious landing in the 1950’s.

    CCP Navy is largely untested and would be very vulnerable to submarine attacks.

  16. RaisingCain

    November 3, 2022 at 12:37 pm

    The CCP won’t need to open with massive invasion. They have said many times they would decapitate the ruling clique with special forces already in place…similar to the 5th column.
    Yes they would also rely on massive but measured missile attack to soften and demoralize

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