In March, Adm. Philip Davidson, the outgoing commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, told a Senate panel that China posed a “manifest” threat of invading Taiwan “in the next six years.”
No senior official had ever issued such a specific or urgent warning about the fate of the tiny democratic island 100 miles off of China’s eastern coast. But since Davidson’s testimony, boatloads of military officers, active and retired, have sounded similar alarm bells. Some congressmen, such as Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, have even called for recognizing Taiwan as an independent nation and making NATO-like commitments to defend it from invasion—a step that would reverse 42 years of U.S. policy, further destabilize relations with China, and possibly precipitate war.
At the same time, a debate has erupted among more scholarly analysts over whether China’s Communist leaders really want to invade Taiwan—and, if they do, whether the Chinese military is capable of doing so now or in the near future. With few exceptions, the pessimists tend to be military officers, who measure the balance of power by which side has more or less of what sorts of weapons systems, while the less-panicked tend to be experts on China’s history and politics who view the statistics in a broader context.
It is worth noting that Davidson did not clear his March testimony with the secretary of defense (something that officers are supposed to do, especially if they’re about to make provocative statements). Nor did his warning of a Chinese invasion “in the next six years” reflect any estimate by the U.S. intelligence community. In fact, the Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military power—while citing accelerating, and worrisome, trends in the production of Chinese ships, missiles, and nuclear weapons—downplays concerns about China’s ability or desire to mount and sustain an invasion of Taiwan.
Key sections of the Pentagon’s 173-page report—titled Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China: A Report to Congress and published just last week—help explain why, though many military officers jumped to echo Davidson, no senior Pentagon officials chimed in with Davidson’s dire prediction.
The report notes that, in the past year, China “intensified” its “diplomatic, political, and military pressure against Taiwan.” However, the notion of an actual invasion seems beyond China’s capabilities. The report elaborates:
Large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated and difficult military operations, requiring air and materiel superiority, the rapid buildup and sustainment of supplies onshore, and uninterrupted support. An attempt to invade Taiwan would likely strain [China’s] armed forces and invite international intervention. These stresses, combined with…the complexity of urban warfare and counterinsurgency…make an amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political military risk.
Not only that, the Chinese military isn’t even trying to build the things it would need for an invasion. It has just two amphibious assault ships, with a third under construction. There is “no indication,” the report states, that China is “significantly expanding” its force of landing craft, “suggesting [that] a traditional, large-scale direct beach assault operation…remains aspirational”—a polite way of saying: They just can’t do this.
But let’s assume that China does someday build enough boats and other resources to cross the Taiwan Strait, assault the island, and set up a beachhead. The arriving Chinese troops would still have to move inland, occupy territory, including the capital, Taipei (a modern metropolis of 2.6 million people), and fight off an armed resistance.
China’s military is not well equipped to do this either, and its officers seem aware of that fact. According to the Pentagon report, the Chinese army’s “media outlets have noted shortcomings in military training and education,” which have left operational commanders “inadequately prepared for modern warfare.” The media outlets itemize these shortcomings as the “Five Incapables”: some commanders cannot judge situations, deploy forces, understand the intentions of higher authorities, make operational decisions in combat, or manage unexpected developments.
The Chinese military is only beginning to train in “combined arms” (coordinated fighting by two different types of units, e,g., infantry and artillery) or “joint operations” (fighting by two military branches, e,g., the army and the navy). Finally, except for a few brief skirmishes, China hasn’t fought any wars since 1979 (when a border battle with Vietnam ended in a draw), meaning that its current commanders and troops have no combat experience.
So where did Adm. Davidson come up with the idea that China will be set to invade Taiwan in the next six years? Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund, says he inferred too much from a recent goal, set by Chinese President Xi Jinping, to achieve “national rejuvenation” by 2027 (six years from now). That year “is the 100th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army,” Glaser told me, referring to the official name of the Chinese military. There is “no evidence” of Xi or anyone else tying this date to a takeover of Taiwan.
M. Taylor Fravel, a China expert and director of M.I.T. ‘s Security Studies Program, agrees. “Those who say China can invade Taiwan conflate changed rhetoric with changed capability,” Fravel told me. “It’s a misreading of China’s emphasis on 2027 as a milestone for PLA modernization.”
Glaser and Fravel also note that, even if China improved and expanded its military to the point where it could invade Taiwan, that doesn’t mean it would actually do it. China has increased its global presence and influence in the past few years, through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—a string of loans and investments designed to lure other countries into China’s financial system and economic orbit—and a foreign policy that features (or at least attempts) pressure and intimidation. “Using force against Taiwan,” Glaser says, “would cause backlash from the international community”—not least from the United States, which has sold $23 billion worth of arms to Taiwan since 2015 and has dispatched special forces to train Taiwan’s armed forces.
This doesn’t mean Taiwan is safe and secure. The subjugation of Hong Kong has shown that China can dominate a small island power without resorting to military force. China’s military strategy—which the Pentagon report describes as “active defense”—is designed to keep foreign military forces, especially U.S. forces, as far away as possible from China’s territory. China has done this in part by building artificial islands in the South China Sea—thus widening the area of what it regards as “Chinese sovereign territory”—and then turning the islands into military bases. It has also, in recent years, churned out a staggering number of warships, anti-ship missiles, and air-to-air missiles, as part of a strategy known as “A2/AD,” which stands for “anti-access / area-denial.” This could be seen as a purely defensive strategy—or as a way to keep U.S. military forces at bay, thus enabling the Chinese military to control vital sea lanes in the South China Sea or to pressure Taiwan into compliance with China’s desires.
Yes, Xi has declared the reabsorption of Taiwan into the People Republic of China’s sovereign territory as a long-term goal. However, Thomas Fingar, a China specialist, distinguished fellow at Stanford University, and former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, says that this is nothing new. “Every leader going back to Chou En-lai”— China’s first premier from 1949-76—“has expressed the goal of liberating Taiwan.”
Fingar is concerned about China’s recent military expansion, which at least theoretically could bring Beijing closer to this goal. However, he too thinks the risks of an outright invasion of Taiwan would be too great. “The U.S. and the allies should quietly agree that, if China mounts a blockade against Taiwan, no ship registered to China will be allowed into any port in the U.S. or allied countries,” Fingar says. “That’s 80 percent of China’s export economy.”*
Most worrisome to Fingar is China’s lack of transparency. U.S. officials, he says, have asked Chinese counterparts “why they’re doing all the things they’re doing, and they give us no answer.” This could compound misunderstandings and intensify tensions in a crisis. “Accidents could happen more easily, and I blame China for this,” he says.
However, Fingar, Glaser, and Fravel, as well as many other China hands, are also concerned that the overreaction to Adm. Davidson’s testimony might trigger new tensions. Some legislators are urging President Biden to drop the longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” and to declare that the U.S. will defend Taiwan against an invasion in the same way that it commits to defend the NATO allies from an armed attack. This would reverse the 42-year-old policy of the Taiwan Relations Act, which allows the U.S. to arm Taiwan without recognizing it as an independent nation.* (No country recognizes Taiwan as an independent nation, and Taiwan’s current president is very careful to stop short of asserting any such claim.) The Pentagon report states that Beijing views Taiwanese independence—or moves toward independence—as a cause for war. It is, in fact, one of the very few things that would spur China to initiate a war.
To adopt a policy of “strategic clarity”—which would mean to treat Taiwan as an independent nation—“would only push China into a corner,” Glaser says. “Xi would be severely weakened domestically if he accepted that. He would have to challenge it. Congressmen pushing for this don’t understand this. They don’t see that reacting this way to exaggerated assessments of China’s power and intentions will only make things worse.”
Correction, Nov. 9, 2021: This piece originally referred to the U.S.’s “one China, two systems” policy. That policy is actually China’s label for what the U.S. calls the Taiwan Relations Act. This piece also originally misquoted Thomas Fingar as stating that 80 percent of China’s economy relies on access to U.S. and allied ports. He said that 80 percent of China’s export economy depends on these ports.