Missiles rained down in the waters around Taiwan. Long-range rockets streaked into the sky. Chinese state television showed fighter jets and warships entering the Taiwan Strait as the military began an unprecedented series of live-fire drills encircling the self-governing island on 4 August. “Although this is an exercise resembling actual combat,” said Major General Meng Xiangqing of the National Defence University in Beijing, “it can at any time turn into real combat.”
The scale and the location of these exercises, which took place to the north, south and east of Taiwan, were clearly intended to signal that China was rehearsing a blockade of the island. They reignited concern that Beijing could soon try to seize the territory, which it claims as its own, by force.
So is China really preparing to invade Taiwan? The answer is yes and no.
There is no question that Beijing wants control of Taiwan. It has been the goal of every Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader since Mao Zedong to “reunify” with Taiwan (although in fact the CCP has never ruled the island). The current leader, Xi Jinping, would dearly love to be the one who finally claims Taiwan and he knows that this would give him an unassailable historical legacy.
It is also true that China is developing the military capabilities to be able to credibly threaten an invasion. Since the 1990s in particular, Beijing has invested heavily in modernising the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which it aims to complete by 2035. This was triggered by watching the US project military power overseas during the First Gulf War from 1990-91 and then the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, when China was forced to back down after the US sent two aircraft carriers to the region. Successive leaders have sought to make sure that China could never again be humiliated in this way, and now the country has its own aircraft carriers, two of which left port as Nancy Pelosi, the US House Speaker, headed towards Taiwan this week.
[See also: The pointlessness of Nancy Pelosi’s trip]
The ability to threaten a military assault on Taiwan is one of the most important tools Beijing has to deter the island from declaring independence, and to make other countries think twice about the degree of their support for Taipei. The PLA, therefore, has every incentive to show off its increasing capabilities.
These growing capabilities have unnerved US officials. In the last 18 months there has been a slew of alarming headlines about a possible timeline for Xi to try to seize Taiwan; the first of these came in March 2021 when Admiral Philip Davidson, then head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, warned that China could attempt an invasion within the next six years, by 2027. These predictions are based, however, more on a perceived gap between US and Chinese capabilities in the latter half of the decade as the next generation of American long-range bombers and guided-missile submarines become operational, rather than specific intelligence about a planned attack.
Xi himself has made few references to any concrete plans relating to Taiwan, beyond linking “reunification” with the goal of “national rejuvenation”, which he has promised will be completed by 2049. He has said twice, first in 2013 and again in 2019, that the issue of Taiwan cannot be passed down “from generation to generation”, but this is sufficiently vague to give him flexibility. China’s Anti-Secession Law, meanwhile, stipulates that “non-peaceful means” would only be used against Taiwan when all other possibilities have been “completely exhausted”, and Xi has stressed that “time and momentum” are on Beijing’s side.
Any decision to launch an assault on Taiwan will be political, and it will only be taken as a last resort. The military campaign alone would be an extraordinarily risky undertaking, with the PLA mounting an amphibious assault over more than 100 miles of water, against an adversary that would almost certainly be backed by the US military. Even assuming that was successful, they would then be faced with the challenge of occupying Taiwan, which has a population of more than 23 million people and mountainous territory that is well suited to an insurgency. Then there would be the extensive sanctions that would halt China’s economic rise and destroy a core plank of the Communist Party’s legitimacy.
This doesn’t mean that military action is off the table. As the former CIA analyst John Culver noted on 4 August, it will be conditions, rather than any particular calendar that triggers a Chinese assault on Taiwan, and there are plenty of economic, diplomatic and coercive military measures that will be deployed in the interim. But if China’s rulers saw Taiwan moving towards a permanent break with China and de jure independence, he warned, “they would go to war tomorrow”. Ultimately, this will be the deciding factor for Xi, because as much as he would like to be the one who secures control of the territory, above all else, he does not want to be the leader who loses Taiwan for good.