A Chinese diplomat in Washington recently threatened that China would invade Taiwan if the U.S. Navy sent a ship to visit the democratic island, something that Congress has called upon the Pentagon to do in 2018. Is this just empty rhetoric? Or does it reflect Beijing's actual intentions? It's actually a bit of both.
According to leaked Chinese military documents (analyzed here), Taiwan stands to lose more from the rise of China as a twenty-first-century superpower than any other country in the world. Indeed, China's emergence as the world’s second largest political, economic and military power threatens the interests of many nations, but only Taiwan has its life at stake. Only Taiwan is held at risk of seeing its trade lines severed, its cities bombed and its shores invaded. Only Taiwan faces the possibility of having its president assassinated and its democracy destroyed. China's authoritarian government challenges many countries in many ways, but it only has war plans for the invasion and occupation of Taiwan.
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China's rapid military buildup is focused on acquiring the capabilities needed to annex, or conquer, Taiwan. Chinese publications euphemistically call this "achieving national unification." The war plan for fighting a Taiwan invasion campaign is tattooed onto the PLA's corporate memory. It is something that has been indoctrinated and encoded into the minds of all top-level officers. For them, the interests of the regime, not the people of China, are paramount, and their "main strategic direction" (supreme objective) is to end Taiwan's life as a de facto independent country.
The good news is that the Chinese military almost certainly could not prosecute a full-scale invasion of Taiwan today and succeed. Even if a few hawkish generals were prepared to roll the dice, the costs and risks entailed by the war would be enormous and potentially fatal for the regime. PLA strategists know they still have a long way to go before they will be able to achieve their objective. The bad news is that China's leaders recognize the roadblocks in their path and will continue to invest heavily in strategic deception, intelligence collection, psychological warfare, joint training and advanced weapons. Barring countervailing efforts, their investments could result in a world-shaking conflict and an immense human tragedy.
War Plans and Politics
Any conflict between China and Taiwan will almost certainly involve America. The U.S. government does not recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan and regards the island's sovereign status as unresolved. Moreover, the White House is legally obligated by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) to provide defensive arms and services to Taiwan, and to maintain the U.S. military's capacity to respond to any Chinese use of force against the island. Should China seek to blockade, bomb and invade Taiwan, the United States would be compelled to help its democratic friend.
While not as binding as a mutual defense treaty, the TRA (U.S. Public Law 96-8) makes it clear that Washington is likely to intervene if China uses force. In addition to being a matter of principle and honor, the United States needs Taiwan for geostrategic reasons. It has become increasingly clear to American strategists that China has embarked on a long and intense competition for dominance over the Indo-Pacific. Taiwan is at the geographic and political heart of this competition. Maritime tensions in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, while serious, pale in comparison to this flashpoint.
Separated by the Taiwan Strait for sixty-eight years and counting, China and Taiwan each exercise authority only over the territory under their respective control. Neither is subordinate to the other, and neither recognizes the legality of the other. From the perspective of Beijing, the Chinese Civil War never ended. As a result, the two governments have no official relationship and are still ideologically and militarily hostile. China's desire to annex Taiwan keeps cross-Strait relations perpetually strained.
While acknowledging the huge risks entailed, Chinese military writings use many arguments to justify the invasion of Taiwan. They point out that critical geostrategic issues are at stake. Internal PLA materials argue that Taiwan sits in a controlling position along China's eastern seaboard, making it a gateway to the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. They assert that since the great majority of China’s shipping traffic passes through the Strait, it is a vital area affecting the security of their coastline, national economic growth, and future prosperity.
The Course Book on the Taiwan Strait's Military Geography is a restricted-access PLA manual, used to teach senior officer seminars in Beijing. It warns readers that an external military might one day use Taiwan to cut-off China’s trade lines, hinting that the island could be used as a military base by the United States to blockade China and undermine its rapid rise to great power status. On this basis, the manual argues that physical control over the island is vital for safeguarding against foreign blockades. China’s seaborne oil imports, which pass through the Strait, are highly vulnerable, “so protecting the security of this strategic maritime passageway is not just a military activity alone, but rather an act of national strategy.”
This source then goes a step further, telling readers that Taiwan is a chokepoint of great utility for blockading Japan. The Taiwan Strait, it notes, is a Japanese maritime lifeline that runs from Europe and the Middle East, and based on PLA studies, Japan receives 90 percent of its oil imports, 99 percent of its mineral resources and 100 percent of its nuclear fuel needs from ships that travel across these sea lanes. In total, 500 million tons of Japanese imports pass by Taiwanese waters each year, with 80 percent of all Japan’s container ships traveling right through the Strait, the equivalent of one Japanese cargo ship every ten minutes. Consequently, these waters will, “directly affect Japan’s life or death, its survival or demise.”
PLA intentions and plans for a conquered Taiwan are made plain in another internal document, The Japanese Air Self Defense Force, a handbook studied by mid-career officers at the PLA Air Force Command College in Beijing. The stated purpose of the text is to help Chinese pilots and staff officers understand the strengths and weaknesses of their Japanese adversaries. Buried amidst hundreds of pages of detailed maps, target coordinates, organizational charts, weapons data and jet fighter images are the following lines:
As soon as Taiwan is reunified with Mainland China, Japan's maritime lines of communication will fall completely within the striking ranges of China's fighters and bombers...Our analysis shows that, by using blockades, if we can reduce Japan's raw imports by 15-20%, it will be a heavy blow to Japan's economy...After imports have been reduced by 50%, even if they use rationing to limit consumption, Japan's national economy and war-making potential will collapse entirely...blockades can cause sea shipments to decrease and can even create a famine within the Japanese islands.
These writings illustrate the immense value placed upon Taiwan by the PLA, and they clearly articulate strategic rationales for invading the island and turning it into an "unsinkable aircraft carrier." They are quick to point out that Taiwan’s location in the center of the First Island Chain means that once it falls under Chinese control, the PLA Navy will have assured access to the Pacific and tremendous leverage over neighboring states, giving them command over the world’s most important waters.
The PRC, then, has compelling political, economic and military reasons to want to control Taiwan. In the eyes of Chinese strategists, this island's importance is unparalleled. For historical and practical reasons, the PLA assumes that it will have the leading role in the campaign. Military theorists in the PLA write that, sooner or later, the attack will be ordered and the island invaded and turned into a giant base for projecting China's strength and prestige across the region. They envision a world in which Chinese troops, planes and ships stand watch over this chokepoint, controlling all its activities. They contemplate a future where China dominates the Indo-Pacific.
To reach this future vision, PLA writings assert the Chinese military must master all domains of warfare. Books such as the Science of Military Strategy and Science of Campaigns indicate that units assaulting Taiwan will have to be capable of amphibious assault, maneuver, indirect fires, urban warfare and mountain warfare. The field manual, Informatized Army Operations, written by a team of officers at the PLA Nanjing Army Command Academy, indicates that it would be an ugly, brutal and bloody fight.
Surprise attacks would first have to be executed to clear the way for the army to cross the Strait. Operations would include everything from ballistic missile attacks to drone strikes, from cyber infiltration to space warfare, and from commando raids to psychological operations. However, at its core, the invasion of Taiwan would be about putting boots on the ground and tanks in the streets on Taipei. In the words of the PLA field manual, “We must annihilate our (Taiwanese) enemies in large numbers, then conquer and control the entire island.”
Given the gravity of the threat facing Taiwan, it is important that the international community understands China's intentions and plans. Americans need to understand why their country might one day find itself locked in deadly embrace with China over this island nation, and allies need to know what parts they might be asked to play. If a war breaks out between the United States and China over Taiwan, it will change the course of history and produce after effects that reverberate for generations to come.
No one can know with any certainty how such a war would start, how it would play out, and what would follow it. But we can and should do more to understand the drivers of conflict and the assumptions that underpin military plans and preparations for it. No other flashpoint is as potentially dangerous to the national security of the United States.
It is clearly in the American interest to develop a nuanced understanding of the threat China poses to Taiwan, and to cultivate a strategy that takes this into account. Indeed, it is often the case that only by thinking tragically can tragedy be avoided. It is also true that in the absence of understanding many will buy into Chinese propaganda.
Going forward, American policymakers need to realize that North Korea is not the only threat to peace in Asia, nor is it the worst. China is planning to invade a pro-American democracy at the center of the first island chain, something likely to spark World War III. In light of this reality, the sooner the U.S. Navy begins port calls and exercises with Taiwan the better.
Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia.
Editor’s Note: This article draws from the author's new book, The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia.