Is China preparing to attack Taiwan?

Depending on how you count (services are often excluded) Canada is either the first, second, or third highest trade partner of the US

I was referring to uninhabited isles that both sides claim but Taiwan holds.

China’s MO seems to be to do things just below the level that might trigger hot war and intervention, as they are for instance in the waters and islands off the Philippines.

Maybe our dolphin Dopers like robby or iiandyiiii could elaborate, but it does seem like submarines are by far the best asset for America in this type of war, in terms of effectiveness-vs-lives-put-at-risk. Even thirty submarines (such as 688i or Virginia) have a smaller total crew, combined, than the number of sailors aboard a single aircraft carrier. And a dozen subs or fewer might be able to inflict massive damage on a Chinese fleet given China’s relatively limited antisubmarine capability and the difficulty of detecting subs in a Strait that would have an enormous amount of noise going on due to all the criss-crossing traffic and echoes reverberating off the shallow seabed.

Which makes no sense to me as no one wins given such an attack. OTOH, one liberal magazine did report the ff. in 2012, which means there might be another reason for two decades of warmongering:

There’s a very interesting point raised by one Chinese interviewee in this documentary:

That is, China has been from the start a nation of merchants, which explains why it built a wall (in order not to let “barbarians” in), remained isolationist for centuries before Western powers and even Japan decided to try to pry it open (like one did to India) and carve it up like a turkey, and for centuries even banned sea exploration. And some believe that even with Communism, that view remained, which is why it took great pains for it to open up its economy only partially starting in the late 1980s.

This might also explain why Trump was generally liked in China, with some writers even arguing that he was actually forcing China to do what it planned to do in the first place:

In short, let’s just do business and minimize conflict. But the same documentary reveals that the U.S. has had an opposing view since the end of WW2: with the dollar used as a global reserve currency, it has experienced economic difficulties thus prompting it to see its actions as a hammer, for which everything else has to look like a nail.

Hence, as one former U.S. President puts it, we have what is probably the most warlike country in the world, with probably almost all of its history based on making war, and the costs very high:

which explains why even the mainstream press, which has been beating the war drums for two decades, continues to do the same today, e.g., Iran harbors terrorists, Afghanistan spreads it, Hong Kong doesn’t belong to China, China wants to take control of Asia and is committing genocide, the Thai monarchy is against liberal democracy, the Philippines is a war zone, Russia disrupts freedom-loving countries, and now calls for defending Taiwan, which the U.S. doesn’t even recognize as a sovereign state.

Some interesting things about issues concerning waters and islands off the Philippines:

Apparently, it wasn’t China that first claimed that most of the South China Sea belongs to it but Taiwan. That’s why when the Philippines sued both China and Taiwan rejected the arbitration.

Worse, the arbitration was a pyrrhic victory for the Philippines, as it declared that no claims are valid because there are no land territories involved and aquatic resources can’t be owned because they move around. That means the claimants have to work things out, which was ironically what China wanted in the first place, and now negated by the suit.

To make matters worse, before the Philippines sued China, it was attempting backdoor channel talks, which are precisely the opposite of a suit, and which ironically China preferred. The suit was said to have been prompted by the U.S. (which prefers multilateral talks so that it can interfere), which it ironically later denied.

It turns out that there are six claimants to parts of the area: China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and even Brunei. The one with the most installations appears to be Malaysia.

The media often reports on China bullying the Philippines but it barely reports on Philippine naval units harming Taiwanese fishermen, and even Vietnamese, Malaysian, Chinese, and Philippine fishermen and military personnel threatening each other.

Duterte’s critics have been calling him a “pet” of China and gives that as the reason why the Philippines has not been able to fight back (in reality, the Philippines followed over three decades of neoliberalism and depended heavily on the U.S., which didn’t help, and the result is one of the weakest military forces in the region), but it turned out recently that of Philippine foreign debt, the second lowest was to China. The two highest? Japan and the U.S.

Finally, that’s the same U.S. that has not been able to help the Philippines since the late 1980s, and recently pointed out that its treaty with the Philippines (1) doesn’t cover such areas but only land territories, and (2) any intervention has to go through Congressional deliberation first.

That’s also the same U.S. that didn’t mind almost four decades of martial law in Taiwan and even supported a decade of that in the Philippines, and just recently decided to revive arms deals with the Philippines even after insisting that the later has been violating human rights. Pot, meet kettle!

One weird thing about that in light of recent news is that the sub deal with AU has angered France and probably other EU members, and that those excited about AUKUS forgot about ANZUS, which failed. Also, it turns out that one of main trading partners of AU is CN, and that by now turning to nuclear subs, some say that the AU may end up being a nuclear target itself.

Finally, one gets this feeling that the goal of the U.S. is not to prevent an invasion but to stop it. That is, with conflict and fears of it, more will want to buy military assets, which is good for the military industrial complex.

Sitting here in Oz, that sort of commentary does worry me. Some of it is sort of right, and some of it way off base. Yes, China is a major trading partner of Australia. We sell it a huge amount of iron ore, and until recently a massive amount of coal. We are probably one of the few nations that have a positive trading balance with China. But China has being playing hardball imperialist politics with Oz, and effectively banned a very significant amount of trade, and directly admitted it has done this to punish us - which is illegal under the WTO. This forms a big part of the background to the subs and other arguments. (China has for instance imposed a 280% tax on Australian wine, and basically said - this is in response to your supporting an enquiry into the source of Covid in Wuhan.) Down here in Oz we mostly like to keep our heads down and get on with life. But for us China has suddenly become a seriously unreliable trading partner. We are used to a world where politicians argue and have little spats, but the real work and trade goes on anyway.

The submarine contract is nuanced. We contracted with a French company for a new fleet of conventional submarines. This was awarded after a competitive tendering process. The French bid a new submarine design that was essentially one of their existing nuclear powered subs, redesigned with a conventional diesel. The contract was in serious trouble with massive time overruns from day one and projected cost blowouts enough to near bankrupt us. The writing was on the wall for a long time that the project was in jeopardy. The huge new about going with the new subs is not so much that they will be nuclear, although it was not that long ago conventional wisdom that that was politically untenable, but that the US was prepared to allows its nuclear technology into the mix. They have never countenanced this before. When Canada wanted nuclear subs, the US nixed a deal to get UK built subs with US reactors. So Oz getting US nuclear subs of some form is a very big deal. It would be naive to think that the current situation with China has a lot to do with this. Nuclear powered subs are a very serious strategic capability. A bit of a mixed blessing as they are intrinsically noisier than conventional subs, but their ability to stay submerged for extended periods means that it is very hard for other players to have any idea where they are, and thus remain in fear that any of their naval assets are under direct threat at all times.

The French are pretty miffed about the deal on two fronts I would say. One, loss of the contract is a very expensive and humiliating loss. Two - they make a nuclear powered sub the same one they were redesigning for us. The reason he contract went bad was difficulties with the redesign. So why didn’t we give them the chance to just go with their existing design?

Finally, every time anything involving nuclear at all comes up in Oz the anti-nuke lobby claim that we will become a target for nuclear weapons. Every time, without fail. Somehow building a submarine with a nuclear reactor instead of a diesel means we escalate on the list of targets from “don’t care” to “nuke em”. It is the same blathering, from the same tiny group of people, for decades. They made the same claim about US bases on Oz soil, and US satellite ground stations. Actually I think they think that if you drive a US made car you become a nuclear target.

I don’t think the people of Taiwan are ‘super spooked’, at least not the people I know who live there. The government might be (well, ok…IS more than) a bit spooked by the increased tempo of CCP incursions and the increasing rhetoric being pumped out.

So, just to answer the title in your OP (there were a lot of good answers by other posters in this thread)…Is China preparing to attack Taiwan? The GQ answer to that they are and have been for quite a while. You only have to look at what the PLA (and various PLA-somethings) have focused their budget on. They have a very narrowly focused set of weapons systems that are mainly designed either to combat the US in very narrow ways (push back the carriers, attack US regional forces and infrastructure, deter the US from getting involved in the region) or in a direct invasion of Taiwan (building up in the South China Sea region to push back any support, trying to build a carrier capability, building a large number of short and medium ranged ICBMs as well as guided hypersonic ‘carrier killer’ weapons, building up their navy especially with respect to destroyers, building up their anti-air as well as air forces capability, and building large logistics dumps, supply caches, and bases at logical jumping-off points for a Taiwan invasion…this is not an exhaustive list). So, certainly, they are preparing to attack Taiwan from a focused perspective.

WILL they attack Taiwan? That’s a much more complex question and I think here we get into more murky waters wrt answers. As a poster up thread noted, the CCP is not a monolith…there are factions both at the national level as well as the local CCP, and they don’t often agree with lots of infighting (think Mafia families fighting for turf, united only against any other ethnic mob grouping). That said, I’d say since Hu Jintao and certainly, with Xi Jinping, you’ve had a sea change in China’s (well, the CCPs) attitude towards Taiwan and also towards an overt military capability. You’ve also seen a huge uptick in propaganda and nationalist fervor, specifically about Taiwan, being pushed to the people. So, there is a lot of expectation about this as it’s been discussed a lot. One thing that I haven’t seen anyone mention is that several of the Chinese (CCP) state-run media outlets have been really pushing aggressively on this subject over the last decade, and even harder in the last 3-5 years. This doesn’t generally mean much to Westerners, as we have all sorts of wacky news outlets that say all sorts of crazy stuff, but in China, nothing is said without party approval. So, if they are talking a hard line about, say, Taiwan, then that’s coming from the party…or at least a powerful faction in the party.

So, where does that leave us? My WAG, FWIW, is that because of Hong Kong, the chances of a peaceful reunification with Taiwan went from poor to pretty much non-existent. There is no way you’d get a majority of Taiwanese to agree to it, especially after seeing how well the one-state two-systems thingy worked out for Hong Kong. With that realization, I think that the CCP (in this case, Xi’s faction) has been pushing hard at intimidation as well as their always delicate push to make foreign companies and countries toe the line wrt what the CCP wants concerning Taiwan. Drop your alliances, stop making any references to even a quasi-independent Taiwan, refer to it as a ‘province of China’, and isolate it, and make it feel isolated from any help, as well as get countries used to thinking of it as just a province of China.

If Taiwan caves in, well, that’s what the CCP (Xi et al) wants. If it doesn’t…well, that’s the rub. Especially since, in some cases at least, this heavy-handed approach has backfired. Spectacularly in some cases. The trouble, however, is that the CCP has kind of painted themselves into a corner with their rhetoric, and at a certain point they will have to do something…or bad things might happen at home, either wrt another CCP faction waiting to give Xi et al the chop or with the people themselves, who have been told this IS going to happen, Taiwan WILL be brought back into the fold, etc etc.

And as a last thought in an already ridiculously long post, there is a time limit here as well. The CCP thinks…rightfully I believe…that they MUST do this fairly soon. The reason goes back to the Tiananmen Square massacre and the west reaction…and the 100th anniversary of the CCPs control of China (2049). They need to take Taiwan quick and dirty and with plenty of time for folks to forget about it before their big planned party, and that means they need to do it within 5 years or so. And that’s what they are building towards, IMHO anyway, and based on what they spend their defense dollars on, the trajectory of their internal propaganda and rhetoric, and the increasing pressure being brought to bear abroad. They could have all the pieces in place by 2025 or so to pull this off…if they can ensure that the US and, say, Japan, stay out of it or are unable to really support Taiwan in a systemic way. I doubt they can do that, but as another poster mentioned up-thread, the way the leadership of the CCP calculates risk verse reward and the chance of victory is not the same as I would. They might not also realize that Japan, at least, is taking this VERY seriously. They have already started to mimic the Chinese in the South China Sea region by building military installations in the Senkaku islands and also building up their own (more narrowly focused) military aimed at preventing that. Not hard to understand why, as if China takes Taiwan, Japan would be next. This is an existential threat towards Japan, especially if the US allows this to happen, either because we didn’t do anything, we couldn’t do anything, or we were simply beaten while trying to do something.


How much effort is China willing to put towards taking Taiwan?

I have no doubt that if China put everything they had into it and committed 100% to occupying Taiwan they would probably succeed in the end and the US and Japan could not stop them.

But, the US and Japan could make it a mighty expensive effort for China. Not just in war materials but also economic sanctions.

I remain amazed at the fictions countries are willing to pretend at. “Taiwan is a province of China.” Absolutely everyone knows that is bullshit. Yet China insists on that fiction and everyone else pretends it is so in order to have access to Chinese markets. But if China invaded Taiwan it would be harder for other countries to maintain the fiction.

China has spent so long being its own, insular culture/country they may not realize how thoroughly dependent they have become on global trade and the good-will of the international community.

I don’t think that’s the right question. The right question is…how much risk is the CCP (specifically, Xi’s faction) willing to take for this verse how much risk is it to do nothing and continue with the status quo? The Chinese people are incredibly willing to sacrifice for the common good. This has been something they have done throughout history. The flip side of that (which I know a lot of folks on this board are going to roll their eyes over) is the concept of the mandate of heaven and whether or not the ruling government has it. So, it’s a balance. People who don’t think the Chinese people are willing to make any sacrifice to take Taiwan are just not understanding the collective thinking of the people. However, if the CCP loses (and this wouldn’t just be Xi’s faction now…this would be a fundamental failure of the CCP) it would be a disaster and the people could and probably would turn on the CCP. This has happened over and over in Chinese history.

And this is the real balance on this…does the CCP THINK they can win? No matter what the cost, do they think they can win this fight? Doesn’t matter what, if anything the West does in retaliation, as, to the CCP leadership anything would be short-term and eventually reversed with enough money. Again, think Tiananmen. If they calculate that they will win, for sure, through whatever means, then they will attempt an invasion (or, in their minds, hopefully, can bully and cow the Taiwanese into just caving in and the world into just letting that happen).

But even if they aren’t really confident they have the other side of this…which is they have been building this up in their people’s minds now for years. This had died down for a long time, and the Chinese from Deng until Hu Jintao really were more interested in other things than either a military expansion (until Jintao the PLA wasn’t really about power projection, more about defense and perhaps regional projection) or direct confrontation, and the thinking was that Taiwan would just come back to the fold on its own (that was the real point of the one-station two-systems policy after all). It was all about making Taiwan dependent on the mainland, increasing connections, even aligning with (ironically) Taiwanese political parties that would be for reunification (and of course, circumventing their process if necessary).

I tend to agree with you that an invasion would not be easily brushed off with the rest of the world (whether they won or not), or at least I HOPE it wouldn’t be. But, again, the CCP calculates stuff like this far differently than you or I (or many outside of their group) would. But I think you are overestimating the impact of even being a total pariah would be, even if they were isolated from trade going forward from the West (if that would even happen), IF the CCP achieved their goals. Reunification with Taiwan is, IMHO, one of their core goals, and not doing it might be touching a third rail in their political system…which they might see as worse (for them) than whatever the world reaction would be.

:arrow_heading_up: Yeah, 100% this. It’s not a question of what “China” is willing to risk. There is no “China”, in the sense of a unitary rational actor. It’s a question of what Xi Jingping and his faction are willing to risk, and what they perceive their risks as being. This is an area where outside observers, even trained professionals, often stumble badly. In a closed political system, an outsider’s cost-benefit analysis may bare little if any resemblance to the cost-benefit analysis of an insider.

In open, democratic systems, it’s usually relatively easy to take into account internal political calculations when analyzing decision making, but even then outside analysts can misunderstand a decison-maker’s self-perceived costs and benefits. In a closed system like China’s, it’s much more difficult, bordering on impossible (bar a really good, and highly classified, intelligence source us mere message board habitues lack).

It’s frighteningly possible that Xi and his faction might view the internal threats from a failure to reunify Taipei into the One China as a greater risk to them than the external threats of a conflicts with the U.S. and other countries.

At least since Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, the U.S. has been trying to signal to China that the U.S. won’t stand idly by if China crosses the line. But, particularly after Trump’s presidency, and the chaos of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and the West’s bumbling response to COVID, it’s also frighteningly possible that Xi and his faction just don’t perceive the risk of a direct U.S. military intervention as much of a threat, and they may well think that at this point, the U.S. and EU and other countries are more dependent economically on China than vice versa. Even if they think the U.S., EU, and others would retaliate for an invasion of Taiwan with harsh sanctions, they may very well calculate that they’d hurt the sanctioners more than they’d hurt China, and that any resulting short-term economic damage would be a small price to pay for rectifying the Taiwan problem.

And most frightening of all, they could even be right.

But why?

Why now?

Taiwan has been separate for decades. Before Xi Jinping was even born.

Why, all of a sudden, must China re-take Taiwan? Why stake so much on something that has been a fait accompli for 75+ years?

Yes, totally agree, especially about the miscalculation aspect…from both (really all) sides. I think it’s a good possibility that the reality is in your 4th paragraph and that this is the basis for the miscalculation by each side. The US THINKS it’s signaling to the CCP that we are more focused on Asia, that we won’t allow an invasion of Taiwan. The CCP (Xi et al) THINKS that the US is disorganized and self-focused and just chaotic and can’t or won’t really do anything to prevent the CCP from invading Taiwan. I mean, even leaving aside what a CF the Trump administration was and how chaotic that was in the region, just look at recent things such as sending Meng Wanzhou back to China or whatever the ‘Taiwan agreement’ means wrt what Biden said in his discussion with Xi (and, more importantly, what it means to each of them…which is probably completely different). I bet the Chinese analysts are going nuts trying to figure out what the hell America’s policy even is or what we might do…and this isn’t even close to an exhaustive list and doesn’t even go into other regional players (Japan, Australia, or India) or the Europeans, let alone their ‘ally’ Russia. Yet so much depends on those analysts on both sides actually understanding what the other side can or might do.

I know you asked gdave, and I want to see gdave’s answer to this as well, but ask yourself this…change Taiwan to Hong Kong, then ask these same questions. Why? Why now? Hong Kong was part of China since the Brits relinquished control, and all they had to do was wait until the time limit was up to get rid of the two systems thing. Yet they didn’t. Despite the cost. Why now? Why ‘all of a sudden’?

Just food for thought.

RAND Corporation had published a study in 2000 in which they stated that China’s nuclear capability was an “ultimate trump card” (back when “trump” wasn’t a bad word yet.) There’s a good chance that if China launches an invasion of Taiwan and it fails, China would simply fall back on nuclear means as its insurance policy. It could threaten to start nuking Taiwan (starting with small towns one by one, with small ‘dial-a-yield’ warheads) unless Taiwan surrendered within a deadline. There wouldn’t be much Taiwan could do to stop that.

I’m not prepared to make a long post at this time, but I just can’t help myself from registering my disagreement with this as a blanket statement, as I have before. It’s a common trope and has some basis in reality. But only some and only periodically. China historically has NOT been consistently a nation of isolationist wallflowers. Consider that China today is twice the size of China in the 17th century. And Confucian ideals about social status and the merchant class were not infrequently at odds.

Yeah, it’s really more about periods of isolation and periods of expansion (and that’s not entirely accurate either), depending on their interaction with the outside world. When they had a good (from their perspective at least) experience with the outside world, they were more expansionist or outgoing, when they had a bad experience from the outside world (think Mongol, Manchu, or the time of humiliation with the Western powers) they were definitely more isolationist or more hostile towards outside powers. Whatifaltist did a good video on the cultural trinity of Chinese society (Legalism/Confucianism/Taoist-Buddhist that, while I don’t think is entirely accurate in some parts really does a good job of showing how Chinese society evolved over time, emphasizing one of the trinity more during different periods (and how, even today they still follow this, even with a ‘modern’ communist government at the helm).

He’s wrong about the nation of merchants part too, but as you said, I’m not willing to write a book on this either.

I’m not trying to be snarky, but you may have noticed that China is in a slightly stronger position now than it was 75 years ago.

It’s literally always been the official position of both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China that Taiwan is a constituent element of “China.” The PRC has always officially regarded Taiwan as a breakaway province, and the ROC has always officially regarded itself as the legitmate government of China proper, with Taiwan merely being its current last refuge. While the PRC has tolerated Taiwan’s anomolous status, its one inviolable red line has always been an declaration of true independence of a separate, sovereign Taiwanese state. And eventual reunification has always been the (literal) party line of the PRC and the CCP.

As @XT points out, China reunified Hong Kong, with initial assurances of a One Country, Two Systems approach, and an explicity pledge not to change Hong Kong’s internal political and economic structures for at least 50 years. Yet, here we are, with Beijing intervening in Hong Kong’s politics with an extremely heavy hand, and not merely dismissing its earlier pledge, but simply pretending it never happened. One Country, Two Systems is a dead letter. In 1997, China’s leadership was still extremely cautious in managing China’s rise, and eager to avoid antagonizing the UK, the U.S., and other countries in the region.

Xi Jinping and his faction obviously no longer feel constrained by such considerations. Xi has built his entire personal empire within China’s power structure on returning China to greatness, and establishing it as a true world power. And Taiwan is a very awkward anomaly. What true world power has a breakaway province thumbing its nose at the parent country, alternating between assertions that the breakaway province is the true government of the parent country, and moves towards full independence as a rival sovereign state?

Again, Xi may well be looking more at internal rivals, and an increasingly restive populace that demands an aggressive international stance. Xi and his faction have been fanning those flames for a couple of decades now as a means of neutralizing and sidelining opposing factions, but now, to mix metaphors, they’ve got a tiger by the tail. With Hong Kong pretty thoroughly cowed, Taiwanese reunification is the next logical step, and George Orwell nonwithstanding, it’s going to be very difficult for Xi and his faction to just put a brake on the whole thing, and go back to a cautious influence campaign, where peaceful reunification lies somewhere in the vague future, perhaps decades from now.

As you say, Taiwan’s awkward status has been in effect since before Xi was born. But that’s precisely the point. Xi wasn’t in power for the previous 75 years of a tense modus vivendi between the PRC and the ROC. And Xi personally is far more aggressive and assertive than previous leaders. And, again, China as a country is in a far stronger position economically, militarily, culturally, and politically than at any time in centuries.

Why “now”? Because “now” is the first time in 75 years a military conquest of Taiwan may seem plausible to the Chinese leadership.

Now, again, I personally don’t think China is preparing an imminent attack on Taiwan. But I think it’s possible, in a way I didn’t even ten years ago.

It’s pretty easy to understand why now in HK’s case, though. The protests represent an existential threat to stability not just in HK but on China’s mainland, and China is not about to tolerate that. Hong Kong’s protests had all the hallmarks of a Tiananmen-type confrontation. Taiwan, OTOH, is much less likely to influence China’s mainland than HK, which lies just miles from some of China’s busiest economic hubs in Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

I’m not ruling out the possibility of Xi miscalculating – that’s always a possibility. But there’s less inherent value in invading a country that has established with full political autonomy since the mid-20th Century than there is in crushing a growing political protest movement that lies on the doorstep of some of its economic nerve centers.

I will concede that the risks have increased owing to the fact that China is likely facing its biggest economic crisis in the post-1979 era. It’s entirely possible that Xi and/or others fear a major economic shock and might be thinking “This might be our last chance to take Taiwan - better do it now.” I’d still put the odds of that as being rather low, but hold that out as a possibility at least.