Is China preparing to attack Taiwan?

I have seen a lot of news reports lately that suggest Taiwan is now super spooked that China will invade them.

Is there anything to this? Is China gearing up to invade Taiwan or is this just more of their perpetual saber rattling?

Do keep in mind that
a) China just celebrated the founding of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October, and there was a 7 day holiday that ended on Wed.
b) The REpublic of China (in Taiwan) celebrates their founding dat on 10 October.

There is ALWAYS saber rattling during this season.

That said, Mainland China has ratcheted up the propaganda and incursions into Taiwanese airspace over the past year or so.

They may be just trying to get a feel for what a response could look like in case of a real invasion.

Always been.

That being said, the difficulty of a Chinese amphibious invasion should not be understated, even if U.S. intervention were out of the picture. An amphibious invasion is one of the toughest military feats - this would be a lot harder than D-Day. Not only is the Strait wider than the Channel, but there would be modern antishipping weaponry, tube and rocket artillery, sea mines, etc. coming into play - all sorts of things that weren’t there for the defenders at Normandy.

Islands are historically difficult to invade; the British Isles, for instance, haven’t been successfully conquered by a foreign force since 1066 AD. During World War II, tiny Pacific dots like Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal and Okinawa were very costly for the Allied forces. In addition, since most of the islands in the Strait (such as Jinmen, Matsu and the Pescadores) belong to Taiwan, a Chinese invasion fleet would either have to deal with those first, or else risk attacks from their rear and flanks.

On top of that, Taiwan has a reinforcement advantage: Given the small size of the island, and its densely networked transportation, a Taiwanese soldier at any point of the island could get to any other point within 24 hours. This means that if Chinese forces land at a beach - let’s say, Miaoli, Yilan or Taoyuan - they’d need to march on Taipei immediately, or else risk being promptly encircled. There could be well over a million Taiwanese reservists, regulars and partisans surrounding them in 1-2 days’ time if they didn’t. By contrast, it would be slower and more troublesome for Chinese forces to reinforce, having to traverse across the Strait by ship. Traveling on land is always easier.

With all that said, though, one huge advantage for Beijing is that it gets to choose the exact time of such an attack. If Taiwan were ever slammed by an earthquake as severe as the one that hit Japan ten years ago, such a disaster could pose such an immense burden on the Taiwanese military and government that it couldn’t possibly fend off a Chinese invasion at the same time. That would be the contingency to be most worried about.

My baseline assumption has been that China wouldn’t feel the need to invade Taiwan, that they would, over time, use their financial leverage to basically ‘buy’ Taiwan. In other words, with China being the dominant trading partner, with China having the ability to corrupt Taiwanese democracy, they could eventually have a bloodless revolution.

What I’m seeing in China’s behavior in the last year, though, is admittedly confusing. China is clearly dealing with an economic slowdown. Although my default is that China doesn’t need to invade Taiwan to take it over, I’m reminded that we cannot always assume that regimes make the best or most logical decision. If Xi Jinping is thinking “Shit, our economy is tanking - I need to do something grand to solidify my status as a nationalist leader,” then invading Taiwan can’t be ruled out.

Probably totally unrelated… but something did just ram one of our Seawolf subs under water in the South China Sea.

That’s pretty much what China tried from 2008-2014 or so. They signed a big trade pact (ECFA) with Taiwan, had direct flights open up, China became Taiwan’s biggest investment destination (over $150 billion), over 1 million Taiwanese people lived and/or worked in China, and another trade pact, even bigger and more closer-tying, was going to pass in 2014, until mass student-led protests stopped it. TSMC also has fabs in China. It helped that there was a pro-China president in Taiwan, Ma Ying-Jeou, greasing this integration of both sides’ economies along.

But it didn’t have the desired political effect. Today, the KMT (pro-China) party’s political support is at its lowest-ever level in Taiwan. The pro-independence party (DPP) has won two landslide presidential elections in a row. Young voters (defined as those under age forty) overwhelmingly favor the DPP over the KMT. With each passing year, more and more of the conservative old folks die out, taking their pro-unification votes with them. And the economic integration isn’t as close anymore; Huawei was cut off as a TSMC customer, and many Taiwanese who lived or worked in China have been heading back home to Taiwan and taking their money and investment with them, no longer considering China a favorable place to work or invest. All that economic stuff did not “win hearts and minds” as was touted 15 years ago.

As it was, Taiwanese people being willing to do business with, or in, China didn’t translate to them wanting to become part of China.

The holiday ended Thursday. It was October 1 (Friday) through October 7 (Thursday) this year. That’s why we got a lousy one-day (Sunday) weekend this weekend and a lousy one-day (Saturday) weekend before the holiday.

IMO the likely first step in this scenario is China will invade one of the tiny specks of land in the strait, and see how that goes. More or less what they’ve been doing in the South China sea, conquest by degrees.

Some more points to consider:

The main trading partner of China is the U.S. The main trading partner of Taiwan is China. The main trading partner of the U.S. outside the EU is China.

Back in the early 1980s, the main trading partner of most countries was the U.S. Now, it’s China.

Almost all countries, including the U.S., do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.

The U.S. is the main supplier of arms to Taiwan. The U.S. is also the main arms dealer of the world.

China has not been at war since 1979. That means it is likely that even its most senior military commanders have no combat experience.

China can’t gain from going to war against Taiwan and against other countries because it is, as some Chinese writers put it, a culture of merchants. In addition, its currency is not used as a global reserve, which means it can only earn through trade.

The U.S., in contrast, has been at war with one country or another for a very long time. It does that because its dollar is a global reserve currency, which in turn leads to a Triffin dilemma, where what it can sell becomes too expensive for most and what it can or want to buy becomes too cheap. That’s why it’s been experiencing slow economic growth since the early 1960s, trade deficits since the early 1970s, and rising total debt since the early 1980s.

In order to maintain economic growth, it needs to coerce other countries, which is why it has over 800 military bases and installations worldwide, with half of those needed to encircle rivals like China and Russia. To pay for that, it has military costs larger than those of the next 11 countries combined. The ones who earn from that are the rich which control much of the U.S. economy and the government, with costs passed on to the public.

It’s that control of the economy and of the government which has influenced media to maintain warmongering since 2001. Some infographics reveal that something like the bulk of not just media but even social media platforms are controlled by only a few powerful corporations (similar goes for even food production and pharmaceuticals).

That’s why since then there have been few anti-war protests when compared to what happened during the Vietnam War. Instead, saber-rattling takes place, which includes attacking the “enemies” of the U.S. in many ways possible. These include claims that China is committing genocide, that HK protesters are being brutalized and that HK doesn’t belong to China, that the Thai monarchy is against human rights and liberty, that the Philippines has become a “war zone”, that Iran supports terrorists, and so on.

Thus, the claim that China is falling apart, and like the U.S., must invade others.

Side note:

One claim is that China wants to attack others because it builds military installations in the South China Sea. What’s not mention is that the nine-dash claim started with Taiwan, and that there are actually six claimants to disputed parts of the same. Not just China but the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia had been building installations in the area.

The Philippines, which is wildly pro-U.S. but also pro-Duterte, previously sued China and won in arbitration. Not only China but also Taiwan rejected the arbitration results because China and Taiwan have the same claims. Later, the U.S. insisted that it would not help the Philippines because those aren’t territorial claims, and that the treaty called for approval by Congress first.

To provide context to all that, Taiwan became richer because, like Japan, South Korea, and others, it promoted the so-called “East Asian Miracle,” which essentially involved authoritarianism coupled with nationalist economics (in the case of Taiwan, almost four decades of martial law).

Later, China succeeded by doing similar, i.e., carefully opening up export processing zones and making deals with foreigners, but with the CCP still calling the shots.

The problem with doing that is that it might achieve a bit of short-term goal but would make the long-term goal (annexation of Taiwan) much harder.

If China conquered one of Taiwan’s outlying islands such as Jinmen and/or Matsu, it would likely spur a big increase in Taiwanese defense spending (Taiwan has long been criticized for anemic defense spending but this would likely change that) and arming-up and fortification of things on Taiwan main island proper. Any subsequent Chinese invasion would then be harder to do. It might make the U.S. also somewhat more amenable to intervention, or offer bigger arms sales, than before.

And those “tiny specks” contain a non-trivial number of people. Matsu has 12,000, Penghu has 101,000, and Jinmen has 127,00 people. The Taiwanese government would not be able to handwave that away. And it wouldn’t exactly be a rollover for China, those specks are heavily fortified; there’d be major deaths for both sides.

Seems more than the usual/perpetual tensions between the two (all headlines below are from the last 24 - 48 hours…in no particular order):

Another possibility is China is planning a move in some other region such as the South China Sea. Making threatening noises towards Taiwan is an opening move in this. When everyone is worked up enough over the threat to Taiwan, China can turn around and be reasonable in defusing the crisis. With everyone so relieved, China can then go ahead and make to move it actually planned on making. The world will be so relieved China didn’t attack Taiwan, we will be willing to tolerate this lesser move.

Possibly the biggest impediment to imminent invasion is that any attempt at invasion must actually work, or the repercussions within China would be devastating for those that initiated the invasion. Xi has been pushing the idea of a historically humiliated China as part of his rhetoric on modern China and based a lot of his political profile on the theme. To attempt to invade and be beaten back would be intolerably humiliating and almost certainly lead to Xi’s ousting, and likely loss of position for most high ranking PLA members. It isn’t going to be just a matter of a war to create a diversion from internal issues, such as say the Falklands. There General Galtieri had problems at home and given there had actually been efforts from some quarters, albeit unsuccessful, in the UK to cede the Falklands to Argentina little more than a decade earlier, Galtieri really didn’t think anyone would care when he invaded. But Thatcher had her own problems, and a war was perfect for her political survival. So things went a bit awry. Taiwan is vastly different.
China, from the outset, knows there is a huge amount at stake, and that an invasion is not going to go easily. They might have a plan, they might have many plans, but as they they say: no plan survives contact with the enemy.

An invasion isn’t a matter of a land war and hand to hand conflict. This would be a high tech and very short conflict. A fleet of submarines could scuttle an entire invasion force with devastating losses and a huge humiliation for China. China’s entire naval fleet could vanish in the space of a few hours if things escalated badly. Then there is the difficulty of avoiding direct conflict between two nuclear nations. Brinkmanship becomes the order of the day. China plays a long game. It isn’t in their DNA to bet the farm on a conflict that could see them viscously humiliated on the international stage and lead to inevitable serious economic ramifications internally.
My take is that most wars are avoided when the participants have more to lose than the gain. Xi has a great deal more to lose than to gain by risking an invasion. As do the PLA and CCP.

If China was to invade, and their naval forces wiped out, I would bet that they would find their bases on the Spratly islands would be taken as well, and they would find that they lost their claims there as a consequence. They would not even reset to their start position. It would be very bad for Xi.

To add to that, the Chinese government and media has been boasting for a long time that victory would be guaranteed, even easy, in such an invasion (well, not like they really have a choice not to.) As such, a defeat would be particularly mortifying.

Under such circumstances, there is a real risk of coup d’etat, assassination, massive rioting or whatnot if a war were lost. The lives of Xi and other CCP leaders may well be in jeopardy. Faced with such dire consequences, there is a real likelihood that Xi (or whoever else is in charge) may decide that it’s worth it to roll the nuclear dice rather than accept defeat.

This thread seems better suited to IMHO, so let’s move it there (from GQ).

The trouble with making predictions such as this, is that the people who would actually make the decision to go to war very well may have a different risk/reward calculus than you do. They may view something else, such as prestige, patriotism, national pride, etc. as more important than whatever it is that you feel is in their best interest.

Nations don’t really go to war over national interest anymore. They go to war over political interest. Xi and his party would have to really be up against the ropes domestically to risk the Chinese economy on something as disruptive and costly as an invasion of Taiwan.

I kinda sense that this China isn’t so much interested in an actual invasion of Taiwan (at this time) as they are assessing the U.S. response to their incursions. They want to see how committed we are to the Pacific theater, how prepared we are in responding to major events in the region. China can threaten an all out blitz but avoid a costly military confrontation and just gather information about our preparedness.

Most of the replies in this thread are treating “China” as a unitary, black-box, value-maximizing rational actor. There is some value to that approach to analysis in international relations, but it has rather distinct limits. “China” doesn’t make decisions. Individual human beings in China’s government make decisions. And to us outsiders, the actual decision-making process inside China’s government is pretty opaque.

I haven’t kept up with the literature over the last couple of decades, but when I was studying it, I was personally pretty persuaded by the argument that the key to the “democratic peace” is that the decision making process in democracies is so transparent. Decision makers in democracies are pretty good at reading each others’ intents, and even if they don’t like each other, even when they have fundamentally conflicting interests, that openness and mutual understanding more or less eliminates the possibility of strategic surprise. In contrast, it’s often very difficult for leaders of democracies to get a good read on the leaders of nondemocracies are trying to do, and it’s often surprisingly difficult for leaders of nondemocracies to get a read on democratic leaders (they often seem to perceive the existence of power structures and decision-making processes akin to their own which don’t actually exist in the democracy).

And China is currently going through a fairly radical internal political transformation. Ever since the disaster of the late Mao-era, China has been ruled by a complex, rather opaque oligarchy, with distributed power centers, and a strong cultural tendency towards only acting by consensus. The result was generally cautious, conservative, risk-averse policies, and a tendency to favor inaction and a wait-and-see approach over pro-active and potentially provactive actions. That’s changed.

Xi Jinping has concentrated more power in his hands than any Chinese leader since Mao. China still isn’t really an autocracy (probably), but Xi has a lot of personal decision-making authority. And he personally seems a lot more aggressive and assertive than previous Chinese leaders.

Even if it doesn’t make any sense for China as a unitary rational actor to invade Taiwan, there’s always a possibility that individual decision-makers inside China’s government will see an invasion as being in their own personal best interests. Hardliners may see a war as a means to sideline moderates and other internal rivals, or to out-hardline other hardliners. Xi may see unification as a personal triumph, something not even Mao could accomplish. And a successful invasion and re-integration of Taiwan would certainly stamp China’s arrival as a true Great Power, removing the last vestiges of the Chinese Civil War and the era of foreign domination.

With all of that being said, I personally don’t think China is preparing to invade Taiwan right now, but I no longer think it’s as far-fetched as I did even a decade ago, and I think a strategic surprise over Taiwan is a live possibility.