Is Chinese Invasion Of Taiwan Growing More Likely With Time?
HONG KONG: Taiwan has always been the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) highest strategic priority, yet Beijing has felt the need to deepen its coercion against the island nation. Indeed, a number of commentators are claiming the threat of a Chinese invasion, or military action of some kind is higher now than it ever has been. the ongoing border clashes along the Sino-Indian border in Eastern Ladakh represent a sideshow for the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA), for the posture of China’s military is directed primarily against Taiwan and the threat of a US intervention on Taipei’s behalf.
Back in March, Enodo Economics, a macroeconomic and political forecasting company, assessed the probability of a conflict between China and the US over Taiwan was 45 percent sometime in 2020-22. The US National Security Strategy document stated that “China … wants to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” Central to its plans is to absorb and eliminate independent Taiwan, which would heal historical grievances, and solidify Chinese prestige and power at the expense of the USA.
China is certainly upping the ante in both words and actions. The PLA has intensified air and naval activity around Taiwan. The latter’s defense minister announced in early October that the PLA had conducted 49 aircraft sorties across the Taiwan Street median line this year, the highest number since 1990. Furthermore, the PLA has performed 1,710 aircraft sorties into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone this year so far, plus 1,029 naval sorties. Each time this occurs, the Taiwan military responds, adding a heavy operational and maintenance burden on its assets. Collin Koh, Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, revealed, “In response to the PLA Navy ramped-up regular patrol presence west of the median line, Taiwan increased its presence from one to two ships too. However, Taiwanese defense authorities are concerned that even ‘older’ PLA Navy vessels are more capable than those the ROC Navy deploys.”
Koh said this “presence along the Taiwan Strait looks set to be a norm as Beijing clearly foresees regular transits through this waterway by foreign, especially the US, military vessels. In the long term, the concern is that the ROC Navy would be outmatched by the PLA Navy in the Taiwan Strait as the latter replace older ships with newer ones, bringing into question whether Taiwan’s naval shipbuilding program can react and cope effectively.” In May, General Li Zuocheng, chief of the PLA’s Joint Staff Department and a Central Military Commission member, promised, “If the possibility for peaceful reunification is lost, the people’s armed forces will, with the whole nation, including the people of Taiwan, take all necessary steps to resolutely smash any separatist plots or actions.”
He spoke on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of China’s Anti-Secession Law being promulgated, legislation that gives China a legal basis for military action against Taiwan. Of course, such a law has no international credence. General Li added, “We do not promise to abandon the use of force, and reserve the option to take all necessary measures, to stabilize and control the situation in the Taiwan Strait.” It is in fact rare for a top Chinese general to explicitly make such a threat in public, which underscores the desperation that the CCP is feeling as Taiwanese sentiment hardens against China partly in response to greater suppression of dissent in Hong Kong.
Li Zhanshu, the CCP’s third-most-senior leader, said at the same event, “As long as there is the slightest chance of a peaceful resolution, we will put in a hundred times the effort.” However, wielding a stick, “We warn Taiwan’s pro-independence and separatist forces sternly, the path of Taiwan independence leads to a dead-end; any challenge to this law will be severely punished.” Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council responded to such warmongering by saying, “Taiwan’s people will never choose dictatorship nor bow to violence. Force and unilateral decisions are not the way to resolve problems.” The office added that Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China. President Tsai Ing-wen is unbowed by Chinese threats, and she correctly states that Taiwan is already an independent country called the Republic of China.
Derek Grossman, the senior analyst at the RAND Corporation, tweeted, “Time to face facts. China’s peaceful ‘reunification’ strategy for Taiwan has failed. No need to continue the politeness, the subtlety. ‘One Country, Two Systems’ has been roundly rejected in Taiwan – even by KMT [Kuomintang]! – & now coercion is all that’s left. Sad.” China has delineated those circumstances “requiring” an armed intervention against Taiwan: formal declaration of Taiwanese independence; undefined moves towards independence; internal unrest; acquisition of nuclear weapons; indefinite delays in cross-strait dialogue; foreign intervention; or foreign forces stationed on Taiwan. In January 2019, Chairman Xi Jinping reiterated China’s long-standing stance on refusing to renounce the possibility of force and reaffirmed unification under “one country, two systems”, something that proved a disaster for Hong Kong.
China’s options are not binary though: to invade or to not invade. Instead, it has a wide range of options to stir and pressurize. It could use missiles, destroy Taiwanese infrastructure, and use cyberattacks to force Taiwan to sue for peace, for example. Yet 58 percent of Taiwanese are still “not worried at all” about the risk of war with China according to an August poll. At the moment Beijing is aggressively posturing and signaling. The 2020 Chinese military report by the Pentagon stated: “The PLA could also conduct a more comprehensive campaign designed to force Taiwan to capitulate to unification or unification dialogue under China’s terms. Notably, China would seek to deter potential US intervention in any Taiwan contingency campaign … Failing that, China would attempt to delay and defeat intervention in an asymmetric limited war of short duration. In the event of a protracted conflict, China might choose to escalate cyberspace, space, or nuclear activities in an attempt to end the conflict, or it might choose to fight to a stalemate and pursue a political settlement.”
The Pentagon lists the following military options that China has against Taiwan: an air and maritime blockade, which could be accompanied by missile attacks and seizure of outlying Taiwanese islands; limited force or coercive options, which could include information operations, limited kinetic attacks, the assassination of leaders or computer network manipulation; air and missile campaigns against military targets to degrade defenses; and finally an outright invasion. Regarding the latter, the Pentagon assessed, “An attempt to invade Taiwan would likely strain China’s armed forces and invite international intervention. These stresses, combined with China’s combat force attrition and the complexity of urban warfare and counterinsurgency, even assuming a successful landing and breakout, make an amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk.” Indeed, China would have only one shot at an invasion, so Xi would not move too early if he deems the PLA is not ready. China would rely on a huge fleet of civilian ships to move troops and equipment across the Taiwan Strait, with a 2017 analysis estimating civilian ferries and ships could move about 150,000 troops. However, these require port facilities, of which there are really only 3-4 worthwhile ones in Taiwan.
Taiwan is thus a critical bastion against Chinese expansionism. One can imagine that if China occupied Taiwan, the PLA would have free access to the Western Pacific for its warships, submarines, and aircraft. Furthermore, the First Island Chain containment would be smashed to smithereens, with the PLA controlling the central linchpin of the First Island Chain, with Japan and the Philippines then at considerable risk. Taiwan is pivotal to Chinese national policy and prestige. It is also critical to American and allied defense in the Western Pacific. This democratic island is thus worthy of support by those who are concerned about the CCP’s military and territorial ambitions.