How Likely Is a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan?
"May You Live in Interesting Times," goes the curse.
Just five years ago, the concept of war between major states seemed like something either relegated to the distant past or to the paranoid delusions of Lucifer’s La La Land. But hey, here we are, one year into the Russia-Ukraine war, and after the world was turned upside down by…well, you know what. Are things weird enough for you, yet?
“Weird” is an important word here, because so many of the changes we’ve experienced in the past few years have been so abrupt and unfamiliar. Since the Second World War, asymmetrical, civil, or proxy wars have been the order of the day — not great power conflicts. So, if you’re one of the many people who thought great power competition was permanently out of style, you may be forgiven, because it simply hasn’t been hip, daddy-o.
It is now, however. The war in Ukraine is now a de facto direct conflict between NATO and the Russian Federation. Don’t take my word for it: the Ukrainian Defense Minister said so himself, and so has his Russian counterpart. That’s a grade A, “Oh, shit,” level of conflict — but it’s just one of two that’s currently set up.
The other is a conflict between the US and its broad alliance against China. And yes, of course the flashpoint is Taiwan. This potential conflict has been teed up for decades, but thankfully no one has yet had the stones to step up to take a swing. That reluctance may soon vanish, however.
Consider: The fault lines in East and Northeast Asia have been still for roughly 70 years. There are two of those fault lines: the border between North and South Korea and the strait of Taiwan. Really, you could consider those two fault lines part of the same system. I do. The reason those fault lines have stayed static for so long is because of the US security bubble and its naval dominance in the region.
But those fault lines are starting to rumble as Chinese power rises and US power is perceived to be waning. Recently, military and think-tank types have been issuing dire warnings of a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan this decade. Twenty or thirty years ago, the concept was silly, full of imagery like Chinese soldiers swimming the strait with knives in their teeth, strapping outboard motors to rubber dinghies, or commandeering fishing vessels and jumping out of the cargo holds to surprise Taiwanese defenders.
The concept is no longer silly. While China is not yet a naval behemoth, it is an entirely different animal than the China of 2023 — and a different species than the China of 1949, when Taiwan broke away under the defeated Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-Shek.
So, there are three questions I’d like to address here:
Just how likely is a Chinese invasion of Taiwan?
What would an invasion of Taiwan look like?
How can an invasion of Taiwan be prevented?
Let’s look at the situation in that order. This will end up being a series of posts since it’s too much to gobble in one bite. First, however, we need to establish some basic facts about the potential for a Taiwan invasion.
Taiwan Invasion Basics
To understand the situation, we need to make sure we’re on the same page here regarding some crucial underpinnings. They look like this:
China wants to “reunify” Taiwan by any means necessary. They would prefer a peaceful reunification, but have repeatedly stated conflict is not off the table.
Taiwan would certainly fall if not supported by other countries.
The US, specifically President Biden, has repeatedly and publicly said the US is committed to militarily defend Taiwan should China attack.
An invasion of Taiwan would be incredibly difficult to pull off. It would be one of the largest — if not the largest — amphibious invasions in history.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Navy (PLAN) have effectively zero experience in warfare.
China is currently suffering internal strife, a massive Covid outbreak, an economic downturn, and a rapid population decline.
Taiwan is the world’s largest producer of advanced semiconductors. The loss of Taiwan or devastation of Taiwan’s economy would be a huge blow to the global economy.
China has recently been subject to semiconductor sanctions from the US, leading to massive damage in their manufacturing sector.
Taiwan has been preparing for a Chinese invasion for seven decades.
The nearest port is roughly 200 kilometers (~120 miles) from Taiwan, and the nearest large military part of Shantou is further.
Because I’m a human, I have bias, so I’ll disclose my biases. They’re simple: I really, really don’t want this war to happen. I live within a few hundred meters of the East Sea (the term in Vietnam for the South China Sea) and there are Chinese military bases due east of here. I fear, reasonably, that such a war could spill over and easily trigger a region-wide conflict. So, for the sake of my family and the stability of this region, I despise the idea of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. I’ll discuss how such a scenario could get way out of hand in a second post.
Timing: The drafting of this article began before the balloon mania that dominated news cycles, which gives me pause. Ginning up anti-China propaganda in the US this early indicates that a war may be either sooner or more likely than I’d originally anticipated. Indeed, on February 14, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced ammunition expenditure in Ukraine outstrips supply and production by a wide margin. An unarmed West would give China a much better chance of succeeding in an invasion attempt. This story is changing rapidly, but we need to look at the big picture. So, back to it, now.
How Likely Is a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan?
Because I like the number three, there are three time frames in which we can look at how likely an invasion is. These categories are simple: Really Soon, Kinda Soon, and A Bit Later. For the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to Really Soon as within the next 12-24 months, Kinda Soon as the next 3-6 years, and A Bit Later as after 2030.
If you’re pressed for time, here’s my conclusion: I think the Kinda Soon scenario makes the most sense. I think the military analysts actually have their fingers on the pulse. Recall that most people didn’t believe Russia would invade Ukraine before they did. But there’s a chance it could happen sooner. Recent developments, especially the spy balloon scare and the shortage of ammunition for Ukraine, make Really Soon all the more likely. Let’s step back, though.
I love it when people do some of my research for me. In this case, and for some parts of this article series, I’ll be referring to a document describing a war game produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The consensus among military analysts and commentators seem to fall in the “Kinda Soon” camp, though not unanimously. Specifically, for the past few years, the year 2025 has been popularly bandied about as a potential invasion date. But how reasonable is that possibility, really?
As the CSIS noted,
“Senior military officials have expressed concerns that China’s military might be preparing a military solution to the ‘breakaway province’ problem — or preparing that capability in case called upon to act. Admiral Philip S. Davidson, commander of Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) until April 2021, testified that the Chinese threat to invade Taiwan “is manifest . . . in the next six years.” Current INDOPACOM commander Admiral John C. Aquilino, when asked for his opinion, stated that, “This problem is much closer to us than most think.” Other military and civilian officials—for example, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Admiral Michael M. Gilday, chief of naval operations, and Admiral Charles Richard, head of Strategic Command—have expressed similar concerns. This is a broad narrative in the national security community.
Others argue that an invasion is far more imminent and possible than one several years in the future, i.e. Really Soon. From CSIS:
Oriana Skylar Mastro, a Chinese specialist at Stanford University, observed, “In recent months there have been disturbing signs that Beijing is reconsidering its peaceful approach [to Taiwan] and contemplating armed unification. . . . Whereas Chinese leaders used to view a military campaign to take the island as a fantasy, now they consider it a real possibility.” Lonnie Henley, a retired defense intelligence officer for East Asia at the Defense Intelligence Agency, stated before Congress that, “if the political leadership turned to the [PLA] today and said, can you invade right now, it’s my assessment that the answer would be a firm yes.” Robert Blackwill and Philip Zelikow go further: “China is now in a prewar tempo of political and military preparations...” Taiwan itself has entered the debate, with its defense minister saying that China would be able to launch a “full-scale invasion” by 2025.
However, there are those who push back on such a notion, arguing more towards A Bit Later or even Not At All.
“Others are more cautious and stress that it is difficult to impute intentions from improving capabilities. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed the statements made by other military leaders: “What Davidson and Aquilino and others have said is that Chinese capability to invade and seize the island of Taiwan is being accelerated to 2027, six years from now. I don’t dismiss that at all. . . but I don’t see it happening right out of the blue.” Christopher Johnson, a China scholar at CSIS, was more emphatic, saying that at the 2022 party congress Xi “held fast to the judgment that stability and economic growth continued to be dominant global trends” and that portrayals of Xi as “itching for war” were “overhyped.” Lonnie Henley qualified his own congressional testimony, writing separately: I do not think they [the Chinese] will attack Taiwan as long as they believe unification without war remains a viable course of action. They will attack, however, despite the enormous cost and despite any doubts about their own military capabilities, if they judge that peaceful unification is no longer possible, that military force is the only remaining option. That in turn is driven by their assessment of political developments in Taipei and Washington. Timothy Heath similarly argues that “There is no evidence that the [Chinese] government is seriously contemplating abandoning its peaceful unification strategy.”
But what determines just how likely a potential invasion is? How does it fit into the broader picture of things, and how ready is China right now?
The Big Picture
A lot of what happens or doesn’t happen in Taiwan depends on what happens in Ukraine. It’s apparent to me and many others that the difficulties Russia has encountered in Ukraine have made Beijing reconsider plans they may have made regarding Taiwan. This is similar to one penguin pushing another in the water to make sure there are no leopard seals there waiting to eat them. Russia clearly didn’t expect so much resistance from either Ukraine or the Western “International Community,” and you can be sure Xi Jinping is taking notes. But we’re here for the nitty gritty, so taking notes on what? Let’s look at a few specifics.
Sanctions and blockades
China is far more vulnerable to trade disruptions and sanctions than Russia is. Whereas Russia is a leading producer and exporter of energy, food, and a whole host of resources, China is the world’s largest importer of just about everything, especially oil. They’re furthermore the world’s largest exporter of a slew of goods, as you’re no doubt well aware. So, while international sanctions and trade embargoes on Russia have been disruptive, they would be catastrophic for China.
How catastrophic, you ask? Take oil, for instance. China currently imports 70-80% of its oil from Persian Gulf states via the Strait of Malacca, itself only 38 kilometers (24 miles) wide at its narrowest point. A blockade of the Strait would be fairly simple to accomplish, and not a single shot would need to be fired to get oil tankers to rethink their course and cancel the delivery. The nearest other passage to China is via the Sunda Strait, and the second nearest the Lombok strait, so China would need to maintain very strong ties with Indonesia if it wanted to circumvent such a blockade. Even then, ships would have to cross large open areas of international waters and potentially be subject to interdiction.
The above chart shows just how much oil China imports now compared to 20 years ago. It’s a totally different ball game. Cutting off oil imports to China would create a humanitarian crisis the likes of which the world has never seen. Food could not be distributed. Crops could not be planted or harvested, and fertilizers would be very hard to come by. Peter Zeihan convincingly argues that hundreds of millions would die within six months or so due to total deindustrialization. It’s not a pretty picture.
China is well aware of this conundrum, and has been building its “String of Pearls'' chain of naval bases. From the Paracel and Spratley Islands, to Cambodia, to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Djibouti, these bases are China’s answer to any attempt to shut down their shipping lanes. Many of these bases are still under construction, however, and may fall far short of what’s needed.
I used to live close to where China is building its naval base in Cambodia, for example, and, well…let’s just say the area is a bit underdeveloped. The concept of servicing a whole fleet there is pretty funny. Imagine the Starship Enterprise docking at a fishing village for refueling and repairs. Something like that.
What’s more, the ships Beijing currently employs — while numerous — are not suited for power projection far from its coasts. They simply don’t have the range or tonnage. In several years, that story might be different.
Conclusion: China will likely not attack Taiwan while they are still dependent on energy imports via the Strait of Malacca — or, equally, if they believe that Strait could be closed to them.
Caveat: The oil blockade would only be feasible if there were a naval power committed to such a blockade. These powers could only either be the US or India. Singapore would be loath to get involved, and neither Indonesia nor Malaysia appears to want anything to do with this fight. India is currently sitting on the fence in the Russia-Ukraine war, and may well do the same in a China-Taiwan war despite its involvement in the Quad and its antipathy towards China. That likely leaves the US Navy to the task.
Work is underway to bypass the Strait. China and Russia are busy building pipelines to connect the two nations, but they’re not nearly enough to satisfy the rapacious Chinese demand and they’re nowhere near done either. Beijing has even teamed up with Pakistan to build a pipeline over the Himalayas (!), but it will only provide a fraction of their needs. Malacca is the Chinese Achilles’ Heel. How’s that for cultural confusion?
There’s more, though. There doesn’t have to be an oil blockade. Because China’s economy is so export-dependent — largely via ship to other continents — an embargo on Chinese goods would crush the Chinese economy, as would simple boycotts. As the massive anti-government demonstrations in November 2022 against Covid lockdowns demonstrated, many citizens there are already thoroughly displeased with the CCP. Such an economic shock would stand a very good chance of toppling the government.
Naturally, Beijing must be aware of this reality, also. China is busy building a trans-Caspian road to bypass Russia and Iran to deliver goods to Europe, but it, too, isn’t nearly done yet. Furthermore, it relies on multi-modal systems of transport, i.e. road and rail to the Caspian Sea, then ship across the Caspian, and then back to road and rail. That’s much more expensive than shipping alone, and it requires significant investment in underdeveloped partners like Turkmenistan.
Conclusion: China will likely not attack Taiwan while their economy is mostly dependent on exports and they are unable to protect their shipping lanes or deliver goods by alternative means.
Caveat: China has been whipping up nationalism for years, especially antagonistic nationalism directed towards the US. The CCP could stoke such nationalism and anger at a Western embargo to direct citizens’ ire outwards instead of towards the government.
Caveat #2: Western countries that could be expected to push back against China are hopelessly dependent on Chinese goods for the time being. As we learned during Covid, even the US military relies on medicine made in China. If embargoes on Russia were damaging to the West, embargoes on China could be devastating. It’s a two-way street, and there’s no guarantee Western countries would have the gumption to suffer further supply shortages and price increases. Such a move would lead to the breakdown of the entire global system of trade, leading to further economic problems in Western countries.
Western Distraction in Ukraine
Just how long the war in Ukraine goes on plays a huge role in the likelihood of a Taiwan invasion. In short, the longer the war goes on, the more likely China is to invade. This is for a few reasons.
The more time, energy, and resources Western countries deploy in defending Ukraine, the less they’ll have to prioritize Taiwan. As it stands, many NATO countries have largely emptied their arsenals to support Ukraine, leaving them short on ammo and equipment should it be needed in another fight. Ammunition spent in Ukraine can’t be spent in Taiwan, and if the US doesn’t have enough missiles to help fend off a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, it’s game over.
Should Ukraine prevail — which seems unlikely given that Russia views the war as existentially crucial and shows no sign of giving up — then China will not invade. But, again, the Ukraine war seems set to drag on for a while. This means more munitions spent, more war weariness in Western countries, and fewer resources available to spend on war.
A war-weary West encourages a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. As Covid made readily clear, Western economies are far more fragile than we would have liked to believe, and the overcomplexity of systems means they’re prone to breaking.
X-Factors in the Taiwan Scenario
The biggest unknown factor in a potential invasion scenario is what Japan would do. There are rumblings that Japan would militarily defend Taiwan, but it’s not guaranteed. A Japanese defense of the island would be a game changer, but it would also guarantee a broader East Asian war.
Other X-factors include India, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines. India has created a series of military bases called the Necklace of Diamonds to rival China’s String of Pearls, and the Philippines has recently accepted four new US military bases. That’s an indication of what side they’d fall on, but is no guarantee they’d get actively involved themselves. Vietnam is thoroughly wary of China, but as China is both a neighbor and its largest trading partner, neutrality seems to make the most sense.
Then of course there is Xi Jinping, Mr. X himself, who has enclosed himself in an information bubble by surrounding himself with yes-men. His purges of the Chinese Communist Party have ensured only those loyal to him can get close to him, and then even further that only those who bring him information he likes. So, what makes a Chinese invasion in the short term more likely than anything else is a simple miscalculation by Xi. Human factors like this are often under-discussed in such scenarios. A classic example is how Germany’s Schlieffen Plan prior to the First World War was accepted as dogmatic truth, when it turned out to be fundamentally flawed.
Another enormous X-factor that can’t be ignored is the possibility that Taiwan could easily develop nuclear weapons in short order. The country has had nuclear reactors for decades, and could spool up nuclear devices quickly. That encourages China to move fast if it does indeed attack, and precludes the idea of a long-lasting blockade. But more on that later, since this has already gone on long enough.
Finally, US politics will play a large role in any outcome. The Presidential election of 2024 will shape policy in many ways that are difficult to predict right now. However, it’s well known that unpopular presidents can turn to war to boost their popularity. This topic is worth an entire article on its own.
So, is a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the cards? Unfortunately, yes. The signs point to China not being ready yet, since they’re still incredibly vulnerable both to supply chain and economic disruptions. The country is also still reeling from internal strife and economic calamity due to the Covid pandemic. An invasion anytime within the next few months would be hasty and would probably lead to catastrophic losses.
Within a few years, however, China will be in a better position to mount such an invasion. From a neutral point of view, it would be very unwise for them to invade right now. They’ve been patient on the topic for decades already — a couple more years would put them in a much better position to attack. And they do seem to be getting ready. Check the excellent explanation below.
Again, I deeply hope this doesn’t happen. Ever. But hope is not a strategy, and reality often isn’t pretty. Neither is war. Somehow, we got back to an era of great power conflict, and bloodlust is on the rise. If anyone has suggestions for ways to make everyone chill out, I'm all ears.