The Chinese Army is not yet ready for an invasion of Taiwan, and necessary modernisation will take some more time
Sun Tzu in The Art of War wrote: “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
History is the witness of the fact that Chinese attacks occur when they are least expected. 2022 is not the year for World War III to begin. China is not ready for a war yet; it doesn’t possess enough defence equipment for the invasion presently, and its forces are also not fully prepared for the joint-op amphibious assault needed for the task.
It is also the year when Xi Jinping seeks re-election for an unprecedented third term in the 20th Party Congress, and therefore seeks stability and eschews boldness. Post re-election, Xi, with uncontested authority, is expected to assert an even more aggressive foreign policy, intervening more directly in disputes on China’s periphery (Taiwan and border row with India might be the focal areas) and pushing more forcefully against the United States’ presence in the Pacific. The American Congress’ scrambling to pass a bill on semiconductor chips is also a signal of the upcoming conflict over Taiwan. The Pentagon has assessed that China will not invade Taiwan for the next two years. The CIA Director has warned that as we move into the decade the risk of Taiwan’s invasion aggravates.
Unification of Taiwan is a matter of personal legacy for Xi and essential part of his “China dream”—the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” with the CCP leading China’s reemergence as a great power—so Chinese move over Taiwan can most probably happen in his third term, if not, then certainly in his fourth.
Chinese military modernisation was pre-poned to 2035 in 2017 by Xi; the key parts of modernisation are set to be achieved by 2027. So, there exists greater probability of an invasion in the later part of the decade, instead of earlier. Eruption of an accidental war due to increasing hostilities between Taipei and Beijing or with Washington can never be ruled out, but the chances should be rather slim. Xi would not want to repeat Putin’s blunder, and attack before China is fully prepared to take over Taipei in an assured short swift move.
US Army General Douglas MacArthur had described Taiwan as “an unsinkable aircraft carrier and submarine tender.” It possesses an enormous value from strategic and security perspective for Beijing as well as Washington: keeping a hold over the crucial Philippine Sea -- the waters between East and South China sea and Western Pacific, stretching from Japan to Indonesia and Taiwan to the second island chain, wherein falls the US military base Guam. Beijing’s control of Taipei would markedly improve Chinese military position by increasing its ocean surveillance capabilities and operations of its submarines in Philippine Sea, curtailing American military’s ability to operate there, impeding US naval and air operations needed to come to the defence of its treaty allies Japan, South Korea and Philippines in case of Chinese aggression over disputed islands.
Without the control over Taiwan, in case of a conflict between US and China, Washington would destroy China’s surface radar system and its warships could move in the Philippine Sea without much danger of detection; however, a control over Taiwan would allow China to deploy hydrophones off the island’s eastern coast, which has much deeper waters as compared to waters around first island chain that Beijing controls presently. These difficult to destroy hydrophones would give away the location of US warships thousands of miles away; thus, being a game changer.
Detected US warships will be easy targets of the Chinese submarines moving freely in the Philippine Sea. This will leave the US incapable of protecting its interests in the Pacific. North-East Asian shipping lanes will also become vulnerable to Chinese control in case of a takeover.
As the biggest semiconductor chip supplier, and almost a monopolistic manufacturer of nano chips, Taipei holds great economic and technological significance for Washington as well as Beijing. Control over Taipei could drastically enhance Beijing’s space, military and economic advancement while paralyzing Western technological-industrial complex.
Salami slicing is a well-known policy that Beijing adopts in conflicts. It involves creating a non-regular presence in the disputed area, then turning that into a sustained occupation or routine presence.
From denying the existence of the median line and routinely crossing it, violating Taiwan’s ADIZ to declaring Taiwan straits as not international waters but under Chinese control, undertaking military drills around the island and creating blockades, Beijing is creating a new normal.
Interestingly, this time around, Beijing had accused Washington for using salami slicing over its ‘One China Policy’. The US is not just inching forward in its ties with Taiwan -- commencing the trade initiative to bolster trade and investment between them, high level visits to the island -- but even the policy of “strategic ambiguity” is held all for smoke and mirrors. Biden has declared three times that the US will be involved militarily if the invasion takes place. It is American domestic law – Taiwan Relations Act, 1979 -- to help Taiwan defend itself in case of use of force by Beijing; importantly, not coming to Taiwan’s defence runs counter to Washington’s self-interest.
In the invasion scenario simulated by Beijing, its weak spots have been noticed as precision logistics which is crucial for amphibious assault that’s needed for invasion. The PLA was also found deficient in amphibious vessels and trained personnel for complex logistics missions and military transport aircraft. Xi has directed China’s defence industry to produce weapons specifically designed to prevent the US forces from intervening to help Taipei or other allies in the region. Such weapons include increasingly accurate and lethal ballistic and cruise missiles, integrated air-defence systems and anti-satellite weapons, backed by a growing stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Washington is preparing Taiwan for an asymmetric warfare, supplying anti-ship missiles and air-to-air weapons. Taiwan has shifted its defense planning to “porcupine strategy” involving mines, short range missiles, civil defense and guerilla resistance. How direct the American involvement would be during the invasion is difficult to predict, however its military involvement is most probable.
The invasion is bound to be long-drawn out one and Taiwan’s preparedness militarily, food and other essential supplies wise would be an essential factor in holding out to China. But the determining factor ultimately will be the resolve of the common Taiwanese people. Taiwan is the toughest and most dangerous problem in the world for Washington as well as Beijing.
A long-stretched out conflict might become a disaster for the Chinese economy and can create political instability and problems for Xi’s leadership and the CCP.
(The author is a foreign policy expert)