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China And Taiwan: The Why, When And How Of An Inevitable War

Beijing is obsessed with absorbing the “rebel island,” but a peaceful reintegration seems more and more unlikely. Despite the risk of an economic, and maybe military, confrontation with the U.S. and allies, an attempt by China to take Taiwan by force is probable, sometime between 2027 and 2049.

Taiwanese soldiers in camo with machine guns

Taiwanese soldiers on standby during an operation as part of the 37th edition of the Han Kuang military exercise.

Yves Bourdillon


BEIJING — In all probability, China will attack Taiwan one day. Everything points to this dramatic scenario, which would lead to an economic and perhaps even military conflict between Beijing and the U.S., vying for position as the world’s leading powers and “bosses” of the Pacific.

Such a conflict could involve European countries and possibly the Philippines, Japan, Australia, Vietnam and India. A Beijing victory would allow it to dominate all of Asia-Pacific.

Indeed, Xi Jinping’s regime is obsessed with the idea of reintegrating the “rebel island,” as it calls Taiwan — arguing that it was under Beijing’s control for part of its history (from 1683 to 1895; the rest of the time, it was under Portuguese, Dutch and then Japanese sovereignty, before the remains of the nationalist regime, defeated by Ma, landed there in 1949).

Giving it up is unthinkable for the Chinese leader, as illustrated by his insistence, in his “Chinese Dream” doctrine, that “Taiwanese separatism” would be the “most serious threat to national rejuvenation.” Reintegration will happen, according to him, by means fair or foul. In all probability, that means by force.

Absorbing Taiwan: an obsession

In fact, a peaceful resolution to the status quo has run into the wall of reality: according to the polls, only 6% of the 24 million Taiwanese wish to reunify with China, while 8% define themselves primarily as Chinese — despite Taiwan's overwhelmingly ethnic Han demographics. Three quarters say they’re ready to defend the island in the event of a war. The way in which “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong has led to the dismantling of democracy and the rule of law is a sobering experience for Taiwanese who thought reunification would be beneficial.

The economy serves Beijing’s ideology.

Some claim that China will never dare to attack because of the threat of costly Western sanctions. Some used this same reasoning to dismiss the possibility of an invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

The economy serves Beijing’s ideology; and China, still to some degree the "factory of the world, "may feel that the West would not dare to resist, because it needs China more than China needs the West.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen at a podium

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen during a speech following Chinese President Xi Jinping's vow to unify Taiwan by peaceful means, October 10, 2021.

Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi/ZUMA

In 25 years, four years, or 18 months

The why seems to have been established, leading Admiral Michael Studeman, head of Naval Intelligence in the U.S., to observe that “The question is no longer if Beijing will attack, but when." It remains to be seen what window of opportunity the Chinese regime will choose. China will make its decision based on military and economic power, and the its assessment of the determination of the West and allies.

It is obvious that Beijing wants to reabsorb the rebel island before celebrating its centenary in 2049, or even by 2027, which marks the hundred years of the creation of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. An even closer window, although less likely, also exists: if Joe Biden is not reelected in November 2024 and becomes a “lame duck” president, without the political legitimacy to authorize a war against a nuclear power.

In terms of the how, the choice is logically reduced to two strategies: blockade or war (with some intermediate variations).

Colourful protest at the entrance of the Executive Yuan (parliament), in Taipei.

Protest in Taipei by parties advocating unification with China and ending cooperation with the U.S.

Wiktor Dabkowski/ZUMA

The blockade: difficult, and not that profitable

The blockade option seems possible, and even easy. Taiwan, which imports two thirds of its food products and almost all of its energy, has just a few weeks worth of reserves of essential products. But it would be an act of war with serious economic sanctions from the West and its allies, which currently supply 42% of Chinese imports and absorb 39% of the country's exports.

In addition, the responsibility of firing the first shot would fall to Beijing, in the face of American warships trying to re-establish freedom of movement in the Taiwan Strait, through which half of the world’s container ships pass. History shows that maintaining such a blockade is difficult and could quickly lead to escalation.

An unprecedented landing

So, if you are going to start an arm-wrestling match with the U.S. Navy, you may as well just declare war. The first option would be a hail of missiles, without a landing, betting that the devastated country would surrender. A second option is a combined aerial, naval and amphibious attack, aiming to land 1.3 million soldiers on the fortified island, which has only about 10 beaches, all while under artillery fire, rapidly reinforced by Western allies.

No one knows how the Chinese army will fare in a real war.

The Allied landing in Normandy in 1944, though one of the most ambitious of all time, would pale in comparison. If Beijing has around 500 battleships, it only has seven 071-class amphibious assault ships. It could also commandeer hundreds of cruise ships.

Computer simulations suggest that Beijing could conquer Taiwan in a few weeks, but would immediately fail in the event of a strong American military intervention — but at the risk of heavy losses on both sides, especially if Beijing’s DF21 “aircraft carrier-killer” missiles, with a 3,000km range, live up to expectations.

On the other hand, no one knows how the Chinese army will fare in a real war. The last generation of soldiers to serve under fire, during the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, retired long ago.

Still, an invasion is not certain. Beijing could give up, faced with the economic impact on the prosperity of of 1.45 billion Chinese citizens, whose compliance with the government is not a given. And Putin's potential defeat in Ukraine, which will likely result in his elimination from politics, could also lead Xi Jinping to seriously reconsider his options.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Ukraine Has A Recruitment Problem — And Zelensky Doesn't Want To Talk About It

Some of the Ukrainian Armed Forces units are at only 70% of their intended strength. But President Zelensky is unwilling to raise the question of mass mobilization. The result is a parallel reality, with more recruitment coming from rural areas and lower classes, and some urbanites feeling victory is not too far, and their sacrifice is not needed.

photo of zelensky shaking hand with a soldier who is covering his face

Zelensky meets with soldiers on the front line last month

/Ukrainian Presidentia/Planet Pix via ZUMA
Rustem Khalilov, Mykhailo Krygel & Olga Kyrylenko

Updated Nov. 16, 2023 at 6:25 p.m.

KYIV — Walking through the center of Kyiv in the fall of 2023 can make you feel like you’ve gone back in time. The atmosphere in the city seems to transport you to either a carefree past or a promising future.

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You'll find bustling cafes filled with people enjoying oat milk lattes, business lunches, and people zipping around on scooters.

Amongst these images of ‘normal life’, the "Field of Memory" on Maidan Square, adorned with thousands of flags bearing the names or call signs of fallen soldiers, serves as a poignant reminder of the ongoing war. Lights and billboards of the Armed Forces of Ukraine beckon citizens to "join their ranks." But these often go ignored.

Military chaplain Andriy Zelinskyi has diagnosed this situation as "discursive incompatibility."

“An entirely self-contained and substantial illusion of an alternative reality has emerged,” he says. “A reality that acts as an escape from the pain, wounds, and losses of war. This alternative reality poses a significant threat to the unity needed to effectively resist Russia.”

One segment of society has been in the trenches for a year and a half, witnessing the daily horrors of destruction, injury, and the loss of comrades. Meanwhile, another segment lives on in cities like Kyiv, Lviv, or Odesa, offering donations, or just thinking about contributing, while attempting to distance themselves from the war as much as possible.

The government has also played a role in creating and maintaining this alternative reality. In its public communication, full-scale mobilization is a taboo. An honest conversation about mobilization as a guarantee for survival and eventual victory seems "out of place" when elections are looming.

Periodically, cracks in this alternative reality emerge. For instance, a publication in TIME magazine highlighted that in some military branches, personnel shortages were more critical than those of weapons and ammunition. The article was dismissed by Ukrainian authorities as nonsense.

In the meantime, without waiting for the transition to full-scale mobilization, some military units are taking matters into their own hands, actively seeking and motivating individuals who are willing to don a military uniform and bear arms.

Following the challenging defense of Bakhmut and Zaporizhzhia, it became clear that the Ukrainian military was in dire need of reinforcements.

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