The Coming Invasion of Taiwan

Most observers of the rising tension between Communist China and Taiwan do not believe that an invasion of Taiwan is imminent.  However, it seems increasingly clear that China is arming and planning for such a campaign.  President Xi Jinping is moving toward becoming a dictator for life, and the "reunification" of the island nation of Taiwan with Communist China would be the crowning achievement of his reign.

But not all is well in the Middle Kingdom, as there is growing opposition to Xi's destructive zero-COVID policies.  A banner hung off an overpass in Beijing recently read: "Say no to Covid test, yes to food.  No to lockdown, yes to freedom.  No to lies, yes to dignity.  No to cultural revolution, yes to reform.  No to great leader, yes to vote.  Don't be a slave, be a citizen."  What would be a routine demonstration in the U.S. is a stunning act of defiance and courage in China.

A military adventure would be an effective distraction from growing unrest.  And if China were to occupy Taiwan, it would give the communist country undisputed control of the South China Sea, which has some of the most important sea lanes on the planet.

Ever since Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalists fled to Taiwan, known as Formosa at the time, the mainland has wanted to bring the wayward island under its control.  At the recent 20th Party Congress, Xi used the phrase "independence forces," referring to Taiwan.  He went on to declare, "Complete reunification of our country must be realized."

Elon Musk's recent proposal to treat Taiwan like Hong Kong as a way of solving the dispute has to make one wonder if the eccentric billionaire has been paying attention to what's been going on in Hong Kong over the last couple of years.  Musk's proposal would be good for his own business interests, but not so good for Taiwan's 23 million residents.  We know what Musk wants, but what do the Taiwanese want?  Most opinion polls that explore these questions find two consistent attitudes.  First, a majority of the people wants to maintain the status quo when it comes to the relationship between China and Taiwan.  Second, more than 70 percent of them consider Taiwan an independent and sovereign country.

Taiwan is a democratic republic with a successful free-enterprise economy.  Like every other country, it is far from perfect, but the island nation deserves support from the United States.

The U.S. has been selling weapons to Taiwan for what end?  Were these weapon sales just for deterrent purposes and to help defense companies?  Are the weapons evidence that the U.S. intends to defend Taiwan if China attacks?  Does the Biden administration know the answer to any of these questions?  What does Taiwan's government really know about U.S. plans?  These are difficult questions, but the U.S. government and national security experts have had a long time to think about them.

Perhaps the most important question is, what do the Chinese believe about U.S. intensions?  Strategic ambiguity can be a legitimate approach, but it cannot be allowed to become a cover for indecision and weakness.

Some experts argue that in the event of an invasion, China would try to implement an "integrated operational concept."  This is a sort of "all hands on deck" approach that would include everything from cyber-attacks to sabotage.  Everyone recognizes that Taiwan's seaports would be crucial objectives for the Chinese and would almost certainly be the focus at the earliest stages of an invasion across the Taiwan Strait.  Amphibious operations have to be a part of an IOC, but exactly what form they would take is up for debate.

The Chinese navy has amphibious assault ships, but the communist regime embraces a doctrine of military-civilian fusion, which essentially means that civilian industry, technology, and equipment are subject to use by the military.  One example that has been discussed is massive car carrier ships being used to ferry troops and equipment into unsuspecting ports.  Light infantry and special operations forces — — even tanks and armored fighting vehicles — could be in position to seize ports before Taiwan knew it was under attack.

There are analysts who think a blockade of Taiwan might precede an invasion, but this would take away China's chance to achieve strategic surprise.  Tactical surprise would still be possible, but much more difficult with even just a weeks-long blockade.

While the likelihood and efficacy of a blockade are up for debate, it is beyond debate that China has been busy forming a no-go zone in the South China Sea and especially in the Taiwan Strait, the 100-mile body of water that separates Mainland China from Taiwan.  Admiral Michael Gilday, chief of U.S. naval operations, recently gave an interview, and he made a point of saying he believes that China could invade Taiwan in 2022 or 2023.  Presumably, this analysis isn't news to anyone in the Biden administration, but that the admiral said it in public as China's 20th Party Congress was unfolding is interesting timing.

There is never a perfect time to take on the risks and uncertainties that come with launching a major military operation, but the next 12–24 months might be the best window of opportunity President Xi is going to have.  It seems he is preparing China for conflict for several years as it continues to modernize and expand its military, stockpiles, food, and raw materials and cultivates an ally in Russia.  He has solidified his rule with the recent 20th Party Congress, so now he is free to focus on what the CCP sees as an existential issue: putting Taiwan under its yoke.

The "reunification" nonsense is crude, but probably effective propaganda to many ears, both in China and in the West.  But the island nation was never controlled by China, so there can be no reunification — only an invasion and the destruction of a free and sovereign nation.

The U.S. government has to learn from its Ukraine mistake, which was to show weakness and indecision leading up to Russia's invasion instead of a policy of unequivocal deterrence.  Deterrence has a chance of working only if President Biden and the Pentagon can convince the CCP that the U.S. really might intervene in the event of an invasion.  Unfortunately, time might be running out.

Michael Phelps is a freelance writer and the author of the book, A Short History of the Long War: The Global Struggle Against Militant Islamism.

Image: Taipei, capital of Taiwan.  Tingyaoh via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

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