One morning in the early 1950s, Herb Roberts and the rest of his US Army unit stood at parade rest while a small convoy arrived at their post. Out came Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to inspect the troops, and thank them for their presence and what that meant to protect Formosa (Taiwan) from a potential Chinese invasion. Now, seventy years later, the American government is, once again, committing to Taiwan's defence from a mainland invasion.
My thinking is pretty clear; China will not be militarily invading Taiwan in the next one to two years, unless something significant changes in the international political landscape. The conditions are not right for such a move, and there is a probability that such a military option will fail, dragging China and the rest of the world into a deep depression. Earlier this year, the prospects for such an invasion may have seemed higher, yet there frankly has been no realistic likelihood of an actual invasion anytime recently. Nor is it likely to happen soon.
Taiwan and the Straits
My determination that there will not be an invasion is based on a number of factors that come together to influence decision-making, particularly in Beijing.
First, some history
China, as we know it today, is the result of centuries of political and social evolution, and civil war. Since the 1949 civil war in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ultimately prevailed, the "self-governing province" of Taiwan has been the final bastion of the remnants of the defeated and exiled Nationalist government.
In the post-1949 era, with Soviet communism entrenched in Eastern Europe and communist movements looking more threatening worldwide, it was natural that the US and Europe would provide direct support to Chiang Kai-shek. The communist invasion of Korea and subsequent Chinese military and material support for North Korea cemented Western support for an "independent" and democratic Taiwan.
Mainland China, however, never accepted Taiwan as anything other than a renegade province, a Chinese island purloined by a defeated and fleeing group of Chinese. To this day, China has not changed its opinion. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon "opened" China, at the price of Taiwanese claims to be the legitimate representatives of all of China. This included the recognition by Washington of Beijing as the rightful government of a single Chinese nation that included Taiwan. Recognition of Beijing's supremacy is not the same as abandoning Taiwan.
And so, as country after country removed their embassies from Taipei, including the US, China grew in confidence that one day soon Taiwan would be reunified, by choice or by coercion. Yet that has not happened, and Beijing's patience is running out. What to do? China has limited options, as the only alternative to an invasion is for the people of Taiwan to elect a government with a unification platform.
So, Beijing can wait, or go to war.
In the years since the end of the civil war and the Korean war, China has gone to war once, invading Vietnam in 1979 in support of Cambodia. The PLA did not acquit itself very well at all.
Suffice to say, China does not have a (recent) history of invading countries or, as Clausewitz famously phrased it, engaging in "politics by other means". Unlike western powers and superpowers, the use of "kinetic" force (warfare) has not been the norm nor even very high on the list of China's options.
In addition, China has seen that patience delivers to them what they most desire. A negotiated return delivered Hong Kong (and Macau) back to complete Beijing control, while maintaining good relations with the West. Yes, Beijing has broken elements of the transfer agreement (nothing unusual there), but they did wait an entire generation before doing so. Patience.
Subsequently in Hong Kong, China has found that getting someone else (local) to deliver transition (while it provides their “backbone”) is messy for a while but produced good outcomes (for China). The rest of the world simply watched. Clearly, for China, the transition plan worked. Patience and planning.
China is a “natural owner” of a different strategy – and different risks – to achieve its aims in this regard, so why go outside its “comfort zone”?
So, what are the various factors influencing my assessment?
1. Socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Deng famously said in a "60 Minutes" interview in 1986:
"To get rich is no sin. However, what we mean by getting rich is different from what you mean. Wealth in a socialist society belongs to the people."
This was not the start of economic liberalisation in China, but encapsulated the concept of "socialism with Chinese characteristics". Put simply, China can grow rich, but the Communist Party will always remain in power. The Party's determination to do so has been demonstrated, and there is no realistic alternative to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party).
"Socialism with Chinese characteristics” leveraging globalisation has turned China from one of the poorest countries in the world into a solidly middle-income country on its way to becoming a middle-upper-income country. This has not happened by accident, but by developing trading relations across the globe, and by engaging in massive internal infrastructure and market development activity at home. In raw terms, China's GDP is on the cusp of eclipsing that of the United States.
Any significant interruption of economic growth and stability at home will endanger the CCP and, in particular, Xi Jinping. Indeed, the party and government apparatus will have little difficulty in retaining power, but unrest is not good for growth, and lack of growth is not good for the Party, and in particular, for the Chairman of the Party and his desire to remain Chairman for an additional, unprecedented, third five-year term.
2. Current macro-economic situation
China runs a greater than $650 billion trade surplus with the rest of the world with the vast majority of its exports travelling by sea. China exports over $2.5 trillion annually with the US as its largest importing partner (18%). Chinese imports over $2 trillion in goods and services every year.
$2.5 trillion of exports directly employs a massive swath of the Chinese population, and supports untold millions more people across the country. Disruption to that employment base will ripple through the economy very quickly.
An invasion of Taiwan would directly threaten that economic engine, because the economic fallout would not be limited to relations with the United States but would impact trade relations with most of its major trading partners.
3. Energy & raw materials
China imports over 30% of its energy needs, the vast majority of which comes by sea. Until recently, there was a steady stream of coal ships from Australia, a flow that has slowed dramatically due to available alternative sources, and the Australian government making comments deemed inappropriate by China.
Over the past fifteen years, China's import of non-food raw materials has almost quadrupled, from around $100 billion monthly to $400billion or more some months.
Almost all that trade must travel by ship, and nearly all shipping must travel through a few choke-points. China's need to import raw materials (and export finished products) is a fundamental strategic disadvantage, not one they can overcome in the foreseeable future.
How long will the Chinese economy continue to function with 30% of imports removed? Likewise, how long will factories work without inputs, including the computer chips that China (and the rest of the world) rely on Taiwan to provide?
This is no idle threat or risk:
"In particular, Taiwan's position in the world of semiconductor manufacturing is a bit like Saudi Arabia's status in OPEC. TSMC has a 53% market share of the global foundry market (factories contracted to make chips designed in other countries). Other Taiwan-based manufacturers claim a further 10% of the market."
China has been working on a strategic solution, the “belt and road initiative”. Already very successful in providing non-sea access to markets, its continued usefulness exists only if there are countries willing to trade at the other end of the road.
4. What is China learning from the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
There can be little doubt that China is watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine very closely. And China is taking a number of evolving lessons. There is so much to consider, and so many lessons that impact China's short- and medium-term contemplation of any unification-by-force.
The lessons broadly fall into two categories; those supporting an invasion of Taiwan, and those indicating against an invasion (for now).
5. Arguments for an invasion in the short term include:
A. The West doesn't want to get into a shooting war.
The West, and very specifically the US, does not want to engage in a shooting war with anyone, and will go to great lengths to avoid committing their personnel directly to a fight. The West may provide material support to the regime in Taipei, but will not commit troops or their military assets directly. The defence of Ukraine is being carried out by Ukrainians alone, and if the Ukrainian military is defeated, Ukraine will fall. The "cavalry" will not ride to the rescue.
China may be taking a lesson that if they can quickly defeat the Taiwanese military, the West will, in effect, allow the (re)establishment of Beijing's authority over Taiwan, as they did with Crimea.
B. After Afghanistan, the US lost the will to fight.
In particular, the United States is exhausted from foreign wars and will not commit to another war (at this time). The rapid collapse of Afghanistan was preventable, but the United States no longer had the will to fight to prop up a foreign government. The failure of the American puppet regime in Kabul provided the world, including Moscow and Beijing, with ample evidence that both American capabilities and national will had failed.
If China is going to invade Taiwan, it must be done before a resurgence in American national will occurs. The unanswerable question is how long Beijing thinks the window of opportunity is open.
C. China's PLA and PLAN are now modern western-quality military forces.
If China has taken any lesson from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it is that the PLA (People's Liberation Army) and PLAN (People's Liberation Army Navy) must be well trained and well equipped with a modern inventory. On today’s battlefields, raw numbers do not win wars or secure and retain objectives. Massed artillery has its place, but only if that artillery can be brought to bear on targets, and Taiwan is 130 kilometres away at the closest point (excluding the Kinmen islands, 10 km from the mainland city of Xiamen). Leadership in Beijing may believe that the PLA and PLAN have reached that level of professionalism, and are supported by the infrastructure and modern capabilities needed to affect a successful invasion.
Or it may be wishful thinking. I suspect the leadership in Beijing is not (though I have no basis for this statement) as locked into groupthink and a sycophantic echo chamber as Russia appears to have been and remains.
Years of economic development and peace have not been years of military idleness - Beijing has been building a world-class military capability. The PLA today is a modern, well-trained and well-armed military with no worrisome neighbours that might threaten invasion. National expenditure on defence is second only to the United States in gross terms, and much of that has gone into a decades-long modernisation programme.
The percentage of GDP spent on defence is, however, relatively low by international standards, at a reported 1.7% of GDP. How accurate this number is may be debatable, but without foreign adventures and the need to maintain a vast "empire", China perceives that it is getting good value for that expenditure.
What is clear is that China can massively outspend Taiwan. In 2021, China spent $230 billion on defence against Taiwan's spend of $10.5 billion. The military capacity of the two is also lopsided in the extreme. On paper, China should be able to dominate Taiwan with ease. Sound familiar?
D. Economic consequences run both ways.
Europe’s dependence on Russian energy exports created enormous angst for European nations while global sanctions are clearly impacting Russia.
China’s exports though are of an entirely different scale and, additionally, Taiwan’s exports of critical technology supplies would stop overnight. Global pain would be both immediate and extreme. Pre-Ukraine, China may have assessed that the world just couldn’t cope with such a scenario and therefore there would be much noise but little response. The invasion could proceed. But, the European response to the Ukraine energy situation was unexpected. Europe accepted hardship would be incurred because it was taking the “right moral approach”. Russia’s cutting of energy to Europe has not split the NATO alliance, and Europe has now shown it might be able to absorb the economic pain. Could the US?
6. What lessons is China learning from Ukraine – against an invasion of Taiwan?
A. You'd better get the logistics and the intelligence right.
If there has been any lesson for all observers from the Russian invasion, it is that you'd better get the logistics and supporting intelligence right. Sure, there are plenty of other lessons, ranging from the importance of a professional NCO cadre to the quality of strategic and operational leadership. But underlying all of these has been the importance of getting the right resources to the right place at the right time, in the quantities required to exceed force needs. It is easier to reposition assets after the battle is won, than it is to win the battle with the wrong or inadequate assets. And if your intelligence doesn’t tell you where to put the assets then success is unlikely.
The Taiwan Straits represents a logistic challenge as daunting as ever there was. D-Day required complete command of the 33km wide English Channel, not the 180km strait that separates Taiwan from China (at the narrowest point). In addition, the allies had almost complete control of the flow of intel from England to the German high command.
Even with almost complete control of the waterway, control of intel, freedom to select landing locations, overwhelming firepower from the massed US and British fleets, and complete control of the skies, Eisenhower still prepared a one-page message that he would read out in the case of a failure of the landings, in which he would accept complete personal responsibility for the failure.
B. Even the apparently weak will rally to defend their freedom.
The expectation what that Russia would take Kyiv in three to four days, that Zelenskyy would flee, and that opposition would collapse. Exactly the opposite happened. While most believed Russia would not invade, the military planned as if they would, and the people of Ukraine rallied to the defence of their country. Russia expected roses and “bread and salt”. What they received was quite significantly different.
China may expect Taiwan to collapse, but Ukraine has provided a lesson that such expectations usually end in ridicule. Taiwan has held free and fair elections for decades, while viewing the continued disenfranchisement of its brothers and sisters across the strait. They know very well what is in store for them, and the only realistic expectation is that the people of Taiwan will likewise rally to the defence of their nation.
C. Decapitation strikes are more complex than they thought.
Once China believes that it can muster and maintain an invasion fleet sufficient to affect a successful landing, there remains the need to "decapitate" the political and military leadership of Taiwan. Confusion at the top of the Taiwanese government in the days (not hours) following a landing will be vital to ensure the rapid collapse of opposition. Unified leadership will be able to sustain resistance long enough for American military aid, and potentially direct military engagement, to begin.
Russia attempted to decapitate the Ukrainian leadership, and failed. They are paying the price for that failure. What should have, and could have been a rapid collapse of Ukraine has turned into a nightmare with no easy way out, and has become the embodiment of the "sunk cost fallacy".
D. Murphy was an optimist.
There is no military (some might argue any) endeavour that will go according to plan. Flexibility in approach is critical, and this means a level of redundancy and devolved decision-making authority that may or may not exist in the PLA and PLAN. Simply put, the PLA and PLAN have not been involved in a shooting war for so long that there is no evidence of how effective their junior office and NCO corps will be in the field. Without that battlefield experience, it would be unwise to hold exceptionally high expectations of their performance.
Because things go wrong, and in combat and military endeavours, lots of things go wrong. The soil will not hold the weight of the vehicles as expected, supplies will not arrive on time, air defence systems might work, or they might not. The quality and accuracy of intel will be sketchy at best, and the "fog of war" will limit the ability of commanders to issue meaningful orders in a timely manner. Poor intel favours the defender in almost all cases.
Ukraine demonstrated that having a big army does not equate to an effective military. It also demonstrated that without a cadre of seasoned NCOs with the ability to make tactical decisions, an offensive force would be very limited in its ability to adapt to changing conditions.
"Murphy's Law" states that "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong". The corollary is "Murphy was an optimist".
E. The "West" can mobilise tangible support very quickly.
The Western "system" of overlapping alliances (including the very Eastern ASEAN alliance) works on a combination of consensus and individual national priorities. As long as those national priorities do not contradict the common values, there is little disagreement beyond words. Consensus in strategic outlook and foundational values enables individual or collective national actions. This is the international system that Donald Trump disparaged and attempted to withdraw the United States from (and mercifully failed).
The Russian invasion tested the European (and NATO in particular) system of joint agreement in principles and individual actions. While no NATO country was attacked, NATO members viewed the invasion as a collective threat. Each country then determined the nature, speed and quantity of support that they would provide to Ukraine, and the level of sanctions that they would apply to Russia. Not all countries have contributed to Ukraine's defence, and not all have applied the same level of sanctions. But all have collectively agreed that a response was required, and each is responding as they determine most appropriate.
What this means for China and Taiwan is that invasion by China will be met with the same level of international resolve, a level of resolve that will take China decades to overcome, and a tarnishing of China's international reputation as a peaceful partner in global development.
But will the West/East respond as they did with Ukraine? Taiwan is a long way from Europe and the only feasible supply routes will be from the Pacific. The PLAN has, post-Pelosi, demonstrated the capacity to blockade (who knows how effectively) so, unlike Ukraine, supply support to Taiwan is likely to have to run the gauntlet. A very different proposition. Breaking the gauntlet may necessarily involve sinking Chinese vessels and that would quickly lead to global conflict.
7. What lessons is China taking from Biden's comments and from Pelosi's visit to Taiwan?
Biden three times through the first half of 2022, vowedto militarily defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. Each time the White House "walked back" Biden's comments, reiterating that the official US policy regarding Taiwan is "Strategic Ambiguity". The anti-Biden press used this as more "proof" that Biden is a doddery old man unable to control his thinking or speaking.
China does not care if Biden is fully sane (it already dealt with the weirdness of Trump). China understands that when the President of the United States says something, he is not speaking for himself, but his administration. Biden's clarity or senility is irrelevant to Beijing; it is the fact that he has "said the quiet bit out loud" that matters.
For over 50 years, China has understood that the President speaks for the implementation of policy, but Congress makes the laws and pays the bills. While Nixon could speak to a One-China with Beijing as its capital, Congress could pass laws funding Taiwanese defence.
In this context, Speaker Pelosi's visit to Taiwan was a bold statement that the US Congress stands behind the President's comments, and will legislate to support the American defence of Taiwan if required. Little noticed was a follow-up visit by a five-member delegation that included at least one Republican representative, confirming that both political parties (in a post-Trump era) are united in their resolve to defend Taiwan. It was as much a very loud statement to America's allies across the globe as it was a clear warning to Beijing.
8. So why all the noise?
Every five years the Chinese Communist Party Congress elects a general secretary for the coming period. President Xi has held that position for ten years, against the unwritten standards, post-Mao that the position should not be a for-life position, and that political power should pass in a controlled manner. Xi is seeking a third five-year term, and he needs to ensure there is little or no opposition. That might not be so easy in a time of pandemic and debilitating drought.
National security and the external threat have been political cards played again and again across the world. For example, it worked for George W. Bush but it backfired spectacularly for Leopoldo Galtieri when he invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982. Xi is playing the "united China" card, and the external threat of a US-backed Taiwan. Sabre rattling works, as long as you don't actually need to use the sabre, at which point things become far more problematic.
So, Xi has plenty of reasons to ramp up the noise (which is all this is), but little need to act on the noise. He reinforces his credentials as the great leader who will (re)unite the country.
But recent Chinese history argues for the exercise of patience and planning for the achievement of national goals. So much better to be patient and gain everything they want, than to go to war with their biggest customer and risk isolation from much of the rest of the world. That wouldn’t be much of a plan.
Instead, China will be supportive of Russia’s aggression. Well, sort of. China is using "support" for Russia to balance against the West, and to ensure that China will have access to Russian energy assets going forward. China is not sending military aid, and is careful with how it breaches sanctions. Likewise, the US is careful to make sure there are ways for China to continue to do business with Russia and not be in flagrant breach of sanctions. So, individual Russians remain sanctioned, and any Chinese company that can be demonstrated to do business with those individuals will be at risk, if those companies do business with the US or western allies.
A strategic alternative
Taiwan has powerful friends because it is a democracy and because it has valuable trading assets. Remove or diminish the powerful friends and the situation and risk profile for re-acquisition changes. The major powers have repeatedly demonstrated that they answer calls for help far more quickly from countries that have things they want than from countries they don’t.
So, the biggest strategic lever that China has is its ability to out-technology Taiwan. Subvert the massive market share Taiwan has in highly-prized technology supplies and Taiwan’s position deteriorates quite rapidly. Taiwan doesn’t have a fall-back position in natural resources or strategic location to bolster its inherent strategic value.
China has been gobbling up natural resources critical to technology all around the world, China has some of the best (if not the best) robotics in the world. China has an enormous quantity of skilled people and available production capacity. It will take time and planning but China is rather good at patience and planning.
The costs of an invasion of Taiwan now would be far too high, for something that will be accomplished with time. But noise is needed for internal purposes, and American noise is needed to remind American allies that the Trump era is over and America is back. Nobody wants a new war, but there are perfectly good reasons to make plenty of noise. As Winston Churchill is reputed to have said, "Jaw Jaw is better than war war".