As tensions between China, Taiwan, and the United States have increased over the past year, numerous articles and pundits have posited that war could come sooner rather than later. These speculations were prompted by comments from senior U.S. military officers that Chinese President Xi Jinping has directed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to be prepared to invade the island by 2027, although the basis for this claim is not given. A new report claims some in the U.S. intelligence community now assess that China could attack as soon as 2024 (presumably around Taiwan’s January 2024 elections).
But if war is Beijing’s plan, there ought to be reliable indications that it is coming. So it seems like an appropriate time to consider precisely what Chinese full mobilization for major conflict might entail. Although China last fought a major war against Vietnam in 1979, it is possible to frame how Beijing might prepare for an invasion and what specific indicators we could expect to see. Such a military conflict would reflect four assumptions underpinning Chinese leaders’ decisionmaking.
First, reports indicate that Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) understand that an outright invasion of Taiwan would be a daunting strategic task and would end any putative return to the status quo ante. Such a war could last years to a decade, and China would be subjected to American and possibly multilateral sanctions and perhaps even a U.S. blockade. The basis for the CCP’s domestic legitimacy would shift from the emphasis on generating economic growth that has prevailed since 1978 to a near-exclusive focus on nationalism in the cause of Taiwan’s “reunification” with China.
Second, China’s political goal since U.S.-China diplomatic normalization in 1979 has been to preserve the possibility of political unification with Taiwan at some undefined point in the future. Beijing has been pursuing that goal by promoting rapid economic integration with Taiwan, and until the coronavirus pandemic, it enabled greatly expanded travel across the strait, with millions of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan annually and millions of Taiwanese working in China. But since 2020, travel bans and quarantines in China and Taiwan have drastically curtailed travel. And China’s 2019 crackdown on democracy advocates in Hong Kong further tarnished Beijing’s “one country, two systems” model for eventual political settlement and negatively influenced perceptions among many Taiwanese of Beijing’s motives, intentions, and goals. These trends have undermined Beijing’s apparent hope that people-to-people contacts and economic interchange would promote unity across the Taiwan Strait. This rapid erosion of ties has made a peaceful unification even more doubtful.