The conditions for a Chinese attack on Taiwan are perilously close to being fulfilled. A period of intense danger may begin as early as the second half of 2018.
Three conditions need to be fulfilled before China can give serious consideration to attacking Taiwan. To begin with China’s leaders must be convinced that the window has closed on using persuasion to bring the island under its control — that military action, rather than politics, is the only way to achieve unification. At the same time China must be convinced that it has the military means to mount a successful invasion across the Taiwan Strait, and that it can subdue whatever Taiwanese opposition develops in the invasion’s wake. Finally China must be convinced that the international fallout from its invasion would not be so catastrophic as to call into question the gains it achieves from completing what it clearly sees as a sacred historical mission.
Now, in the summer of 2017, China appears to be perilously to fulfilling all these conditions.
The political option for unification
Start with the waning of the political option for unification. With the election of Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwanese president in 2008, China believed that a framework had finally been put into place to settle the Taiwan issue peacefully. Ma’s Nationalist Party was fully committed to achieving economic convergence between the sides, and when, early in his first term, Ma starting talking about the two parties to the Chinese civil war signing a peace treaty, it looked like the ultimate prize, the prize of political convergence, was no longer a question of if, but rather one of when.
By 2013 however, clear signs began to emerge that China’s peaceful unification option was running into trouble. To begin with, negative political fallout had forced Ma to unceremoniously abandon his peace treaty idea in the midst of his 2012 re-election campaign, underscoring the Taiwan public’s longstanding opposition to unifying with China on Chinese terms. At the same time, Taiwanese skeptics began asking hard questions about Ma’s economic convergence plan, fearing that it was essentially a sop for well-connected Taiwanese companies operating in China, and that average Taiwanese would gain little or nothing from it.
Skepticism about Ma’s China outreach program reached a crescendo in March of 2014 when Taiwanese students and others occupied the Taiwanese legislature to protest a new Sino-Taiwanese trade pact. There is a clear line between these demonstrations and the humiliating defeat suffered by Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT) in the presidential and legislative elections of 2016. More than anything else the elections showed that the Taiwanese public was not prepared to accept political unification with China, or for that matter, a substantial degree of economic convergence between the sides. Though it may not have been clear at the time, this marked the beginning of the end of China’s longstanding strategy of using the Nationalist Party to achieve its goal of bringing about national unity by peaceful means.
Since the 2016 elections, prospects for China’s peaceful unification strategy have deteriorated even further. Hung Hsiu-chu, China’s favored candidate to lead the Nationalist Party in the post Ma era, garnered less than 20 percent of the votes in the party’s chairmanship race. She was soundly defeated by Wu Den-yih, a colorless apparatchik, who whatever else one may say about him, is unlikely to implement the kind of wide-ranging political convergence program that earlier eluded Ma Ying-jeou and which remains the sine qua non for peaceful unification. Even more to the point, the chances of someone like Wu ever being elected Taiwanese president seem increasingly remote. This reflects a deepening of Taiwanese (as opposed to Chinese) political identity among Taiwanese voters. It also reflects growing Taiwanese disdain for Chinese political values (fanned, among other things, by China’s take-no-prisoners approach to Hong Kong governance) and the relative moderation demonstrated by current Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who has definitively put to rest the notion that non-Nationalist Party leaders on Taiwan are temperamentally incapable of running the island-nation’s affairs.
For any fact-based Chinese leadership, the conclusion from all of this is that in the absence of some sort of wholly unexpected political development, the peaceful option for unification with Taiwan is now off the table. China may want to wait until the 2020 Taiwanese elections to test this conclusion definitively, but at least for the time being, it shouldn’t have any doubts.
Few military operations are more difficult to bring off than amphibious invasions. They require formidable coordination among land, sea and aerial forces. The conventional wisdom is that China is probably still three or four years away from being able to bring a successful invasion of Taiwan off — this despite Beijing’s massive defense outlays over the past 20 years, its major emphasis on Taiwan invasion preparation, and its new efforts to enhance inter-service coordination. Analysts say the People’s Liberation Army Navy still lacks the required lift capacity and aerial defense capability to mount a successful invasion of Taiwan. They also say that chances for an early invasion are compromised by conspicuous land force deficiencies, including an insufficient number of helicopters, paratroopers, special operators and amphibious mechanized units.
A major factor in Chinese invasion planning is the readiness of the Taiwanese forces. Here the news for China is quite encouraging. Taiwan’s ambitious plan to transition from a conscripted to an all-volunteer force has long since foundered on the shoals of widespread anti-military feeling within Taiwanese society (to a considerable extent reflecting the baleful history of the Taiwan Garrison Command and the off-putting rigidity of the Taiwanese officer class) and the almost supernatural ability of millions and millions of Taiwanese to ignore the existential threat they are facing from a longstanding adversary, which again and again has warned them that it means to take them over. The major blame for this probably lies with the Taiwanese media, which would rather deal with celebrity scandals and other prurient click bait than the real issue of Chinese recidivism. Recent Taiwanese governments, including the present one, also bear some blame, largely because they have lacked the courage to press for greater military sacrifices among the population, most particularly in the realm of meaningful reserve service. A third factor has been the obviously disheartening spectacle of the United States refusing to supply Taiwan with anything approaching the types of weapons systems it needs to defend itself. The result of all of this has been the development of an absolutely gargantuan gap between the real existential threat that Taiwan faces and its presumed ability to deal with it. Which is excellent news for a China, because it makes its invasion planning that much simpler.
How much simpler? Consider the following. Were Taiwan to have a military deterrent worthy of the name, there is every reason to believe that China would have to wait at least until 2021 or 2022 before it could seriously contemplate mounting an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. (Taiwan itself says that China will have that ability by 2020). In the absence of such a deterrent however — in the kind of circumstances where the 2 million-strong Taiwan reserve force only exists on paper and where most recruits spend no more than four months in the standing army — that timetable can probably be moved up by two or three years, particularly if present trends in Taiwanese military deterioration continue. Indeed, if the present rate of deterioration continues, a full-scale invasion might not even be necessary, because the mere threat of military action against the island — in the form of a maritime blockade — might be enough to cause Taiwan to surrender. In any event, China should be reasonably confident that were it to conquer Taiwan, it would not have to face meaningful resistance from any indigenous guerrilla movement. This is because the development of such a movement would require organization, training, and good access to weaponry. None of these conditions are now in place. In and of itself that constitutes a strong indicator that China should not be overly worried about post-invasion resistance.
On July 13, some five hours after Chinese authorities announced the death of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo from liver cancer in the northeastern city of Shenyang, U.S. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron held a joint news conference in Paris. Among the questions they were asked was one from the local correspondent of CCTV, the Chinese television network. He wanted to know what the two leaders thought of Chinese President Xi Jinping and how they expected relations between their countries and China to develop in the future.
The answers of Trump and Macron were virtually identical. They praised Xi to the sky. They called him one of the world’s great leaders. Neither used the occasion to mention Liu, whose selflessness and devotion to democracy ultimately cost him his life. Ostensibly democratic themselves, they preferred to lavish praise on the world’s leading autocrat rather than devote even a second of time to a man who represented everything they are supposed to venerate. It was as if he’d never existed — as if his life had been wasted. They never gave him a thought.
The craven performance of Trump and Macron in the immediate wake of Liu Xiaobo’s death is sadly typical of the West’s growing disinclination to criticize China on a wide range of issues. More than anything else, it stems from a well-founded fear of retaliation, particularly in the commercial sphere, where China has shown an absolute unwillingness to entertain even the most indirect or nuanced critique of its policies.
The craven performance of Trump and Macron in the immediate wake of Liu Xiaobo’s death is sadly typical of the West’s growing disinclination to criticize China on a wide range of issues. More than anything else, it stems from a well-founded fear of retaliation, particularly in the commercial sphere, where China has shown an absolute unwillingness to entertain even the most indirect or nuanced critique of its policies. As a number of articles in publications like the New York Times have recently pointed out, this phenomenon has greatly intensified over the past 10 years, as China’s mercantile might has grown apace, and western governments have caved in to nearly its every demand. From Norway’s embarrassing silence on Liu Xiaobo (lest China reinstitute a boycott on its salmon exports) to Hollywood’s repeated unwillingness to inject controversial China content into its films, China is getting what it wants on political and economic interaction with the West to the West’s everlasting moral shame.
Taiwan, of course, has already paid a heavy price for China’s rising clout, in areas ranging from receding international space to the crass discrimination its cultural and diplomatic representatives abroad are frequently exposed to. The question now is, what comes next? Or more specifically, what sort of pushback would a Chinese invasion of Taiwan generate in Japan and the western democracies? Could China get away scot-free with attacking Taiwan? Or would western and Japanese revulsion lead to such onerous political and economic penalties that China would have no choice but to abandon the invasion option as an idea whose time has not yet come?
As in so many things, the answer to this question probably lies in the attitude of the United States, which together with Japan, remains Taiwan’s only foreign partner capable of pushing back effectively. At least on paper, Washington has left open the door to intervening on Taiwan’s side in the event of a Chinese attack. But that is only on paper. The accession of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency is a game changer for Taiwan, and not in a good way. Indifferent to democratic values, vulnerable to flattery from the most shameless of autocrats, and abysmally ignorant of American foreign policy priorities, Trump is the perfect foil for Xi Jinping’s actions in the western Pacific. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario wherein Trump receives a heavy dose of Chinese flattery during a pontifical visit to Beijing (Xi: “I just read The Art of the Deal and it’s even better than Sun Tzu”; Trump: “Sun Tzu?”; Xi: “Don’t you know him? Absolutely one of our top guys. A General Patton on steroids”), followed by yet another Chinese promise to turn the screws on North Korea and so put an end to its nuclear threat against the United States. Trump would likely be so dazed by this feigned Chinese obeisance that he wouldn’t even notice when China attacked Taiwan somewhere down the road. And even if he did, he’d let it slide by the wayside. “It’s an internal Chinese affair,” he’d tell himself, having just gotten a full dose of the received wisdom of Henry Kissinger. “They can do whatever they want. It’s really none of our business.”
To be sure, there is no guarantee that any of this will happen. There are many people in the American government, including in the Congress, who are strongly committed to the open-ended continuation of Taiwan’s de facto independence. But the fact remains that Trump is the most pro-China president in modern American history. His autocratic mindset and his lack of moral compass make him dangerously vulnerable to Chinese manipulation. Mao Zedong once said of designated successor Hua Guofeng: “With you in charge, I am at ease.” Xi Jinping might well be saying the same thing of Donald Trump when he thinks of a Taiwan invasion. He’s the greatest ally he has. He’ll let him do as he pleases.
Any Chinese decision to invade Taiwan is likely to be influenced by three considerations. The first is the convocation of the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which is set for this autumn in Beijing. In order to feel sufficiently confident to proceed with invasion planning, Xi Jinping will likely have to emerge from the Congress with his substantial political power either wholly intact, or even slightly enhanced. Most analysts believe this will happen. The only possible cloud on the horizon is exiled Chinese tycoon Guo Wengui, whose pointed criticisms of Xi ally Wang Qishan are said to have official Beijing on edge. But Guo is thought to be far enough from the nexus of power so as not to constitute a significant threat — at least for now.
Another consideration in Taiwanese invasion planning is the Taiwanese election cycle. Chinese invasion planners with a cautious turn of mind might want to wait until the next Taiwanese parliamentary and presidential elections (in late 2019 or early 2020) so they can be sure that the Nationalist Party on Taiwan has not made some sort of unexpected comeback, which would theoretically open the door to a non-military approach to unification.
The only problem with waiting that long is that it risks losing the greatest asset that China has in preparing for an invasion of Taiwan: Donald Trump. This is because Trump is vulnerable to impeachment in the U.S., primarily for colluding with Russia in the run-up to the U.S.’ 2016 presidential elections. The timing here is crucial. Given the strong Republican Party majority in the House of Representatives, impeachment is probably only possible after the mid-term elections in November of 2018, and only if the opposition Democrats win back the House and maintain at least their current roster of 48 seats in the 100-seat Senate. Such a result is by no means assured, but it is a strong possibility. Thus if the Chinese leadership wants to invade Taiwan with Trump still in the White House, it would probably have to aim for a date no later than mid-2019. For reasons of military preparedness it would likely prefer to wait a bit beyond that, but given Trump’s importance to mitigating the possibility of significant western pushback, it may not have that luxury.
A call to action
Taiwan’s position is perilous. Xi Jinping himself said in 2013 that the Taiwan issue must not be passed along “from generation to generation.” He has also made it clear that bringing it into the Chinese fold is an essential part of realizing his “China dream.” Most Chinese are with him on this. Suffused with nationalist feelings and proud of their rising military and economic power, they see no reason why Taiwan should remain outside of Chinese control for very much longer. This is particularly true for those Chinese who feel they are losing out economically. A reversion of Taiwan to Chinese sovereignty would suit them very well, not least because it would go a long way toward mitigating any anti-regime feelings they may be harboring.
Foreign friends of democratic Taiwan have a special role to play in trying to stop a Chinese invasion before it starts. They cannot impose upon Taiwan a more effective military deterrent or create the conditions that would convince China to give political persuasion another chance, this by working toward a revival of Taiwan’s Nationalist Party. (Few of them would want to do this anyway). What they can do however, is to intervene with their governments on Taiwan’s behalf. They can tell those governments that standing idly by while an authoritarian behemoth gobbles up a fully functioning democracy is simply not acceptable — that it would contravene every diplomatic and moral principle the governments profess to cherish. Their aim would be to convince them to make China unambiguously aware that any military move against Taiwan would trigger the most extreme regime of economic and political sanctions — the kind of sanctions that would make what happened after Tiananmen seem like child’s play in comparison. China of course would chide them for interfering in its so-called internal affairs. But it might be forced to listen, particularly if the countries of the West and Japan were to approach Beijing with the kind of joint ultimatum that had real teeth to it.
The true danger period for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan probably begins around the middle of 2018. Thus if foreign friends of Taiwan want to get to work, they should probably do so now. It might once have been said that the Chinese people were basically indifferent to Taiwan’s fate, or that the Chinese state was not in a position to bring it to heel militarily. But no longer. China is ready to strike, so waiting is out of the question. The clock is beginning to tick.