For well over a year now, a growing chorus of American government and military officials have cited 2027 as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s potential deadline for the forcible unification of Taiwan with the mainland.
In recent weeks, several senior U.S. officials have warned that the time frame could even be 2023 or 2024. However, after meeting with Xi on Monday ahead of the Group of 20 Summit in Bali, U.S. President Joe Biden appeared to walk back these assessments by stating, “I do not think there is any imminent attempt on the part of China to invade Taiwan.”
This may indicate an acknowledgment that none of his administration’s previous estimates have any real basis in facts, though to be sure, 2027 will be the centenary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, which may be part of the concern.
During the recently concluded 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party at which Xi secured a historic third term as secretary-general, he said that the PLA must live up to “world-class standards” by 2027, meaning that by then it should be capable of defeating the U.S. military in a future conflict over Taiwan or anything else.
But the reality is that 2027, let alone 2024 or 2023, is likely too soon for a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
Contrary to many international media reports, Xi’s address to the party congress last month was quite reserved on the topic of Taiwan, not fiery. Xi noted that “peaceful reunification” remained Beijing’s preferred means of handling the island.
The reality is that 2027, let alone 2024 or 2023, is likely too soon for a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
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He could have easily left out the word “peaceful,” which would have been a significant indicator that China is losing patience with Taiwan. Yet he did not.
Xi instead placed the bulk of the blame for tense cross-strait relations on foreign meddling. He said that Beijing has witnessed “gross provocations of external interference in Taiwan affairs,” likely a reference to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in August.
Xi notably stopped short of blaming Taiwan itself and left open the possibility of political negotiations with Taipei so long as its government recognizes the existence of “one China” under the People’s Republic of China. To this end, Beijing will certainly wait until at least the island’s next presidential election in January 2024 to see if the China-friendly Kuomintang opposition can defeat President Tsai Ing-wen’s Taiwan-centric Democratic Progressive Party.
Meanwhile, speculation that Beijing would revise its Anti-Secession Law, which spells out conditions that might trigger a Chinese attack on Taiwan, or that it would publish a national security law for the island similar to one applied to Hong Kong in 2020 has so far proved unfounded.
To be sure, right after Pelosi’s visit to the island, Beijing did release a white paper arguing that reunification with the mainland is inevitable and describing what the relationship between China and Taiwan would look like afterward. But it stopped short of describing any new threats if conditions continue in the wrong direction. At the 20th Party Congress, the need to “firmly oppose Taiwan independence” was incorporated into the party charter, but there was nothing new about that language.
Another factor Xi must consider when weighing a potential invasion is the PLA’s lingering concern about its competence to successfully conduct joint operations against Taiwan.
According to PLA literature, the force suffers from “Five Incapables”—that its officers cannot judge situations, understand higher authorities’ intentions, make operational decisions, deploy troops, or deal with unexpected circumstances. To impress Xi, it is possible that commanders are exaggerating their preparedness for war, but in doing so, they could be taking a potentially enormous risk.
China is more likely to be particularly careful, given its assessment of Russia’s stumbles against Ukraine’s emboldened and foreign-supported resistance. In contrast to that war, an invasion of Taiwan would require an amphibious landing, which history has shown is notoriously difficult to pull off. Moreover, Beijing is painfully aware of its lack of recent combat experience, particularly in the air and at sea.
It is no wonder, then, that Xi anointed Gen. Zhang Youxia, who was involved in China’s border war with Vietnam in 1979, his deputy on the new Central Military Commission at the party congress. Xi’s promotion of Gen. He Weidong, who formerly commanded the military region responsible for Taiwan, similarly shows recognition of the need to improve warfighting competence vis-à-vis the island.
Finally, though much has been made of Biden’s numerous affirmations in recent months that the American military would help defend Taiwan if China attacks, the more-worrisome development for Beijing is the increasingly supportive position of key U.S. allies, namely Australia and Japan but even the Philippines and South Korea to a lesser degree.
All four countries have expressed growing concern over Chinese bullying of Taiwan and appear poised to directly or indirectly assist American military efforts to prevent Beijing from conquering the island. Beijing certainly would want to avoid taking on multiple countries at once and would look to weaken their unity before any armed conflict.
Rather than start a war, Xi is more likely to intensify China’s use of coercive measures against Taiwan.
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Of course, unforeseen events could intervene to hasten Xi’s timeline.
Taiwanese Vice President William Lai has called himself a “Taiwan independence worker.” If he successfully ran for the presidency in 2024, then Beijing may believe the time has come for war.
Xi’s references to foreign meddling at the party congress suggest that Washington could also eventually cross an internal red line Beijing has set. China’s sagging economy might convince Xi that a nationalistic war against Taiwan would serve as a useful distraction, too.
None of these circumstances are predictable. What we do know today is that China is not signaling war—quite the opposite, actually—and will remain unprepared for conflict for the next five years.
Rather than start a war, Xi is more likely to intensify China’s use of coercive measures against Taiwan, including diplomatic, economic, and military pressure coupled with cyber and psychological operations. If coercion fails, Beijing might turn to force as a last resort, but this still seems unlikely given so many complicating factors.
Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation and adjunct professor in the practice of political science and international relations at the University of Southern California. He formerly served as an intelligence advisor at the Pentagon.
This commentary originally appeared on Nikkei Asia on November 16, 2022. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.
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