Will China take the risk and actually invade Taiwan?

One of our commenters asked the question “So what if the PRC President for Life takes a gamble?”

Invading Taiwan is a high risk operation as discussed in our previous posts:

Invading Taiwan in the next six years – the fight? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Invading Taiwan in the next six years – wherefore and why? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

The potential cost of such an operation is a loss of 60-80% of trade, a loss of 60% of their oil and a temporary decline in their economy of 30-40% (just a guess). It is unknown how long this economic decline would be, but it could last for several years. The resulting economic decline could also result in civil unrest, protests and even the overthrow of the government. The invasion could also fail. We will discuss some of these examples of failed gambles in a later post.

Still, one cannot rule out the leadership of a nation doing something risky, or pushing the limits or simply making a mistake. There is more than enough historical examples of mind-boggling idiocy by senior leadership of nations.

Now, there is not a lot history of military adventurism on the part of China. Their armed forces have operated in country and only on the edge of their borders for most of their history. The current head of the Peoples Republic of China, XI Jinping, has been in charge since 15 November 2012. He came up through the communist party and the communist system, although his parents were suppressed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). He is a “princeling” or a “Party’s Crown Princes” meaning a descendent of prominent and influential senior communist officials who, not surprisingly, often also rise of prominent positions in the Chinese hierarchy. He spent much of his career as a politician. Various descriptions of him tend to reinforce his image as pragmatic, serious and cautious. He is also very much the dictator.

He does report to a politburo. So while the head of any communist party system has significant power, these politburos are not without influence. They have been known to occasionally replace heads of the party that have had repeated problems. For the Soviet Union this includes Khrushchev in 1964 and for China, the list is longer: Chen Duxiu in 1927, Xiang Zhongfa in 1931, Qin Bangxian (or Bo Gu) in 1935, Zhang Wentian in 1943, Hua Guofeng in 1981, Hu Yaobang in 1987, and Zhao Ziyang in 1989, Jiang Zemin in 2002, and Hu Jintao in 2012. So, it is not like Xi Jinping can wake up one morning and decide to invade Taiwan. This almost certainly has to be discussed with and supported by the Politburo. So even if Xi Jinping was a risk taker, which he does not appear to be, then is debatable if the majority of the Politburo will be risk takers. Usually Politburo’s tend to be conservative. For example, the “Khrushchev thaw” from mid-1950s to the mid-1960s was reeled in by Brezhnev and the politburo, as were the economic reforms of Alexei Kosygin that were initiated in 1965. By the same token, the coup that was conducted in the Soviet Union in August 1991 was for the sake of getting Gorbachev to restrict or restrain the degree and extent of reforms. In the case of China they have their own complex history wrapped up around the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. I can’t think of any examples of a politburo forcing the leadership to be more adventurous and less conservative. They traditionally serve as a brake to adventurism.

So, Xi Jinping is 67 years old. He could easily be there for another 20 years. He is not a risk taker and politburo’s tend to not be risk takers. So, my suspicion is that China would not take the risk of invading Taiwan any time in the near future, and probably not at any time when Xi Jinping in charge. I suspect that any scenario that endangers Taiwan will only come about once Xi Jinping has retired or expired.

This entry was posted in China, National Security Policy, Net Assessment 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.

13 thoughts on “Will China take the risk and actually invade Taiwan?

    • Well “you guys” is a lot of different people over here. I have had people tell me it is going to happen in the next 20 years (probably subject of a future blog post) and then of course, there is Admiral Phillip Davidson, who is saying six years. I am not sure what the “China experts” are saying and they are certainly welcome to express their opinion.

      • I had a look at what he is saying and it sounds very much like what some politicians and Defence Force senior officers here are saying. Some sort of annexation like the Anschluss in 1938 is possible I suspect unless other countries are willing to act. It is a matter of will, rather than guns and money and I can’t see that any political leader has the will to stop it. But what would I know.

  1. Chris, what do we know of the influence and positions of various segments of the politburo during past military decisions regarding Tibet, India and Viet Nam?

    • I have never explored that. Tibet was occupied by Red China in 1950. I am not sure there was a whole lot of internal debate about that back then. Of course, China’s border responses with India have always been constrained. Last border fight both sides decided not to use guns. But, they have been constrained with most of its border disputes, including the Damansky (Zhenbao) Island dispute in 1969 with the Soviet Union. We did do a report on that (SS-1 An Analysis of the 1969 Sino-Soviet Conflict (Aug. 2006) (CAA)).

      The early 1979 fight between China and Vietnam, which was the largest military operation China has done since 1953, did not go very well. It did involve hundreds of thousands of troops and tens of thousands of casualties. Don’t know what the politburo deliberations were for that one, but do note that Hua Guofeng was removed as the head of the Chinese Communist Party in 1981, although I gather that was primarily related to Chinese economic reforms and the rise of Deng Xiaoping.

      The fall of Hua Guofeng in 1981, just like the replacement of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, was significant in that it showed that leaders could now leave office and not be arrested or executed. The respective systems had matured.

  2. Here’s some Chinese thinking from 2005 (reported by The Guardian):

    A senior Chinese general has warned that his country could destroy hundreds of American cities with nuclear weapons if the two nations clashed over Taiwan.

    Major general Zhu Chenghu, a dean at the National Defence University, said he was expressing a private opinion, but his comments, the most inflammatory by a senior government official in 10 years, will fuel growing concerns in Washington about the rise of China.

    Speaking at a lecture arranged by the foreign ministry and attended by several foreign correspondents on Thursday, Mr Zhu said China was prepared to initiate non-conventional warfare over Taiwan. “War logic dictates that a weaker power needs to use maximum efforts to defeat a stronger rival,” he was reported as saying by the New York Times.

    “If the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons.”

    Echoing threats last made in 1995, Mr Zhu, who has a reputation as a hawk in Chinese military circles, said his country was ready to sustain heavy casualties in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other heavily populated areas.

    “We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian,” he said. “Of course, the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”

    The Chinese government refused to comment on Mr Zhu’s statement, but in recent weeks the state-run media has carried several articles rebutting US claims about a military build-up. Earlier this month, Major General Ding Jiye, head of the finance office of the People’s Liberation Army, said the 12.6% rise in defence spending this year was in line with economic growth and was mainly used to improve the living conditions of soldiers.

    Wonder whether officials in China are watching warnings about Chinese disadvantage in a nuclear war, such as this from Prof. Matthew Kroenig:

    • Well, clearly some posturing and bullshitting going on there. In 2005 China had maybe 50-75 ICBMs and 1 nuclear powered sub with 12 SLBMs and one other launched but no commissioned. How does this force “destroy hundreds of American cities”?

      Also, one wonders how much are statements like that made for internal political consumption or as part of internal political maneuvering.

  3. A blockade after some sort of “outrage” incident seems more likely.

    They can use naval mines to keep out commercial shipping.

    Taiwan imports ~ 65% of its food and geographically, China is in a much better position to intercept commercial shipping than the Germans were versus the British, or even the US vs Japan.

    • Would a blockade (generally considered to be “an act of war”) result in a treaty response from the USA? Would the PRC factor that possibility into the decision to blockade? Would the USA have done the preparatory work to make sure that the PRC would assign a very high probability to that possibility? We’re back to deterrence theory!

    • A blockade would be a step towards annexation if there were little or no response to it. If there was a strong response then the PRC could abandon the blockade after only suffering some loss of face. The PRC leadership could see that as a good low risk was to test the water.

      • Clinton, I don’t that a blockade would be a low-risk testing of the waters (pun intended : – )

        Blockades are generally considered to be acts of war.

  4. From Wikipedia (the official arbitrator of truth?) —

    The Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty (中美共同防禦條約), formally Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States of America and the Republic of China (中華民國與美利堅合眾國間共同防禦條約), was a defense pact between the United States of America and the Republic of China effective from 1955 to 1980. It essentially prevented the People’s Republic of China from taking over the island of Taiwan. Some of its content was carried over to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.

    The Taiwan Relations Act does not guarantee the USA will intervene militarily if the PRC attacks or invades Taiwan nor does it relinquish it, as its primary purpose is to ensure the US’s Taiwan policy will not be changed unilaterally by the president and ensure any decision to defend Taiwan will be made with the consent of Congress.

    America’s policy has been called “strategic ambiguity”, and it is designed to dissuade Taiwan from a unilateral declaration of independence, and to dissuade the PRC from unilaterally unifying with Taiwan.

    [The ambiguity is what could undermine the deterrence against invasion. — Neal]

    The act further stipulates that the United States will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States”. [So, a blockade would definitely have crossed the line! — Neal]

    In the late 1990s, the United States Congress passed a non-binding resolution stating that relations between Taiwan and the United States will be honored through the TRA first. This resolution, which puts greater weight on the TRA’s value over that of the three communiques, was signed by President Bill Clinton as well. Both chambers of Congress have reaffirmed the importance of the Taiwan Relations Act repeatedly. A July 2007 Congressional Research Service Report confirmed that U.S. policy has not recognized the PRC’s sovereignty over Taiwan. The PRC continues to view the Taiwan Relations Act as “an unwarranted intrusion by the United States into the internal affairs of China”. The United States continued supplying Taiwan with armaments and China continued to protest.

    On 19 May 2016, one day before Tsai Ing-Wen assumed the democratically elected presidency of the Republic of China, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and co-chair of the Senate Taiwan Caucus, introduced a concurrent resolution reaffirming the Taiwan Relations Act and the “Six Assurances” as cornerstones of United States–Taiwan relations.

    The 2016 Republican National Convention in the Republican Party Platform states “Our relations will continue to be based upon the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act, and we affirm the Six Assurances given to Taiwan in 1982 by President Reagan. We oppose any unilateral steps by either side to alter the status quo in the Taiwan Straits on the principle that all issues regarding the island’s future must be resolved peacefully, through dialogue, and be agreeable to the people of Taiwan. If China were to violate those principles, the United States, in accord with the Taiwan Relations Act, will help Taiwan defend itself…

    [Silence or back-pedaling by the Biden Administration probably would be the only thing that might weaken the implied deterrence so that there would be a greater likelihood of invasion during the next four years.]

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