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A Perfect Storm Of China-Taiwan Hostility: Will It Snap In 2023?

The past year has added new elements into the showdown across the Taiwan Strait, from Nancy Pelosi's visit to the war in Ukraine to Xi jinping's power grab. Now we may be reaching a tipping point that could lead to a military showdown, even if the question of when is still wide open.

A photo of A baby joins National Celebration Day in Taipei in October

A baby joins National Celebration Day in Taipei in October

Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi/ZUMA
Zhenming Wang


TAIPEI — To predict what might happen in the Taiwan Strait in 2023, one needs to bear in mind the profound influence of three significant geopolitical events in 2022: the Russian invasion of Ukraine, U.S. member of Congress Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan — followed by China's retaliatory military exercise — and, finally, Xi Jinping’s historic third term as president.

The common belief is that Xi Jinping aims to unify Taiwan in his next 10 years (or more) of rule.

These three developments have both advantages and disadvantages for Taiwan. Chinese optimism that Taiwan could be taken over in a matter of days has been brought down to earth as the world watches the Russian army continue to lose ground in Ukraine — suggesting China may have to rethink plans to attack Taiwan.

While China will not easily abandon its plans to take Taiwan by force, the outcome of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will certainly force China to be better prepared — meaning that unless something very serious happens, China will not start a war soon. After all, many key weapons of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are not yet in service, and it will take years to build a cohesive military force.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also had a negative impact on Taiwan. The U.S. supplied a large amount of arms and ammunition to Ukraine, resulting in the delayed delivery of equipment previously purchased by Taiwan. This seriously undermines Taiwan's plans to strengthen its national defense and deter China.

This situation has even attracted the attention of members of the U.S. Congress, who fear that the war in Ukraine will be repeated in Taiwan and are therefore determined to expedite assistance to Taiwan. In the National Defense Authorization Act of 2023 (NDAA 2023), the U.S. Congress approved $10 billion in non-reimbursable military assistance, to be disbursed over five years, to help Taiwan procure weapons for its defense and deter China before it is too late.

Emergency stockpile

Although it is unlikely that China will start a war in the near future, the PLA military exercises launched during Pelosi's visit have already broken the tacit understanding of the strait's centerline. In addition to intruding into the southwest corner of Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), recent military flights have repeatedly crossed the strait's centerline and continued to fly towards Taiwan's main island before turning back. This is most often seen at the northern end of the strait, which is a serious threat to the political and economic hub of northern Taiwan, and is clearly a rehearsal for an attack route against Taiwan.

China is training pilots to familiarize themselves with the airspace of the Taiwan Strait.

In other words, China is systematically training PLA pilots to familiarize themselves with the airspace of the Taiwan Strait in preparation for future warfare. The same is true at sea, where PLA ships are constantly moving around the Taiwan Strait, with their anti-aircraft missiles already covering the airspace over Taiwan, increasing pressure on the Taiwanese air force.

To offset the military pressure exerted by China, the U.S. not only regularly sends warships across the Taiwan Strait, but also invites naval vessels from the UK, Australia and Canada to join the effort. The U.S. Congress also drew on the experience of the Russian-Ukrainian War and included in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2023 the authority to establish a "regional contingency stockpile" around Taiwan.

In the Russian-Ukrainian war, ammunition was consumed so quickly that it depleted most of NATO's stockpile in a short period of time, while European and American countries were often unable to transport the aid from their own countries to Ukraine. Therefore, by storing weapons and ammunition directly in the vicinity of Taiwan, they can be activated immediately in the event of a war, significantly reducing wasted time.

The expansion of the Regional Contingency Stockpile is an expansion of this prepositioning effort, increasing the amount of supplies that could support local troops independently for a period of time, and possibly extending the scope of preparation to include missiles and spare parts used by the navy and air force. This shows that the U.S. military is seriously preparing to fulfill President Biden's commitment to help defend Taiwan.

Chinese Navy

photo of two navy men and a missile destroyer

The missile destroyer Suzhou of the 41st fleet of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy returns to a military port in Zhoushan, in eastern China in November.

Han Lin/Xinhua via ZUMA

Why China's invasion of Taiwan may come in 2027?

There are many reasons why the U.S. will change its past policy of strategic ambiguity and move towards clarity, but Xi Jinping's rule-breaking re-election is a crucial one.

Xi Jinping's excuse to rationalize his unusually long reign may be the completion of his historic task of unifying Taiwan and China. Should any challenge to Xi's ruling authority arise in the future, there is a high probability that he will take aggressive military action against Taiwan to deflect internal discontent, which is a cause for concern for both the U.S. and Taiwan.

For now, Xi Jinping is likely to take a more moderate approach in the short term as he faces the double challenges of the pandemic and a continuing economic downturn in 2023. For example, he may re-establish communication channels with the U.S., stop being aggressive towards Japan and Australia and draw in the EU and Southeast Asian countries to save China’s economy, but this does not mean that the situation in the Taiwan Strait will slowly de-escalate.

The U.S. may predict that 2027 will be the most likely time for China to attack Taiwan. It will be a critical moment for Xi Jinping, who will be under great pressure as he moves into his fourth term in office. It is also the centenary year of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and several key weapons are expected to be ready as part of Xi Jinping's planned military modernization.

With the U.S. military currently not adjusting its deployment to meet the Chinese threat quickly enough, the gap between both sides' military capabilities may be narrower this year, making it the best opportunity for China.

So both the U.S. and China are in a race against time. China hopes to complete its preparations for an attack on Taiwan by 2027, not only by having key weapons in place, but also by having pilots and sailors ready and experienced in operating in the Taiwan Strait. On the economic front, it will be able to maintain a degree of stability in the face of massive U.S. sanctions and find allies internationally who can support China.

Taipei accelerates military buildup

On the other hand, the U.S. hopes to accelerate its pace by arming Taiwan and turning it into a hedgehog island, so that China will pay a painful price when it attacks. The U.S. is also strengthening its combat preparations in the Western Pacific, beginning to draw in neighboring countries to form a military alliance to create an Asian mini-NATO. Until the time comes for a showdown between the two sides, the U.S.–China relationship will be a complex one of competition, conflict and a temporary de-escalation of hostility at any time depending on one's needs.

Taiwan, caught in the center of the storm, is feeling the time pressure and is therefore accelerating the construction of its own submarines, with the first rumored to be launched in the third quarter of 2023, in order to strengthen Taiwan's lack of underwater capabilities.

Meanwhile, in 2022, Taiwan's Legislative Yuan passed a special procurement law for the Air and Naval Warfare Enhancement Program, capped at $240 billion over five years, with the new air defense system to be launched in 2023. It is not a coincidence that five years from 2022 will be the exact year 2027, but rather that the army wants to give Taiwan sufficient countermeasures before China is ready.

In addition to hardware, Taiwan has announced that the length of compulsory service will be restored to one year to address the shortcomings of the current recruitment system, which is insufficient in terms of manpower, replacing the current four-month military training service. It is also working on a reform of the reserve forces, including the introduction of a new 14-day education and convocation system to strengthen courses in marksmanship, battlefield ambulance and combat training. The aim was to strengthen the weapons and equipment of the Reserve Force and to bring it closer to the Standing Reserve Force.

The U.S.–China arms race

But both the United States and China have hidden concerns in this race. It is difficult for the U.S. to unite its allies against China, whose vast market is, after all, an economic interest that is difficult for many countries to part with. In particular, the further away from China and the less geo-interested countries are, the less they support full-scale competition between the U.S. and China.

The biggest problem for China now is the increasing control of semiconductors by the U.S.

This is best exemplified by Germany, as seen in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to China right after the CCP 20th Congress. Germany still attaches great importance to the Chinese market and does not want to see its business interests harmed by a confrontation between the U.S. and China. It will be worth watching the reaction and attitude of these European countries as China tries to restore relations with the EU in 2023.

The biggest problem for China now is the increasing control of semiconductors by the United States. This includes restricting the sale of high-end chips to China and blocking China's access to the sophisticated machinery and technology needed for advanced processes, which will not only undermine China's development of high-tech industries, but also limit China's ability to develop advanced weapons.

Photo of Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials in military fatigues

Xi Jinping leads a military inspection in Beijing in November

Li Gang/Xinhua via ZUMA

Buying time

As this new strategy of limiting the enemy's computing capabilities will not have an immediate impact, the gap will only emerge after a period of time. This will lead to growing anxiety in the coming years that the PLA will begin to lag significantly behind the US military after 2027, forcing China to take irrational actions. China has invested significant national resources in building a self-sufficient semiconductor industry in order to break through US chip controls, and a breakthrough in 2023 will be crucial for China.

Moreover, once trust is broken, it is very difficult to re-establish an amicable relationship. Not only has China abandoned its Zero COVID policy, it has also tried to show a friendly face to the West again. For example, Beijing has restarted economic, trade and defense dialogue with Australia, with Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong even visiting China after a break of several years. But Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, in an attempt to allay concerns, said Australia would not back down. It will be interesting to see if China's renewed diplomatic offensive achieves its stated goals.

China, which in recent years has adopted an aggressive policy of intensifying the threat of force against Taiwan, may change course and return to a two-pronged strategy of peace and war in this year, offering a big pie of incentives to ease the exodus of Taiwanese businessmen.

However, the all-out race between the U.S. and China will not stop there. The friendly face is just a way to buy time — with both the U.S. and China being aware that Taiwan should still stay on the watch

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Low-angle shot of three police officers standing in front of the Armenian Government Building in Yerevan on Sept. 19

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