It’s not war … yet.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) visit to Taiwan and China’s furious response have provoked what is without question the most serious security crisis in the Taiwan Strait since the 1990s. And it’s not over. But if this week’s military drills have been unprecedented in their scale and proximity to the island, China’s leaders appear to have refrained from steps that would signal the prelude to a real invasion — or any action that might provoke a Taiwanese response. (On Twitter, former CIA analyst John Culver suggested such measures might have included overflying the island with manned aircraft, mobilizing amphibious transport ships or sending ships into Taiwan’s territorial waters, though there’s some dispute as to whether that last one actually did take place.)
But is it only a matter of time? On Tuesday, Taiwan’s foreign minister told reporters that “China has used the drills in its military playbook to prepare for invasion of Taiwan.”
Not everyone is so sure. On Monday, when asked if it was the Pentagon’s assessment that China would invade in the next two years, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl responded succinctly, “No.”
Is a war over Taiwan inevitable? Even Chinese President Xi Jinping himself may not know. “I do not see any evidence that a decision has been made to use force against Taiwan,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, told Grid. “I see substantial evidence to the contrary: that China has not made a decision but that it has not ruled it out.”
So what, exactly, are the factors weighing on that decision? When is it likely to come? And if China chooses not to invade, what might it do instead to accomplish its aims in Taiwan?
Why China may act sooner rather than later
The Chinese Communist Party of 2022 is very different from the organization Mao Zedong led when the People’s Republic of China was born. But on a few core issues, it has remained remarkably consistent. One of those is Taiwan. Ever since 1949, when nationalist forces fleeing the Chinese civil war set up a government on the island, China’s leaders have held fast to the goal of realizing “the complete reunification of the motherland.”
What has changed is that China has only recently reached the point where it could plausibly achieve that reunification by force. Now, in the midst of what some are calling the “fourth Taiwan Strait crisis” in response to Pelosi’s trip, many analysts have drawn comparisons to the “third crisis,” during which China conducted military drills and missile tests around Taiwan in response to a visit by President Lee Teng-hui to the United States. The difference then was that few believed China would actually try to invade Taiwan. China simply didn’t have the military might.
Since then, the country has embarked on one of the largest and fastest military buildups in history. China’s People’s Liberation Army has ground forces of around 1.04 million troops, more than 400,000 of them stationed in the Taiwan Strait area, compared with Taiwan’s 88,000 active-duty ground forces. It holds overwhelming advantages in ships, aircraft and artillery as well. As Grid has reported, a Taiwan war would likely be massive and bloody. And if the U.S. did not directly intervene (more on that later), Taiwan’s own military leaders estimate they could hold out for only about two weeks against a Chinese invasion.
Ultimately, political rather than military considerations may drive Xi’s calculus. He has said in the past that the Taiwan problem must not be “passed on from generation to generation” and described reunification as a necessary component of a larger political project called the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” which is due to be completed by 2049, the People’s Republic’s 100th anniversary. But many experts believe Xi hopes to complete reunification as part of his own legacy, which suggests a faster timeline. (Xi will be 94 in 2049, and while he seems to be in no hurry to step down, chances are he won’t be in power by then.) “The truth is there is no real national security interest at stake for China [in Taiwan],” Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, told Grid. “What’s at stake is Xi’s pride.”
Meanwhile, the overall trend lines don’t look favorable for “peaceful reunification.” China may look at the experience of the last decade and conclude that “soft power” has run its course when it comes to Taiwan. Xi held a historic meeting with Taiwan’s then-President Ma Ying-jeou in 2015, but just a year later, Taiwanese voters replaced him with the more staunchly pro-autonomy Tsai Ing-wen. The Taiwanese and Chinese economies are deeply intertwined — China accounts for more than 40 percent of Taiwan’s exports, and hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese live on the mainland — but polls show that Taiwan’s citizens, particularly younger ones, are only becoming more anti-Chinese in their outlook and more staunchly “Taiwanese” in their personal identity. As one Taiwanese political scientist recently told the New York Times, “The attractiveness of the carrots in China’s Taiwan policy — economic inducements — has now fallen to its lowest point since the end of the Cold War.”
Finally, a turn to military measures could be prompted by external events. China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law specified three conditions under which China would employ “nonpeaceful means” to achieve reunification. These include Taiwanese authorities formally pursuing secession from China, “incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China” or a situation in which “possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted.” Chinese military officers have warned in the past that a Taiwanese independence referendum could be considered cause for war. (While some members of Tsai’s party support full independence, she has stopped short of calling for this.)
It’s also conceivable that U.S. actions might be a trigger; former Trump administration Cabinet members Mark Esper and Mike Pompeo have both made speeches in Taiwan in the past year calling on the U.S. to abandon the “One China policy and formally recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty.” Such a declaration by a current U.S. official (for now, the Biden administration has maintained that there have been no changes to the status quo in U.S.-Taiwan relations) could be considered by Beijing as the sort of thing that rules out “possibilities for peaceful reunification.”
As China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs put it recently after talks between Xi and President Joe Biden, “Those who play with fire will perish by it.”
Why Beijing might wait
It’s not exactly the most novel insight, but the main reason why China would be reluctant to use military force is that war is inherently dangerous and unpredictable.
For all its manpower and firepower, the People’s Liberation Army hasn’t fought a war since 1979 — and that was a disastrous invasion of Vietnam. Amphibious invasions are among the most logistically complex operations in warfare, and the PLA would take heavy casualties during a crossing of the Taiwan Strait and a landing on Taiwan’s shores. Even if Taiwan’s government were to fall quickly, China could find itself fighting a long and protracted insurgency in mountainous and heavily urbanized terrain.
Then there’s the biggest question: What the U.S. would do? Unlike with Ukraine, the U.S. government has not ruled out the possibility that it would intervene directly to defend Taiwan. (It also hasn’t affirmed its willingness to respond militarily — a stance known as “strategic ambiguity.”) Biden has on three occasions said that he believes the U.S. has a commitment to defend Taiwan if it were attacked. The White House has walked back these remarks each time, but as Johns Hopkins University professor Hal Brands has written, “Once is a gaffe. Three times is a policy.”
From what we know of China’s own military planning, it assumes a strong possibility of U.S. intervention and has included scenarios in which China launches a preemptive attack on U.S. bases in the Pacific. Hubris or no, the Chinese probably believe they can handle Taiwan’s military on its own. A shooting war with a nuclear-armed superpower rival is an altogether more sobering scenario.
For all the risks such a war would entail for the people Taiwan, China and planet Earth, we also shouldn’t lose sight of the risks it would pose to Xi himself. “Xi has a credibility issue when it comes to Taiwan,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center. “But if he fights a war for Taiwan and he loses, he has a survival problem.”
The Ukraine factor
Almost since the Russians invaded Ukraine, that war has invited comparison to a potential conflict with Taiwan. The similarities are clear: a major world power claiming historical rights to nearby territory, warning the outside world against interfering and threatening to use force to make good on its claim.
Ukraine has of course also shown the power of a smaller neighbor to resist and punch back — and the willingness of the U.S. and its allies to support that resistance.
Still, the often-made analogies are only so useful. As Sun told Grid, “Taiwan doesn’t have a Poland,” meaning a friendly neighboring country from which it can be resupplied and one which is also — because of its NATO status — off-limits to Russian fire. China’s naval drills this week illustrated its ability to quickly blockade the waters around Taiwan. And Xi would not have to tolerate train-loads of HIMARS and ammunition pouring in the way Russian President Vladimir Putin has. Outside powers would not have the luxury of choosing a middle ground between full-scale military intervention and leaving Taiwan to its fate.
Events in Ukraine and elsewhere have led to new enthusiasm in the U.S. and other countries for providing Taiwan with military aid. Even if there’s little chance of achieving parity with Beijing’s forces, the thinking goes, Taiwan can acquire the kind of “asymmetric” capabilities that would make the prospect of war too unpalatable for China’s leaders to contemplate. But this aid could have the unintended consequence of making China feel a greater sense of urgency about the Taiwan issue.
As Glaser noted, the more relevant Ukraine comparison may not be 2022 but 2014, when Ukraine, with substantial U.S. aid and assistance, responded to Russia’s smaller-scale invasion with a major effort to train and professionalize its military into the force that is now, at least holding the Russian invasion at bay. “The Chinese do really seem to be concerned about the United States really fortifying Taiwan’s defense and really enabling Taiwan to defend itself,” she said. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have already been rising steadily over the past decade. If the fourth strait crisis spurs both Washington and Taipei to get more serious about training and equipping for an invasion, it could be seen as an argument for acting sooner rather than later.
China’s other option: “peaceful” coercion
For China’s leaders, it’s not necessarily a binary choice between going to war and the status quo. Even if China doesn’t formally abandon “peaceful reunification” as its framework, it has other options for ratcheting up pressure on Taiwan. “In the Chinese lexicon, coercion is not ‘unpeaceful,’” Sun said.
What could this look like? We may already be getting a preview in response to the Pelosi crisis. In response to the speaker’s visit, China has slapped bans on imports of hundreds of Taiwanese products, mainly food items. (It has so far stopped short of bans on industrial goods and tech products like Taiwan’s all-important semiconductors, which may highlight one area where Taiwan has leverage.)
China has already spent years working to pressure and cajole the few remaining countries that still have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan to switch their allegiance to Beijing. (Only 14 such countries, mainly islands in the Pacific and Caribbean, still have such ties with Taiwan.) Private actors ranging from Delta Air Lines to the wrestler John Cena have been forced to issue groveling apologies to their Chinese customers for implying that Taiwan is a country. The sanctions China slapped on Pelosi and her family this week probably won’t have much impact on her life, but China has demonstrated repeatedly that it can impose serious costs on smaller countries in response to perceived slights on the Taiwan issue.
More recently, China has imposed steep fines on companies like the Far Eastern Group, a major conglomerate that does a significant amount of business in China, over donations to pro-autonomy politicians and parties in Taiwan.
Such pressure is likely to escalate. Schell told Grid he foresees a strategy of incremental escalation by China — so-called salami tactics, as in small slices of escalation — to shift the status quo over Taiwan in its favor. “What I fear is that China will not do a frontal assault on Taiwan, but they will begin to do one thing after another that never quite gives the United States or Japan or the Quad Alliance any casus belli,” he said.
An example could involve China declaring all of the Taiwan Strait as its territorial waters. Under international law, countries have sovereignty over the seas 12 nautical miles off their coasts. China has generally respected that limit in Taiwan’s case, but of course, it doesn’t actually consider Taiwan to be a country. In a statement this week, China’s foreign ministry said that China’s recent military drills were being held “in waters off its own territory”
“They may just say no plane can go to Taiwan that isn’t guided by Chinese air traffic control, no ship can go to any Taiwanese port without going through Chinese customs, because Taiwan is part of China,” Schell said. “And that way they could prevent any shipment of arms from getting into Taiwan. It very difficult for the United States or anyone else know exactly what the proper level of response is to something like that.”
Taiwan depends on imports, mostly liquefied gas, for 88 percent of its power. If China tried to interfere with these imports, it could cripple the island’s economy.
The cyber domain also gives China ample opportunity to ratchet up the pressure. Taiwan’s government already faces millions of minor cyberattacks a day. During Pelosi’s visit, the websites of the president’s office and foreign ministry were forced offline by hackers. Jason Hsu, a former Taiwanese legislator now at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, told Grid he believes China’s hackers will “definitely make attempts to destabilize or weaken Taiwan or divide Taiwan. They might not launch a full-scale attack on the industrial network, but they might do something on its peripheral network in order to cause a disturbance or dysfunction.”
Will any of this win hearts and minds in Taiwan? Absolutely not. But the thinking in Beijing may be that an overstretched and declining United States won’t be around to protect Taiwan forever. Sooner or later, this thinking goes, an isolated and demoralized Taiwan will be forced to come to terms with the mainland.
In recent days, the phrase “salami slicing” has been used to describe the actions of both sides in this conflict. From the perspective of Taipei and Washington, China’s exercises and aggressive rhetoric are slicing away at the territorial status quo and Taiwan’s de facto independence. From Beijing’s perspective, actions like a visit to Taiwan from a woman who is second in line to the U.S. presidency, and is one of the most powerful officials in the president’s own party, are evidence that the U.S. is slicing away at its long-standing “One China policy” and getting ever closer to formally backing Taiwan’s independence.
There’s still room left for Washington to amp up its support for Taiwan’s defense and for China to continue its military buildup, its naval exercises and its political pressure on the island’s leaders. But sooner or later, the salami might be gone, cut away from both sides. And all that will be left is the knives.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.