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The big Taiwan question: Is China’s invasion imminent?

Xi Jinping may have something else in mind.

It’s not war … yet.

Hear more from Joshua Keating about this story:

Is a war over Taiwan inevitable? Even Chinese President Xi Jinping himself may not know. “I do not see any evidence that a decision has been made to use force against Taiwan,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, told Grid. “I see substantial evidence to the contrary: that China has not made a decision but that it has not ruled it out.”

So what, exactly, are the factors weighing on that decision? When is it likely to come? And if China chooses not to invade, what might it do instead to accomplish its aims in Taiwan?

Why China may act sooner rather than later

Why Beijing might wait

It’s not exactly the most novel insight, but the main reason why China would be reluctant to use military force is that war is inherently dangerous and unpredictable.

For all its manpower and firepower, the People’s Liberation Army hasn’t fought a war since 1979 — and that was a disastrous invasion of Vietnam. Amphibious invasions are among the most logistically complex operations in warfare, and the PLA would take heavy casualties during a crossing of the Taiwan Strait and a landing on Taiwan’s shores. Even if Taiwan’s government were to fall quickly, China could find itself fighting a long and protracted insurgency in mountainous and heavily urbanized terrain.

For all the risks such a war would entail for the people Taiwan, China and planet Earth, we also shouldn’t lose sight of the risks it would pose to Xi himself. “Xi has a credibility issue when it comes to Taiwan,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center. “But if he fights a war for Taiwan and he loses, he has a survival problem.”

The Ukraine factor

Almost since the Russians invaded Ukraine, that war has invited comparison to a potential conflict with Taiwan. The similarities are clear: a major world power claiming historical rights to nearby territory, warning the outside world against interfering and threatening to use force to make good on its claim.

Ukraine has of course also shown the power of a smaller neighbor to resist and punch back — and the willingness of the U.S. and its allies to support that resistance.

Still, the often-made analogies are only so useful. As Sun told Grid, “Taiwan doesn’t have a Poland,” meaning a friendly neighboring country from which it can be resupplied and one which is also — because of its NATO status — off-limits to Russian fire. China’s naval drills this week illustrated its ability to quickly blockade the waters around Taiwan. And Xi would not have to tolerate train-loads of HIMARS and ammunition pouring in the way Russian President Vladimir Putin has. Outside powers would not have the luxury of choosing a middle ground between full-scale military intervention and leaving Taiwan to its fate.

China’s other option: “peaceful” coercion

For China’s leaders, it’s not necessarily a binary choice between going to war and the status quo. Even if China doesn’t formally abandon “peaceful reunification” as its framework, it has other options for ratcheting up pressure on Taiwan. “In the Chinese lexicon, coercion is not ‘unpeaceful,’” Sun said.

Such pressure is likely to escalate. Schell told Grid he foresees a strategy of incremental escalation by China — so-called salami tactics, as in small slices of escalation — to shift the status quo over Taiwan in its favor. “What I fear is that China will not do a frontal assault on Taiwan, but they will begin to do one thing after another that never quite gives the United States or Japan or the Quad Alliance any casus belli,” he said.

“They may just say no plane can go to Taiwan that isn’t guided by Chinese air traffic control, no ship can go to any Taiwanese port without going through Chinese customs, because Taiwan is part of China,” Schell said. “And that way they could prevent any shipment of arms from getting into Taiwan. It very difficult for the United States or anyone else know exactly what the proper level of response is to something like that.”

Will any of this win hearts and minds in Taiwan? Absolutely not. But the thinking in Beijing may be that an overstretched and declining United States won’t be around to protect Taiwan forever. Sooner or later, this thinking goes, an isolated and demoralized Taiwan will be forced to come to terms with the mainland.

“Salami” tactics

There’s still room left for Washington to amp up its support for Taiwan’s defense and for China to continue its military buildup, its naval exercises and its political pressure on the island’s leaders. But sooner or later, the salami might be gone, cut away from both sides. And all that will be left is the knives.

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