Suppose China’s President Xi Jinping was to start a large-scale war over Taiwan, using the same justification as Russian President Vladimir Putin: to defend the “core interests” of his country. When would such a war break out? And more importantly, is there anything more mainland China, Taiwan, the United States and its allies can do to avoid this war? If the answer is yes, what are the preconditions for avoiding a battle in the Taiwan Strait?
The probability and timing of a war
Most people in Taiwan, especially the young generations, are not interested in returning to the “motherland.” That Mr. Xi and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen have very different values and views of global order has weakened President Xi’s confidence in peaceful reunification. The doubt among the Chinese leadership about the future is reflected in recent remarks from the Chinese ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, who claimed the urgent need to “reeducate” most of the 24 million Taiwanese if China, with 1.4 billion people, seizes Taiwan by force.
At the same time, China appears increasingly confident of its ability to attack Taiwan successfully. “The conditions are now riper than ever to solve the Taiwan issue,” said Professor Zhang Wenmu, a Chinese defense hawk, earlier this year.
The recent 20th National Congress included in the ruling party’s constitution that “resolving the Taiwan issue and achieving the complete reunification of the motherland is a historical task to which the Chinese Communist Party will never relent.” Mr. Xi has repeatedly stressed that the Taiwan issue cannot be put off for the next generation to solve.
Beijing’s draft plan for taking over Taiwan is believed to be already in circulation. Russia’s setbacks in its war against Ukraine have not hindered President Xi’s determination to act. On the contrary, the Chinese leader may now view reunification by force as necessary. The hope for stopping the war in the Taiwan Strait is generally placed on the U.S.
The next five years will be the most worrying and dangerous for Taiwan.
Firstly, while China’s military power is peaking, the U.S. military capability to protect Taiwan is in doubt. Secondly, Mr. Xi has gained political strength after very tough infighting. With China’s economic growth expected to slow over the next five years, it would seem difficult for him to remain in power without success, and the seizure of Taiwan could give him such an achievement.
Also, Taiwan will hold a presidential election in February 2024, while the U.S. will elect its president in November of the same year. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may perceive this timing as opportune to seize Taiwan, although Mr. Xi’s instructions to the military are to be ready for such an attack by 2027.
The CCP has revived the military since President Xi took power a decade ago. China’s defense industry now possesses the technology and manufacturing capabilities to prepare a wide range of advanced weapons and equipment for future wars. In the Indo-Pacific region, China has the highest rate of self-sufficiency in weapons production (92 percent).
In the financial sphere, Beijing has also learned a lesson from the Western sanctions on Russia. China has about $8 trillion in foreign assets abroad. To mitigate possible damage, Beijing is now more aggressively liquidating and repatriating these Chinese assets. Chinese oil companies are gradually delisting from U.S. exchanges. The next step will be to sell off some U.S. Treasuries and diversify China’s foreign exchange reserves.
On the military side, Beijing has long anticipated tight U.S. restrictions. It began stockpiling microchips as part of its preparation for war, with imports surging by about 14 percent in 2020 alone. Finally, Beijing has also reached considerable maturity in its military abandonment of GPS in favor of its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System.
Appraisal of military strength and determination
Unlike Russian President Putin, Mr. Xi’s military action against Taiwan will be preceded by a careful assessment of his own strength, U.S. strength in the Western Pacific and Taiwan’s defense capabilities. Whether the U.S. adopts strategic ambiguity or a clear strategy, Beijing will always view U.S. involvement as an important variable.
Currently, the tripartite military balance is tilted in favor of China. Taiwan cannot defend itself independently against a Chinese military attack, and the U.S. does not enjoy absolute military supremacy in the Western Pacific.
China now has a C4ISR capability in the Taiwan Strait. C4ISR is the acronym for command, control, communications, computers (C4) intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). These abilities are critical for winning a war. Meanwhile, China’s Dongfeng missiles, especially the latest supersonic missiles, pose a significant threat to U.S. aircraft carriers. China’s military exercises during U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit showed that Beijing had expanded its ability to control movement in priority areas.
China’s navy now has three aircraft carriers and 350 mainstay ships, while the U.S. has only 290 warships despite having more aircraft carriers than China, based on the data of Professor Su Qi, a Taiwanese expert on U.S. military capabilities. Moreover, China is mass-producing guided missile destroyers and crewless submarines, giving it a significant numerical advantage in the navy, air force and land forces.
When it comes to public opinion, the prevailing sentiment in China is closed-minded nationalism. Western hopes that Mr. Xi may hesitate or abandon his Taiwan ambition because the costs would be too high are misplaced. China is ready to bear great sacrifices to succeed in taking Taiwan. Of course, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) suffers from a lack of cross-training and combat experience compared to the U.S. military.
It remains unclear whether the Taiwanese will be as determined as the Ukrainians in resisting an invasion. According to a survey, 70 percent of Taiwanese would be willing to fight personally or support their family members to join in the defense. However, the gap in military capabilities between China and Taiwan may be even larger than that between Russia and Ukraine at the onset of the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion in February.
Stacked up next to each other, the imbalance is great between China and Taiwan in every category. Regarding conventional weapons, Taiwan is not even close to China, and Taiwan’s military could only develop asymmetric warfare capabilities as the Ukrainians have.
Geographically, the 180-kilometer-wide Taiwan Strait is an obstacle for China. But it is possible to transport troops by helicopter or aircraft. Since the sea surrounds the island, Taiwan would be prevented from receiving weapons from the outside if the maritime supply chain is not secured.
Taiwan authorities are aware of their military weaknesses and will significantly increase defense spending in 2023. The defense budget will reach $18.3 billion, or 2.4 percent of the gross domestic product. Taiwan has also focused on the drone industry and started the production of anti-submarine ships. It is in a race with mainland China. But even if Taiwan strengthens its capabilities, it will only, at best, create more favorable conditions for possible military aid from the U.S. and other countries.
Overall, U.S. military power is superior to China’s, but not necessarily in the Western Pacific. Nearly one-sixth of the 290 U.S. warships will be decommissioned or in the dock for repairs in the next five to 10 years. The U.S. is far slower than China in shipbuilding, which will inevitably create a gap in military power. The U.S. is far ahead in the development of warplanes, making it unlikely that China will be able to close the technological gap. But even so, China has numerical strength in the Western Pacific.
Chinese anti-carrier missiles will deter U.S. carrier groups from approaching Taiwan. That is why the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan was kept far from the island during Ms. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. The comparative Chinese strength in the Taiwan Strait makes an invasion more likely in the next five years.
The U.S. military has deployed land-based ballistic missiles in the first island chain off the Asian continent, which includes U.S. allies Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines. It has assigned a multi-domain task force (MDTF) to destroy China’s air defense and command and control systems in the Asia-Pacific region. The aim is to secure access for U.S. warships and warplanes to Taiwan. The U.S. military is also developing its potential to counter hypersonic missiles.
Three possibilities for the seizure of Taiwan
The first invasion option is for China to directly dispatch troops via air, land and sea in a lightning strike, designed to create a fait accompli within a few days that the West would be forced to accept.
The second option is a complete military blockade, shutting down Taiwan’s ports.
The third option would be a partial blockade to stop shipping from Taiwan’s ports of Kaohsiung and Taichung. A variant of this approach would be to ban foreign ships from carrying energy or cargo. Either way, such a blockade would threaten Taiwan’s stability. In 2021, Taiwan depended on energy imports for 98 percent of its supply, creating a dangerous vulnerability. A blockade may also make it more difficult for the U.S. to intervene militarily because it is a gray-area tactic.
The Chinese will use cyber and information warfare, unmanned aircraft and submarines in any attack.
Efforts to prevent the war
Compared to China and Taiwan, the most interested party in preventing war is probably the U.S. Its military aid to Ukraine may be nearing its limit and a second front would only add to the budget strain. But even without the war in Ukraine, the U.S. is interested in avoiding a military confrontation with China. Success will take great effort in diplomacy and compromise between the U.S. and China.
The U.S. tries to demonstrate sincerity in maintaining the status quo by emphasizing the One China Policy, which differs from Beijing’s One China Principle: that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. The U.S. policy merely acknowledges rather than accepts Beijing’s claim to the self-governing island. Also, the U.S. is trying to ease the tension with bilateral talks between Mr. Xi and President Joe Biden, such as the three-hour one that took place on November 14 in Indonesia.
In the talks with Mr. Xi, Mr. Biden said that Washington would hold to its “one China” policy, which acknowledges Beijing’s claim to the island but does not go as far as accepting that claim, and opposes any steps to unilaterally change the status of Taiwan.
Another approach is to build Taiwan’s defense capabilities while warning that the U.S. would intervene if China attacked Taiwan. Mr. Biden and other top U.S. military leaders have publicly issued similar warnings in recent months.
A scenario with some likelihood of success is preventing war during President Xi’s third term in the next five years.
The idea that Mr. Xi is less reckless than President Putin is only partially true. A war in the Taiwan Strait would surely be more thoughtfully prepared than Russia’s February 24, 2022, attack on Ukraine, and China’s military would be far more technologically advanced than Russia’s forces. However, Mr. Xi’s decision will hinge on his estimation of the military balance of power, including the effectiveness of U.S. deterrence and the threat of sanctions.
War could create intolerable risks for Mr. Xi if China’s military capabilities are insufficient, if Taiwan’s ability to resist is formidable and if the West’s intervention could cause such significant losses that his regime might collapse.
A tragic second scenario is that Washington is not able to intimidate Beijing and China’s military power proves decisive. The U.S. may not desire a large-scale, long-term military confrontation with Beijing for domestic political or economic reasons. Thus, with high-tech armaments and well-trained soldiers, the mainland could conquer Taiwan within 10 days or less, forcing the West to recognize the fait accompli.
A third scenario is a war in the Taiwan Strait that becomes a protracted conflict, causing the world much more damage than Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Dr. Junhua Zhang is a senior associate at the European Institute for Asian Studies. He has been a Professor of Political Science at the School of International and Public Affairs of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Zhejiang University for ten years.
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