China’s Recent Charm Offensive Belies Its Plan for An Attrition War with Taiwan

China’s Recent Charm Offensive Belies Its Plan for An Attrition War with Taiwan

China learned a crucial lesson from the Ukraine war: in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, the best way to minimize or avoid economic sanctions from Western countries is through being too economically important to cut off.


With Russia’s waning momentum and influence in the wake of a slew of setbacks in the Ukraine war, concerns over an imminent Chinese attack on Taiwan have somewhat subsided. However, China’s recent charm offensives indicate its strategic calculations for an attrition war with Taiwan. To win such a war, China recognizes the necessity to accumulate as many bargaining chips as possible before entering into negotiations. One crucial aspect of this process is the restoration of its significantly damaged global reputation.

China has sought to claim the mantle of peacemaker since its reversal of the Zero Covid policy. Externally, it has actively presented itself as an unbiased alternative to the United States. After brokering an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, China ventured into the highly sensitive Israel-Palestine conflict. Additionally, its unexpected vote in favor of a UN resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, accompanied by the endorsement of French president Emmanuel Macron, highlights China’s potential mediating role in resolving the Ukraine conflict.


Internally, China is undergoing a diplomatic system overhaul. The removal of outspoken “Wolf Warrior” spokesman Zhao Lijian was followed by a carefully orchestrated visit to China by former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou. Furthermore, Beijing’s propaganda efforts are toning down the domestic fervor surrounding the idea of forcibly taking Taiwan. Despite its routine boilerplates against perceived “Western smear campaigns,” China appears to be adopting a more restrained and moderate diplomatic approach, aiming to convince the world that it still prioritizes peaceful means over force in its approach towards Taiwan.

However, China’s recent diplomatic shift belies its strategic adjustment towards the self-governing island. The lessons learned from the Ukraine war have led Xi Jinping to realize that if a military juggernaut like Russia can fail to annex Ukraine, the challenge of seizing a better-defended Taiwan would be even greater for China. This is especially true considering the island’s vital geopolitical and economic significance to the United States and the Western world. Consequently, China has recognized that a swift Blitzkrieg, as Russia had envisioned for Ukraine, is less feasible in the case of Taiwan. Instead, an attrition war, whose effect was validated during the Sino-Japanese War, would be a more practical strategy for China’s current status as an economic giant. Additionally, through salami tactics, China could chip away Taiwan’s outlying islands bit by bit.

An important giveaway of China’s plan for an attrition war with Taiwan can be gleaned from its recent contact with Ukraine. Following a long-awaited phone call between Xi Jinping and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, China dispatched a special envoy with a peace plan—built on its highly controversial twelve-point peaceful proposal on Ukraine—to the battle-scarred country. However, the mediation ended up with a public rejection from Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba that Ukraine would not surrender territory to Russia in exchange for ending the war. While the specific details of the meeting were not disclosed, Kuleba’s remarks suggest that China’s proposal may have involved territorial concessions by Ukraine. If the land-for-peace approach proves successful in the Ukraine conflict, it is highly likely that China would employ a similar strategy in future negotiations during an attrition war with Taiwan. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the assumption of China’s ability to outlast Taiwan and its Western allies in an attrition war hinges on its integration into the global economy and a robust self-sufficiency system.

China learned a crucial lesson from the Ukraine war: in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, the best way to minimize or avoid economic sanctions from Western countries would not be through decoupling, but rather by further binding itself to the global value chains. Germany’s opposition to banning imports of Russian gas and oil, due to its high dependence on Moscow’s energy supplies, is a prime example. The European Union also demonstrated caution when imposing sanctions on Russia in order to minimize repercussions for EU citizens and businesses. To defend itself from potential surgical sanctions that may be imposed by Western countries, China is willingly accepting economic olive branches extended by EU powers such as France and Germany.

However, China’s endeavor to leverage its gargantuan economy does not make it bulletproof to Western sanctions. To counter China’s economic coercion, the U.S.-led Western bloc unveiled its “de-risking” strategy as a precautionary response during the G7 summit, aimed at minimizing the potential costs of a sudden escalation over Taiwan. This undoubtedly intensified China’s self-sufficiency movement, prompting it to expand its envisioned sanctions-proofing system to include its neighbors.

Exemplified by its Xi’an summit with Central Asian leaders, Beijing is accelerating the formation of a G7-like alliance. This alliance aims to strengthen economic ties as well as foster a collective security consensus. In response to G7’s planned diversification of supply chains to reduce their reliance on China, the country is also diversifying sources of its self-sufficiency system as it realizes it would largely be on its own if no preparation is made to sustain its potential war economy. Central Asian nations, seeking a reliable security partner in the absence of Russia, could play a practical role in aiding China, particularly given their limited relations with Taiwan. Assurances from Central Asian leaders that they would not interfere in China’s approach to the island have solidified the scaffolding of the regional-scale self-sufficiency system that China is establishing.

Speculations about the quick decline of U.S. combat power during a confrontation with China may bolster the latter’s confidence in taking Taiwan through an attrition war. Nonetheless, the resistance from Taiwan and the backlash from Western countries cannot be underestimated. Understanding these challenges, China is bound to unite all available forces and exploit any cleavage between the United States and its allies. One particularly workable and valuable target is certain EU countries that are actively seeking economic development through cooperation with China. Macron’s advocate for “strategic autonomy” to ensure the EU has more options beyond simply aligning with the United States on issues like Taiwan is one significant achievement that China has snatched.

As China is shifting towards an attrition war strategy, it is imperative for the U.S.-led Western bloc to adapt accordingly. The “de-risking” tactic cannot fundamentally resolve the underlying reliance on China within global supply chains. Instead, the United States should rev up the development of Taiwan’s self-sufficiency system. Rather than focusing solely on marginal improvements in the already tight economic ties between Taiwan and other democracies, the U.S.-led Western bloc ought to provide Taiwan with a stronger diplomatic endorsement to spur more “swing countries” in Asia, such as Vietnam and Malaysia, to participate in the island’s self-sufficiency system.

It is anticipated that China’s economic coercion would continue to be effective in the event of a war with Taiwan. When that day comes, the reluctance of major EU powers like France and Germany to provide sufficient assistance during the early stages of the Ukraine war is likely to re-emerge. The only feasible way that Taiwan could outlast China in an attrition war relies on its endurance until a turning point where its counter-offensive achieves success is reached. But before that, it must establish a self-sufficiency system that is at least on par with, if not stronger than, that of China.

Jiachen Shi is a Ph.D. student in political science at Tulane University. He received his M.A. in international relations from the University of Liverpool. His articles have been featured in The Diplomat.

Image: Courtesy of the Office of the President of Kazakhstan.