China likely to attack Taiwan within five years, panel told

China's military modernization plus US failure to build robust coalitions to counter Beijing's regional aggression could lead to a Taiwan takeover

Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army's Honor Guard Battalion wear protective masks as they stand at attention in front of photo of China's president Xi Jinping at their barracks outside the Forbidden City, near Tiananmen Square, on May 20. (Getty Images)
Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army's Honor Guard Battalion wear protective masks as they stand at attention in front of photo of China's president Xi Jinping at their barracks outside the Forbidden City, near Tiananmen Square, on May 20. (Getty Images)
Posted February 23, 2021 at 1:04pm

Deterring China from invading Taiwan is becoming increasingly complicated and tenuous as a result of Beijing’s growing military capabilities and its continued isolation of the self-governing island, regional experts are warning a congressional commission.

“Cross-strait deterrence is arguably weaker today than at any point since the Korean War,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies who specializes in Chinese military policy. She was speaking at a virtual hearing Feb. 18 before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which was examining U.S. deterrence policies aimed at preventing a future attack on Taiwan by Beijing.

“Impressive military modernization on the part of China, U.S. failure to build robust coalitions to counter Chinese regional aggression, and [Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s personal ambition, all have coalesced to create a situation for Beijing in which the benefits of using force more and more are becoming so high that they outweigh the costs,” she continued.

Previously, it was thought the greatest possibility of military conflict over Taiwan, a democracy of nearly 24 million people, would occur if a Taiwanese leader formally declared independence from China, which might then respond by mounting a maritime invasion across the Taiwan Strait in an attempt to reverse the declaration and seize the island. But times have changed.

“I believe the greatest threat now is that Beijing will launch a military operation to force ‘reunification,’ in their words, irrespective of Washington’s or Taipei’s policies or actions,” Mastro said. She added that Chinese military leaders have told her they believe Xi will conclude that the Chinese military will have the capability to occupy and seize Taiwan in a year or two even as some Western analysts predict that it is more likely five years or more from that goal.

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However, a silver lining to that finding is that Xi is likely waiting for an opportune moment to invade and will be less easily provoked by “smaller slights” such as high-level U.S. diplomatic visits to Taiwan or more U.S. weapon sales to the island. “It’ll only make a move when it’s ready. So unless Beijing is ready to take Taiwan by force, its leadership is going to carefully calibrate any responses to other U.S. and Taiwan actions as long as those aren’t independence, and they will try not to escalate to war,” Mastro predicted.

The United States can best shape the environment around Xi’s decision-making on whether to invade Taiwan by continuing a campaign — ramped up with mixed results during the Trump administration — of trying to increase Taipei’s ties with the international community, testified Mastro and other experts.

Those experts included Kharis Templeman, a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who specializes in Taiwan issues. He said increased ties could include opening bilateral trade talks with Taiwan as well as pressing for the island’s inclusion in any regional multilateral trade pact that the Biden administration might try to revive.

The No. 1 deterrent to Beijing attacking Taiwan is the possibility of going up against not just Taiwan and the United States but also other allied nations, Mastro said. "I think then they would think that the costs to ... in their words 'national rejuvenation,' might be too high,'' she said.

That recommendation was generally greeted warmly by both Republican and Democratic-appointed commissioners.

“The fewer connections Taiwan has to other partners, the fewer the incentives are for partners around the world to come to Taiwan’s aid to support or take a position if there is military action toward the island,” said Republican-appointed commissioner Alex Wong, a former deputy special representative for North Korea at the State Department. “So in a certain sense  . . .  expansion of Taiwan’s role in the world is, in a sense, an expansion of deterrence.”

Assessing Trump's policies

Thursday’s hearing came as the Biden administration is assessing which parts of the Trump administration’s Taiwan policies to continue, discontinue or modify.

Under former President Donald Trump, the United States increased its diplomatic engagements and security assistance to Taiwan. But an effort to pressure foreign countries and multilateral bodies to recognize Taipei largely failed as the United States itself was disengaging with international organizations as part of  Trump's “America First” foreign policies.

Last August, former Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar became the first U.S. Cabinet member to visit Taiwan in six years, followed a month later by a visit by the undersecretary of State for economic growth, the highest-ranking U.S. diplomatic official to visit the island since 1979, according to a January issue brief by the Congressional Research Service.

In its four years, the Trump administration concluded more major weapons deals with Taiwan, 20, than the Obama administration did in its eight years, 16. And in just the last fiscal year, U.S. Navy ships on 11 occasions transited through the Taiwan Strait in a display of force.

Even as U.S. military and diplomatic signaling over Taiwan ramped up under Trump, Taipei became more internationally isolated. Since 2016, eight nations that formally recognized Taiwan have switched their recognition to China. They include El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Panama.

Beijing has also been able to block Taiwan’s observer status at meetings of the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization. Taipei was previously able to attend the yearly meetings during the Obama administration.

In one of his last actions before his tenure of secretary of State ended, Mike Pompeo in January lifted State Department regulations that restrict a range of diplomatic engagement activities with Taipei. Those restrictions were imposed more than 40 years ago as part of America’s “One China” policy that established formal relations with China while making U.S. ties with Taiwan unofficial.

Deepen and expand ties

In an interview earlier this month with MSNBC, Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not directly respond to a question on what actions Washington would take if China moves against Taiwan.

“In many ways, the challenge posed by China is as much about some of our own self-inflicted weaknesses as it is about China’s emerging strength,” Blinken said. “But we can address those weaknesses. We can actually build back better in this area too when it comes to stronger alliances, when it comes to engaging in the world  . . .  making sure our military is properly postured.”

As part of its fiscal 2021 omnibus spending measure, lawmakers in December ordered Foggy Bottom to review U.S.-Taiwan relations while providing a sense of the Congress that the guidance “should be crafted with the intent to deepen and expand” ties with Taipei. The measure also made it official U.S. policy to push for Taiwan’s participation or membership in multilateral organizations.

The debate in think tanks and on Capitol Hill around how best to preserve both regional peace and Taiwan’s democracy has become much more active in recent years, particularly as a result of China’s military modernization efforts and a growing apprehension that Xi will make good on his pledges that “reunification” will happen under his tenure as Chinese Communist Party leader.

Unchanged, however, is the longstanding assessment that the United States — particularly the American public — does not see preserving Taiwan’s democracy as a national security priority in the face of a potential major war with China, while Beijing sees Taiwan’s future status as a core interest and the island as rightfully theirs. 

On that note, Democratic-appointed commissioner Jeffrey Fiedler cast one of the more pessimistic notes of Thursday’s hearing.

“This is not just about, it seems to me, just about technological weaponry capacity. I think political will is critical and I don’t see it,” said Fiedler, who has held senior roles in multiple labor unions. “I don’t see it in Taiwan and I’m not sure I see it in the United States, and that is a reading that Xi Jinping is probably making.”