In early March, the outgoing Commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), Admiral Philip Davidson, raised eyebrows when testifying before the U.S. Senate Armed Services committee. He stated the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could attack Taiwan within six years – by 2027.
And last week his replacement at USINDOPACOM, Admiral John Aquilino, testified that the PRC might attack even sooner than that.
Admirals Davidson and Aquilino are not some fellows in the peanut gallery (like some of us). Rather, they have access to the full range of U.S. intelligence collection and analytical resources. They ought to be taken seriously. So that’s what we’ll do, starting with answering the most common arguments trotted out to counter the Admirals’ concerns.
Is the PRC even capable of successfully attacking Taiwan?
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – a term that encompasses the navy and air force as well – is good enough to give it a try. According to some analysts, by the early 2010’s the PLA was already capable of moving several tens of thousands of troops across the strait and landing them on Taiwan in a day. It has improved since then.
The Chinese have enough ‘lift’ – with 50+ amphibious ships (including older ones) and hundreds, if not thousands, of ferries and barges that will work fine for moving troops and equipment. And, especially given China’s doctrine of civil-military fusion, there is no shortage of aircraft to drop airborne troops.
Keep in mind that an assault will take place in the context of missile barrages, cyber attacks, electronic warfare, and naval and air forces swarming the island and its environs. Also, there is a “5th column” of saboteurs and agents on Taiwan that the PRC has had 60 years to put in place – aided by Taiwan’s overstretched counter-intelligence capabilities.
It is also possible there will be coordinated attacks by China’s proxies in other theatres to distract and divert the focus and forces of Taiwan’s allies.
What might an attack look like?
One oft-mentioned option is a coup de main that ‘decapitates’ Taiwan’s leadership and destroys and/or seizes key installations. This could even be combined with an all-out assault.
Special forces and 5th columnists might be employed to cause confusion and seize a few fishing ports and airfields – just long enough to allow PLA forces and equipment to be ‘pushed through’ and establish a secure foothold.
Won’t there be plenty of advance notice?
Not necessarily. The Chinese can move from a standing start, or even use a military ‘exercise’ as cover for massing forces before the attack – as they did in the spring of 2020 in the Himalayas before they pushed across the LAC with India.
Isn’t an amphibious assault of this scale just too complex and difficult for the PLA?
One hears that a lot.
However, underestimate the Chinese and you’ll learn a hard lesson – as the U.S. military, and intelligence and business communities should know by now, even if not everyone has figured this out.
The PLA trains for amphibious assaults and joint operations as well. It has perhaps 20,000 Marines and at least 50,000 with amphibious training. And, Taiwan has been the PLA’s main objective for decades, so it’s gotten plenty of funding, attention, planning, procurement, and practice.
Certainly Taiwanese forces can defeat an assault?
Twenty years ago, yes. These days? It’s a toss up.
Taiwan’s military is dedicated and hardworking, though underfunded. And 40 years of near-isolation from the United States and other free nations have hurt. Reserve forces are a shambles, and a national civil defense scheme is lacking. The PLA might like its odds.
Is Beijing really motivated enough to invade?
An assault would be bloody and provoke international condemnation and sanctions – and maybe even a military response.
But consider the ‘upside’ from a Chinese perspective:
Seize control of Taiwan and you’ve upended the U.S. defense posture in the Indo-Pacific. The PLA will have broken the so-called First Island Chain stretching from Japan to Malaysia that hems in Chinese forces. And with a lodgment in the center of the U.S. (and allies) defense line, the PLA can extend its reach outwards and drive a salient into the heart of America’s central pacific defenses.
Meanwhile, lines of communication between Japan and Australia are threatened, and a PRC-occupied Taiwan eliminates a launch point for attack and intelligence collection against the Chinese mainland. It could also give access to Taiwan’s strategic chip manufacturing.
For a Chinese defense planner, Taiwan is worth a very high price.
It would also give Beijing massive psychological and political advantages.
Take Taiwan and you demolish American prestige in the region and globally. The message will be both clear and searing:
The U.S. military could not stop the PRC.
The threat of financial and economic sanctions couldn’t stop PRC.
U.S. nuclear weapons couldn’t stop PRC.
Few countries anywhere will be confident about U.S. security promises. Most of Asia – except for Japan and Australia – will shift closer to China in the hope of being eaten last.
Won’t the risk to China’s international trade and reputation dissuade it from making a move?
Perhaps. But look at what has happened in Hong Kong – despite assurances that Beijing would never kill the goose that lays golden eggs.
Beijing snuffed out freedom in Hong Kong. U.S. and Western businessmen averted their gazes, and business now appears to be booming.
Taiwan might be a little harder to overlook, but Beijing will argue it’s just an internal domestic matter (like Hong Kong), and shouldn’t the U.S. and others focus on sorting out their own domestic issues? Meanwhile, Chinese money and influence will provide a salve for the Westerners managing the necessary moral contortions.
Bottom line: We are in the ‘Decade of Concern‘
Given all of the above, the Admirals’ recent warnings about Taiwan shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
Almost a decade ago, U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell was sounding the alarm about Chinese intentions. He even projected that 2020-2030 would be ‘the Decade of Concern’ – when the risk of a Chinese assault on Taiwan would be extremely high.
Captain Fanell pointed out that Beijing was dead serious about seizing Taiwan. He argued that the PLA had received its marching orders to be ready to attack by 2020. And he assessed that seizing Taiwan by 2030 would allow 20 years for the free world to ‘get used to it’ – just as it did following the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. This would then allow the Chinese Communists to declare the ‘great rejuvenation’ of China in 2049 – the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The rest of the world would be suitably intimidated by the reemergence of the Middle Kingdom.
Given the seriousness and urgency of the threat, it is refreshing to see USINDOPACOM taking China’s intentions far more seriously than when Captain Fanell was howling in the wilderness.
However, that hasn’t stopped the usual suspects in the corner of the peanut gallery accusing Aquilino and Davidson of hyping the China threat just to get more money. That’s not likely given that the amount of extra money they are requesting – about $5 billion a year for the next five years – is a pittance in the context of the U.S. budget. It’s about a month’s worth of health care fraud.
More likely, the Admirals made their comments based on their reading of the intelligence and advice from analysts who live and breathe the issue.
Even from the peanut gallery, one can see cause for concern. Follow PRC behavior in the region and beyond and it just might show a pattern of a country “nerving itself up” for military conflict. Allies in the region can see it building as well. Which brings us to one last question – the one the Admirals pondered.
When would it be most favorable to launch an attack on Taiwan?
One guesstimate is after the Chinese Winter Olympics (February 4 – 20, 2022) The theory being, PRC planners would have been impressed at how Mr. Putin stage-managed the Sochi Olympics in 2014 to increase Russian “prestige” (before their doping scandal was uncovered), just prior to invading and “taking back” the traditionally Russian Territory of Crimea – with no military reaction from NATO and with bearable economic sanctions. From the Russian perspective, it was a very successful campaign – one that the PRC would perhaps want to emulate.
In another indication, a recent meeting between PRC and Russian officials discussed how to reduce U.S. financial leadership due to the dollar being the world’s leading convertible currency. If Beijing expects economic sanctions to follow a Taiwan invasion, it would need to line up economic allies in advance (similar to Mr. Hitler and Mr. Stalin’s “understanding” before the invasion of Poland).
All this to say, it’s impossible to say exactly “when” – the six years of Davidson, or the even earlier of Aquilino. But with a high degree of confidence (as intelligence types say), the PLA is coming.
And, if the Admirals are worried, I am too.