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.
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.
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 during a speech following Chinese President Xi Jinping's vow to unify Taiwan by peaceful means, October 10, 2021.
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).
Protest in Taipei by parties advocating unification with China and ending cooperation with the U.S.
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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