As the West spends billions in aid to support Ukraine’s offensive against Russia, concerns are mounting over the looming possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. President Joe Biden said Monday that the United States would intervene militarily if the self-governing island came under attack by the mainland. But is Beijing ready to mount a full-scale takeover of Taiwan – and succeed?
Biden’s unequivocal remark about Taiwan came at a news conference with Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during a visit to Tokyo, as the president responded to a question regarding whether, contrary to his approach to Ukraine, he would use military force to defend Taiwan.
“Yes … that’s the commitment we made,” Biden responded. “The idea that [Taiwan] could be taken by force … would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.”
The president’s clear answer departed from the traditional stance of strategic ambiguity: a decades-old US policy of deliberate vagueness regarding the defence of Taiwan in case of Chinese invasion. But as Taiwan has reported a troubling increase in provocative military activity from Beijing, with spikes in Chinese military aircraft overflights in the island’s air defence identification zone, top US and EU officials have openly voiced their support for the democratic island, whose plight has also drawn comparisons to Ukraine.
The White House hurriedly walked back Biden’s statements, denying that the president’s remarks represented any change in policy – but not before they had provoked the ire of Beijing, whose foreign ministry expressed “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” within hours.
“Biden wants to send a strong message of deterrence to Beijing,” says Mathieu Duchâtel, director of the Asia programme at Institut Montaigne. “He wanted to show Beijing that while the US has refused to intervene directly in the war in Ukraine, it is determined to help Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.”
All this rhetoric begs the question: Just how feasible is a Chinese invasion of Taiwan at this point?
Invading Taiwan would be “extremely difficult for Beijing”
China’s defence budget, currently at $229 billion, has allowed it to boost research and development into new weapons systems, carriers and military exercises – with an emphasis on strengthening its navy. Currently, the country has considerable military capabilities that would allow it to intervene in and around Taiwan, explains Antoine Bondaz, director of the Taiwan programme at the Foundation for Strategic Research.
“China’s military spending has increased sevenfold over the past twenty years – and these efforts will continue. Today, there are an estimated 10,000 Chinese marines. It is projected that there will be 100,000 by 2027.”
In the short term, these growing resources are still too limited to envision a total invasion and control of Taiwan, the researcher says. “But if Beijing continues at this rate, it will have the resources necessary in a couple of years.”
Although China may far surpass Taiwan in its military arsenal and manpower, in terms of strategy, such an invasion would remain “extremely difficult for Beijing”, says Duchâtel.
“The Taiwanese, without even taking into account the US intervention, have a strong response capability, and could generate heavy losses for Beijing in case of an amphibious or airborne landing attempt.”
Indeed, Taiwan has also boosted its defence spending, allocating in January an extra $8.6 billion on top of a record annual defence budget, dedicated to buying weapons like long-range precision weapons and warships.
Both sides learning lessons from Ukraine war
The island’s defence ministry has also been following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine closely, and has said that it will incorporate lessons from the war into its military exercises. Taiwanese officials and analysts have said that Ukraine’s resistance against the much larger Russian army also brings to mind the importance of asymmetric warfare and reservists.
Indeed, the Chinese are also gleaning insights from the conflict in Ukraine, causing them to reassess their hopes for a quick “lightning war” operation by which “reunification” by force would be possible after a few days, says Duchâtel.
“The Chinese saw the failure of the Russian blitzkrieg. This therefore forces them to rethink their military options vis-a-vis Taiwan and removes the risk of a short-term operation. We also do not know whether Chinese forces would be able to hold Taiwan in the event of an invasion”.
Towards an escalation in Taiwan-China relations?
Though an imminent, short-term Chinese invasion of Taiwan seems unlikely, “the status quo could shift at any given moment”, says Duchâtel.
The researcher points to two key events as being pivotal to the evolution of Taiwan-China relations: the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in the second half of 2022, and Taiwan’s parliamentary elections scheduled for January 2024.
Could tensions escalate during this period? “Currently, Taiwan, under the presidency of Tsai Ing-wen, takes a very cautious approach towards Beijing,” explains Duchâtel. “But this reaffirmed American protection, coupled with China’s declining image on the international stage, could lead Taiwan to take greater political risks. Today, we don’t seem to be moving in that direction. But it is a possibility”.
‘The international community must play a dissuasive role’
China’s objective to conquer Taiwan has always been clear, says Bondaz. As the mainland amasses military might, the threat to Taiwan grows – and if Beijing doesn’t have the means to launch a successful attack now, it will in a couple of years, by 2025 according to some estimates.
The researcher thus insists on the role the international community must play to dissuade China from using force. “They have to make Beijing understand that the cost, in human, military and geopolitical terms, is prohibitive.”
Biden’s remarks serve as a warning more pointed than any the US has issued to China over Taiwan in decades. “He underscored the difference between Ukraine and Taiwan” says Duchâtel. How this deterrence will play out concretely as the fraught relationship between Taiwan and China evolves remains to be seen.