Military helicopters carrying large Taiwanese flags do flyby rehearsals in October 2021 amid escalating tensions between Taipei and Beijing. Photo: AFP / Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto

The specter of China going to war to force Taiwan to unite with the mainland has compelled the United States, Taiwan’s chief diplomatic and military supporter, to get real.

Washington has had to face up to the increasing chance China could succeed and focus on whether and how to defend the democratically governed island.

Holding China at bay has become more and more complex and difficult, US military analysts say, as China has built up and modernized its armed forces during the past two decades.

Some strengthening is specifically aimed at pressuring, and even invading, Taiwan to get it to submit to Beijing’s rule. In addition, China wants to ensure that no one comes to Taiwan’s aid.

“The People’s Liberation Army is likely preparing for a contingency to unify Taiwan with the mainland by force, while simultaneously deterring, delaying or denying any third-party intervention on Taiwan’s behalf,” said a US Defense Intelligence Agency report.

In the same period, the US has been bogged down in costly, inconclusive wars and nation-building projects. President Joe Biden, like his predecessor Donald Trump, is trying to shed some of that baggage and focus on China.

As the last piece left outside of Communist Party control in 1948 at the end of China’s civil war, Taiwan is at a minimum important to Beijing. But, it is not the only challenge China presents to the US as the two countries engage in global competition – and military conflict is not the be-all and end-all of the budding rivalry.

“The competition is both civilian and military, is global rather than centered in one area like Taiwan or the South China Sea,” advised a draft report by the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

This is, the CSIS said, “often a competition for military and civilian influence that goes far beyond Asia – and where each nation’s ability to influence and deter may be more important than its ability to fight.”

For the moment, however, Taiwan is the center of attention. The seas and airspace off its coast are noisy with saber-rattling. An anonymous Washington official on Thursday largely confirmed news reports that US Special Forces have been training Taiwanese troops.

A US-made E2K Early Warning Aircraft takes off on September 5 from a motorway in Pingtung, southern Taiwan, during the annual Han Kuang drill. US special operations forces have been quietly training Taiwanese troops for months, risking the ire of China, a Pentagon official said October 7, 2021. Photo: AFP / Sam Yeh

During a four-day period last weekend that coincided with mainland commemorations of the civil war’s end, about 150 Chinese air force jets flew close to Taiwan.

Periodically, China has held ever more expansive naval and air maneuvers near and beyond Taiwan and has fortified a self-declared South China Sea maritime exclusion zone that includes Taiwan within its bounds.

China’s Global Times, a generally combative English-language newspaper, warned that “war may be triggered at any time.”

The US State Department called the jet-flyovers “provocative” moves that risk “miscalculations.” On Wednesday, Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Xi’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi in Zurich.

On the same day, Biden brought up a September 9 phone call with China’s President Xi Jinping, in which they had reaffirmed the 40-year-old concord that there is only one China, and it’s ruled from Beijing.

In vague remarks about the phone call, Biden made no mention of another element of the accord – that reunification of Taiwan with China should be done peacefully. His spokesperson said he plans to have a meeting with Xi sometime this year on video.

Recent US military policies suggest that preparations are being made not only to talk, but to confront China. Last month, the United States and the United Kingdom launched a new security partnership with Australia aimed at deterring a perceived Chinese threat. The debut included a decision to provide technology to Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines.

Biden has continued American opposition to China’s claims to maritime territory in the South China Sea by sailing warships into the area and also has approved sales of new weaponry to Taiwan.

Despite this bellicose activity, Taiwan was anxious to know whether the Xi-Biden phone call suggested abandonment. President Tsai Ing-wen telephoned the US president and, later, expressed satisfaction that US policy “remains unchanged.”

The meaning of “unchanged” is purposefully shrouded in mystery. Under the American policy of “strategic ambiguity” everyone, and especially China, is kept guessing.

That said, US military planners are clearly eager to know what China has in store for Taiwan, just in case.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. Taiwan has been facing intensifying threats from China while building better relations with the US, Japan, Australia, the UK and other European countries including Lithuania, France, Poland and the Czech Republic. Photo: AFP / Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto

In last year’s annual report to Congress on China, the US Department of Defense pointedly noted that in 2005, Beijing issued a law that suggested “non-peaceful means” could be used against Taiwan if “forces … cause the fact” of secession or exhaust the “possibilities for peaceful reunification.”

The report listed triggers that could provoke Chinese military action, including a Taiwanese formal declaration of independence or some move that suggests secession is in the offing; failure to negotiate about eventual unification over a long, but unspecified, period of time; the outbreak of unrest inside Taiwan; acquisition of nuclear weapons by Taiwan; foreign intervention or the stationing of foreign forces in Taiwan.

In response to any of these events, Beijing could order up varying degrees of military action, singly or in concert, to coerce Taiwan into talks or surrender. China could blockade Taiwan’s ports and prohibit air traffic to strangle imports and exports. Its army could jointly supplement the blockades with invasions of outer Taiwanese islands, as a message that the main island would be next.

China might attack infrastructure, including computer and power networks, as well as military and government facilities, to create “doubt” about the island’s leadership and display the futility of resistance, the Defense Department report added.

An outright invasion from the sea is also a possibility. China has improved its ability to conduct “complex joint operations” like amphibious landings.

Researchers at China’s National Defense University have pondered the possibility of unloading troops and material at major Taiwanese ports rather than on Taiwan’s short beaches, which are mostly hemmed in by cliffs.

According to the 2049 Project, a think tank that studies Indo-Pacific security issues, China has made preparations to transport large numbers of soldiers across the Taiwan Strait.

In 2016, under a new measure called the National Defense Transportation Law, Beijing mandated all private transportation to be “designed, built and managed” for use in times of war, at the service of China’s military,  according to the 2049 Project.

The law added the giant China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), with its 2,000 ships and tens of thousands of merchant mariners, to the growing roster of private concerns available for “military-civilian fusion” duty. Large container ships can be used to transport material, troops or heavy equipment once a harbor is secured.

China is also expanding its amphibious units for carrying helicopters and other vertical lift aircraft for use in amphibious landings. Nonetheless, because a full-scale invasion of Taiwan by sea would likely attract resistance and present “a significant political and military risk,” China might first try out assaults on Kinmen or Matsu islands, both of which are small and close to the mainland, the Defense Department report speculated.

A Chinese amphibious assault vehicle in the Seaborne Assault 2017 international competition held at Klerk training area of the Pacific Fleet. Photo: Sputnik via AFP/Vitaliy Ankov
A Chinese amphibious assault vehicle in the Seaborne Assault 2017 international competition held at Klerk training area of the Pacific Fleet. Photo: AFP / Sputnik / Vitaliy Ankov

Taiwan once possessed both numerical and quantitative military superiority over China, but no more. “Since the 2000s, the military balance between the People’s Liberation Army and Taiwan has changed in favor of the PLA as a whole, with the lead widening year after year,” wrote Japan’s Defense Ministry in 2020.

In 2007, for example, the numbers of advanced fighter jets in the arsenals of China and Taiwan were about the same – about 300 each. By 2020, China possessed about 1,100 compared with Taiwan’s 300.

Against the backdrop of military inferiority and China’s intimidation, Taiwanese officials alternate between expressions of defiance and alarm. “I am warning the Beijing authorities to be sure to exercise restraint and avoid actions that could spark a fire,” President Tsai said Wednesday.

Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng called the tensions between China and Taiwan “the most serious” in four decades. He predicted that China would be capable of mounting a “full scale” invasion of Taiwan by 2025.

“For me as a military man, the urgency is right in front of me,” he told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday. “By 2025, China will bring the cost and attrition to its lowest. It has the capacity now, but it will not start a war easily, having to take many other things into consideration.”

American commentators have expressed doubts the US could militarily defend Taiwan. Daniel Davis, a military analyst and author, scoffed at a Wall Street Journal call for the Biden administration to “make it clear” the US would protect Taiwan.

“The island’s 100 miles off China’s coast; 6,000 miles off ours. China’s combat power is concentrated there; ours dispersed around the globe. Don’t fight a no-win war!” Davis tweeted Thursday.

“The Chinese don’t have to comprehensively defeat the United States militarily in order to achieve their near-term objectives,” David Ochmanek, a researcher at the Rand Corporation, said last year. “If their objective is to overrun Taiwan, that in principle can be accomplished in a finite time period, measured in days to weeks.”

In 2017, Rand researchers noted that, although China is far from matching total United States military capabilities, China “does not need to catch up to challenge the United States on its immediate periphery.”

“Many Chinese observers suggest that missile strikes on airbases would be part of the opening salvos of a war,” the report said.

Taiwan soldiers take part in a drill at the Ching Chuan Kang airbase in Taichung, central Taiwan, on June 7, 2018, simulating a Chinese attack as Beijing stepped up military and diplomatic pressure on the island amid growing tension. Photo: Sam Yeh / AFP
Taiwan soldiers take part in a drill at the Ching Chuan Kang airbase in Taichung, central Taiwan, on June 7, 2018, simulating a Chinese attack as Beijing stepped up military and diplomatic pressure on the island amid growing tension. Photo: Sam Yeh / AFP

Currently, efforts to intimidate, such as the jet flyovers and campaigns to keep Taiwan isolated from international organizations, amount to types of coercion that have yet to create enough of an uproar to interfere with China’s global economic outreach.

So might other low-intensity steps: electronic sabotage, for instance, or fishing boat incursions near Taiwan’s shores. Even blockades, especially if periodic, might not be considered acts of war such as to prompt a US response.

If Xi were to decide on invasion, he would have to be certain of several things: that the invasion would not be botched, with China taking heavy casualties; that the US could not successfully counter-attack or, better yet, do nothing for fear of nuclear war; and that a brutal display of force would not sour China’s reputation enough to make it a kind of regional and global pariah and harm its economic relations.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.