Is China Planning to Attack Taiwan? A Careful Consideration of Available Evidence Says No
Is China preparing to invade Taiwan within the next two decades? In the past year, fears that war could break out in the Taiwan Strait have grown palpable, owing in large part to the shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Conflict scenarios that once seemed inconceivable have become a frightening reality. Commentators warn that Beijing could be tempted to follow Moscow’s example and attack a neighbor which it has long regarded as illegitimate.
U.S. military commanders have issued grim warnings about the possibility of such an attack in the near future. In March 2021, Adm. Philip Davidson, Pacific Fleet commander, warned that China could take military action against Taiwan by 2027. Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, added that he could “not rule out” a Chinese attempt to invade as early as 2023. Top specialists on China have lent support to the alarming assessment. In a recent poll, 63 percent of respondents believed an invasion to be “possible within the next 10 years.”
These fears have spurred striking political responses in Western capitals. To dissuade Beijing, President Joseph Biden has issued multiple statements clarifying U.S. willingness to help Taiwan defeat Chinese aggression. U.S. military leaders, dismayed by the results of war games that suggested U.S. forces could suffer devastating losses in a cross-strait conflict, have vowed major overhauls of the armed forces. Allied governments have stepped up preparations as well. Japan has increased defense spending amid fears of a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan and Australia has inked a deal with the United States and the United Kingdom for nuclear submarines to patrol farther from its shores.
China’s demands for unification are not new, of course. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Beijing has insisted on the goal of unification. But for many years the risk of war seemed low because either the Chinese military was too weak or because Beijing was too distracted by other priorities, such as rapid economic growth. However, in the past year, three pieces of evidence have, for many, dramatically elevated the likelihood of war. The first consists of intelligence reports regarding the preparation of Chinese military options for Taiwan by 2027. The second consists of statements by senior officials that stress the imperative of unification. The third consists of growing Chinese military advantage over U.S. forces near Taiwan.
Although the collective evidence appears persuasive, a closer examination shows that their significance has been seriously overstated. Moreover, there is a conspicuous lack of evidence that the government has decided to pursue a military solution to the island. China might someday choose to attack the island, but the most compelling evidence of that possibility would consist of indications that the government had prioritized Taiwan unification above other policy goals. The United States should continue to maintain its deterrence posture but refrain from overstating the threat and thereby misjudge the cross-strait situation.
Chinese Military Preparations by 2027
The first and perhaps most striking piece of evidence consists of intelligence reports that Chinese President Xi Jinping has directed the People’s Liberation Army to prepare military options against Taiwan by 2027.There is no reason to doubt the veracity of the intelligence reports. However, the significance of the instructions passed by Xi is far from clear. Where and how did Xi pass these instructions? What do they mean?
The context for such remarks matters a great deal. In China’s political system, the most important decisions regarding national strategy are made by the top leaders in the Politburo Standing Committee. A decision to change the country’s current prioritization of peaceful development in favor of a more militarily aggressive strategy to conquer Taiwan would certainly merit such a meeting, if only to promote the illusion of consensus behind such a radical departure from the current strategy. However, there is no evidence that such an exceptional meeting ever took place. Bolstering this point, CIA Director David Cohen clarified that Xi “had not made the decision” to attack Taiwan.
Although Cohen did not provide details, his comments suggest that Xi probably gave the instructions at the annual Central Military Commission work meeting. This makes sense because Xi annually convenes a senior military leadership meeting at which he provides security guidance for the coming year. This is traditionally considered the most important meeting of the year for the military’s leadership. At these meetings, the Central Military Commission Chair typically provides directions to the military on how to support the country’s national strategy. Sample tasks include actions to reform the command structure and improve the quality of training. But, crucially, the Central Military Commission is empowered only to prepare and execute strategies and policies consistent with those determined by the supreme civilian leadership — namely, the Politburo Standing Committee. Thus, in the meeting Xi apparently directed the military to carry out preparations for a Taiwan contingency by 2027 but to otherwise operate in accordance with the current Taiwan strategy that prioritizes peaceful methods. This interpretation is consistent with Cohen’s public observation that Beijing still “intends to get control” of Taiwan through “non-military means.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley’s characterization of Xi’s remarks lends support to that interpretation. Milley commented that Xi’s instructions appear to be about “capability, not an intent to attack or seize.”
Dates and Goals for PLA Modernization
Both Cohen’s and Milley’s interpretations support the view that Beijing currently prioritizes peaceful methods to achieve unification. However, their comments hint at the possibility that Xi’s intentions could change over time. Many observers have in fact put forward the suggestion that Xi may adopt aggressive options once the military completes its preparations by 2027. Some analysts have cited this possibility in arguing for robust deterrence posture now as a way to dissuade Xi from considering military action by that date. But why would China announce a deadline for military preparations? The 2027 date is said to point to Xi’s hopes that he can achieve unification before turning too old or before he concludes his third term as General Secretary. But that is not the only possible interpretation. It is not even the most plausible for four reasons. First, there is no evidence to support the claim that the timeline is driven by Xi’s personal considerations. Second, Chinese leaders routinely direct the military to prepare for Taiwan contingencies. Third, setting dates for modernization goals is an exceedingly common practice. And fourth, Chinese leaders have a variety of reasons for setting dates for modernization goals that do not have anything to do with an intent to attack.
First, despite predictions to the contrary, there is no evidence to support the speculation that the “prepare military options by 2027” goal is tied to either Xi’s age or the end of his third term in office. The reasoning is also specious given that, to date, Xi has proven extremely cautious in his use of the military. It is true that Xi has overseen the expansion of “gray zone” operations against rival claimants in the First Island Chain. China and India also clashed in a lethal brawl under Xi’s watch, although Beijing subsequently sought to deescalate tensions. However, although Xi has been repressive and brutal in many ways, he has not engaged in any of the type of combat operations that Russia undertook in Georgia, Chechnya, Syria, and Ukraine’s Crimean region prior to invading Ukraine in 2022. It would be unprecedented, risky in the extreme, and frankly bizarre for a major power like China to refrain from testing its military in even a limited combat operation before launching an attack that could escalate into a major war with the world’s premier military, that of the United States.
Second, it is not by itself especially noteworthy that Xi directed the military to prepare for a Taiwan contingency — or any other contingency for that matter. One of the military’s most important jobs, after all, is precisely to prepare for contingencies. Nor is it unusual for the military leadership to regard Taiwan as a top security threat. Taiwan has been the People’s Liberation Army’s top security challenge for over two decades. Moreover, all militaries plan for contingencies with designated potential adversaries in mind. U.S. defense strategy documents make clear that the U.S. military, for example, regards China, Russia, and others as potential threats and plans for contingencies accordingly. This does not mean the United States has any intention of attacking either China or Russia, of course.
Third, the linking of modernization goals to dates is an exceedingly common Chinese practice. Reflecting a legacy from the era of a planned economy, Beijing regularly sets dates for modernization goals. China sets goals for national modernization efforts in regular increments in its five-year plans, for example. But it also sets development goals that coincide with special anniversaries, in part to bolster the Chinese Communist Party’s prestige and authority. For example, China’s development goals for the “China Dream” coincide with the centennial of the nation’s founding in 2049. In the early 2000s, reports surfaced that suggested Chinese leaders had “secret plans” to invade Taiwan by 2020. Yet the reports proved inaccurate because Western experts misunderstood the meaning of the date. In fact, the 2020 date for military modernization was tied to broader development goals that coincided with the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding in 2021. China did not invade Taiwan in 2021, but it did hold a lavish parade to showcase the military’s achievements in modernization and whip up patriotic enthusiasm. Analysts may be committing the same mistake about the reports of military modernization goals set for 2027. The significance of 2027, as Chinese military news websites explain, lies in the fact that it will be the 100th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army’s founding. It’s a pretty safe bet that Beijing will hold an extravagant military parade in 2027.
Fourth, the military’s modernization goals serve a variety of political and military purposes, none of which imply any intent to actually start a war. Deterrence of a potential secession move by Taiwan remains one compelling reason. But there are others. Although experts focus almost exclusively on official statements regarding Taiwan, Chinese leaders have placed equal emphasis on the goal of building a strong military as a sign of a powerful and successful China. Annually, China holds many lavish military parades and exercises, all of which receive extensive coverage in Chinese media. This practice, which has continued since the country’s founding by Mao Zedong, serve an important role in bolstering patriotism and legitimizing Communist Party rule.
Building a powerful military is also an important source of political power for the country’s supreme leader. Xi’s power hinges, in part, on his command of the military, which helps explain why he is often photographed in military uniforms or settings. Responsible primarily for foreign policy and the military, China’s central government actually controls a far smaller share of overall government spending than is the case for Western governments. The overwhelming majority of government revenue and spending is handled by the provincial governments, who thus have access to the most lucrative sources of revenue and extensive patronage networks. Xi thus has a strong political incentive to improve the gleaming appearance of an impressive military in part as a way to underscore his authority, bolster public support, and cow rival elites who are flush with wealth and supporters.
Yet one more important purpose of such modernization goals is to keep the military focused on its goal of becoming more professional and resist tendencies of slipping into corruption and lethargy. Xi’s instructions to remain focused on its military duties takes place within the context of a broader effort to improve the overall modernization, competence, and effectiveness of the government, which authorities regard as critical to realizing the country’s goals of national revival. Consistent with this broader imperative, Xi has repeatedly called on the military to improve its combat readiness, which is another way of saying the military should become more competent at its job.
The point is not to dismiss as trivial Xi’s instructions to the People’s Liberation Army as insignificant. The instructions are noteworthy, but nothing about the instructions themselves tell us anything about Chinese intent to attack Taiwan. What is required is clearer evidence of leadership intent to finally conquer the island.
Chinese Statements on Taiwan
This raises the second widely cited piece of evidence: government statements that emphasize the imperative of unification. Xi stated in 2019, for example, that Taiwan “must and will be reunited with China.” At the 20th Party Congress held in 2022, Xi described “China’s complete reunification” as a “natural requirement for realizing the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Under Xi, China also issued a white paper on Taiwan that refused to renounce the use of force.
Once again, the fact that Xi and the Chinese government made these statements cannot be doubted. The quotes are available for anyone to read in publicly available media reports. But what do they mean? Top China specialists have claimed that the statements show Xi aims to “complete unification by 2049.” Such statements certainly appear compelling on the surface, but a closer look suggests their significance is overstated for several reasons.
The first point to note is that all Chinese leaders since Mao have regularly issued such uncompromising proclamations. Jiang Zemin declared at the 16th Party Congress in 2002, “The Taiwan question must not be allowed to drag on indefinitely” and pledged that the “complete reunification of the motherland” will be achieved at an unspecified “early date.” Hu Jintao stated at the 18th Party Congress in 2012 that the “complete reunification of China is an irresistible historical process.” He added that “any separatist attempt for Taiwan independence” is “doomed to fail.” Consistent with the recent white paper, previous versions also refused to rule out the use of force to resolve the issue. If the tone of statements issued by Xi’s government departs from his predecessors, the difference is slight.
Second, what the government did not say or do is equally or even more noteworthy. There is nothing in the 20th Party Congress report or any of Xi’s speeches that expresses the notion that China had reached the “limits of its forbearance” or that demand some sort of immediate steps towards unification. Nor is there any evidence that the government had begun taking practical steps to prepare for military conquest.
As best as outsiders can tell, Beijing has not directed studies by relevant government ministries to plan for the occupation and administration of Taiwan. Nor have central leaders begun to indoctrinate cadres on the imperative of gaining Taiwan through military efforts if necessary. Such indoctrination is essential for cadres to understand what and why they must adjust their duties to prepare for a potentially catastrophic war situation. Neither has Beijing made any effort to rally public sentiment in favor of war against the island. Central leaders need to socialize people to the importance and potential dangers of war to gain public support for a course of action that would very likely shock the public, lead to severe economic disruption, and expose many people to serious harm or death. National unification may be a popular idea among Chinese citizens, but war isn’t. Data on popular views are of course difficult to come by given the controlled political environment, but available surveys by Western scholars show an overwhelming preference for peaceful methods to achieve unification with Taiwan. For Beijing to launch a war without bothering to cultivate the public’s support would risk throwing the country into utter turmoil.
Above all, there is no evidence that the government is seriously contemplating abandoning its peaceful unification strategy. Such a reprioritization would be necessary because the current approach has essentially paid lip service to the imperative of Taiwan unification while prioritizing other goals such as economic growth and the maintenance of a stable international environment to facilitate national development. Xi has rebranded the pursuit of a national rejuvenation as the “China Dream,” but his vision shares considerable continuity with that of his predecessors. As with the previous governments, Xi’s demands for unification have coincided with tolerance for the island’s de facto independence as he pursued other more pressing goals such as reenergizing a flagging economy, grappling with corruption, managing unrest over the country’s “Zero Covid” restrictions, and implementing geo-economic projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative. Given these higher priorities, Xi, like his predecessors, has to date made little effort to force the matter of unification.
China’s Military Advantage Near Taiwan
The absence of evidence that China has revised its national strategy to prioritize unification is especially critical because the third widely cited piece of evidence — that of an increasingly powerful Chinese military — remains unpersuasive without it. In recent years, China has developed an immense inventory of advanced aircraft, warships, missiles, and ground forces that outclassed in every way Taiwan’s stagnant military. China’s improved capabilities also pose an increasingly lethal threat to U.S. forces that might intervene in a Taiwan conflict. In the past two years, war games that tested how U.S. forces might fare against the revamped People’s Liberation Army yielded grim results. Numerous iterations held at different think tanks showed that China could inflict massive losses on U.S. forces in a war over Taiwan and in some cases defeat a U.S. intervention. There is no reason to doubt the warnings by U.S. military leaders that China poses an increasingly formidable threat in any Taiwan contingency.
Yet here, too, the significance of these trends may be overstated. Despite its growing military strength, it is impossible for Beijing to know with any certainty what would happen once war began. Even if we assume China has gained the upper hand militarily in the area near Taiwan, that provides far less advantage than it appears. As Russia is learning in the Ukraine, the United States learned recently in Afghanistan, and military historians have long noted, war involves so many factors that how fighting might progress or conclude is impossible to predict. Underscoring this point, the wargames favored at U.S. think tanks typically explore the devastating first few days of conflict but rarely consider what might happen afterwards. Analysts scarcely explored how a U.S.-Chinense conflict could evolve into a much broader systemic war. In short, war with the United States remains such a high-risk, potentially catastrophic development, that even with China’s military advances, only a radical shift in risk tolerance and policy prioritization could possibly justify Beijing’s willingness to consider this possibility.
The evidence to date remains weak that China is seriously considering an attack on Taiwan, but that does not preclude the possibility that future Chinese leaders might change their mind. How could we tell if Beijing had begun to seriously contemplate an attack on Taiwan? The most important indicators would be those related to a political decision to pursue unification through military options and prepare the nation accordingly. Evidence that top leaders had agreed to prioritize unification above the myriad domestic and foreign policy goals that currently comprise the core of the “China Dream” would be of the highest importance. Indications that the leaders had made such a decision would be evident in steps that the government had taken to prepare for war. Central and provincial government ministries would probably, for example, begin stockpiling, improve defenses, and take measures to insulate the country’s economy to external shocks. Party cadres would likely undergo extensive indoctrination on the importance of reunification and on their duties to support a war effort accordingly. Propaganda, mass rallies, and fiery speeches by top leaders would aim to bolster public support and prepare the populace psychologically for the hardships to come. The political preparations would need to equal, at the very least, the very similar types of activity that characterized Chinese preparations for its last major, large-scale conflict — that of the Korean War. After all, the danger of mass civilian death and economic disruption today is much higher than was the case in the Korean War, owing to the realities of global economic interdependence and advent of modern military technologies such as long-range missiles capable of striking many targets along China’s densely populated coast, to say nothing of the disruptive potential of cyber warfare or the perils of nuclear weapons.
Vladimir Putin, whose attack on Ukraine has inspired much of the angst about a potential Chinese attack, provides a case study of how an autocrat like Xi or a successor could behave in the lead up to war. Although Western analysts may not have understood their significance, Putin for years carried out an escalating series of increasingly shrill tirades and rants about Ukraine. Putin’s government listed numerous grievances and issued dire warnings about developments regarded as unacceptable, including the expansion of NATO and the aiding and abetting of “terrorist activities” against Russian nationals in the Ukraine. He also directed the Russian military to carry numerous attacks against neighbors starting in 2008. In short, Putin sent clear and unambivalent signals about Russia’s intent and willingness to attack for years and months prior to invasion. China under Xi has made no such gestures regarding Taiwan.
For some, the possibility of war, however remote, is reason enough to enhance the U.S. deterrence posture. There is no question that a strong U.S. deterrent posture can help incentivize Beijing to avoid ever contemplating an attack. But accurate assessments of Chinese intentions do matter. Underestimating an adversary, as the United States and the West did with Putin, can lead to inadequate preparations and potential disaster for the victim of aggression, as nearly happened to Ukraine. But overestimating a rival state’s willingness to risk conflict carries its own drawbacks. An exaggerated sense of danger can exacerbate tensions and aggravate perceptions of hostile intent. This could in turn incentivize a rival to adopt more aggressive behavior and thereby accelerate a security dilemma. Moreover, the United States could grant China more leverage in the relationship than is warranted. Out of a desire to reduce a risk of war that is perceived to be higher than it really is, Washington may grant concessions that may not be necessary. And finally, the opportunity costs incurred by an exaggerated fear of war might be considerable. Given the competing demands for military resources and tightening budget constraints, this is not an insignificant point. Massive investments in deterrence capabilities near Taiwan will have to come at the cost of resources that could have been allocated elsewhere.
Despite China’s growing military power, there remain formidable disincentives for China to ever consider going down this route. The risks and uncertainties of great power war remain immense and the potential gains of conquering Taiwan debatable especially given the potential for a war to escalate to catastrophic levels. It is important to closely monitor Chinese military developments and ensure appropriate deterrence. But it is also important not to overstate the threat and thereby misjudge the situation. A more accurate grasp of the meaning and logic of Chinese statements and behavior can help the United States and its allies to make well-informed and reasonable responses to developments in the Taiwan Strait.
Dr. Timothy R. Heath is a senior international and defense researcher for the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
Image: China Military