The risk of a Chinese invasion remains low, but China’s gray-zone provocations are likely to test Taiwan’s mettle.
Tensions in the Taiwan Strait reached new levels after U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei in August. The massive live-fire drills by China that followed the visit have intensified concerns about Taiwan’s security, which have been growing ever since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stepped up gray-zone provocations against the island democracy more than two years ago.
China has been threatening military action against Taiwan for decades, and despite the recent heightened tensions, there is no evidence that Beijing has adopted a definite plan to resort to use of force. Nevertheless, the U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has ordered the PLA to be capable of invading the island democracy by 2027. This deadline coincides with the end of Xi’s third term and the centennial of the PLA’s founding.
“2027 is a target date for the capability, but then you have to figure out if [Xi] has the intent,” says Ivan Kanapathy, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. and a former White House National Security Council director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia.
At the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October, Xi firmly reiterated the regime’s resolve. “The wheels of history are rolling on towards reunification and the rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation,” he said. “Complete reunification must be realized, and it can without a doubt be achieved.”
Still, Xi also emphasized at the Party Congress that “we insist on striving for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and best effort.”
Part of Beijing’s calculation would undoubtedly be the difficult geographical and topographical conditions an invader would face.
“The PLA’s big challenge starts with the 80 to 100 nautical miles of water [separating Taiwan and mainland China], mountainous and inhospitable terrain, unfavorable sea conditions, and very few suitable landing destinations,” former U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary Randall Schriver told a conference in Washington, D.C. in September, co-sponsored by the East-West Center and AmCham Taiwan.
In addition, although China undeniably enjoys superiority in numbers of military personnel and equipment, Taiwan is hardly defenseless. It has developed and produces a variety of sophisticated missiles, and it is at least partially protected by PAC-3 Patriot anti-missile defense systems from the U.S.
Other than launching a full-scale invasion, Beijing has a wide range of options to try to intimidate Taiwan into submission. They range from gray-zone operations like the current incursions of PLA fighter jets into airspace near Taiwan, to the seizure of Taipei’s outlying islands, to the partial or full blockade of Taiwan proper.
However, China would have to weigh using force against Taiwan with the massive costs the exercise would impose on its military, international reputation, and economy – the vitality of which is a key source of legitimacy for the ruling Communist Party.
Moreover, U.S. involvement in a cross-Strait conflict would be almost a given, considering the strong bipartisan Congressional support for Taiwan. In addition, President Joe Biden has explicitly stated four times during his presidency that Washington would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked.
As for the impact on the aggressor, a recent RAND Corporation study found that a cross-Strait war would cut China’s gross domestic product by a punishing 25-35%. Even coercive action below the kinetic threshold could have harsh repercussions for Beijing.
“If China blockades Taiwan, it will face some consequences,” says Grant Newsham, a retired U.S. Marine colonel and former Marine attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. “Spiking insurance rates will affect maritime and air traffic to the PRC, and some carriers simply won’t go to China as long as war risk is high. And that will also affect FDI decisions regarding the PRC for some foreign companies.”
Discussion of a blockade scenario has increased markedly since China’s August military exercises, which highlighted the PLA’s potential to choke off the island’s economy by blocking its sea lanes. Unlike an actual blockade, the military exercises caused minimal disruption to shipping routes, but the message for Taiwan and the U.S. was clear.
“Beijing wanted to show their capability to impose a partial blockade on Taiwan, though not necessarily [at this time] intent,” says Alexander Huang, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) director of international affairs and a professor of strategic studies at Tamkang University.
Beijing might use a partial or full blockade to force Taiwan into talks without taking on the burden of a full-scale invasion of the island. Given Taiwan’s dependence on food and energy imports, even a temporary partial blockade could severely disrupt its citizens’ lives. Panicked investors might tank the stock market, while the export-dependent economy would crater if shipping routes were seriously disrupted. The ensuing economic turmoil would generate intense pressure on the Taiwanese government.
If the CCP were “certain that there would be no intervention, a blockade would be a relatively cost-effective – albeit slow – strangulation strategy that would avoid the extraordinarily high operational risks of a full-scale invasion,” including the potential losses an invasion force would suffer, says Eric Chan, a senior strategist at the U.S. Air Force and a non-resident senior fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, D.C.
However, Chan emphasizes that “the key term here is ‘relatively,’ as Taiwanese anti-ship capabilities would take a heavy toll on the PLAN (PLA Navy), while the PRC economy and international reputation would certainly crater.”
When U.S. intervention is factored in, a blockade of Taiwan appears increasingly unfeasible. “It doesn’t create a fait accompli,” says CSIS’s Kanapathy. The U.S. could retaliate by using its naval power to blockade the narrow Strait of Malacca, through which more than 70% of China’s petroleum and LNG imports pass. “The Chinese still rely on oil and gas that is seaborne,” he notes. Under this scenario, “it becomes a question of who can last longer.”
“Having lived in Taiwan, I believe the Taiwanese people have the will to endure significant hardship to preserve their freedoms,” adds Kanapathy, who worked at the American Institute in Taiwan from 2014 to 2017.
Meanwhile, top U.S. military officials have expressed confidence that Washington and its allies could break a Chinese maritime blockade of Taiwan. In October, Admiral Samuel Paparo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said the answer to that question “is a resounding yes,” citing “superiority in key domains” (presumably referring to nuclear submarines) and the volume of firepower.
From Taiwan’s perspective, preparing to fight off a PLA blockade requires similar capabilities to deterring or defeating a full-scale invasion.
“A multilayered defense consisting of high numbers of widely dispersed anti-ship cruise missiles, HIMARS (a light rocket launcher) configured to naval strike, and unmanned surface vehicles would be crucial in wearing down a blockade,” says Chan. “Taiwan’s air force could routinely exercise the ability to conduct naval strikes.” Demonstrating these capabilities could deter the PRC from a blockade as the costs would be “almost indistinguishable from that of a full invasion.”
Another coercive option for China might be to seize the outlying islands of Kinmen or Matsu, just a stone’s throw from Fujian Province, or the island of Pratas (Dongsha). At about 420 km southwest of Kaohsiung, Pratas is closer to Guangdong Province than it is to Taiwan.
Chinese control of any of these islands would not be a strategic game-changer, given their remoteness. But it would have a psychological impact and could deal a heavy political blow to the Taiwanese government and military, sowing doubt about their ability to protect Taiwan’s territory.
In April, The Taipei Times quoted an anonymous official familiar with cross-Strait affairs as saying a Chinese invasion of Kinmen or another offshore island should be considered “very possible” if Xi feels the need to divert his people’s attention away from domestic troubles like the flagging economy.
Yet Xi would have little reason to attack Kinmen or Matsu, given their deep integration with China, notes Jiang Hsinbiao, an assistant research fellow at the Institute of National Defense Research (INDSR), a think tank affiliated with the Ministry of National Defense (MND). This deep integration goes beyond the close geographical proximity. Before the pandemic, high-speed ferries carried passengers between the islands and nearby mainland cities several times a day.
Scholars have also posited that Beijing prefers to see Kinmen and Matsu – which geographically and historically are part of Fujian Province – remain under Taiwan’s control as a buffer against permanent “Taiwan independence.”
“Kinmen and Matsu are politically useful to China as they are now,” says Jiang. “There is no need to use force.”
Pratas might be a more likely target for China. Given its naval superiority, the PLA could seize the island easily, and U.S. intervention to protect a remote atoll could not be assumed. Casualties would be few since Pratas has no permanent residents; its only inhabitants are detachments of Coast Guard and Marine personnel.
Pratas also has strategic value. “It is a chokepoint for passage into the northeastern part of the South China Sea from the Pacific Ocean,” says Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, former chief of staff of Taiwan’s armed forces. If China controlled Pratas, it could use the atoll “to restrict the U.S. military’s ability to patrol the South China Sea,” ultimately enabling Beijing to hinder U.S. intervention in a cross-Strait conflict.
Still, Lee emphasizes that seizing any of the outlying islands would alone be insufficient to force Taiwan’s capitulation. For coercive operations of this nature to be effective, “China must make Taiwan believe that it has the capability to launch a full-scale invasion successfully,” Lee says.
While any outright use of military force by China against Taiwan would incur significant expenditures for the attacker, gray-zone activity does not. On the contrary, Beijing’s martial muscle-flexing has few drawbacks, allowing the PLA to train for different military operations while scoring propaganda points with its domestic and global audiences.
The August live-fire drills are a case in point. “The Chinese showed they could declare ‘no-entry’ zones around the island and bracket it with missile shots, while also deploying aircraft and ships in positions to enforce a blockade if necessary,” says Newsham. “It was disruptive, even though the Chinese didn’t push the matter, for now.”
Analysts expect China to step up its coercion of Taiwan during Xi Jinping’s third term as the Chinese leader looks to secure his place in history, and as the Chinese military aspires to project naval power by gaining ability to reach beyond the West Pacific “first island chain,” in which Taiwan is the linchpin. A proposed amendment to the CCP’s constitution after the Party Congress reveals Xi’s focus on Taiwan. The amendment would enshrine China’s opposition to Taiwan independence and the Chinese military’s commitment to promoting unification.
“China only started to experiment with the joint force packages required to impose a full blockade on Taiwan in August,” says Rick Fisher, a senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington, D.C. He says he expects Beijing “will be mounting ever larger force demonstrations toward this goal.”
Huang of Tamkang University notes that Taiwan was only mildly affected by China’s live-fire drills because of the advance notice given. In August, China announced it would hold exercises for 72 hours and cautioned ships and aircraft to avoid the areas of the drills during that period.
“It was possible for most Taiwanese to ignore the drills because their daily lives were not affected; they knew this would be over quickly,” he says. “But you can imagine how things might have been different if Beijing had not given an explicit timeframe for the exercises and they had gone on for three weeks.”
Huang suggests that the Taiwanese government prepare for disruptions to everyday life that could happen in a future cross-Strait crisis, emphasizing preparedness, not alarmism. “There are ways to build resilience – we can do it gradually,” he says. He proposes the government train the population on how to manage fuel shortages and interruptions to internet service. “We can tell people that on a certain day and time for 30 minutes, 50% of gas stations won’t be available, or internet service will be down, and learn how to deal with it.”
At the same time, Huang argues that Taiwan should aim to lower tensions with Beijing to reduce the risk of a crisis happening before Taiwan has improved its readiness. “We need a political strategy to buy time for a military capacity build-up,” he says.
Taiwan introduced its Overall Defense Concept (ODC), the brainchild of Admiral Lee, in 2017. With a focus on asymmetric defense, the ODC aims to maximize Taiwan’s resources to hold off a Chinese invasion long enough for third-party intervention.
The ODC posits that China cannot defeat Taiwan without occupying its main island. To prevent Beijing from putting boots on the ground, it emphasizes the use of what Admiral Lee calls “small, mobile, distributed” resources, such as fast attack boats, sea mines, coastal defense cruise missiles, short-range mobile air defenses, and drones.
Though U.S. military planners and many analysts have lauded the ODC, Lee says implementation has been hindered by resistance in the MND, which prefers big-ticket conventional weapons systems. Lee notes that the PLA could render equipment like F-16 fighter jets useless in a cross-Strait conflict by destroying Taiwan’s airfields with missile strikes. “Where are the F-16s going to take off from?” he says.
Most analysts say Taiwan would struggle to prevail in a cross-Strait conflict without direct U.S. intervention. Yet Ukraine has repelled Russia’s invasion against all odds, defying both Vladimir Putin’s and Western intelligence agencies’ forecasts of a quick Russian victory.
“Many observers thought Ukraine would fall in a few days’ time, but they were wrong,” says Kanapathy of CSIS. “It was the determination of the Ukrainian people to defend their country that galvanized global support, which in turn has helped them to prevent a Russian victory.”
For Taiwan to foil a Chinese invasion, “it has to be able to hold out for at least few weeks until the United States and allies can galvanize the political will and mobilize the military power to intervene,” he adds.
History is replete with examples of countries that instigated wars confident that they would prevail, only to be shocked by the tenacity of the resistance they encountered, notes Admiral Lee. He points out that Adolf Hitler badly misjudged the level of resistance to a Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, a decision that ultimately led to Germany’s defeat in the Second World War.
“You can’t predict the outcome of war,” he says. “That’s why war doesn’t happen that often.”