Will China Invade Taiwan?

Joe Biden caused something of an international incident recently when he publicly committed to the defense of Taiwan, the island democracy off the coast of China, that Beijing has vowed to "unify" with the mainland—if necessary by force.

Buried behind the headlines of the president's seemingly unequivocal pledge in Tokyo on May 23 was his assessment that a Chinese invasion of its smaller neighbor "will not happen" and "will not be attempted." But this scenario, Biden says, would be contingent upon the world's ability to convince Beijing of potential "long-term disapprobation" should it attack Taiwan.

A contemporary reading of China's claim to Taiwan can be roughly traced to the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when Communist forces ousted the Nationalist government under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, whose army fled to the island and reestablished the capital of their republic in Taipei. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao Zedong declared the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland.

The standoff between Taipei and Beijing lasted throughout the Cold War and there have been three Taiwan Strait crises. Each time, however, the uneasy "status quo" held, thanks in no small part to the threat of American intervention

China Taiwan Invasion
Soldiers from China's People's Liberation Army march on Red Square during a military parade in Moscow on June 24, 2020. PAVEL GOLOVKIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Today the balance of forces across the strait—just 80 miles wide at its narrowest point—has shifted. China under the leadership of Xi Jinping is pursuing the military means to compel Taiwan to accept a political settlement of Beijing's choosing, one in which the island's 23.5 million people may have Hong Kong's nominal autonomy, while Beijing exercises actual control.

In pure numerical terms, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) already dwarfs Taiwan's defenders. But it's in this crucial decade that informed observers believe Xi is seeking to develop his forces to a level that could offset their American counterparts if they chose to intervene in any Taiwan Strait crisis.

At a Senate committee hearing this month, Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, described China's threat to Taiwan as "acute." Beijing's target is to "put themselves into a position in which their military is capable of taking Taiwan over our intervention," she said.

Her comments spoke to a belief in Beijing—and perhaps in Washington, too—that the U.S. already sees itself as playing a major role in thwarting a forceful takeover of Taiwan, an assumption that puts Biden's recent remarks in a different light.

To be sure, the U.S. isn't legally obliged to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, despite Biden's assertion that the U.S. has committed to doing so. Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, successive American administrations have sold defensive arms to the island, but it doesn't include an ironclad guarantee of military support.

That's not to say the U.S. wouldn't intervene. In fact, most analysts believe the president meant what he said, despite the risk of breaking from more than 40 years of so-called "strategic ambiguity," a deliberate policy that has kept both Beijing and Taipei guessing.

The cross-strait balance of power will be a key consideration in the minds of leaders in Beijing, but China watchers understand that when it comes to the CCP, internal political dynamics will factor into its calculations, directly affecting any decision to move on Taiwan.

Taipei's own assessment, according to Taiwan's intelligence chief Chen Ming-tong, is that a conflict between the two countries isn't likely before 2024, the year Tsai Ing-wen's presidency ends. It was his way of indicating that what comes next very much depends on the cross-strait policies of Tsai's successor, and whether these policies prove to be conducive to the current status quo.

China Taiwan Invasion
Soldiers from China's People's Liberation Army carry a state flag on Red Square prior to a military parade in Moscow on June 24, 2020. PAVEL GOLOVKIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Christina Chen, an assistant research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, Taiwan's top military think tank, tells Newsweek the "likelihood of a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait in the near term is getting high."

Chen believes Xi will secure an unprecedented third term in office this November, but says the legitimacy of his rule "will be greatly challenged" as a result of an economic downturn, created in part by Xi's sweeping zero-COVID policy.

"This mounting internal pressure is pushing Xi and the CCP leadership to divert internal opposition through more external aggression," Chen says. "There are signs that China will escalate and cause conflicts," she notes. This is the backdrop against which Biden's comments should be read.

That China will "go the military route on Taiwan" isn't an inevitability, argues Bryce Barros, an analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a think tank at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

"However, I do think hawks within the CCP and PLA might become more emboldened to take military action against Taiwan in some way as it becomes more apparent that Taiwan will not peacefully unify," he says.

Taiwan's public has shown little interest in being governed from Beijing, and its government has gradually increased the country's defense spending in recent years. Clear commitments from Washington, like the one given by Biden, may reinforce China's belief that the U.S. plans to foil any military action by Beijing, Barros says.

China Taiwan Invasion
Taiwan's domestically produced Tuo Chiang-class corvette ROCS Ta Chiang demonstrates combat readiness during a drill off Keelung, Taiwan on January 7, 2022. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

Whether China invades Taiwan will revolve around the central theory of deterrence, chiefly as it pertains to the United States, postwar Asia's foremost power. To deter Beijing from a course of military action, both Taipei and Washington will need to have a clear understanding of Chinese interests and motives, and seek to shape China's own perceptions of a potential attack by raising the costs of war.

According to Washington-based defense analyst Gerald Brown, a commitment to defend Taiwan on paper isn't enough—it must be matched by capabilities.

"We definitely need to worry about having the capability to beat back a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and we must actively ensure we rapidly work towards this," he tells Newsweek.

"Simultaneously, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is already incredibly difficult and costly for the PRC, and while U.S. forces are not where they need to be, a U.S.-Chinese war is something the PRC desperately wants to avoid if possible," says Brown, who advocates "strategic clarity" to reinforce deterrence.

"Now, having the capability is critical here, but, if the CCP is unsure that the U.S. would step in and it has no commitment to do so, not having the proper capability to defend Taiwan plus having room to back out would actually serve as a far less effective deterrent," he says.

China Taiwan Invasion
Two U.S.-made F-16V fighter aircraft fly over Chiayi Air Base in Taiwan on January 5, 2022. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

"The CCP may well assume that without a definitive capability to defend Taiwan and with the lack of a formal commitment allowing room for the U.S. to maneuver out and not defend Taiwan, if the PRC launched an attack the U.S. would be compelled to stay out, encouraging Chinese aggression," Brown says.

Notwithstanding Biden's pledge to defend Taiwan, the question of American involvement goes beyond whether Chinese forces can be stopped. "It's not binary, everything is subjective and exists on a spectrum," Brown argues. "A lot boils down to how the CCP views the environment."

Therefore, Biden's belief that an invasion of Taiwan won't be attempted must first be built on a credible deterrent, which in the president's view appears to include the shared concerns of U.S. allies and partners, all of which would favor a continuation of the status quo above conflict.

But keeping the peace will also require tactful diplomacy. Some fear that mixed messages from the Biden administration could cause Beijing to miscalculate and trigger a war many are seeking to avoid.

The signals out of China, meanwhile, remain fairly consistent: it won't compromise on Taiwan, whatever America's position.