After China announced military exercises in six sea zones near Taiwan, the island’s Ministry of Defense said there was no doubt what message Beijing wanted to send: “that they are seeking a solution by force rather than peaceful means.”
But could China take Taiwan by force if it wanted to?
Under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the People’s Liberation Army has been upgraded to the point where a campaign to take Taiwan is becoming increasingly plausible. But even experts and officials who monitor the Chinese military disagree about how ready those troops are to invade Taiwan and how inclined Mr Xi would be to take the weighty gamble, especially after Russia’s troubled war. in Ukraine.
“When people talk about whether or not China can do it, they’re actually talking about something else, the level of operational costs — the loss of ships, casualties — that China would have to pay to do it,” he said. Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, who has argued that US policymakers may be underestimating China’s willingness to use force.
“They could,” she added. “It’s just that given Taiwan’s defense and if the United States is able to come to Taiwan’s aid, how much of a bloody battle this will be?”
Legislation passed by Congress in 1979 paves the way for US troops to intervene if China tries to invade Taiwan, but it doesn’t oblige a president to take that step.
An important question is how closely the People’s Liberation Army has mastered the capabilities needed to send tens of thousands of troops to Taiwan, by sea or air; gain a foothold on the island; and push out to capture vital locations such as ports, railways, and communications hubs, as well as cities teeming with potential insurgents.
The Pentagon’s 2021 annual report on the People’s Republic of China — which is widely read as an authoritative assessment — noted that it had built the largest navy in the world measured by the number of ships, but said that “an attempt to invade Taiwan would likely put a heavy burden on the PRCs. armed forces and invite international intervention.”
Even if Chinese troops were to reach the coast of Taiwan, the difficulties of urban warfare “make an amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk to Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party,” the Pentagon report said.
Several studies recently released by the US Naval War College also indicated that China probably still lacks the equipment and skills needed to make an invasion of Taiwan credible. China’s amphibious force “does not have the capacity to launch a large-scale attack on Taiwan,” Dennis J. Blasko, a retired lieutenant colonel, wrote in one of the investigations.
Few doubt that the Chinese military has improved its warfare skills. But Taiwan is also building defenses.
On Monday, the 95th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, the official Liberation Army newspaper emphasized Xi’s goal of achieving key elements of military modernization by 2027. The United States’ Indo-Pacific Command sparked a debate by telling a Senate committee that China could conquer Taiwan before then.
“There are different assessments,” said Ms. Mastro, who is also a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, “but the point is whether China thinks they can do it, not whether we think they can.”