Will China invade Taiwan?

Could Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine set an example for China, which has long claimed Taiwan as part of its territory? If so, what would be the cost?

Xi Jinping on a Chinese aircraft carrier
Xi: Taiwan is an “inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”
(Image credit: © Li Gang/Xinhua/Alamy Live News)

What’s happened?

The geopolitical jostling over Taiwan is intensifying, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has concentrated minds on all sides about the risks and rewards of possible conflict in the western Pacific.

Last month US president Joe Biden, in an apparently off-the-cuff comment, committed the US to defending Taiwan militarily in the event of a Chinese attack. The White House rowed back Biden’s comments, which departed from the US’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” over its intentions. But many analysts do think Biden has made a conscious choice: to signal to China that, if it tries to take Taiwan by force, it will have to fight America, too.

Since then, China unilaterally declared that it would will no longer treat the Taiwan Strait, 160km-wide at its narrowest point, as international waters and unveiled its third aircraft carrier – the first to rival America’s most advanced carrier for size and technical design. Beijing also stepped up its rhetoric, with China’s defence minister Wei Fenghe warning his US counterpart, Lloyd Austin, that China will “not hesitate to start a war no matter the cost” – and “smash” any Taiwan independence efforts.

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What does China want?

China's Communist government has never controlled Taiwan, but has always claimed it as its territory and long pursued a policy of “strategic patience”, aimed at pulling Taiwan into its fold via economic lure and political pressure.

The US has an official “one China” policy – a convoluted fudge that acknowledges China’s position without endorsing it – while in practice protecting Taiwan’s self-ruled status. Now that “strategic ambiguity” is breaking down and the risk of war has increased. That’s partly due to China’s rise: its increased power means it may have the means to achieve its “historic mission” of absorbing Taiwan.

In a landmark 2019 speech, China’s president, Xi Jinping, said unification was “an inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”. Some analysts suspect he sees 2027 as a deadline, marking the 100th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA, China’s armed forces), and the conclusion of his own likely third term.

What is the US interest?

It’s about protecting democracy in Asia and Taiwan’s vital strategic role as the world’s pre-eminent supplier of advanced semiconductors. But it’s mostly about “sheer power”, says Howard French in Foreign Policy.

If the US let China seize control of Taiwan, “America’s position in Asia, and hence as a global power, would tumble overnight”. Its alliance structure would crumble and China would become an all-powerful “regional hegemon” – able to cow the likes of Japan and South Korea.

Taiwan is crucial to the US-China story not just for symbolic reasons of great power rivalry, but for the hard, practical reason that its possession would boost China’s efforts to control the entire western Pacific, say Brendan Rittenhouse Green and Caitlin Talmadge in Foreign Affairs.

Taiwan was famously described by US general Douglas MacArthur as “an unsinkable aircraft carrier and submarine tender”. That remains the case today.

Could an invasion succeed?

China has spent hundreds of billions of dollars upgrading its military capabilities over the past decade and its forces massively outnumber Taiwan’s. According to US figures, the PLA has more than one million ground force personnel to Taiwan’s 88,000; 6,300 tanks compared with 800; and 1,600 fighter jets to 400. In a straight fight, the PLA would surely win.

But if geography is destiny, then Taiwan’s destiny is far from obvious. Amphibious assaults are difficult and Taiwan is shifting towards a more defensive “porcupine strategy” involving mines, short-range missiles, civil defence and guerrilla resistance. Even to make an initial landing, Beijing would need to move hundreds of thousands of troops across a strait where weather conditions mean there are only two short windows of attack (May to June, and October). The PLA would be likely to incur massive losses.

Are there other obstacles?

Indeed there are. Taiwan’s rocky coastal terrain “is a defender’s dream come true”, according to Ian Easton, author of The Chinese Invasion Threat. He says the island has just 14 small beaches suitable for landing, and even they are bordered by mountains, cliffs or dense urban infrastructure.

And landing on Taiwan is “only part of the problem”, Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told Agence France-Presse. “Progress through Taiwan’s wetlands, mountains and densely populated urban areas will require a huge range of different combat skills and weapons” – and create massive logistical challenges.

In addition, China’s lack of air force combat operations since 1955 and its near lack of naval warfare experience should give it pause, says retired US air force Colonel Mike Pietrucha on War on the Rocks. The likely result would be an “early and bloody defeat” for Beijing.

So it won’t happen?

Not all analysts think an invasion would be so difficult. But ultimately, says Andrew Nathan in Foreign Affairs, China is a risk-averse polity that is far more likely to continue its diplomatic and economic pressure, gradual steps and shows of force to “buy time for history to take its course”.

Indeed, rather than emboldening China, the Ukraine example will instead “reinforce Beijing’s commitment to playing the long game”. The price paid by Russia, in terms of isolation and economic damage, is “a fraction of what China could expect if it were to attempt to take Taiwan by force”.

Even a successful attack would “deal a devastating blow to the Chinese economy, creating conditions that would threaten domestic political stability and usher in the failure, not the realisation, of the Chinese dream”. Tensions over Taiwan will remain, but are not likely to boil over any time soon.