In early March, Admiral Philip Davidson, the outgoing commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, raised eyebrows when testifying before the US Senate Armed Services committee. He stated the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could attack Taiwan within six years – by 2027.
And last week his replacement at USINDOPACOM, Admiral John Aquilino, testified that the PRC might attack even sooner than that.
Admirals Davidson and Aquilino are not some fellows in the peanut gallery (like some of us). Rather, they have access to the full range of US intelligence collection and analytical resources. They ought to be taken seriously. So that’s what we’ll do, starting with answering the most common arguments trotted out to counter the admirals’ concerns.
Is the PLA even capable?
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – a term that encompasses the navy and air force as well – is good enough to give it a try. According to some analysts, by the early 2010s the PLA was already capable of moving several tens of thousands of troops across the strait and landing them on Taiwan in a day. It has improved since then.
The Chinese have enough “lift” – with 50+ amphibious ships (including older ones) and hundreds, if not thousands, of ferries and barges that will work fine for moving troops and equipment. And, given China’s doctrine of civil-military fusion, there is no shortage of aircraft to drop airborne troops.
Keep in mind that an assault will take place in the context of missile barrages, cyber attacks, electronic warfare and naval and air forces swarming the island and its environs. Also, there is a fifth column of saboteurs and agents on Taiwan that the PRC has had 60 years to put in place – aided by Taiwan’s overstretched counter-intelligence capabilities.
It is also possible there will be coordinated attacks by China’s proxies in other theaters to distract and divert the focus and forces of Taiwan’s allies.
How would an invasion look?
One oft-mentioned option is a coup de main that “decapitates” Taiwan’s leadership and destroys and/or seizes key installations. This could even be combined with an all-out assault.
Special forces and fifth columnists might be employed to cause confusion and seize a few fishing ports and airfields – just long enough to allow PLA forces and equipment to be “pushed through” and establish a secure foothold.
Plenty of advance notice?
Not necessarily. The Chinese can move from a standing start, or even use a military “exercise” as cover for massing forces before the attack – as they did in the spring of 2020 in the Himalayas before they pushed across the Line of Actual Control with India.
One hears a lot that an amphibious assault of this scale is just too complex and difficult for the PLA.
However, underestimate the Chinese and you’ll learn a hard lesson – as the US military, and intelligence and business communities should know by now, even if not everyone has figured this out.
The PLA trains for amphibious assaults and joint operations as well. It has perhaps 20,000 Marines and at least 50,000 personnel with amphibious training. And Taiwan has been the PLA’s main objective for decades, so it’s gotten plenty of funding, attention, planning, procurement and practice.
Can’t Taiwan prevail?
Twenty years ago, Taiwanese forces could have defeated an assault. These days? It’s a toss-up.
Taiwan’s military is dedicated and hard-working, though underfunded. And 40 years of near-isolation from the United States and other free nations have hurt. Reserve forces are a shambles, and a national civil defense scheme is lacking. The PLA might like its odds.
Is Beijing motivated enough?
An assault would be bloody and provoke international condemnation and sanctions – and maybe even a US military response. But consider the upside from a Chinese perspective:
Seize control of Taiwan and you’ve upended the US defense posture in the Indo-Pacific. The PLA will have broken the so-called First Island Chain stretching from Japan to Malaysia, which hems in Chinese forces.
And with a lodgment in the center of the US and allied defense line, the PLA can extend its reach outward and drive a salient into the heart of America’s central Pacific defenses.
Meanwhile, lines of communication between Japan and Australia are threatened, and a PRC-occupied Taiwan eliminates a launch point for attack and intelligence collection against the Chinese mainland. It could also give China access to Taiwan’s strategic chip manufacturing.
For a Chinese defense planner, Taiwan is worth a very high price. It would also give Beijing massive psychological and political advantages. Take Taiwan and you demolish American prestige in the region and globally. The message will be both clear and searing:
The US military could not stop the PRC.
The threat of financial and economic sanctions couldn’t stop the PRC.
US nuclear weapons couldn’t stop the PRC.
Few countries anywhere will be confident about US security promises. And most of Asia – except for Japan and Australia – will shift closer to China in the hope of being eaten last.
Reputational and trade risk?
It’s possible the risk to China’s international trade and reputation could dissuade it from making a move. Possible. But look at what has happened in Hong Kong – despite assurances that Beijing would never kill the goose that lays golden eggs.
Beijing snuffed out freedom in Hong Kong. US and Western businessmen averted their gazes, and business now appears to be booming.
Taiwan might be a little harder to overlook, but Beijing will argue it’s just an internal domestic matter (like Hong Kong) and shouldn’t the US and others focus on sorting out their own domestic issues? Meanwhile, Chinese money and influence will provide a salve for the Westerners managing the necessary moral contortions.
Bottom line: the decade of concern
Given all of the above, the admirals’ recent warnings about Taiwan shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
Almost a decade ago, US Navy Captain James Fanell was sounding the alarm about Chinese intentions. He even projected that 2020-2030 would be “the decade of concern”, when the risk of a Chinese assault on Taiwan would be extremely high.
Captain Fanell pointed out that Beijing was dead serious about seizing Taiwan. He argued that the PLA had received its marching orders to be ready to attack by 2020. And he assessed that seizing Taiwan by 2030 would allow 20 years for the free world to “get used to it” – just as it did following the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.
This would then allow the Chinese Communists to declare the “great rejuvenation” of China in 2049 – the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. The rest of the world would be suitably intimidated by the reemergence of the Middle Kingdom.
Given the seriousness and urgency of the threat, it is refreshing to see USINDOPACOM taking China’s intentions far more seriously than when Captain Fanell was howling in the wilderness.
However, that hasn’t stopped the usual suspects in the corner of the peanut gallery from accusing Aquilino and Davidson of hyping the China threat just to get more money.
That charge is made despite the fact that the amount of extra money they are requesting – about $5 billion a year for the next five years – is a pittance in the context of the US budget. It’s about a month’s worth of health care fraud.
More likely, the admirals made their comments based on their reading of the intelligence and advice from analysts who live and breathe the issue.
Even from the peanut gallery one can see cause for concern. Follow PRC behavior in the region and beyond and it just might show a pattern of a country “nerving itself up” for military conflict. Allies in the region can see it building as well.
Which brings us to one last question, the one the admirals pondered.
Most favorable timing?
One guesstimate is that the most favorable time for the PLA to launch an attack on Taiwan would be after the Chinese Winter Olympics, scheduled to run from February 4 – 20, 2022.
The theory there is that PRC planners would have been impressed at how Vladimir Putin stage-managed the Sochi Olympics in 2014 to increase Russian “prestige” (before the Russian doping scandal was uncovered, at least), just prior to invading and “taking back” the traditionally Russian Territory of Crimea, which he managed to do with no military reaction from NATO and with bearable economic sanctions.
From the Russian perspective, it was a very successful campaign – one that the PRC would perhaps want to emulate.
In another indication, PRC and Russian officials in a recent meeting discussed how to reduce the world financial leadership that accrues to the US on account of the dollar’s status as the world’s leading convertible currency.
If Beijing expects economic sanctions to follow a Taiwan invasion, it will need to line up economic allies in advance. (See Hitler and Stalin’s “understanding” before the invasion of Poland.)
All this is to say that it’s impossible to predict exactly when China may move on Taiwan. But with a high degree of confidence (as intelligence types say), this can be said: The PLA is coming.
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer. He was the first USMC liaison officer to the Japan Self Defense Force and has spent many years in Asia. He conducted research in Taipei in 2019 as a Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs fellow. His research covers improving Taiwan’s defense by helping the Taiwan armed forces break out of 40 years of isolation.
He originally wrote this article for And Magazine, where it first appeared. It is reused with permission.