The west coast of Taiwan is muddy. The east coast is mountainous. There are perhaps 14 beaches on which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could land, and they’re all hemmed in by cliffs or urban density. Taiwan gets hit by earthquakes and typhoons regularly. A lot of its buildings and infrastructure are designed to withstand some buffeting. The Taiwanese have been practising fighter jet landing and take-off from highways (Reuters 15-Sep-2021). Is this something China would be forced to do too? It’s not ideal.

Taiwan also has dense jungles. Under Japanese occupation, starting in 1895, it was a source of guerilla resistance for about 15 years. It’s difficult to imagine urbanised, comfortable people taking to the jungles. It wouldn’t take that many for it to become a nasty problem, and difficult to solve without terrible repression.

China has problems in its own ranks.

The military may be large but troop morale is very low (Nikkei Asia 19-Sep-2021). There are a few reasons for this.

In a booming Chinese economy, joining the military is not seen as a good career option. It pays very little, though that has increased in recent years. Until recently (SCMP 23-Jan-2021) the basic pay for a private in the Chinese military was US purchasing power equivalent to $10,000. There is a Chinese colloquial saying “good steel does not become nails”. The PLA consists of about 70% only children, due to the one-child policy. There is a strong expectation for Chinese children to take care of their parents in their old age. Joining the PLA is not a lucrative option and if you die, you lose your entire family line, and cannot support your family.

China is also worried that its military is full of wimps (Quartz 06-Feb-2014). Again, thanks to the one-child policy there is a cultural phenomenon of “little emperor syndrome”. Only children become doted on and spoiled. As a result, China is worried that its young men are becoming too feminine and need to be made more manly (BBC 04-Feb-2021). China has been cracking down on “sissy idols” and the way that men are portrayed in popular culture (SCMP 02-Sep-2021).

Low morale is understandable. China is telling its military that it’s a bunch of wimpy nails.

Worse still for China, its military is not match fit. Its last serious engagement was in 1979 against Vietnam, which it lost. At best, the PLA has had a few border spats with India in recent years (DW 28-Jan-2022). There is not a single PLA soldier left who has seen real combat, except perhaps a few old generals. Taiwan isn’t any better, but its main ally, the US, is well exercised from a number of wars in the Middle East.

China’s best choices may be cyber warfare, disinformation, economics, and demoralisation. The most realistic choice for China is perhaps to make it as difficult as possible for Taiwan to oppose integration. Can it shift public opinion in Taiwan (and the US) so that people don’t think it’s worth it to fight?

That’s less clear, and less immediately, and physically threatening. It would take a long time to create that kind of opportunity. Are there any shorter term opportunities for China to invade Taiwan?

Opportunity - when would China invade Taiwan?

The popular wisdom in the West is that no country would ever do anything big and threatening while the Olympics are running. Especially not China, especially as the Olympics are in Beijing! The West is too well trained by its media. The same sorts of concerns around public opinion, perception control, etc. are not the same in China. It has a lot more power to do what it wants and control the news.

The Olympics is not a reason why China won’t invade Taiwan.

In the short and longer term China faces a Taiwanese population which does not view itself as Chinese. It views itself as Taiwanese. Approximately 66% view themselves as solely Taiwanese. In the young, 18-29 age range, this number is 83% (Pew Research Center 12-May-2020).

The US is also still an obstacle. China/US relations are declining. The US is withdrawing its attention from the Middle East and refocusing on the Pacific. This is good for Taiwan. A Chinese invasion would be too much. It would almost certainly provoke a response from the US. If the US failed to defend Taiwan it might make all of its regional alliances dissolve. The US’s reputation would be broken and it would not be trusted to come to anyone else’s defence.

Japan also has its own concerns regarding the Ryukyu Islands, the Senkaku Islands in particular, and interests in Taiwanese semiconductors. Any move by China risks provoking a defensive response by Japan in line with its own territorial and economic interests.

This could be viewed as an extension of the porcupine strategy. It would be very geopolitically difficult for China to invade Taiwan. There’s no opening, no opportunity for it to be able to invade Taiwan without disastrous consequences.

China might also consider Hong Kong as a test case. Even without a military invasion it risks destroying Taiwan. Hong Kong, which built itself on its openness and receptiveness to foreigners, is deterring them (Bloomberg 10-Jan-2022). The very moment that China takes over Taiwan in any sense is the moment that it will start to decline. That’s not necessarily a reason to deter China from pursuing control of Taiwan. Control may be more important than prosperity. It’s still a calculation which must be made.

It’s possible that if any of these problems can be solved, that the window of opportunity opens for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Some of these problems are likely to take a long time to ameliorate, let alone solve. Predictions for a 2022-27 invasion timeframe are not plausible.

What’s next?

Probably not much for a long time.

The best option for China is probably to try to increase economic and cultural ties with Taiwan.

Even this could be difficult. Younger generations are not disposed to it. The longer Taiwan and China are separated, the lower the prospects of reintegrating Taiwan into China. It’s forming its own national and political identity. It can see what China does to the people under its control.

China is much more likely to make cyber attacks or other less overtly aggressive moves.

China will not invade Taiwan.

On the other hand, the time pressure on Xi is relatively low. It’s not just that he stated a goal of 2049, though that is less than 30 years away. He is now in his position for life (BBC 12-Nov-2021). There’s much less pressure for him to make any bold moves, or make his mark quickly.
 
It’s certainly plausible that China has the motive to commit the crime, even if there’s no rush.

How strong are its motives? Strong enough to overcome any downsides in the means and opportunities available to it?

Means - how would China invade Taiwan?

China is vastly more powerful than Taiwan. If it wanted to invade it would certainly do so successfully. But it wouldn’t be easy.

Taiwan has a population of about 23.24 million people. It has to rely on a porcupine strategy. It will never be able to attack but if it can defend itself very strongly it can deter attack. There are four main defensive areas to consider: sea, land-to-sea, shore, and the jungle. It’s implausible for Taiwan to fight China head on at sea, navy to navy. Land-to-sea and shore are preferable for a Taiwanese defence strategy. Taiwan is making itself into a “sea fortress” (Reuters 15-Sep-2015).

Taiwan is increasing military spending, with a recent extra spending bill passed for $8.6bn (France 24 11-Jan-2022). US arms sales remain important for Taiwan’s defence (Reuters 08-Dec-2020), and the equipment is consistent with the “sea fortress” concept (Reuters 08-Feb-2022). Missiles, artillery, communication systems, drones. On the other hand, the US does not tend to sell Taiwan the latest technology. It’s still very good and a lot but this helps keep China in a sweet spot. China doesn’t get too provoked but Taiwan is not insufficiently protected.

The weaponry and sheer military force is not the only obstacle for China. Taiwan is about 100km from the Chinese mainland. It also has control of some islands which are as close as 2-3km (Kinmen and the Matsu Islands). It’s a long way to travel. It’s less than the distance the Allies crossed the English Channel on D-Day (approximately 160km) but technology has changed since WW2. It would be possible to see the Chinese depart from the mainland and their direction of travel by satellite. A rehash of Operation Fortitude with inflatable tanks is not going to work.

The terrain is also against China once it manages to get to the shores.

Taiwan won’t be invaded 16-Feb-2022

South China Sea Series

Unless something very big changes it is very, very unlikely that China will invade Taiwan.

Some sort of fear is being pushed in the West. It’s not because China is likely to invade. Perhaps it’s caution or deterrence?

China could invade Taiwan by 2027, says US admiral (Taiwan News 10-Mar-2021). Oh no, wait, it’s 2025 says Taiwan’s defence minister (CNN 06-Oct-2021). Guys, sorry, this is embarrassing, but actually it’s going to happen in 2022, says General McMaster (Nikkei Asia 03-Mar-2021).

Western suspicion of China is understandable. Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong. China claims a large territory in the South China Sea and builds up scraggly rocks and reefs into military outposts. The West is cautious of aggressive Russian expansion. The modern founding myth of the West is the defeat of expansionist German ethno-nationalism. This is the lens it looks at China through. Some of what it sees is valuable, other bits are not.

Assuming a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is premature at best. The West should look again before getting jittery about some sort of Minority Report-style pre-crime.

Let’s have a look, sleuths.

Motive - why would China invade Taiwan?

Chairman Xi Jinping said that China and Taiwan would be reunified by peaceful means by 2049 (Guardian 08-Oct-2021). It’s a warning sign to those who would prefer to see Taiwan keep its independence.

It’s personal (for Xi), ideological, nationalist, and political goal for China. Separation of Taiwan from mainland China dates back to 1949. The Communists won against the Nationalists, who fled to Taiwan. Reunification by 2049 would neatly wrap up 100 years of unfinished business.

Taking Taiwan would also boost China’s geopolitical position. It would break the first island chain, the strategy to keep China’s fleet bound. Control of Taiwan would give China the gap it needs to get into the Pacific Ocean much more freely.