Taiwan case in the Pacific context

Historical view on China’s international position since WWII

Corner stones of conflict

After the WWII, the Republic of China (ROC) joined the United Nations (the UN) upon its founding 1945. In 1949, the communist revolution put the end to old and traditional China transforming thoroughly the whole Chinese society, political structure and leadership, both in domestic policy and foreign policy. Defeated by the communist troops led by Mao Zedong, the nationalist troops led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the whole leadership of ROC retreated to the island of Taiwan in 1949. The mainland China became the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since then, this case has been open and unsettled being still one of the most sensitive issues in international politics and especially in the Sino-American relations.

The One-China policy dismantled the solution of dual representation but amid the Korean War and the Cold War the US and its allies opposed the replacement of the ROC at the United Nations until 1971. Amid the Sino-Soviet split and Vietnam War, the US President Richard Nixon entered into negotiations with Mao Zedong initially through a secret 1971 trip undertaken by Henry Kissinger to visit Zhou Enlai. On 25 October 1971, General Assembly Resolution 2758 was passed to recognize the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal China. After the PRC was seated on 15 November 1971, Nixon then personally visited mainland China the next year, beginning the normalization of China – the US relations.

On the political basis of Chinese – American relations, there are so called “the Joint Communiques”, the 1972, 1979, and 1982 agreements, which required Washington to give up its military and political support for the Republic of China (Taiwan) in exchange for normalizing relations with the Peoples Republic of China. In the third communique (the August 17 ,1982, communique), the US declared “that it does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan,” and that it “intends to reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution.” Both sides restated the basic principles: One-China Policy; Taiwan is integral and inseparable part of PRC; China affirms its position that Taiwan was a domestic Chinese affair in which foreigners had no legitimate role; the US restated its concern for a peaceful resolution.

Despite this, the US also passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, which commits the US to providing Taiwan with arms for its self-defense but not to sending American troops to defend Taiwan. The US government is compelled by the Foreign Relations Authorization Act to treat Taiwan as if it were a Non-NATO Ally when it comes to military aid. However, it makes those deals with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), the RoC’s unofficial liaison in Washington DC, and not the governing authority in Taipei.

China’s historical enmity with Taiwan remains still a potential flashpoint, although China has made a rhetorical switch from “armed liberation” to peaceful liberation” in the first decennium of 21st century. One-China policy is the all-important concept to China both in international relations like in the UN as well in the bilateral relations with other countries, in particular with the US.

China’s political-military performance

China has used its military force infrequently in international relations since WWII:

  • against US-led coalition in Korean war 1950-53
  • two Taiwan Strait crisis 1954 and 1958
  • armed conflict with India in 1962
  • indirectly involved in Vietnam War, mainly military support to North Vietnam in 1970’s
  • short armed conflict with Vietnam in 1979
  • since the end of the Cold War, some minor incidents in the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea and in Indian border

The list above indicates that so far China’s engagement in militarized and armed conflicts has been low, while those historical actions might also be considered “defensive” in Chinese and Western strategic discourses.

In early 2010s, China began to realize that being capable to create something new and magnificent in the world, the greatness of China has returned.  In the spirit of this Chinese greatness, an interesting book was published in 2010 by Colonel and Professor Liu Mingfu: The China Dream; Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era.

The book examines the inherent conflict in the US – China relations and the coming “duel of the century” for economic, military, and cultural dominance in the world. Liu advocates that China’s pursuing a “military rise” will allow it to rival and then surpass America’s role as a source of global order, in an Olympic-style competition between civilizations.

Liu defines a national grand goal: to become number one in the world, restoring China to a modern version of its historic glory. This will require displacing the US away from China’s rise. The world will be harmonious, because China’s leadership will be wiser than America’s and because China will eschew hegemony and limit its role to acting as “primus inter pares” of the nations. Liu rejects the concept of peaceful rise arguing that China’s rise can be safeguarded only with “martial spirit” and amasses military force sufficient to defeat its adversaries.

Finally, Liu Mingfu stated that… no matter how much China commits itself to a peaceful rise, conflict is inherent in US-China relations. The relationship between China and the US will be “marathon contest” and “duel of century”. Moreover, the competition is essentially zero-sum game; the only alternative to total success of one side is humiliating failure of other side.

Ladders of escalation spiraling to new levels of tension and confrontation 2020-2021

Beijing considers US aid to Taiwan to be meddling in its internal affairs and a gross violation of Chinese sovereignty.

Aside from the Clinton administration, during which a crisis erupted in the Taiwan Strait and a massive weapons transfer at the beginning of George W. Bush’s administration in 2001, US arms sales to Taiwan tended to remain somewhat small until Donald Trump became president in 2017.

Recent escalation

Under Trump, whose rise to power was paralleled in Taipei by pro-secessionist President Tsai Ing-wen, the US grew increasingly close to Taiwan, with several visits by high-ranking administration officials and efforts to get Taiwan readmitted to international organizations ultimately provoking anger in Beijing. In the four years Trump was president, the US sold Taiwan some $18 billion in weaponry, ranging from torpedoes and cruise missiles to advanced F-16 fighter jets.

Under Biden, those weapon sales have continued. Biden has sent mixed signals with regards to Taiwan. In a phone call last month with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden reportedly agreed not to change the One-China Policy; however, he also said last month that the US had a “commitment” to defend Taiwan and swore the US commitment to Taipei was “rock solid.”

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said earlier this week that the Pentagon considers China’s attack unlikely in the near future and a Pentagon report to Congress delivered some days ago also said such an operation is unlikely before 2027 at the earliest.

China’s official statements, towards the Taiwan policy of the US, have been angry and harsh. The Taiwan question is a matter that belongs to China’s domestic affairs and allows for no external interference. China condemned Antony Blinken’s recent positive comments for Taiwan’s “meaningful participation throughout the United Nations system” by saying that his comments have severely violated the one-China principle and the three China-US joint communiques as well as Resolution 2758 of the UN General Assembly, breaking the previous promises Washington has made and constituting a gross breach of international norms.

Pentagon published a report to the US Congress the day prior the Taiwan hearings. The report focused on China’s military and security developments over the last year. The report warned that a force modernization effort by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would be completed by 2027, giving Beijing “more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency,” including “the capabilities to counter the US military in the Indo-Pacific region and compel Taiwan’s leadership to the negotiation table on Beijing’s terms.”

China is also increasingly irritated by warming ties between EU politicians and Taiwan. Beijing responded to a meeting, November 4, 2021, between European lawmakers and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, by immediately warning the EU to correct its “mistake” if it wanted to avoid a deterioration in ties. A visit to Taipei by seven MEPs has already sparked a threat of “further reactions” from China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last week warned countries would “pay a price” for developing closer ties with Taiwan.

On November 10, 2021, China responded angrily to a visit by a US delegation to Taiwan, warning Washington that it was “playing with fire” by “colluding” with pro-independence forces on the island during a period of high tensions with Beijing and that such “risky and provocative actions” were “doomed to end in failure.” The American group had arrived in Taipei Tuesday evening on a US Navy aircraft – prompting China’s military to conduct “combat readiness police patrols” in the direction of the Taiwan Strait in response. There has been little public information offered about the trip’s purpose.

Taiwan Deterrence Act

The Taiwan Deterrence Act was introduced in the US Senate on November 4, 2021. The bill would require the US Department of State to set aside $2 billion in Foreign Military Finance grant assistance program annually from 2023 until 2032, provided Taipei commits to matching spending on a dollar-for-dollar basis. The bill proposes that the US will export more weapons “including long-range precision fires, air and missile defense systems, anti-ship cruise missiles, land attack cruise missiles, conventional hypersonic systems, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and command and control systems.”

It also says the State Department should urge the government in Taiwan to “invest in sufficient quantities of munitions to meet contingency requirements and avoid the need for accessing US stocks in wartime” and to “cooperate with Taiwan to deliver such munitions or to increase the capacity of Taiwan to produce such munitions.”

However, the bill’s justifications make clear that the lawmakers see the defense of Taiwan as something not so much done for the benefit of the Taiwanese, but primarily to advance US strategic interests in the region, the foremost of which is to control and limit the continued expansion of Chinese political, military and economic power.

China’s military-technical preparations

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force has long been reported to have turned hundreds and possibly thousands, of J-6 fighters into remotely piloted attack drones since the type was retired from frontline service. The J-6 is an indigenous derivative of the Soviet MiG-19 and was at the core of the Chinese fleet in the Cold War era with 3000 reportedly in service, when the conflict ended in 1989. They made up around 75% of the Chinese fighter fleet at the time. The J-6 still has a potentially important role in PLA war plans particularly surrounding the Taiwan Strait.

Satellite photos have revealed not only the expansion of Chinese airbases near the Taiwan Strait but also deployments of hundreds of J-6 fighters to airfields, especially at Liancheng Airbase close to Taiwan. Liancheng is expected to be one of the leading facilities relied on to support an air campaign over the Taiwan Strait.

The J-6 has a relatively low endurance but with the Taiwan Strait being only 130km wide it is more than sufficient to launch strikes to wear out Taipei’s air defenses. With the surplus fighters being convertible to drones at a relatively low cost, they can potentially engage Taiwanese air defense batteries and target airfields, while forcing Taiwan to expend its supplies of anti-aircraft missiles. The fighters are also formidable in visual range combat with a very high turn rate and if engaged by Taiwanese aircraft without using missiles at close range they would potentially pose a significant threat.

The first wave of a PLA effort to reclaim Taiwan could thus potentially be comprised large swarms of J-6s supported by various electronic warfare and command and control assets, as well as strike aircraft such as the J-16 launching standoff strikes in support from a safe distance. With J-6 drones having relatively few uses other than in a Taiwan Strait conflict scenario, it is unlikely that the PLA would seek to reserve them for another conflict should a cross straits war break out.

Using of the aircraft J-6 (drone version) would allow the PLA to hold more of its elite assets such as J-20 stealth fighters in reserve to deter intervention or attacks by the US or its Western allies, which have long supported the Taipei government. 

China’s rapid military buildup, both in conventional and nuclear arsenal, as well as apparent, manifold regional preparation arrangements are indications of PRC’s full determination to conduct the reunification of Taiwan, either by soft or hard power. Quite many experts see this will take place by the end of this decade.

Indo-Pacific context

Spillover effects of Taiwan-case are seen both in East and South China Sea, even in the whole Indo-Pacific area. While the general growth of Asian economic influence has taken place in last twenty years, the strategic “pivots” of the US, the EU, Russia and many others have been moving eastward. No doubt, the great power competition of this century will be carried out there.

AUKUS pact

In mid-September 2021, Australia declared to invest in US nuclear-powered submarines and dump its contract with France to build diesel-electric submarines because of a changed strategic environment. The US, Australia and UK have formed the new trilateral pact known as AUKUS.

Aside from the frictions with France, the new agreement has been met with general acceptance in the Western world. Some have raised legitimate concerns about the impact of the deal on nuclear non-proliferation. However, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made some critiques of AUKUS. There may be another issue yet that may raise even more fundamental questions for US national security.                     

This concerns whether the AUKUS deal might accelerate an undersea arms race that is already underway and could paradoxically turn the balance against America and its allies. China is making steady upgrades to its own nuclear submarine fleet and has recently significantly enlarged its own nuclear submarine building capacity. A new article in Global Times on October 14, reveals another side to this arms race: “Faced with increasing pressure from the maritime sector, China and Russia should vigorously strengthen cooperation in the maritime dimension.”

Notably, the article proposes that Russia-China maritime cooperation go beyond the Pacific to extend into the Atlantic and the Arctic. Beijing and Moscow have been coordinating maritime strategy for some time already. Indeed, many of China’s aircraft, submarines, and missiles have Russian origins. The Chinese fleet has already made some limited appearances in both the Baltic and Black seas.

Yet, recent developments may portend a significantly tighter alignment. In August 2020, it was reported that China and Russia will cooperate in building a conventional submarine, a first. More recently, Beijing appears to have made a very large order of Russian naval attack helicopters. Now, the Chinese fleet has been exercising with the Russian Pacific Fleet off of Vladivostok in the Sea of Japan, making their own “freedom of navigation operations”, in late autumn 2021. I have analyzed this China-Russia maritime cooperation in the overall evaluation on this website.

The biggest problem with AUKUS may not be confined to its feasibility, time horizon and relevance to various scenarios. Rather, there is the major danger that this submarine partnership will cause China and Russia to double down on their own naval partnership. A semi-permanent marriage between Russia’s military design capability and China’s industrial production capacity on large projects may be the most concerning legacy of the AUKUS deal.

Incident of USS Connecticut

“When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.” Herewith warned Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in his address to the UN General Assembly on September 22, 2020. He was referring to the consequences for East Asia of a conflict between the US and China.

Now, about one year later, it seems that first concrete trampling has begun in the South China Sea, when the nuclear-powered attack submarine, the USS Connecticut, suffered serious damage in an undersea incident which the US Navy ascribed to a collision with an undersea object. Initial reporting did not specify what precisely the submarine hit but the investigation determined that Connecticut grounded on an uncharted seamount while operating in waters of the Indo-Pacific region. China is loudly demanding the truth of the incident and the intentions behind it.

The Seawolvesare the Navy’s smallest class of submarines, just three in total. The end of the Cold War effectively ended the need for advanced and expensive Seawolf submarines, resulting in a relatively diminutive class size from a planned twenty-nine subs. It seems likely that the US Navy would be willing to put money into repairing the USS Connecticut, especially considering the submarine’s unique capabilities.

The initial announcement of the incident was delayed a month and the exact collision spot and what the submarine hit were not disclosed. The US Navy has remained tight lipped about the mission being performed by the USS Connecticut. The timing of the incident coincided with major US-led naval exercises involving ships from six nations, including four aircraft carrier task groups, just outside of the South China Sea, in the waters off the southeast of Okinawa, Japan.

The USS Connecticut could have been charting a new, covert passage that put the vessel near Chinese-controlled islands in the South China Sea. It may have also been tracking Chinese submarines that may have been deployed to keep tabs on the US-led joint naval exercises. The fact that the USS Connecticut struck an uncharted seamount implies that the vessel was operating in waters not previously known to either its crew or the US Navy.

The accident should serve as a wakeup call for political and military leadership of both countries that the game of cat and mouse being played in the South China Sea has the potential of turning deadly at a moment’s notice. If there had been a collision of American and Chinese submarines causing loss of life on either side, a simple navigational error could have escalated into a major international incident.

The US Navy announced officially, a couple of days later, that Navy has relieved the captain, executive officer and chief sonar technician of the submarine, due to “loss of confidence”.

Context of great power competition

China’s rapid growth as an economic, political and military great power has been amazing and during last twenty years. At the same time, it has escalated the great power competition.

The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has been a busy man, lately. President Biden expects him to produce foreign-policy success stories, which are desperately needed after Afghanistan debacle. However, the trans-Atlantic alliance is in a kind of disorientation, Russia is getting an upper hand in energy management in Europe, Iran is yet to give a date for the resumption of talks on the US’ return to the JCPOA, Russian and Chinese warships exercise “freedom of navigation” in the forbidden seas of Japan’s eastern coastline, the traditional “US-friend” regimes in West Asia are also looking to diversify their relations and project their power through broader alliances and the more they look eastward, the deeper they engage with China. 

There was a recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization which now has nine permanent members with the recent accession of Iran to full membership. There are several associate member countries, including of particular interest, Saudi Arabia, which is quietly making moves to improve its relationship with Iran.

In the Middle East, after the US refusal to sell armed drones to Gulf states, China made a deal to set up a drone factory at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the regional heavyweights, have taken formal steps to deepen their relations with China in recent years. Even the Pentagon is getting nervous. General Kenneth F McKenzie, the commander of the US central command, told earlier this year, “We need to recognize that competition against Russia and China simply does not only occur in the western Pacific or in the Baltic, it occurs also in places like the Middle East, where they are expanding and coming in.”

A new constellation, the “Indo-Abrahamic Accord” (the US, Israel, UAE and India) was in the making but the military coup in Sudan put all political processes in disorder. The military leadership in Khartoum is close to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. The coup leader General Abdel-Fattah Burhan was trained in Egypt’s military college and has made multiple visits since 2019 to the Emirates’ de-facto ruler, Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. All the generals also get along splendidly well with China and Russia.

It seems probable that President Biden committed a diplomatic gaffe, by saying, in late October, that Washington had a commitment to come to Taiwan’s defense, if it were attacked by China. Nonetheless, the very next day, the White House sought to walk back Biden’s comments, explaining he “wasn’t announcing a change in policy nor have we changed our policy. We are guided by the Taiwan Relations Act.” Again, next day, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and State Department spokesman Ned Price signaled to Beijing that the status quo has not changed and to Taipei cautioning against a declaration of independence.

Referring to China’s recent hypersonic weapon test (see my previous article of hypersonics, October 28), US Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered some perspective on China’s rise to power in an interview some days ago. “This test that occurred a couple weeks ago, is only one of a much, much broader picture of a military capability with respect to the Chinese. That is very, very significant,” he said. “We’re witnessing one of the largest shifts in global geostrategic power that the world has witnessed.”

A number of leading US Air Force officers have recently warned on looming military conflict with China. According to them, when war comes to the Indo-Pacific and Washington faces pressure to fight a potentially existential war, American policymakers must face the cold reality that fighting China over Taiwan risks an almost-certain military defeat. But the worst case is a conventional war spirals out of control and escalates into a nuclear exchange.

The US Department of Defense published recently its newest assessment of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) wartime potential in an annual report titled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021”. China is beefing up its nuclear arsenal a lot faster than Washington thought just a year ago, a new Pentagon report says, predicting that Beijing will own up to about 700 deliverable warheads by 2027 and at least 1.000 nuclear warheads by the end of the decade. According to SIPRI’s estimates, both the US and Russia have about 1600 warheads deployed, approx. 6000 stockpiled each and all three have the full nuclear triad.

Taiwan’s fuzzy future, seldom analyzed

Taiwan’s particularly low fertility rate, its demographic decline (now about 23 million) and aging population will deteriorate its relative importance significantly over time. Within next 50 years, the real capability of Taiwan to defend itself against the mainland China due to demographic trajectory, will literally fade away.

According to a survey by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, 28% of surveyed Taiwanese people believed that Beijing would invade Taiwan sooner or later, while 64% said a war in the Taiwan Strait was unlikely to happen. The younger generation and more educated people tended to believe that China would launch an attack against Taiwan. In 2019, a similar survey showed that 16% of participants believed that a war in the Taiwan Strait would happen while 77% of participants said it would not.

Taiwan’s willingness to defend itself is an interesting question. While the US spends more on national defense than any nation worldwide, upwards of 3.5% GDP annually, Taiwan was spending just 1.6% GDP on defense as recently as 2016 and in 2019 is expected to be only slightly better, at 2.1%. However, during last 3-4 years the percentage has been increasing due to arms sales from the US.

Second factor is the extent to which the citizens are willing to serve in the armed forces and risk their lives in defense of their country. In the US, the all-volunteer force constantly produces sufficient numbers of service personnel to fully man the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. In Taiwan, by contrast, the armed services are significantly understaffed. So, few Taiwanese are willing to sign up for military service and this year frontline combat units in the Taiwan military were assessed as being manned at a shockingly low 60%.

Such a dynamic recalls the recent situation in Afghanistan, where large numbers of Afghan troops would rather make deals with Taliban than to fight to the death in a fight, they do not think they could win. They simply forgot that American troops did fight for them over a 20 years period.

Nonetheless, a war over Taiwan remains a significant risk during the next twenty years. If the US is going to station American troops on the island or takes other political-military steps to establish Taiwan’s sovereignty, China gets incentive to interfere and probably will seize the island. 

Which war are potential parties preparing for?

The tightening relations of China and the US, both regarding Taiwan case particularly and great power competition in general, have sparked numerous scenarios of the possible war between these giants, “thinking of unthinkable” like the American think tank RAND Corporation calls it. There are two basic scenarios for war: in the first, China invades Taiwan and in the second, the US decides to block the exits of the South and East China Seas in order to cut China’s global maritime access.

Today, it seems quite obvious that war preparations are going in Asia-Pacific theater. There are a lot of endogenous factors within both main opponents – China and the US – and a wide range of exogenous factors – be they geopolitical, geo-economical or military technical.

Taiwan may be the key triggering factor in the war layouts of various parties but there are also other potential powder kegs like the Senkaku islands/the Diaoyu Islands (Chinese name) or Chinese artificial island chains in the South China Sea.

New or reviving political-military constellations are now emerging and becoming visible: AUKUS, QUAD or the US – Japan – South Korea strengthening military cooperation. All these processes and events, conducted by the US, are aimed to containing China’s growing power.

The linchpin to all of these arrangements is, of course, the United States. While it still maintains a significant naval advantage over China, what is less certain is the political will of the present administration to follow through on its military commitments. With the United States’ retreat from Afghanistan, Chinese leadership may have concluded that the Biden administration’s weakness poses a unique opportunity to test the US resolve in the region.

Some prominent American researchers, like Graham Allison, have pondered lately a question: “Could the US lose a war with China over Taiwan?” If China were to attack Taiwan, and the United States sent military forces to Taiwan’s defense, what then? Allison’s analysis is based on a large material and statements of US military experts. The conclusion is that “China has the capability to deliver a fait accompli to Taiwan before Washington would be able to decide how to respond.”

China’s rapid military buildup, both in conventional and nuclear arsenal, as well as apparent, manifold regional preparation arrangements are indications of PRC’s full determination to conduct the reunification of Taiwan, either by soft or hard power. Quite many military experts see this will take place by the end of this decade.

The old Chinese proverb says “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus, it has ever been.” From the First Opium War in 1839 to the Communist victory of 1947, China was torn apart by rival warlords, rural insurgencies and foreign invasions. The cost in human life was double or triple compared with that of WWII. The Chinese Communist Party and the present leadership of the country will never let this happen again and they have drawn the red line on Taiwan. 

If the US and China each lose tens of millions of their citizens over Taiwan, future historians will recall Karl Marx’s bon mot that the great events of history occur first as tragedy and then as farce.  Henry Kissinger, Graham Allison and other American foreign policy sages have warned for years of parallels between today’s Sino-American tensions and the European situation just before WWI in 1914. A war over Taiwan, whose significance will dwindle over time along with its diminishing population trajectory, would be the biggest war fought over the smallest substance in recorded history.

The prospect of reunification with Taiwan is an integral “glue” of PRC state identity and legitimacy under Communist Party rule and especially so under Xi Jinping who has framed the mantra of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. He continues to escalate the political importance of achieving this.

Assessing Taiwan war scenarios

The deteriorating situation in the region has led many commentators to openly speculate on the possibility of the situation deteriorating to the point where there is actual military conflict between the United States and China, and what the outcome of that conflict might be.

If such a conflict remained conventional, that is “non-nuclear”, the consensus appears to be that China would be the winner. They have the advantage of a massive military presence in the close range and the decided advantage of fighting in their own territory. The American psyche is unlikely to accept a conventional military defeat, although they have had lots of experience in recent years of being on the losing side, with Afghanistan being only the latest example. But “going nuclear” opens the way to possible total destruction.

On November 5, Reuters published a special report titled “T-Day: The Battle for Taiwan” after interviewing 12 military experts and 15 incumbent and former officers in Taiwan, the US, Japan and Australia. The report suggested six case scenarios of China’s actions: a blockade of the Matsu Islands, an invasion of Kinmen, a customs quarantine, a full blockade, an air and missile campaign and an all-out invasion.

The report projected that Beijing would first extend its campaigns of “gray-zone warfare” against Taiwan and an ongoing blockade of Matsu in order to force the Taiwanese government to hold unification talks. Beijing would then launch a customs quarantine or a full blockade of Taiwan. After the PLA launched an air and missile campaign and an all-out invasion without warning, a major war would be raging in East Asia within hours. In the all-out invasion, the Chinese army would attack US bases in Japan and Guam with air and missile strikes in a bid to paralyze American forces and delay any intervention, the report said.

The report noted that Chinese control of Taiwan would give Beijing a foothold in the so-called “first island chain”, the line which runs through the string of islands from the Japanese archipelago to Taiwan, the Philippines and Borneo and allow the PLA to project power into the Western Pacific.

On November 9, 2021, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said in the 200-page report that Beijing is rapidly building up military capabilities while the world is preoccupied with the pandemic. The report said there was a “grave threat” to security in the Taiwan Strait and warned Beijing was conducting “cognitive warfare” to sway Taiwanese public opinion. Beijing has been employing “gray zone” tactics that range from overflights of Taiwanese air space to cyber warfare, in order to increase pressure on the Taiwanese military – all in accordance with its goal of “seizing Taiwan without a fight”.

The report outlines the island’s plans to counter Beijing’s “gray zone threats,” which include warplane incursions in Taiwan’s southwest airspace, military drills near the Pratas Island or the use of speedboats to ram the island’s coast guard vessels. The report also warned that the PLA had increased its combat power on the Internet in recent years and would attack Taiwan’s key infrastructure and systems to disrupt social order on the island during wartime.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense spokesman Shih Shun-wen said the Taiwanese army had prepared to react to different scenarios of possible PLA attacks against the island and would continue to increase its defense abilities through military drills.

Shu Hsiao-huang, a scholar at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan, said many of the scenarios in the Reuters report were still far from reality, because any Chinese blockade of Taiwan-held islands would definitely trigger a big response from the US and West. Shu believed that the PLA would probably launch a massive attack with different strategies at one go, instead of only an air and missile campaign. PLA might use armed fishing vessels, which belong to the PLA Maritime Militia, to disrupt Taiwan’s surrounding islands. PLA might also cut energy supplies to Taiwan by detaining the island’s tanker ships. Taiwan currently lacks the defense ability to protect itself from mainland China’s electronic warfare and cyber-attacks. Taiwan could use more unmanned vehicles to fight against the PLA.

Chieh Chung, a research fellow at the Association of Strategic Foresight, a think tank in Taiwan, said that should the PLA invade Taiwan, it would try to end the war as fast as possible – so that the Taiwanese army would not have time to replenish its resources and the US would not be able to intervene. Chieh observed that such an approach would be different from the step-by-step invasion suggested in the Reuters report. Citing the opinions of some mainland academies, Chieh said Beijing’s military goal was to completely occupy the Taiwan island and destroy the organized resistance of the Taiwanese army in the shortest possible time.

In early November, 2021, a top Taiwan security official, National Security Bureau Director-General Chen Ming-tong, told Taiwan lawmakers that China had internally debated whether to attack Taiwan’s Pratas Islands but will not do so before 2024, the year President Tsai Ing-wen’s term ends. He did not say how he knew that such a move had been debated or why it would not happen during the next few years. Pratas is a small horseshoe-shaped island in the South China Sea situating 200 miles southeast of Hong Kong. The island has no permanent residents and is just big enough for a small airfield. China has not commented the matter.

The Chinese government has expressed the wish that Taiwan returns to the mainland in time for the 2049 Centenary celebrations of the People’s Republic. China is highly unlikely to wait that long and the military moves of the last months strongly suggest that a conclusion is not so far in the future.