Why China will not invade Taiwan

Last week, the dire warnings that appeared in the Wall Street JournalThe Economist and Foreign Affairs about China’s imminent war with or invasion of Taiwan were largely obscured by the FBI search of former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.

In particular, Hal Brands and Michael Beckley asserted in the Wall Street Journal that, “the U.S. is running out of time to prevent a cataclysmic war in the Pacific … and no one can say we didn’t see it coming.” 

As someone who has examined these issues and the inherent difficulties of mounting a huge amphibious assault on Taiwan, I believe a cataclysmic war is not coming with China and that a direct assault on an island 100 miles away is the last option China would pursue.

Presidents Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping both understand that war would be a global catastrophe and thus in no one’s interest, especially China’s. Global economies would be wrecked; the use of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons could not be discounted; and powerful internal centrifugal forces in China could be unleashed to end the Communist Party’s control.

The scenario reflected in these articles reiterates a Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan.  But given this scenario, why has the Taiwanese government repeatedly failed to adopt a “porcupine” strategy that I and others have proposed over the years to make a hypothetical invasion impossible? From a Chinese analysis of the Ukraine war, two conclusions could be drawn.

First, an amphibious assault could be overwhelmed by many of the weapons systems and technologies Ukraine had employed to bloody the Russians and stop the attack on Kyiv in its tracks. But, second, a determined attack preceded by missile and bomber attacks could destroy Taiwan’s social and physical infrastructure, along with the world’s largest chip production facilities at TSMC. Who would pay for reconstruction? And would it be worth the price?

Second, a Normandy-like invasion of Taiwan would take a force of 200,000 troops or more. During World War II, Operation Causeway, the plan to retake Taiwan, then Formosa, from 30,000 starving Japanese troops, called for a force of 400,000 soldiers and Marines. China does not have and probably will never have the capacity to accomplish that task.  

The amphibious lift required would be enormous. And the use of the small craft of the Maritime Militia in a reverse Dunkirk is absolute nonsense. China has many options, as it is showing with its quasi blockade. But an amphibious assault is not one of them.

The more interesting question is why Taiwan has not moved expeditiously and earlier to a porcupine defense. In part, the Taiwanese army leadership seems to believe that the ability to attack the mainland is a better deterrent. Until that thinking changes, if it does, a more effective porcupine force remains an aspiration.

The larger conclusion is this: Exaggerating capabilities and threats is never helpful. The same applies to the idea that somehow Russia would attack the Baltic states to dissolve NATO, which returns us to the nub of the problem.

During the Trump administration, two so-called fait accomplis were derived to drive strategy: a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and a Russian attack on the three Baltic states. While useful for war games, it is dangerous to base strategy on scenarios that have virtually no chance of occurring. The Wall Street Journal has just published an op-ed on the latter scenario, calling for more military support to the Baltics without proposing what would really be needed to halt a full blown Russian attack — something the war in Ukraine has shown that Moscow has failed to achieve.

China has declared regaining Taiwan its highest international  priority. That alone is an interesting proposition that many forget is contradicted by history. Formosa was ceded to Japan by China’s Qin Emperor in 1895 and remained under Japanese control for 50 years. Then it was returned to the Kuomintang (KMT) government, not to the Communist Party. One can argue that KMT government has the sovereign rights to Taiwan.

That will not redress Beijing’s claims. If Beijing were to attempt some form of seizure, it would involve a maritime and air blockade, sanctions and an internal political coup in Taiwan. China might threaten to obliterate Taiwan to force a surrender, making an amphibious assault redundant.

But to ensure the amphibious scenario is permanently eliminated, a less expensive porcupine defense will achieve that. The more pressing issue is the prospect of China engaging in measures short of war while still threatening to use force. That is where our focus should be.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

Tags China China-Taiwan tension China-Taiwan tensions Chinese Communist Party invasion of Taiwan Political status of Taiwan Russia-Ukraine war Taiwan Taiwan Strait Trump TSMC Xi Jinping

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