Invading Taiwan in the next six years – wherefore and why?

Last month Admiral Phillip Davidson, Indo-Pacific Command, said that “I worry that they’re [China] accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order. They’ve long said they want to do that by 2050, I’m worried about them moving that target closer. Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before that, and I think the threat is manifest during this decade. In fact, in the next six years.”

Now, I don’t know exactly what he meant by that statement, but I now see some buzz about China invading Taiwan in the next six years. For example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7TbBZlCTdg. Note that Gen. Jack Keene does not actually say that they will be invading Taiwan in six years.

Also see:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/10/china-could-invade-taiwan-in-next-six-years-top-us-admiral-warns

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/23/taiwan-china-threat-admiral-john-aquilino

Note that Admiral John Aquilino “…disagreed with the outgoing Indo-Pacom commander Adm Philip Davidson’s recent comments that China could attempt to attack and take over Taiwan as soon as six years from now.”

Anyhow, is this really likely? I am going to briefly discuss the subject in two posts, this post focused on the “wherefores and why” of such an operation and a later post on the doing an actual invasion. 

A few caveats: 1) I am no China expert, 2) I have never been involved is gaming or analyzing the defense of Taiwan, 3) I have no real “insider” knowledge of the subject at hand, and 4) I am not an economist. 

I do find it a little difficult to believe that the Chinese, whose economy is heavily dependent on trade, is going to do something that would seriously disrupt this trade. The economy is 20 percent dependent on “Exports of good and services.” Their five major trading partners are the U.S., EU. Japan, S. Korea and Taiwan (!!!). The 2018 figures show total trade of 4,107.1 billion. Of that the U.S. makes up 583.3 (14%), the EU makes up 573.08 (14%), Japan makes up 303.0 (7%), Hong Kong makes up 286.5 (7%), South Korea makes up 280.2 (7%), Taiwan makes 199.9 (5%), Australia makes up 136.4 (3%) and Vietnam makes up 121.9 (3%). Other trade partners account for around 40% percent of the total. Almost all of it must be transported by sea or air. Overland trading partners to China are limited primarily to Russia (84.2), North Korea and Mongolia, and places like Vietnam (121.9), Laos, Thailand, Burma, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and nominally Afghanistan and of course, the subcontinent of Pakistan, India and Nepal via Tibet (India is 84.3). Only three of these places is listed as among their top 20 trading partners (Vietnam, India and Russia, which make up 7% of their trade, assuming they were doing it all overland).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_the_largest_trading_partners_of_China

Now, the question is whether or not their would be a full economic blockade. The international response was tepid when Russia seized Crimea. But seizing Taiwan is a whole lot bigger bite (24 million vice 2.4 million). Certainly they will loose the trade with Taiwan and the trade with the U.S., and maybe South Korea, Japan and EU. As taking Taiwan is almost invariably a “hot war” scenario, hard to see how things would continue as business as normal. Added to that, the U.S. Navy has absolutely superiority in the deep seas, so the U.S. could establish an effective blockade (See: U.S. Fleet versus Chinese Fleet | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org))

So as a minimum, we are probably looking at China losing 60% to 80% of its trade. This is at least 12-16% of its economy. As things in economies tend to ripple (like local consumer spending and services) then the potential economic impact on China is very significant.  

Are they really looking to destroy their trade in the next six years? It will have a big impact on their economy. Trade embargoes tend to drag on for a while. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the trade embargoes were limited, and by the mid-1990s China there was no clear long-term impact. But, the trade impact of directly invading Taiwan would probably be worse than Tianamen Square, and it would involve direct military engagement with one or more of its major trading partners.

Added to that, around 60% of their oil is imported. This is done by sea. We could also interdict that. Now, their neighbor Russia does have oil, so this can be partially compensated for over time.

So, by embargo and even more effectively, by naval interdiction (which is certainly within our capability), we could possibly temporarily shut down 80% of their trade and 60% of their oil. If that was the case, then we are probably looking at something more like a 30-40% decline in their GDP. This depressed economy that could continue for several years.

When economies stagnate or decline, governments often get overthrown. Is this something they are willing to risk for the sake of taking Taiwan?

So the big question is: Is taking Taiwan so important to the current leadership of China that they were willing to take the hit and the risk that goes with it? 

 

This entry was posted in China, Net Assessment, Sea Warfare by Christopher A. Lawrence. Bookmark the permalink.

About Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience. ... Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation. ... His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024). ... Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

10 thoughts on “Invading Taiwan in the next six years – wherefore and why?

  1. Chris, in this bit of game theory (probability of adverse response x magnitude of adverse response) about whether Mainland China invades Taiwan within the next six years, probability is probably the more important factor.

    If the Biden Administration doesn’t voice a credible and significant deterrent (along the lines of the economic response that you suggested or along the lines of a nuclear war in fulfilment of treaty obligations) then Mainland China is likely to invade.

    If the USA treats Taiwan like the UK treated Hong Kong then the PRC gets Taiwan (by hook or crook) as it got Hong Kong (and is further getting Hong Kong). By the way, I wouldn’t be surprised to see PRC fully integrate Hong Kong into Mainland China as a testing of the waters in order to predict the probability of a significantly adverse response for a case of invading Taiwan.

    • Well, the rather tepid response to Hong Kong is an issue. Hong Kong was leased by Britain from China for 99 years and returned in 1997 when the lease ran out. Population is 7.5 million.

      On the other hand, Taiwan was been a defacto independent nation for 70+ years and now has a democratically elected government.

      So, there is a difference. In the case of Hong Kong they are suppressing their own people (which they do throughout China with only mild complaints). In the case of Taiwan, it would require an actual military invasion and occupation. It is a whole other level of seriousness and will probably result in a “hot war” scenario.

      Of course, the rather limited and restrained responses to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and China’s suppression of Hong Kong does influence the perception of the response to Taiwan. On the other hand, the U.S. went to war in 1991 to kick Iraq out of Kuwait even though we had no treaty or previous standing obligation to defend Kuwait. There also some doubt in 1950 as to what the U.S. response would be to a North Korea invasion of South Korea. So…..

      • So a lot will depend upon the posture communicated by the Biden Administration. Sending copies of Arms & Influence and a copies of The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy to PRC decision makers (and perhaps also sending DVDs of Deterrence, the movie) along with having U.S. policymakers with solid deterrence credentials might be a useful part of communicating such a posture.

        • I didn’t like Arms and Influence. The Strategy of Conflict is his real book.

          Apparently he felt the need to dumb his book down and create something more accessible for the general reader: therefore Arms and Influence.

          So far, I have not caved into the demands to make my work more accessible to the general reader.

          • So, how about sending a copy of The Strategy of Conflict as part of communicating to the PRC so as to avoid misunderstanding about the likely response to a misadventure in Taiwan? Communicating the strategy is the point (not providing a particular book, or an even more dumbed-down movie that still makes the point : – )

  2. USAF is ready to do its part: The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy: Why Strategic Superiority Matters (Oxford University Press, 2018) was selected by the US Air Force for its professional reading list and was translated into Chinese and Korean.

  3. Others going along with that logic:

    “Matthew Kroenig’s comprehensive research, analysis, and conclusions provide a compilation of insights and information that policy makers and military leaders must understand. This book should be required reading for policy makers, strategists, and military leaders, as well as students of military strategy and international affairs.”
    -Cecil Haney, former Commander US Strategic Command

    “Matthew Kroenig has provided an innovative and counter-intuitive study of why nuclear superiority might matter and why practitioners of both political parties have gravitated consistently towards it even as academic theorists have argued that it doesn’t matter. This is an agenda setting book that will be debated by scholars and policy-makers for years to come.” -Eric Edelman, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Hertog Practitioner-in-Residence at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

  4. I may be oversimplifying the issue but I believe it will come down to whether anyone cares. Look at the history.

    There were a lot of tears shed about Hong Kong but no one cared enough to do anything. The trade issue will cut two ways as the countries imposing an embargo will suffer a counter-embargo which means loss of jobs, profits and wages. No one did anything to stop the building of the fortified islands.

    While the US has entered conflicts with minor powers such as in Iran and Afghanistan, in the past the it has been slow to enter conflicts with major powers. It was slow to enter WWI, declaring war on Germany alone in 1917. The US only entered WWII after Pearl Harbour and then only declared war on Japan. It was Hitler’s declaration of war on the US that led the US fully into WWII.

    In the 1950s conflict under pressure by the PRC, the ROC abandoned the Tachen Islands, which were evacuated by the navies of the ROC and the US. The US talked on using nuclear weapons but did not do so.

    Based on these considerations I expect that military planners in China will be reasonably confident that the US will do nothing to defend Taiwan apart from selling or donating weapons systems and so China will continue to advance gradually.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *