Taiwan; invasion chances up and how it could happen 04-Apr-2022

The war in Ukraine changes the calculations. The final result may change them further. For now, the chances of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan are up. Countries are choosing sides. Even though the world is on higher alert, resources and attention are still focused on Ukraine and Russia.

The West seems to have expected a different balance of benefits and costs of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia seems to have calculated that, whatever their goals were, it was worth it.

This should at the very least force a re-examination of the benefits and costs to China of invading Taiwan. “Something big” has changed since Frontier Focus published this.

Motive - why would China invade Taiwan?

The main factor to rethink is how strongly China and Xi feel about Taiwan as a civilisational matter.

Xi doesn’t seem to think that Chinese rejuvenation is possible until Taiwan is reunited with the mainland (Xinhua 09-Oct-2021). The deadline for “peaceful reunification” is 2049 or 27 years away. Xi is 68 years old. If reunification does not happen soon it is unlikely he will live to see it. On the other hand, Fidel and Raúl Castro both governed until around 90 years of age.

People in most countries seem to like a strong patriotic war. It is easier to control media messaging in China than many other places. It could be easier to reinforce this kind of natural sentiment with the right kind of propaganda. There was uproar in China when NATO apparently deliberately bombed (though Clinton apologised and said it was an accident) the Chinese embassy (it may have been used as a venue for distributing Yugoslav Army orders) in Belgrade during the Kosovo War. Whatever the case, the embassy was bombed, and there was anger in China that the Chinese government did not react strongly enough.

Even if it was unsuccessful, perhaps a mere attempt to take Taiwan would still be received very positively.

Is there any consideration for the human cost? Perhaps not. Western culture puts a higher priority on the importance of individuals. China, let alone dictatorships or the Communist Party, has a long history of sacrificing large numbers of lives for power and political struggles. The amount of value which is put on human life should be reexamined.

Is time a motivating factor? It certainly doesn’t look like there’s any threat to Xi’s position. He doesn’t need to be in a rush.

The longer he waits the stronger China becomes. Does it become stronger in relation to Taiwan and the US? Quite possibly.

Means - how would China invade Taiwan?

There’s only really two main adversaries and two broad tactics for taking Taiwan. These are 1) Taiwan, 2) the USA, and then 1) siege tactics and/or 2) amphibious assault.

In a siege there are perhaps 3 main things China could do.

First, it could just keep firing missiles from the mainland onto Taiwan until it surrenders. It could probably do this indefinitely. It would be the lowest cost and lowest risk option. It would be very hard to counter and involve the lowest amount of men put in harm's way.

Second, China could blockade Taiwan to keep out trade and prevent it from importing supplies. This is higher cost and risk because it would likely mean committing ships and planes to the sea around Taiwan. This might bring it into danger from attack from Taiwan itself and conflict with other countries.

Third and finally, counter-intervention. This would be a highly aggressive and risky move reminiscent of Pearl Harbour. Taiwan has a relatively small military compared to China. It would rely on the US for help. China could launch a strike against US air bases in the region. There is perhaps only one which really matters. Andersen Airforce Base in Guam. Perhaps it’s possible for the US to adapt and relocate but that would take time and building more high capacity air bases seems very unlikely. The US just doesn’t have enough presence to quickly help Taiwan if China made a proper effort to take it by force. The US Air Force may be better than China’s but it’s far away. China has the home field advantage. See a list of air bases in the nearby Guangzhou and Nanjing Military Regions for a comparison. China is also militarising the islands it is building in the South China Sea (AP 21-Mar-2022). Its defences keep getting stronger.

The last thing to consider is direct amphibious assault. China would need to coordinate its military fully and thoroughly. Is it capable of this? It can always get better. It would also require the world not to catch wind of the buildup of troops, matériel, ships, supplies, etc. on China’s coast. China almost certainly has a greater ability to disrupt US space capacity (spy satellites) now. Space warfare is still very new and untested. What weapons and abilities does everyone have? It’s likely that nobody has a good picture. The only way to find out would be actual fighting in space. Assuming everything was spotted in time, could or would both Taiwan and the US mobilise in time? If yes, that could be very costly for the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Deploying the US Navy is also likely to be very costly. It would have to contend with both the PLAN and land to sea attacks from the mainland.

What if China asks this question: can we take Taiwan but at the cost of the navy? If the answer is yes, it might be worth it. China can always build a new navy.

Opportunity - when would China invade Taiwan?

The question of “when” depends on China’s assessment of the cost and whether it’s worth it.

The simplest way to answer is “as soon as China thinks it can win”. At the most extreme, China wins if it’s the only one left standing. That’s obviously not realistic, so the real question comes back to what China thinks is worth losing.

The only defence against this is to make the cost too high. It may not be possible to know what that is, so another way to think about this could be to make the cost as high as possible. Are Taiwan, the US, or anyone else, willing to do this? The question is also what China’s adversaries are willing to risk.

What’s next?

The war in Ukraine will be a case study for China. In particular, the reaction to it and the impact on Russia.

China will be assessing whether it could endure the US and other countries cutting it off economically. It will calculate what the costs might be and whether it would be worth it.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could be a very good offset for China. It already has a lot of access to manufacturing, raw materials, and food. China is more advanced in developing its own payment system than Russia. It most recently tested its digital yuan CBDC at the Olympics (Bloomberg 15-Feb-2022).

China is certainly in a strong position. The chances of invasion are up. How much depends on how much you think that China is prepared to lose by its own, not Western, standards.