Fortunately for Taiwan, the Beijing Olympics are coming up fast and Mainland China is all but certain to exercise restraint, at least through early 2022 for that reason. After that date, however, all bets are off and the island faces grave military danger since the military balance across all domains of warfare has titled now heavily in favor of China.
In addition to the overarching teleological view of China’s inexorable rise, the immediate impetus for Chinese advocates of forceful unification is the recent experience in Hong Kong. In this case, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hawks argue that they exercised patience over decades with “one country, two systems,” but the result of half measures and compromise has been festering anti-Chinese sentiment and humiliation for the CCP.
Three military options are open to Beijing short of an all out invasion. First, Beijing could opt for a massive show of force to intimidate Taipei. This was done before in 1995 and 1996 when the the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fired missiles into the sea off of the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung. To be sure, in 2022, such a fireworks display could be all the more impressive, applying the full weight of the largest conventional missile force in the world. For additional shock and awe, the PLA might well sortie its fighters and bombers to make close passes over the entire island.
Alternatively, Beijing could simply announce the closure of the aerial and sea zones around Taiwan to form a blockade around the island. With the world’s largest coast guard and second largest navy, China would have little trouble in monitoring and controlling the requisite maritime corridors. Likewise, the Chinese Air Force has already regularized operations on the eastern side of Taiwan. While the U.S. and its allies considered if and how to break the blockade, Taiwan might quickly suffer from economic strangulation. In particular, both energy and food security could become acute rather quickly. This option could be attractive to Chinese leaders in that it might still enable Beijing to win without fighting. Yet, the possibility of Taiwan holding out in a stubborn fashion for months or even years would remain.
Mainland hawks are sure to argue that any hesitation to spill blood will simply encourage China’s adversaries. In this formulation, an attack on the Penghu Islands could well be seen as extremely attractive. As an echo of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan during the late 17th century, the attack could have a powerful psychological impact on Taiwan. Moreover, this might be an ideal test for the PLA’s new, joint amphibious invasion strategy. Google Earth photos reveal quite clearly that the Penghu Islands are not well defended and have a plethora of suitable landing beaches, as well as open fields for airborne landings. If the Penghus are deemed too challenging as a first test of the PLA’s new prowess, an even easier target is little Dongsha, a couple of hundred miles to the southwest. But that little islet, albeit in a strategically valuable position, may well too easy to conquest since a failure to shed significant blood could pose doubts about Beijing’s resolve.
Indeed, there are many reasons why China’s military command may advocate strongly for the option of an all-out PLA attack on Taiwan. Most obviously, this scenario would allow Beijing to literally dictate the terms of unification to the citizens of Taiwan. With respect to military operational considerations, an all-out blitz also has certain advantages, both taking the defenders on the island by surprise, but also possibly defeating Washington’s interventionist impulse by orchestrating a fait accompli. Similarly, PLA commanders may now see Taiwan as a relatively easy conquest, since its defense budgets have been low for decades and military preparations are few and far between. In other words, the future prospect of “fortress Taiwan” could encourage Beijing to “go big” in the near term — even putting aside a discussion of political turbulence in Washington over the last few years.
All signs suggest that the PLA now has the capabilities to subdue Taiwan in a matter of weeks, if not days. Western strategists have mistakenly focused on large Chinese platforms, such as the aircraft carrier or the large amphibious attack ship, as indicators of Chinese intent on Taiwan. Yet, Chinese military planners have been working on simpler, more numerous, cheaper and better dispersed methods for breaking down Taiwan’s front, back and side doors too. Very large and highly sophisticated special operations teams would constitute the first wave, delivered by parachute, helicopter and small boats. Some of these teams would create mayhem or distraction in the rear areas of Taiwan forces, while others would move to secure small and medium ports and airfields. Nearly simultaneously, ballistic and cruise missiles, supplemented now by economical long-range mobile rocket artillery systems would demolish Taiwan’s air force, air defenses, naval bases as well as key transport and command nodes.
Biden’s new national security team needs to put Taiwan first among all its priorities. But the answer to defusing this bomb is not to reflexively pile additional kindling on these hot coals with ever more U.S. military exercises and proximate basing arrangements. It is no exaggeration to say that intervention in a Taiwan scenario could result in a devastating U.S. military defeat, or even put the planet in peril if there is a widespread resort to nuclear weaponry. American diplomats must creatively engage with both Taipei and Beijing to walk the two sides back from the brink. Hope is not a strategy and American national security planners must understand that.
Lyle J. Goldstein, Ph.D., is research professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He was the founder of the China Maritime Studies Institute there and is also an affiliate of the college’s Russia Maritime Studies Institute. The opinions in the article are entirely his own and do not reflect any official assessment of the U.S. Navy.