China Isn’t Ready to Invade Taiwan
While China may strongly desire reunification with Taiwan, it is not ready for an armed invasion.
Beijing’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law, the 2019 Military Strategy, and the 2022 National Party Congress (NPC) Report have made China’s position crystal-clear: Taiwan independence is a non-starter.
While delivering the 2022 NPC Report, General Secretary Xi Jinping reiterated that nothing has changed vis-a-vis Taiwan. “We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.” A peaceful resolution is the preferred end state, but military power is not going to be renounced. Without question, China is willing to use armed force.
But while China may be willing to use armed force, I argue that China faces major challenges and is not ready. There are two major challenges: unfinished military modernization and high casualty potential. Together, these two factors help explain why China can stomach the status quo. Beijing could elect to pay the costs to invade Taiwan, but does not want to pay.
China’s Unfinished Civil War
2027 will be the 100th birthday of the Chinese Civil War. The Nationalists and the Communists started fighting each other during the middle of the Northern Expedition (1926 to 1928), a military campaign to reunify China. In 1949, the Nationalists were militarily defeated and fled from Mainland China to the island of Taiwan.
The Communists planned but ultimately postponed a major amphibious invasion of Taiwan during the early 1950s. The U.S. backing of Taiwan combined with Taiwan’s own military caused hesitation among the PLA. China’s leadership assessed that the military balance was unfavorable and the costs too high. In The Chinese Invasion Threat, author Ian Easton cites a Chinese estimate of 100,000 PLA casualties to take Taiwan in the 1950s. High costs deterred Chinese leaders from ordering an invasion. China was limited to seizing some Taiwanese islands, saber-rattling, three (maybe four) Taiwan Straits Crises, and engaging in plenty of harsh rhetoric.
But up until a few years ago, Beijing’s relationship with Taipei placed more emphasis on economic and cultural exchange, geared towards wooing Taiwan into reunification. The hope was that Taiwan would be convinced to give-up de facto independence. It has not worked.
China is now more militarily capable than Taiwan. U.S. military power cannot guarantee Taiwanese security. In the last twenty years, the military balance dramatically shifted to favor China.
Last year, Xi set out a vague goal for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to “comprehensively strengthen” itself by 2027. This goal is in addition to PLA objectives to become “informationized” by 2035 and “world-class” by 2049.
General Xu Qiliang, the vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC), recently published an essay in the People’s Daily, China’s largest newspaper. While Xu is retiring, he spent the last ten years serving as Xi Jinping’s senior military deputy. He characterizes 2027 as a near-term goal in modernizing the PLA, ahead of longer-term benchmarks in 2035 and 2049. Xu thinks China’s military modernization still has a long way to go.
China’s Unfinished Military Modernization
The PLA’s modernization is addressing areas of perceived weakness, but two broad areas are pertinent for Taiwan: jointness and logistics. The complexity and importance of getting these issues right, discourage China from undertaking the amphibious invasion.
First, are jointness issues. Inspired by the U.S. military’s 1986 reorganization and reconfiguration, China underwent its own Goldwater-Nichols Act. The PLA undertook this process in 2015 intending to prepare for joint operations. Joint operations involve placing ground, air, and naval units all under one command. Some of the base-level requirements for jointness include knowledge about other service branches, trust amongst services, and joint military exercises. From an organizational perspective, the PLA Ground Force (PLAGF) might be hindering the nurturing of joint command.
The PLAGF has historically been China’s dominant service branch. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, China’s security concerns were mostly land-based threats. As a result, the PLA was structured to counter ground invasions. Only as the security concerns shifted did other service branches truly become more relevant. The influence of the “Big Army'' was cited by PLA strategists as needing to be countered. As a result, the PLAGF was slimmed down. While the army’s technical capabilities were improved, the navy and air force received more funding.
The incoming Central Military Commission (CMC) reveals that the PLAGF kept a preponderance of institutional power. The two vice-chairmen, Zhang Youxia and He Weidong both hail from the PLAGF. As does, Liu Zhenli, the predicted new leader of the Joint Staff Department, which functionally oversees the PLA’s joint operations. The outlook is similar at the theater-level. Currently, both the Eastern Theater Command and the Southern Theater Command are directed by PLAGF generals. The absence of PLA Navy (PLAN) admirals is surprising. Given the PLAN’s prominent role in an invasion scenario, admirals would presumably command one of these theaters. Lack of representation in these billets suggests the army remains the PLA’s center of gravity. It also prevents naval and air force leaders from gaining valuable joint command experience.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows that experience does not necessarily remove problems. Even with nearly thirty years of experience, Russian logistics faced numerous problems bringing the requisite supplies into Ukraine. Logistics across land poses difficulty, but those difficulties multiply in complexity across water. Amphibious invasions necessitate bringing a vast assortment of supplies: food, potable water, medical supplies, fuel, ammunition, tools, spare parts, etc. Everything needs to be brought via sea and/or air. The PLA has problems with air and sea-lift, though civilian vessels could be used to bridge the gap. It would still be a challenging logistic feat. Anti-ship missiles and mines would destroy some of these landing crafts.
The High Costs of Invading
The costs of an invasion would be politically felt on the Mainland. It is difficult to accurately estimate how many PLA lives would be lost trying to take and hold Taiwan. During World War II, the United States estimated an invasion of Japanese-held Taiwan would cost 37,000 casualties. While the U.S. created a plan to invade, “Operation Causeway” was ruled too costly, and rejected.
At first glance, calling up troops poses no issues for China. The PLA is estimated to have around 2 million active-duty personnel and millions of reservists. Taiwan has a smaller fraction of forces: 170,000 active-duty personnel and 1.5 million reservists. Using the far from perfect 3:1 rule of combat, the PLA’s offensive requires a minimum of 510,000 soldiers. This number does not account for Taiwanese reservists or the subsequent counterinsurgency that would be required. It is, admittedly, a very rough and incomplete calculation.
If just ten percent of that force perished in an invasion, the effects would be felt domestically. China would begin to approach the U.S. casualties count from the Vietnam War. The deaths of Chinese soldiers would produce hardship for many families. Not only would the loss of life be tragic, but China’s weak social safety net and one-child would magnify societal weaknesses.
Widows/widowers and their children are obviously affected, but the one-child policy means surviving, elderly parents of soldiers are also affected. Losing their only child effectively leaves them in the same position as immediate family members. The death of a PLA soldier could leave at least four dependents behind. It could spell financial ruin for hundreds of thousands. The costs for China would be high. The incentive is not to pursue a kinetic conflict, where even “low” casualty numbers will ripple.
The same logic is at play in China’s COVID-19 management strategy. Though the “Zero-COVID” approach may be loosening, it is arguably the most cautious pandemic management strategy. The country’s leadership has sacrificed economic growth in persisting with this course of action. And for an understandable reason: China’s vast over-65 population. The World Bank’s estimate exceeds 175 million people in this demographic. Given COVID-19’s higher mortality rate among the elderly, many of China’s citizens are at risk. A large vaccination campaign will help, but it cannot eliminate spread, hospitalizations, or even deaths. It is a sobering challenge and begins to explain the hard choice China faces in fully re-opening. The costs go beyond the economic realm and have implications for families and society.
China’s desire for reunification is strong and gives no sign of diminishing. Taiwan should prepare for the possibility of an amphibious invasion. PLA strategists are studying lessons of 20th-century amphibious warfare, with an eye toward the Allied invasion at Normandy. Taiwan’s 2021 Quadrennial Defense Review provides the reader little comfort about Taipei’s procurement choices and deteriorating defense balance.
My focus is the China side of the equation. I have argued that Chinese inaction stems from its domestic challenges. The PLA’s military modernization still has a long way to go. Service rivalries, force structure, and logistics pose significant problems. As does the prospect of many deaths and their broader, societal effects. These act as restraints, but they would snap if Taiwan declared independence. The Taiwan issue is about “political motives” according to PLA expert Michael Swaine. He correctly draws attention to the political framing. Instead of paying attention to the PLA’s symbolic 2027 goal, U.S. policymakers should pay attention to politics.