China is unlikely to invade Taiwan in the next 5-10 years, but several drivers could change Beijing’s reasoning and push China toward a more aggressive strategy. Based purely on a strategic cost-benefit analysis of everything from economics and politics to technology considerations and alliance dynamics, it seems likely that Beijing will delay an invasion of Taiwan for years, if not decades. In the meantime, Beijing will attempt to coerce Taiwan into giving up its dreams of sovereignty and to convince the West that conflict over Taiwan is not worth the trouble. If myriad geopolitical drivers push China toward escalation, however, China could wield such coercive tactics as widespread cyber attacks against Taiwan, a de facto blockade of Taiwan’s ports (an extended version of the military drills that followed U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August), a trade war targeting Taiwan’s non-electronic exports, or restricted trade in essential goods with Taiwan’s Kinmen or Matsu Islands, which are within miles of the Chinese coast. In the long term, Chinese authorities believe that U.S. power is in decline and that China’s is rising, and thus that time is on their side. The following constraints make a Taiwan invasion unlikely in the near term.
- Military ascendance: China’s military power has risen in recent years following higher expenditures and greater advances in technology, while the U.S. military is geographically overstretched and overburdened with human capital and maintenance costs relative to technological research. However, an invasion over the next few years could result in the West imposing heavy trade and financial sanctions on China that would crater China’s economy given the depth of its reliance on Western markets.
- Costs of invasion: Moreover, China’s military is likely not yet ready for the invasion, given the herculean task of such a large amphibious invasion and the likelihood of U.S., Japanese and Australian military intervention, not to mention the potential for NATO involvement. The devastating loss of great numbers of military assets alone, accrued over decades of military modernization, might be enough to dissuade China from invasion, at least until the late 2020s when China will have better capabilities and thus a better chance of achieving a fait accompli on Taiwan.
- Risk of failure: Domestic politics also might dissuade Beijing from conducting an invasion, as the failure to militarily take Taiwan could lead to the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party — or at least of its current leader, President Xi Jinping. In such a case, Xi would be harangued for failing to achieve the so-called reunification of China, one of the great missions of the Party since its founding in 1949.
- Technological dependence: China relies on Taiwanese exports of high-end semiconductors, and the destructiveness of an invasion (not to mention Taiwan’s own potential plans to scuttle factories rather than hand them over to Beijing) could set China’s technological development back decades.
Despite these constraints, a number of long-term strategic drivers may make military action against the island seem like an attractive option to Beijing. A combination of these drivers could push China to accelerate its timeline for a Taiwan invasion much earlier than 2049, which is Xi’s current milestone for China achieving national rejuvenation, in part through reunification with Taiwan.
- Bad intel: Xi has wielded his anti-corruption campaign to purge political dissent and surround himself with “yes men” over the last 10 years. This means his information flows may be biased heavily toward affirmation, which risks China taking inadvisable policy moves.
- Military inexperience: Most Chinese generals have never fought in a war, while a select few fought during China’s last major conflict, the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, which was prior to China’s military modernization. Thus, China’s battlefield systems, especially its joint operation systems predicated on nationwide coordination of military theaters, are ill-tested for combat, and its soldiers and generals are unaware of their true capabilities outside of training, drills and observation of other countries’ military engagements. As a result, Chinese military leaders may have a poor grasp of their combat capabilities, while nationalism through propaganda may add unbridled optimism to this ignorance.
- Xi’s self-image: Xi sees himself as a pivotal character in China’s history, having enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought” in the Party constitution (alongside “Mao Zedong Thought”) and deemed himself the helmsman of China’s great rejuvenation into the world’s leading superpower. Xi also thoroughly integrated the “Two Establishments” — which situate Xi as the core of the CCP and Xi’s ideas as the foundation of China’s “new era” — into all state policy. Therefore, his claim that China’s national rejuvenation hinges upon reunification with Taiwan may motivate him to attempt to make significant progress on “the Taiwan question” to cement his legacy.
- Fear of economic decline: A period of sustained economic decline could lead Beijing to believe that time is no longer on its side vis-a-vis Chinese ascendance and Western decline, and thus that China’s ability to retake Taiwan may be at its zenith. This could prompt a “now or never” moment for a Taiwan invasion, particularly given Xi’s more aggressive temperament (compared with previous leaders) and concerns about his personal legacy.
- Taiwan’s rearming: The longer Beijing waits to attack Taiwan, the more arms Taipei will be able to amass through security agreements like the $1.1 billion U.S. arms deal signed on Sept. 6 for missiles and surveillance support. To circumvent this “poison shrimp” strategy, whereby Taiwan makes itself too costly to invade, Beijing may opt for military action on Taiwan sooner rather than later.
- Taiwan’s politicization: With each generation, the Taiwanese people grow more opposed to living under Chinese rule. Meanwhile, the opposition Kuomintang party in Taiwan, which is traditionally friendly toward Beijing, is losing ground in elections and adjusting poorly to this pro-sovereignty shift in Taiwanese sentiment. Thus, Beijing may be motivated to invade sooner, before the populace becomes even more anti-China and difficult to rule over, akin to the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong.
Shorter-term tactical events also could motivate China to escalate military action against Taiwan and permanently change the status quo of cross-strait interaction, as evidenced by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taipei. Pelosi’s Aug. 2-3 visit prompted Beijing to launch live-fire military drills in areas closer to Taiwan’s coast than ever before — demonstrating China’s ability to enforce a blockade of Taiwan’s ports — and conduct regular crossings of the Taiwan Strait median line. Similar events may drive China to escalate its use of economic and military coercion against Taiwan, which could push China further up the escalation ladder toward invasion. Other particularly provocative events, however, could prompt China to forgo coercion entirely in favor of a military invasion on an accelerated timeline.
- High-level visits: Like Pelosi’s visit, other major world leaders, including heads of parliament or even heads of state, could visit Taiwan for political reasons, despite the cautions of their national security advisors. China could once again use backchannels to communicate the unprecedented moves of military coercion it would take (e.g., the no-fly zone over Taiwan it threatened ahead of the Pelosi visit) to deter or punish these actions.
- Congressional bills: Akin to the Taiwan Policy Act currently floating through the U.S. Senate, which would designate Taiwan a major non-NATO ally, other legislatures could pass bills that would upend the uneasy stability across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan’s own pro-independence wing of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is one major source of such disruptive bills, though the pro-status-quo wing of the DPP usually counters its legislative efforts. Such efforts also could prompt China to up its military coercion of Taiwan (e.g., through live-fire drills).
- Chinese nationalism: As Beijing relies more heavily on pro-China propaganda and anti-Western messages to deflect internal criticism over policy failures (e.g., the “zero COVID” policy) and external criticism over human rights issues (e.g., in Xinjiang), zealous Chinese nationalists could force Beijing’s hand by waging protests that call on the government to take aggressive action toward Taiwan. This could result in new Chinese trade restrictions or military activities around the island.
- Accidental collision: China’s increased pace of military overflights of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), as well as flights and naval navigations past the Taiwan Strait median line, regularly prompt Taiwanese military responses. These encounters risk accidental collisions, especially given the recent dare-devil tactics of Chinese fighter pilots, which could spark a political crisis on par with the EP-3 spy plane incident of 2001, especially if loss of life occurs.
- China’s red lines: Beijing has a number of policy “red lines” that, if crossed, would heighten its threat perception of Taiwan to justify escalated activity, up to and potentially including an invasion. These include a U.S. formal defense agreement with Taiwan, U.S. stationing of troops in Taiwan (akin to bases in Okinawa), Washington abandoning strategic ambiguity in favor of a clear stance on exactly what Chinese actions would prompt U.S. military intervention on behalf of Taiwan, Taiwan declaring constitutional independence, a pro-independence candidate winning the Taiwan presidential election in 2024, an indefinite withdrawal by both of Taiwan’s main political parties from any future reunification talks with China, and global recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign country.
Several events could indicate changes in these long- and short-term drivers of a potential invasion and in the status quo of China-Taiwan relations. It will be important to look out for the following events as China-Taiwan tensions continue to develop, as they could trigger Chinese coercive action or, in the worst-case scenario, escalate into a full-fledged invasion.
- Protests: China could experience protests with hundreds of participants outside of key U.S. or European embassies or consulates in China’s major cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou.
- Organizational admission: Major international bodies like the World Health Organization could decide to admit Taiwan as a member even though China normally predicates its own membership on the exclusion of Taiwan.
- International recognition: The United States and other countries could ditch their own versions of the vague “one China” policy, effectively indicating their recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign country. On a less extreme note, more countries could establish “Taiwan representative offices,” as Lithuania did in November 2021, which Beijing likens to recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty.
- Arms sales: The United States could escalate its arms sales to Taiwan significantly enough to alter the cross-strait power balance or threaten China’s coastal security (e.g., through the sale of hypersonic missiles).
- U.S. policy specificity: The Biden administration could go beyond recent statements about a U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan from an “unprecedented attack” by laying out exactly what Chinese activities would trigger U.S. military invention.
- Escalating rhetoric: Xi could make additional statements indicating that Taiwan’s reunification is necessary for China’s national development, and he could associate reunification with other national goals (such as China’s goals for technological supremacy in key fields).
- Slow economic growth: China’s annual gross domestic product growth could stay below 3% for years while youth unemployment remains high at around 20% and real estate sale prices stagnate.
Source: Stratfor September 20, 2022