China Cannot Invade Taiwan to Achieve a Military Re-unification

Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has sparked fears of a wider conflict with China. But with or without the U.S.’ involvement, a Chinese attempt at military re-unification may not be successful. (Image via Wang Yu Ching / Office of the President)

China’s foreign policy has sought to portray the 1.4 billion inhabitant nation as a strong supporter of Westphalian sovereignty – the idea that each nation-state has full control over its own territory. Though initially intended as a political model to move away from great-power politics, the principle has since been perverted by Russia and China. Seeking a multi-polar world order, Russia, China, and other emerging nations see cooperation with the United States as hegemonic, unable or unwilling to recognize the unifying power of collective interests and dialogue.

Yet China’s reliance on this perspective has isolated its foreign policy, and despite cooperation with several countries around the world, China has few allies to speak of, with Beijing quietly discarding Moscow after Russia’s failure in Ukraine. In the case of the United States, allies and regional powers have been crucial to America’s power projection. Interoperability – the ability to synchronize military equipment and operations between different groups has been crucial to regional security in the various regions the United States operates in.

As it stands, in a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the United States can count on several regional powers to assist in military efforts. Japan, whose military has been pushing the limits of its pacifist constitution, has recently taken a more assertive stance on Taiwan, seeking direct ties with the island independent of the U.S.’. After the assassination of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party won a supermajority, indicating that the island nation could be poised to become a more-than ambiguous guarantor of Taiwanese security. Australia and the United Kingdom, part of the newly-minted AUKUS alliance, are also likely to respond.

Nations like South Korea and the Philippines, invested in Taiwan’s defense for their own security, are likely to transfer some of their materiel to Taiwan, though potential traffic of arms through international waters may prove riskier than European aid to Ukraine. Even across the Eurasian continent, the European Union is likely to seek to assist Taiwan in the event of an all-out invasion through harsh economic sanctions on China. With NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept outlining China as a key challenge to the alliance’s interests, a growing bloc of countries stand ready to assist Taiwan amidst tensions across the strait.

Despite the broad coalition ready to assist Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, Taiwan stands ready to offer stiff resistance should Xi Jinping try. For the past 60 years, Taiwan’s military has trained for the eventuality of a Chinese attack. And though Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been met with catastrophic and unexpected losses, an invasion of Taiwan offers more impossibilities that China is not prepared to address.

China’s Motivations for Unifying with Taiwan

Taiwan presents a crucial target for Chinese expansion for both economic and social reasons. Taiwan’s semiconductor production is unrivaled: in 2020, TSMC and UMC accounted for more than half of the global market share for semiconductor manufacturers. Taiwan’s chips foundries have purportedly developed chips as small as 1 nanometer, whereas China still struggles to unveil a 7 nm chip. The United States has taken steps to reinforce its chip manufacturing with the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act to protect its technological advantage over the PRC. Seeking to compete with Asia’s chips production, the investment brings urgency to China’s ambitions regarding the island, particularly in securing its chip foundries for its own procurement.

The ‘first’ and ‘second’ island chains, landmasses between strategic chokepoints that provide a similar effect to the Atlantic Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (G-I-UK) gap. Control over these regions allows the United States to contain the PLAN in the event of a conventional war. If China were to seize Taiwan, the United States’ navy would be forced to split between the East China Sea and South China Sea.

Moreover, Taiwan represents a crucial military outpost for the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Taiwan’s existence as a U.S./Japanese ally presents a serious risk in the event of an escalation in the South China Sea, and while Taiwan could seek neutrality in the event of a confrontation between China and the U.S., the island represents a crucial naval outpost in the Pacific. Taiwan is part of the first island chain, a group of islands including Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines, through which the United States effectively contains China’s navy.

In a conventional war, China’s larger navy would be forced to rely on several gaps to transit to the Pacific, where they would be easy prey to the U.S.’ far more advanced weaponry and carrier strike groups. By taking Taiwan, China could potentially break the first island chain, splitting the U.S.’ defensive spheres in East Asia and allowing the Chinese navy greater ease in enforcing its claims in the South China Sea and Pacific.

Despite these strategic realities, a great deal of pressure on China to take Taiwan comes from China’s own population. Years of propaganda portraying China as a superpower that could quickly “deal with” Taiwan have made recuperation of the island a national priority. Though the status quo may hold, the PRC is forced to reciprocate any perceived escalatory moves by the U.S. and its allies, as perceived inaction regarding Taiwan would undermine support for the ruling party.

Feasibility of an Invasion – Can Taiwan Win?

Taiwanese marine battalions under review by President Tsai Ing-wen (Image via Wang Yu Ching / Office of the President)

As a result of Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, China has announced several military drills off the coast of Taiwan, some overlapping Taiwan’s territorial waters. Missiles have been reportedly fired into the Taiwan strait, and five missiles landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone around Okinawa. Of greater concern are videos of materiel moving to China’s Fujian province, right across from Taiwan, where missiles, tanks, and air defenses have been increasingly trafficked from other parts of the country. There are also reports that roll-on/roll-off ferries, typically operating across China’s coast, were being moved into the region, potentially for a significant operation.

The significance of these movements is not necessarily that they are occurring – it was evident from the onset of tensions that China would begin a military build-up to spook the island. Rather, the degree of coverage given to these movements has made clear that any Chinese attempt to mount an invasion of Taiwan will be known well in advance.

China has not fought a war since losing in a border skirmish with Vietnam in 1979. Though Russia spent a greater part of a year beginning its build-up near Ukraine, its preparations were widely known and generated a great deal of worldwide coverage in the three months before Russian forces re-entered the Donbas. However, the stark difference between Ukraine and Taiwan is geography – to successfully occupy Taiwan, China would need to conduct an impossible amphibious invasion, one that no current country, including the United States, could attempt to consider on a large scale without absolute air superiority.

The Taiwan strait is 180 km long and would likely be mined in the event of an escalation. Taiwan’s fleet of submarines, anti-ship missiles, and limited navy would put a significant dent in an attempted crossing. China does not have the U.S.’ airlift or sealift capabilities and would be unable to launch a ‘D-day’ style invasion of the island without having saturated Taiwan’s cities, beaches, and military outposts with constant missilery. Even after such an unrelenting salvo, many of Taiwan’s defenses are built with such an eventuality in mind, with underground hangars, airfields, command posts, and defense fortifications both along the western shores and behind Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range.

If China were to begin planning an invasion of Taiwan, it would have to prepare for the largest amphibious invasion in history against arguably the most well-defended beachfront in the modern world. Unlike China’s forces, untested in combat, whose military leadership suffers from a milder form of Russia’s corruption, Taiwan’s military is constantly seeking new strategies to deter an amphibious invasion. Recently, the United States has raised the idea of small teams of Taiwanese operators armed with portable rocket launchers on inflatable boats capable of providing a far more cost-effective countermeasure against China’s resources. Nevertheless, Taiwan would have a great deal of time to prepare for China’s invasion, as any attempt to launch a serious attack over a short time scale would be doomed to failure.

Time, however, does not work in China’s favor. The longer China takes to prepare, the more time Taiwan has to petition the West for aid and security guarantees quickly. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has shattered the idea of a liberal world order without military force – collective security remains the only shield for liberal nations against authoritarian conquest. A Chinese build-up in preparation for an invasion of Taiwan would see massive increases in deliveries to Taiwan’s military, including Western aviation that Taiwanese pilots already fly, as well as purpose-built weaponry able to wreak havoc across China’s inferior weaponry.

During the initial phases of combat, China would likely open with a massive missile barrage on Taiwan, incomparable in magnitude and casualties. Soon after, China could seek to emulate Russia’s attempted helicopter operations to try and insert Chinese special forces in Taiwan, though much like in Kyiv, these unsupported aerial charges would fall prey to air defenses and local resistance.

Despite the sheer amount of missiles flying in the direction of Taiwan, there will be Taiwanese strikes on the Chinese mainland, likely to degrade China’s own capabilities. These strikes, even if unable to seriously cripple the mainland’s production and military power, could have a serious psychological effect on China’s population. For the PRC, long understood as an indomitable power, to be attacked successfully by the minuscule ROC would be unthinkable for Chinese citizens.

Alongside a heavy missilery campaign, air superiority is the only potential opportunity China has to overwhelm Taiwan’s defenses in preparation for an amphibious landing. Yet despite China’s clear numerical advantage, Chinese jets remain far inferior to Western aviation. Combined with the high likelihood that the U.S. and other allies will be providing surveillance using AWACS to assist Taiwan, the Taiwanese airforce will likely fair about as well as Ukraine’s, suffering losses and needing to choose their missions carefully but remaining intact and inflicting disproportionate casualties on China’s airforce.

If through constant bombardment, a portion of China’s amphibious assault were to land on Taiwanese beaches, they would be met with utter destruction courtesy of Taiwan’s land forces. The beaches would likely be mined, with various other pitfalls and traps prepared for any would-be invaders. Known colloquially as the ‘porcupine strategy,’ the importance of Taiwan’s beach defenses and general ‘asymmetric capabilities’ is a point of contention between the island’s military leadership and the U.S. – with Taiwanese military leaders seeking to maintain a conventional military while U.S. officials under Presidents Trump and Biden sought to pressure Taiwan into procuring materiel for a war of attrition and cost-effectiveness.

China vs. United States

Q: Very quickly: You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, if it comes to that?


Q: You are?

BIDEN: That’s the commitment we made.

U.S. President Biden’s answer to a reporter during a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida

Yet all of these considerations are made with the assumption that America’s strategic ambiguity regarding Taiwan manifests itself as the U.S. not protecting Taiwan directly. However, recent comments by President Biden indicate the United States’ readiness to take serious action, with the President making several remarks (and White House officials later retracting them) regarding the United States’ commitment to defend Taiwan. Despite the potential awkwardness of Biden’s gaffes, the statements strongly imply that the United States will stand with Taiwan, a view which could be strengthened after the lack of a concrete security guarantee failed to deter Russia from invading Ukraine.

China, as opposed to Russia, has the economy necessary to support a prolonged war. However, this has the double-sided effect of making it far more susceptible to sanctions. Despite the damage it will undoubtedly do to the rest of the world, should the country pull out of the global market, China is equally reliant on the rest of the world as a producer nation. As a consequence of the rapid pull-out of Western companies from Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, Western companies are far more likely to consider pulling out of China earlier, should any serious risk of invasion present itself.

With its several carrier strike groups and coordination from regional allies in Japan, Australia, and Britain, the United States could effectively ‘lock down’ China’s maritime shipping while supporting Taiwan enough to force an eventual ceasefire. The first island chain, the exact reason China seeks to take Taiwan, would be used to strangle the mainland, forcing a diplomatic settlement likely to lean heavily in the U.S.’ favor.

Any American attack on Chinese territory could quickly lead to an escalation, as unlike Russia and Eastern Europe, there are no ambiguous escalations that China can match across maritime boundaries. China adheres to a strict ‘no first use’ policy, and though this policy could change as a result of an imminent humiliating defeat, China is highly unlikely to do so.

Though the United States does not adhere to a ‘no first use’ policy, it does so as a result of the 20th century – during the height of the Cold War, NATO military leadership called for tactical nuclear weapons as the only method of slowing a massive Russian onslaught of armored divisions pouring into Western Germany. As a result, the United States is highly unlikely to use nuclear weapons in an attack against China, and while this increases the risk of a conventional war, it should offer a significant reassurance that any escalations will not go nuclear in the short term.

However, if it came to nuclear war, the difference in arsenal and capability of China and the U.S.’ nuclear forces offer a significant deterrent against a Chinese first strike. Though the United States’ nuclear defenses are far from robust, they are easily capable of ending any semblance of Chinese civilization. China has an estimated 100 ICBMs, per the U.S. Department of Defense. Along with its submarine-launched ballistic missiles, China is dwarfed by the United States’ 400 ICBMs and nuclear-capable submarines.

However, the true discrepancy lies in the United States airforce’s ability to strike China as a second strike. With the ability to refuel from tankers taking off from allied bases across the Pacific, the United States can lay waste to China, and while both nations would be decimated – a price far too high to pay for any meaningless victory, only the United States would be able to rebuild in a significant capacity. In this regard, China knows it cannot inflict the same devastating losses as the United States in the event of a nuclear war.

Status Quo

Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was somewhat unnecessary, but from the moment plans were leaked, inevitable. The United States is not in a position to back down from China in the Pacific – likewise, China cannot afford to de-escalate concerning Taiwan. The status quo, which has endured through the end of the Cold War, continues to offer the optimal short-term solution for Taiwan’s status in preventing a conflagration of conflict between China and the U.S. and its allies.

Despite the infeasibility of an invasion, Putin proved to the world that Russia was still willing to make an imperialist attempt to seize Ukraine. Should China’s Xi Jinping (or a more hawkish successor) ever decide to test the island’s mettle, it will find Taiwan a more than ready opponent, even before the arrival of overwhelming Western firepower.


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