Why China Won't Invade Taiwan - Yet

Why China Won't Invade Taiwan - Yet
Why China Won't Invade Taiwan - Yet


Malcolm Riddell

Founder | CHINADebate

Malcolm Riddell

Founder | CHINADebate

Malcolm Riddell

Founder | CHINADebate

Malcolm Riddell

Founder | CHINADebate

Forget Evergrande and the energy crunch. After the recent flurry of alarming headlines, here’s the question I get most often these days from CEO’s and institutional investors:

  • Will China invade Taiwan in the next few years?

My short answer:

  • No.

The reason is Xi Jinping himself.

  • Instead of going in guns blazing, Xi Jinping’s preferred methods of taking territory are bullying and ‘salami slicing.’

In his quest for control of Hong Kong and the South China Sea, Mr. Xi didn't start shooting but instead, as Sun Tzu counsels in the Art of War, he ‘subdued his enemies without fighting.’

  • That’s what he’s trying to do in Taiwan: Break the will of the Taiwanese people and government, so that they join the Mainland without a shot being fired.

So far that’s been a campaign of economic, political, and diplomatic pressure; increasingly more frequent and larger military overflights; and a rapid military buildup that is threatening enough in itself - but Mr. Xi still has lots of other options short of an invasion.

  • My take is that he will keep ramping pressure on Taiwan rather than take the risk of an attack with the possibility of meeting America and its allies on the battlefield.

My longer answer to the question: Will China invade Taiwan?

  • No, unless China is provoked or miscalculates.
  • Or – and this is the big one - unless Xi Jinping determines his efforts to achieve unification by coercion, however long that takes, have failed, and invasion is the only option left to him.

Note: Here's another question I get a lot:

  • Will China invade Taiwan to secure TSMC's semiconductor fabs? Again, no.

Throughout the history of warfare, the side about to retreat or to be defeated aims to leave nothing of use to its adversary.

  • If Taiwan were facing defeat, it would no doubt scuttle those fabs.
  • And if it didn't, a few U.S. Tomahawk missiles would do the job.

China has no doubt factored this probability into its assessment of invasion and concluded that capturing the fabs intact would be an unexpected windfall - but not the aim of an invasion.

1 | ‘Subdue Without Fighting’

For westerners, Sun Tzu’s Art of War has become the stuff of the books on business strategy we buy at airport kiosks.

  • But in China Sun Tzu is as seminal a military thinker as Clausewitz is in the west.

Master Sun’s take:

  • ‘To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill.'
  • 'To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.’

Xi Jinping seems to have taken this to heart.

  • As his methods in Hong Kong and the South China Sea show - that is, bullying and 'salami slicing,' respectively.

2 | Hong Kong: Subdued Without Fighting

After dissent and demonstrations in Hong Kong threatened Beijing’s hold, Mr. Xi had, most thought, two choices:

  • Buckle to the protesters’ demands and risk being seen as weak, or
  • Send in Chinese troops and tanks and risk another, larger Tiananmen Massacre and the international political and economic havoc that would bring –  still many predicted this is how the crisis would end.

Instead, Mr. Xi chose a third way, which, even though deplorable, could be called elegant:

  • He used police power to bully Hong Kong into submission.

The National People’s Congress in Beijing, despite intense international pressure and contrary to international agreements, passed the ‘Hong Kong National Security Law.’

  • Through police enforcement of the Law's vague definitions of subversion, secession, colluding with foreign forces and terrorist activities; an increasingly pliant judiciary; and prison terms as long as life in prison, Mr. Xi crushed Hong Kong’s opposition.

Xi subdued Hong Kong without fighting, ‘the acme of skill.’

3 | The South China Sea: Subdued Without Fighting

When Mr. Xi decided to bring most of the South China Sea under Chinese control he employed 'salami slicing.'

  • He didn't send in the PLA Navy and blast weaker countries’ ships out of the water.
  • Instead, China slowly occupied or built one small island after another, then claimed that each of these bumps in the sea had the sovereign territorial rights of China which he would not permit to be violated.

No one would go to war over one little pile of rocks or artificial island, or the next one, or the one after that.

  • And before long, without a fight, Mr. Xi had salami-sliced until China controlled large swathes of the South China Sea.
  • To further enforce these claims, Xi, after promising President Obama he would not, turned some of these into military bases.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have all lodged competing claims for some or all of the islands, calling China's occupation illegitimate (as did the decision of an international tribunal that rejected China’s territorial arguments but which China refuses to accept or abide by).

  • In response, China bullies these weaker countries with its regular navy and fleets of ‘gray navy’ vessels.

But when the U.S. and other more powerful nations conduct ‘freedom of navigation’ cruises in the South China Sea, China protests the ‘trespass’ of its territorial waters and engages in provocative near misses – and that’s it.

Against countries that can’t fight back, it bullies. Against countries that can hurt it, China only protests.

  • That may be the pattern of bullies everywhere, but here it is an effective strategy for 'subduing without a fight.'

4 | Taiwan: Subdue Without Fighting?

So far with Taiwan, Mr. Xi has been true to form.

  • His aim seems to be taking Taiwan without firing a shot, first by bullying and next - stay tuned - by a form of 'salami slicing.'

He is bullying Taiwan with economic, political, and diplomatic pressures as well as military overflights, and with the rapid - and very threatening - buildup of the Chinese military itself, all to break the will of the Taiwanese people and to convince the government that it stands alone against a powerful and implacable foe.

  • If his campaign is successful, Taiwan will rejoin the Mainland voluntarily.
  • If it isn’t, Xi still has an array of options short of war to convince Taiwan of its folly.

Here are three of the biggest and riskiest of those options, all akin to 'salami slicing.'

First, he could impose an air or sea blockade of Taiwan seeking to starve Taiwan of trade and food until it capitulates to Beijing’s demands.

  • Would Taiwan sink the PLA ships and shoot down aircraft enforcing the blockade?
  • Would the U.S. and its allies run the blockade and risk war with China?
  • If either did so, how would China - with its people already stirred by nationalist fervor - respond?
  • And if neither acted, how would the Taiwanese people themselves react?

Second, he could seize a few small Taiwan-controlled islands immediately off China's mainland coast – the most discussed are the Pratas Islands (shown on the map below) ever since China increased military overflights and conducted amphibious landing drills nearby.

  • Again would Taiwan attack to retake the islands? Would it have U.S. support?
  • And, if neither acted on the first island taken, would they act when China took the next island or the one after that or the one after that?

Third, he might extend the already frequent and increasingly large military overflights, shown on the map below,  beyond Taiwan’s ‘Air Defense Identification Zone’ (ADIZ) closer to or even into the sovereign airspace that extends 12 nautical miles from the main island of Taiwan.

  • If Taiwan shot down one or more of the intruding planes, how would China react?
  • If China, say, did a pinpoint missile strike on the base from which Taiwan fired or launched the plane that took down its jet and nothing more, how would Taiwan or even the U.S. and its allies respond?

All these options and others are meant to bully Taiwan and have a similar feel of China’s ‘salami slicing’ employed in the South China Sea.

  • Like 'salami slicing,' each is provocative but perhaps not provocative enough to start a war – but of course any of them could spin out of control into an armed conflict.

And any of these could demoralize the Taiwanese people and erode their confidence in their government and military to protect them – and in turn make them more willing to peacefully rejoin the Mainland.

  • Allowing Mr. Xi to subdue Taiwan without fighting.

Short of these dramatic measures, Mr. Xi has a bevy of lesser options from ramping the already intense disinformation campaign, cyber intrusions, and interference in Taiwan elections to disrupting Taiwan's power grid and cutting undersea cables.

  • But as Oriana Mastro of Stanford University and the American Enterprise Institute has written – and I agree - there is even more going on in this campaign:

‘At the same time that it ramps up its military activities in the strait, China will continue its broader diplomatic campaign to eliminate international constraints on its ability to use force, privileging economic rights over political ones in its relations with other countries and within international bodies, downplaying human rights, and, above all, promoting the norms of sovereignty and noninterference in internal affairs.’

  • ‘Its goal is to create the narrative that any use of force against Taiwan would be defensive and justified given Taipei’s and Washington’s provocations.’

‘All these coercive and diplomatic efforts will move China closer to unification, but they won’t get it all the way there.’

  • ‘Taiwan is not some unoccupied atoll in the South China Sea that China can successfully claim so long as other countries do not respond militarily.’
  • ‘China needs Taiwan’s complete capitulation, and that will likely require a significant show of force.’

If Xi Jinping concludes that bullying and ‘salami slicing’ won’t work - and that nothing short of invasion will bring Taiwan into China’s fold – he may well decide to attack.

  • But between now and that day, he has a lot of options to try to break Taiwan’s will, and it will be some time before he can tell if they will be successful.

In other words, will China invade Taiwan in the next few years?

  • No.

5 | Unless…

No invasion unless Mr. Xi is provoked. As Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund, put it:

  • ‘Actions by either the US or Taiwan that push Xi into a corner and question his legitimacy would make him vulnerable if he didn’t respond forcefully.’
  • ‘I don’t think China is bluffing — there are red lines.’

Here are the three big red lines:

  1. Taiwan’s making efforts to formally separate from China, with declaring independence the clearest signal.
  2. Developing the capability to deter a Chinese invasion on its own, namely by trying to acquire nuclear weapons.
  3. Stationing foreign troops on the island (read from the U.S. or maybe Japan).

For all the discussion of impendence, Taiwan so far has steered clear of making any real moves that would provoke China.

  • But sentiment among the Taiwanese people to make Taiwan an independent nation seems to be growing.
  • What to watch is the next Taiwan presidential election: A likely successor to President Tsai Ing-Wen appears to favor calling for independence - and that could lead to disaster.

As for nuclear weapons, Taiwan started a secret nuclear program two times in 1970s and ‘80s -  both times the U.S. pushed to shut them down.

  • (And the U.S. was keeping a vigilant eye on this. When I was a CIA case officer in China Operations in those days, one of our mandates was to recruit Taiwanese officials and others with knowledge about the nuclear program.)

As for U.S. troops permanently in Taiwan, the only scenario I see for that would be stationing them there after the defeat of a Chinese invasion when all previous U.S. commitments to China would have evaporated anyway.

  • By that time, Taiwan will also have declared independence.
  • And China would no doubt have a new leader.

These are just a few of the risks Mr. Xi faces if he calls for an invasion and fails.

6 | Mano a Mano

In a fight between China and Taiwan alone Mr. Xi knows he has Taiwan outgunned.  

  • (He may well believe that China's overwhelming, rapidly growing, and very threatening military force will itself scare the Taiwanese into submission).

He also knows that for all his military advantage, factors such as terrain (none of the 14 Taiwan beaches where Chinese troops might land are suitable for an amphibious landing – and those beaches are well-fortified), Taiwan's strong defensive capabilities, the prospect of a long counter-insurgency fought from Taiwan’s mountains and in the streets, and the difficulties of managing a hostile population, make complete victory costly and far from easy.

But most of all, Mr. Xi knows is that if he attacks Taiwan, he will very likely also face the U.S. and probably its allies.

7 | Taiwan’s Big Brother

Taiwan is like the little kid a bully wants to beat up but is too afraid of the kid's big brother to do it.

  • Taiwan's big brother is of course America.
  • And Mr. Xi knows that Taiwan’s big brother might intervene to protect it.

So far Mr. Xi doesn’t have the stomach - or the military confidence - to risk a direct confrontation with the U.S.  

  • That said, he also doubts the U.S. will to defend Taiwan or the capability to prevail if it does.

In this, he reflects the robust debate going on in the U.S. itself on the questions:

  1. Will the U.S. go to war with China over Taiwan (it’s not the president’s decision alone)?  
  2. And if the U.S. (and perhaps its allies) does go to war with China, can it win?    

Untangling the arguments around the second question is beyond my expertise.

  • But, as for the first question, the answer seems to be leaning, yes.

Not only does support appear to be coalescing in Congress, but 'just over half of Americans (52%) favor using US troops to defend if China were to invade the island,' reports the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

  • 'This is the highest level ever recorded in the Council’s surveys dating back to 1982' - a reflection no doubt of America's growing hostility toward China.

Then there is the president. During a recent CNN Town Hall, President Biden was asked: 'Can you vow to protect Taiwan?'

  • Mr. Biden replied, 'Yes.’
  • Host Anderson Cooper followed up, 'So are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked?'
  • Mr. Biden answered, 'Yes. Yes, we have a commitment to do that.’  

The U.S. in fact does not have such a commitment.

  • The U.S. is only required to help Taiwan defend itself by selling arms.

As for a Chinese attack on Taiwan, for 40 years, the U.S. has pursued a policy of 'strategic ambiguity,' where it has been - and is - deliberately vague about what it would actually do if China were to invade.

  • (It's worth noting that is also a robust debate about whether or not the U.S. should abandon strategic ambiguity and say plainly that, yes, it will defend Taiwan from an unprovoked Chinese attack - stay tuned, this is important.)

After Mr. Biden's remarks, a State Department spokesman was quick to say that Mr. Biden’s comments did not signify a change in policy.

  • That didn’t stop the buzz, with pundits asking: Did Mr. Biden make a gaffe, or did he intend to send a message to Xi Jinping?

Either way, Mr. Xi heard perhaps Mr. Biden’s own belief on the matter.

  • And this is in accord with Mr. Biden’s actions to strengthen Taiwan’s security and relations with the U.S. and its allies, and to redirect and beef up the U.S. military for a war with China - all building on efforts begun by then-President Trump,

But Mr. Xi knows Mr. Biden will only be in office for four or eight years, and then he will have a new president with his or her own take on Taiwan’s defense to deal with. Here's one indication of how a new U.S. president might lean:

  • With his townhall comment, Mr. Biden became the third president in 20 years – along with with George W. Bush and Donald Trump (but not Barack Obama) - to declare or strongly imply that the United States will defend Taiwan against an attack from China.
  • The State Department might say 'strategic ambiguity,' but several White Houses seem to have a different policy - and that, I would bet, is very likely to continue.

If all his other efforts to bully Taiwan into submission fail, and he is left with only invasion to achieve his aim, Mr. Xi's determination of U.S. will and capability at that will be the deciding factor.

  • If both continue on their current trend, Mr. Xi will have an increasingly difficult decision.

8 | It All Comes Down To Xi Jinping

‘Liberate Taiwan and Complete [China’s] Unification’ (from around 1950)

Neither Taiwan nor the U.S. (and its allies) wants a war with China.

  • So in the end, it all comes down to Xi Jinping.

A little history:

  • China lost Taiwan to Japan in 1895 after its defeat in the Sino-Japanese War; Taiwan became a Japanese colony.
  • After World War II, Taiwan, after 50 years as a Japanese colony, was returned to the Republic of China, then under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT).
  • After the KMT was defeated by the Chinese Communists in 1949, Chiang and two million of his followers escaped to Taiwan.
  • Mainland China became the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China re-established itself on Taiwan.

Ever since, the PRC’s leaders have sought, but failed, to ‘reunify’ Taiwan with the Mainland and to tie up the last loose end of the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949).

  • China’s leaders have been thwarted in this by the lack of military capabilities to mount a successful invasion and by U.S. intervention or the prospect of intervention.
  • And before Mr. Xi, they had a more pressing concern: Building China.

But as a quip in China goes: 'With Mao, we stood up; with Deng, we became rich; with Xi, we will become strong.'

  • And thanks in no small part to classroom education and nationalist fervor whipped up by the Party, the Chinese people also see reunification as a vital part of demonstrating that strength.

For Mr. Xi, Taiwan reunification is a part of his signature initiative, the ‘China Dream.’

  • As recently as this month he has clarified that his aim is ‘peaceful’ reunification – but he often let it be known that his patience isn’t endless, and he knows that every day China’s military gets closer to having the might to mount an invasion and perhaps win, even against the U.S. and its allies.
  • Some have contended that Mr. Xi must achieve reunification if he is to achieve what appears to be his ambition to be seen as great as, if not a greater leader than, Mao or Deng.
  • Some have also contended that he is staying in office beyond the now customary two terms just because he needs time to bring Taiwan back under the PRC’s control.

To many, all this amounts to the greatest threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan since the founding of the PRC.

  • But does it?

As noted, Mr. Xi seems to have absorbed Sun Tzu’s adage: ‘To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.’

  • And his handling of Hong Kong and the South China Sea demonstrates this: Instead of blowing away his foes, he subdued them.

He is pursuing the same strategy with Taiwan.

  • Unless he is provoked or sees that his strategy is failing, he will continue to work to break the will of the Taiwanese to subdue them without a fight (a fight that may very well mean a devastating war with the U.S. and its allies).
  • And, if he stays in office for a decade or more, as most predict he will, Mr. Xi will have plenty of time to try and make his strategy work.

All by way of answering my original question - will China invade Taiwan in the next few years? – with a no.

  • Beyond that, no one can say.
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