If the US and Taiwan plan for a war that starts this way they'll be surprised, the author says. In the photo, People's Liberation Army (PLA) amphibious tanks assault a beach during an exercise conducted on an island off the southeastern province of Fujian across from Taiwan in a file photo. Image: AFP/Xinhua

The possibility of China launching a full-scale assault on Taiwan is a hot topic these days. The outgoing and incoming US Indo-Pacific commanders recently warned the US Congress that such an attack could come by 2027 or sooner.

These gentlemen tend to be on the cautious side when speaking publicly, so one is inclined to take them at their words.

Their warnings conjure up images of an Iwo Jima sort of amphibious assault on Taiwan backed by missile barrages and aerial bombardment. But consider the possibility of something a bit stealthier, akin to Vladimir Putin’s 2014 seizure and occupation of Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.

Putin said he wasn’t behind the revolt against the Ukrainian government in the Donbass. Rather, it was just local militias and citizens unhappy with Ukrainian oppression.

According to the 2001 census, ethnic Ukrainians form 58% of the population of Luhansk Oblast and 56.9% of Donetsk OblastEthnic Russians form the largest minority, accounting for 39% and 38.2% of the two oblasts respectively.

As for the military men in unmarked uniforms and speaking Russian? Just “little green men” from parts unknown. The heavy weapons, tanks, and armored vehicles? Who could say?

When going after the Donbass, Putin had a couple of big advantages. First, geography. Russia shares a land border with Ukraine, and that makes subversion, logistical support and coordinating operations much easier.

Second, the local population had a degree of affinity for Russia. The Donbass is economically depressed with many old style Soviet miners who received heavy subsidies until the breakup of the Soviet Union, at which time the government couldn’t even pay salaries to military officers or government employees.

It really was a terrible time. Many Donbass residents dream of a return to the good old days when they were respected and rewarded as great Soviet workers, with medals and salaries to prove it.

So Putin had something to work with in the Donbass. He was also apparently planning to drive on to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and had plenty of fifth columnists in place. The biggest surprise was that Putin couldn’t take the capital. The drive to Kyiv bogged down in the Donbass as the initially disorganized Ukrainians coalesced enough to defend ground. 

Nonetheless, the Ukrainian government no longer controls the Donbass region, nor the Crimea, which Putin had seized in similar fashion a couple months before going after the rest of Ukraine.

Laying the groundwork: On April 28, 2014, in Donetsk, Ukraine, pro-Russia militants march and occupy the streets after brutally confronting Ukrainian police and violently dispersing a peaceful pro-Ukraine unity demonstration. Photo: AFP / Hans Lucas

China’s own Donbass?

The territory ruled from Taipei consists of the main island, Formosa – which hosts the capital, Taipei – and a number of offshore islands. Formosa is about 112 miles across the Taiwan Strait from the Chinese coast. (Key West is about 100 miles from Cuba.) Formosa is mountainous and large, close to 14,000 square miles. (The Big Island of Hawaii is around 4,000 square miles.)

Over the years, there has been substantial subversion throughout Taiwan – which is home to many pro-Beijing politicians, usually belonging to the Kuomintang (KMT). Some were pro-unification, others were playing their cards close to their chests but not necessarily opposed to helping Beijing.

In fact, the KMT Ma Ying-jeou administration (2008-2016) seemed close enough to the People’s Republic of China that the question was raised whether Ma was really interested in defending Taiwan. Some critics claimed that Ma was engineering Taiwan’s annexation by China.

Current Beijing policy is the so-called 1992 Consensus, under which the two governments “agree” that there is only one sovereign state of China that includes both the mainland and Taiwan – but they do not agree on which is its legitimate government, Beijing’s People’s Republic of China or Taipei’s Republic of China.

Opposing the One-China principle are advocates of Taiwan independence, who want to establish the “Republic of Taiwan” and cultivate a separate identity.

Pro-Beijing influence was found not just at the top levels during the Ma era. Rather, it was (and still is) rife in academia, and found at local levels in religious groups, community organizations and a range of “united front” organizations. And Taiwanese business and industrial interests were (and remain) deeply invested in the mainland and making money. 

Taiwan’s media included (and still include) a number of decidedly pro-PRC newspapers and broadcast outlets. During the Ma administration era there was a widespread sense, even among younger people facing a weak economy and limited prospects, that Taiwan’s future was with the mainland.

Taiwan had no shortage of Beijing spies, too, as Taiwanese officials will tell you. It is still a problem. Taiwan’s counter-intelligence agencies regularly collar Taiwanese officials, and even retired and active military officers for spying for China – and that is just the ones who have been caught.

So if the PRC and Xi Jinping had played their hand better a few years ago, they just might have softened up Taiwan to the point that the Chinese could have had an opening for a Donbass scenario.

But Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) couldn’t restrain themselves. As one expert on China described it:

Xi’s predecessors had the right idea – entice a good woman into a bad marriage. Lavish her with praise, treat her kindly, dote on her and never criticize.

Buy her gifts, meet the family (encourage student exchanges and make it easy for Taiwanese to live and work in China) where you ask and value their opinions without trying to impose your views on them. Let them come to you. Tie her to you financially with a joint investment. Buy a home together.

That is a long process and Xi grew tired of the long courting ritual.

Taiwan in the foreground, China is seen at night from space. Photo: NASA

One fairly reckons the PRC already has a substantial fifth column in place on Formosa. It has had many decades to get things in order and moving people across the Strait has always been easy.

For many years regular shipping and commercial flights have been available. Besides moving people, moving things – weapons, ammunition, equipment and other gear – isn’t difficult.

Well established smuggling routes exist between Taiwan and the mainland and have operated for years. Taiwan has powerful and extensive organized crime networks (generally considered pro- PRC) that are deeply involved in this business. And one of Taiwan’s major ports has long been rumored to be a very friendly place for moving things in and out.

So one should expect the fifth column to spring into action in support of an assault on Formosa, conducting assassinations and launching attacks on key targets throughout the island. Seizing ports and airfields through which People’s Liberation Army forces might flow is not unthinkable. Even a hundred agents with AK-47’s shooting people over a wide area would cause plenty of distraction for Taiwan’s defenders.

Beijing would no doubt characterize the actions as “suppressing the splittist uprising” – claiming that Taipei was moving for independence, a PRC red line. Or the mainlanders might say they were “supporting the liberation movement” of “patriotic Taiwanese demanding unification” with the mainland.

Keep in mind that setting up a fifth column of saboteurs, spies, agents and special forces operatives throughout the nation and society is one thing. But breaking down Taiwan government control by deploying the fifth columnists, including disguised Chinese Ministry of State Security and PLA personnel with the clout to control Taiwanese territory, is another.

Could the fifth columnists form the basis of guerrilla bands operating in Taiwan’s mountainous interior? Perhaps. But unless this was done as a very short-term part of a soon-to-come, full-scale assault, the guerrillas’ prospects would be dim.

Taiwan’s mountains are a tough place to sustain oneself. And there is the problem that mainlanders and even most Taiwanese would be on unfamiliar territory that belongs to aboriginal tribes. Indeed, the well trained reconnaissance units of the Taiwan Marine Corps and Taiwan Army draw heavily from mountain-born aborigines. These troops would give “freedom fighters” a nasty lesson and might enjoy the practice.

Also, generally speaking, within the public at large younger people now more strongly oppose the idea of Taiwan coming under PRC control. Older people are considered less opposed – and in some cases even in favor. But, being older, they are shrinking in number as time passes.

Opposition Kuomintang party candidate Han Kuo-yu, nicknamed ‘Taiwan’s Trump,’ meets the press after being removed as mayor of Kaohsiung in a recall election on June 6, 2020. He had tried to win the presidency on a Beijing-friendly platform. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

Meanwhile, pro-China politicians still exist, of course, but these days they are a proportionately smaller part of Taiwan’s political world. The other part of the body politic – those who favor independence or at least the status quo and who want nothing to do with the PRC, people generally represented by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – seem to be ascendant, for now. The DPP has won the last two presidential elections.

Even within the Kuomintang there is a noticeable shift towards alignment with the DPP on the unification issue. This is not everyone, however, and some politicians no doubt are aiming to preserve their political maneuverability. With changed circumstance they might change their minds and align with Beijing.

So, at the moment, you can forget about a long- term, slow-moving occupation of Formosa of the Donbass sort. Beijing has neither the geographic nor the local-support advantage that Moscow had. There is no part of Formosa where local affinity for the PRC and opposition to the Taiwanese state are such as to create a no-go zone. The Taiwanese government’s writ extends from one end of the island to the other and is backed up by a still powerful military and law enforcement resources.

At most, with considerable effort, Beijing might possibly establish a very short-term control of a very small area (say, a port or two or some airfields) to support a larger, immediate assault against the rest of Formosa.

As an expert on Chinese political warfare against Taiwan who requires anonymity put it:

Donbass as a model for Taiwan would be, right now, extremely difficult for the PRC to pull off. This is because of the geography, of course, [but] also because of the sharp tilt of public opinion in Taiwan against the PRC since the “Fall of Hong Kong.”

The expert added:

Even though pro-PRC Taiwanese have reportedly started paramilitary organizations to fight the ROC government and a number of united front organizations are likely supporting sleeper agents and SOF [special operations force] cells in Taiwan, it is hard for me to conceive they would get much popular support.

Not now, but maybe later?

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years of experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive and US Marine Corps officer. This article is excerpted for republication, with permission, from a longer piece originally published by the Center for Security Policy.