Imagine a potential scenario, a few years in the future: As a fierce typhoon lashes the East China Sea, Taiwan is caught in a painful election season, compounded by a corporate debt crisis dredging the island’s foreign currency reserves.
Seemingly routine PLA air and naval exercises patrol the strait. Chinese cyber, psychological, and commando operations land several quick efficient hits on Taiwan’s critical infrastructure, shutting out the government and crippling the island’s small military.
Ballistic missile strikes, if any, are limited to sundering Taiwan’s government and army, and perhaps some selective shock and awe to daunt the population. Critical ports and key semiconductor foundries, as well as the locals, will survive mostly intact to better serve the new order. Mainland forces arrive to scattered, useless resistance.
Like Hong Kong, Chinese ambassadors will reassure foreign ministers that the absorption of Taiwan into the People’s Republic is an internal issue of securing territorial integrity, and none of anyone else’s business. Invasion will be the hardest part.
The next step will be more recognisable. Chinese officials will apply lessons in “stability maintenance” from Xinjiang and Hong Kong. A few Taiwanese senior citizens, with childhood memories of the Nationalists’ arrival in 1945, might live long enough to see the island, deemed an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, finally go beneath the waves.
As Beijing grows impatient with Taiwan’s liberalizing electorate, China’s military buildup is closing the gap between reunification rhetoric and operational abilities. A few years ago, Pentagon planners dismissed China’s chances of mounting a full-on amphibious invasion.
Yet with numbing regularity this summer, swarms of Chinese bombers and fighter jets have rehearsed ever more aggressive manoeuvres around Taiwan, breaching the island’s airspace and the strait’s dividing meridian line.
July and August saw several major U.S. military operations throughout the Indo-Pacific region. In July, on the fifth anniversary of the South China Sea arbitral ruling that invalidated China’s claims in the South China Sea, the guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold conducted a freedom of navigation operation, joining Japanese, Indian, and Australian fleets.
Hard force has been matched by soft diplomacy. In her recent visit to Singapore, Vice President Harris “sought to fortify the image of the United States as a credible ally by offering a sharp rebuke of China.” In a speech, Harris condemned Beijing for its efforts “to coerce, to intimidate, and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea[,]” which she said, “continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations.”
But some analysts believe the recent U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan will make it harder for the U.S. to convince regional partners and allies in Asia to trust that “Uncle Sam is keeping guard for them.” Indeed, the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times emphasized that “Washington’s reassurances [to Taiwan] are astonishing against the backdrop of its abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
Beijing’s standing offer to Taiwan is modelled on Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement: negotiations leading to a (in theory) peaceful unity. Yet year by year, generational trends within Taiwan are steepening the odds against peaceful unification. In Beijing’s eyes, such gestures of “de-Sinification” read as borderline race treason.
Stiffer deterrence and smarter diplomacy could help harden Taiwan and head off such a fate. For now, American planners are invested in the status quo, keeping a nervous eye on China’s capabilities while preparing for a stew of “gray zone” scenarios short of conventional conflict.
The West needs someone to make the island’s case eloquently on the world stage. Is Guo Wengui the one?
Guo, AKA Miles Kwok, has predicted the Taiwan invasion for a while: “if Taiwan’s people forget that they are Chinese—well, then, they may someday need reminding.” Fleeing the CCP on corruption charges, he himself is evidence of how far Beijing will go to rectify perceived betrayals. Earlier this year, US officials uncovered a concerted effort by Beijing to persuade lobbyists to extradite the exiled political dissident.
In Taiwan, China is still honing its “hybrid war” playbooks, tactics aimed to fly below the threshold of overt kinetic conflict while advancing strategic aims. Psychological intimidation is one of those, levelled even at the democratically elected president Tsai Ing-wen.
Lawfare’s SinoTech editors argue that the CCP has already exploited media operations to paralyze policy-making and mobilize CCP-friendly Taiwanese outlets and associations to promote reintegration with the Mainland. This could potentially be a game played over a decade.
Xi Jinping can afford to be patient, for a few more years at least. But can the West? President Biden may soon face a moment of truth over Washington’s vague defense commitments to Taiwan. With each passing year, risks grow that Asia’s oldest frozen conflict will thaw.
The most effective way to deter Chinese leaders from attacking Taiwan is also the most difficult: to convince them that armed unification would cost China its redemption story it believes it to be owed. And the United States cannot do this alone, even with Kwok at the helm leading Chinese sceptics. For the last 25 years, Beijing has sought to prevent both states and public from free debate on Taiwan’s future. Unfortunately for Taiwan, only now is the United States waking up to the new reality.