Soldiers wearing face masks amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic take part in a drill during Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen's visit to a military base in Tainan, southern Taiwan, on April 9, 2020.

Soldiers wearing face masks amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic take part in a drill during Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen's visit to a military base in Tainan, southern Taiwan, on April 9, 2020. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

When and Why China Might—or Might Not—Attack Taiwan

U.S. policymakers can only guess at what’s driving Beijing, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing they can do about it.

Security tensions are brewing in East Asia. China has on several recent occasions sent military aircraft to fly around Taiwan, including into its air defense identification zone, complete with taunts from the Chinese pilots. Officials and analysts worry that an attack on the self-governing island could be in the offing. But when? Sometime between tomorrow and mid-century. Or never. No one knows, and that’s because no one really knows what drives China’s decision-making. 

Some commentators have advanced what might be called structural theories about when and why China could attempt to invade Taiwan. General Secretary Xi Jinping has proclaimed the goal of achieving the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by the centennial anniversary of the founding the People’s Republic of China in 2049 (often shorthanded as “mid-century”). Rejuvenation and unification are inextricable in the eyes of the CCP. Xi asserted in January 2019 that the “Taiwan question…will definitely end with China’s rejuvenation.” Others expect it sooner: by 2035, when state-run media say the People’s Liberation Army, will “basically” be modernized enough to fight and win a regional war against another advanced military. The implication being that China will invade once it concludes the PLA can win.

Alternative structural assessments see a more imminent peril. They argue the world, especially the United States, is entering a dangerous decade in relations with China generally and with regard to Taiwan specifically, where Beijing’s relative power is reaching an apex compared to would-be geopolitical competitors. Those theories posit that Chinese leaders might conclude they must attempt to forcibly annex Taiwan while they are at their strongest or risk it falling out of their grasp forever. Others acknowledge China faces future challenges but note that even slowing economic growth rates would arrive on top of a massive base, so Beijing’s power, at least relative to Taiwan, will likely continue to accrue.

Another category of theories about when China might send mount a full-spectrum invasion might be described as events-driven.

Beijing has clearly stated that any declaration of independence or clear moves in that direction by the government in Taipei would provoke an attack. China has rejected direct political engagement with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen because she has refused to reaffirm a political formulation known as the “1992 Consensus,” an unwillingness Beijing interprets as sympathizing with the pro-independence views held by some in Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party.

Other, less definitive political outcomes could beget a conflict as well. As John Culver, a former U.S. National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, has argued, Beijing could decide that a lesser standard would be enough, such as Taiwan refusing to engage in a negotiating process whose end goal is some form of political unification. The ignominious end of the “one country, two systems” governance framework for Hong Kong, which Beijing still views as a model for Taiwan, has made the prospect of political integration with the mainland increasingly unpopular with the people of Taiwan.

Further, Chinese military maneuvers designed for political signaling could result in accidents or unintentional escalation. Operations that start off as diplomatic pressure tactics have the potential to spin out of control. Events beyond Taiwan itself could also give rise to a crisis. Political developments in the United States, especially a decisive policy change that either endorses Taiwan independence or rules out U.S. assistance to Taiwan during a contingency, could shift Beijing’s calculus (although both are highly unlikely right now).

Next, Chinese leaders could at some point face a major crisis of legitimacy—perhaps an economic crash or a botched leadership succession or lack thereof—and decide to use an invasion of Taiwan to gin up nationalistic support for the Communist regime. Beijing could also perceive opportunity in another crisis that occupies U.S. forces and attention. Likely candidates would include a conflict on the Korean Peninsula or somewhere outside East Asia such as Ukraine.

Finally, a cross-Strait conflict might never happen at all. Beijing no doubt understands that, despite the temptations, any decision to use military force against Taiwan would entail world-historical levels of risk. The PLA enjoys hefty budgets and increasingly cutting-edge capabilities. But it has not fought a war since 1979 and could still flunk its first test in decades for any numbers of reasons. Non-material factors like the capacity for effective combat leadership are notoriously difficult to develop and measure.

A failed invasion or even one with a messy mixed outcome could pose a major threat to the CCP regime. Politically, many Chinese citizens would question the leadership’s judgment and competence. Economically, even a successful campaign would require starting a major war right at the epicenter of lucrative-but-fragile global supply chains. Xi might believe he is on the cusp of fulfilling one of the Party’s most sacred goals by moving to take Taiwan—only to blow up the economic growth and stability pillars that are foundational to CCP rule in China. And that is not even mentioning the risk of uncontrolled military escalation.

Predicting with any accuracy which of these factors will prevail is impossible. For all the barrels of ink spilled writing about China, the inner workings of how the leadership makes decisions are almost completely opaque; Zhongnanhai, China’s Kremlin, is a mostly black box. That fact creates a problem because policy responses can differ based on what theory of the case they derive from and are trying to shape. Beijing could decide according to one of the aforementioned factors. Or it could be a mixture of them. Xi’s decision to choose aggressive military signaling as a central instrument in China’s pressure campaign gives weight those who think an attack could come sooner rather than later, but aggressive maneuvers are not themselves dispositive proof that a conflict is coming.

In response to the situation’s uncertainty, U.S. policy will have to be both firm and delicate. Washington should continue to emphasize to Beijing the costs of aggression and the value of the status quo for China, the region, and the world—saving the most vehement messages for private channels. Those costs go well beyond shipping disruptions in the heart of globalization’s engine room in Northeast Asia. They should include biting sanctions, structural economic decoupling, widespread diplomatic isolation of Beijing that would lock in a pessimistic view about the implications of China’s rise, and unspecified intelligence and military support to Taiwan from the United States and select allies and partners. Also, Beijing should expect to see regional states arming themselves against Chinese aggression with renewed fervor and commitment. In short, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently put it, that using force would be a “serious mistake.” 

At the same time, however, U.S. policymakers should avoid official, public policy changes—including ending the policy of “strategic ambiguity”—that would be construed as Washington revising the status quo and therefore be likely spark a crisis. Washington should also forswear linking Taiwan directly to other issues in U.S.-China relations. Chinese officials will always accuse the United States of playing a “Taiwan card,” but Washington should steer clear of broader linkage for its own benefit and Taipei’s. 

Finally, the United States should continue to counsel caution from Taiwan, with any countermoves to China’s actions calculated toward upholding or restoring the status quo, however embattled. Washington and like-minded partners should also devote special time and attention to finding innovative ways to aid implementation of Taiwan’s Overall Defense Concept plan for thwarting an invasion through asymmetric means.

Success will come if China decides that the best time to attack Taiwan is never—but there is a lot of time between now and then.

Jacob Stokes (@jacobstokes) is a Fellow in the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as an advisor in the White House and the U.S. Congress.