China military watch

As tensions rise over China’s recent aggressive air patrolling across the Taiwan Strait, and concern mounts that Beijing may stage a provocation to coerce Taipei and test the mettle of President Joe Biden and his administration, how might the Chinese government employ the People’s Liberation Army in a crisis involving Taiwan?

Would China move decisively to a full-scale invasion, while relying on its anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities to raise the cost of US intervention to unacceptable levels? The goal would be to present a fait accompli to Washington and prevent US military intervention by threatening unacceptable losses.

Alternatively, might China use a coercive strategy of graduated increases in military pressure with the aim of forcing the government of Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei to bend to China’s demand for unification with the mainland on Beijing’s terms? That could involve a series of limited operations: seizure of Taiwan’s offshore islands, such as Kinmen and Matsu, as well as Itu Aba and Pratas islands in the South China Sea; a naval and air blockade around Taiwan; an air and missile campaign; and offensive cyber operations against Taiwan’s critical infrastructure.

But those aren’t the only options. If China decided on a more graduated path of escalating pressure, it might seek to use military force in the grey zone first, below a level that would automatically generate a US military response but strong enough to test the resolve of the Biden administration, while exploiting the deterrent potential of A2/AD to insure against any US intervention.

Facing such Chinese actions, Biden would need to consider whether intervention, perhaps in response to a Chinese landing on Pratas Island in the South China Sea or large-scale cyberattacks on Taiwan’s critical information infrastructure, would be worth the potential cost in lives lost, ships sunk and bases destroyed. China might be betting that Biden wouldn’t risk a major military crisis, with huge potential for rapid escalation, over a limited action by the PLA.

Yet, any failure by the US to intervene might encourage Beijing to push further by grabbing a more significant territory such as Kinmen or Matsu while imposing an air and naval blockade on Taiwan. A graduated campaign of escalation would ensure that China maintains the initiative. It would be matched by coercive economic and political pressure on China’s neighbours, and even US allies such as Australia, not to support any US military response. The use of ‘sharp power’ would coincide with the use of hard power in the form of military force directly against Taiwan’s interests.

So, when might Xi Jinping issue an order to the Central Military Commission and China’s political warfare agencies to launch a campaign of graduated escalation? According to a recent China Matters policy brief by Linda Jakobson, the Chinese Communist Party promulgated a policy in January that might offer us a hint. Jakobson noted that the Plan to build the rule of law in China (2020–2025) openly calls for ‘advancing the process of unification under the “One Country, Two Systems plan for Taiwan”.’ She argues that Beijing will rely on grey-zone tactics or the measures it used to absorb Hong Kong via the national security law. That said, the period between now and 2025 is likely to be one of heightened strategic danger.

With that five-year period in mind, it’s worth noting that there only so many times of the year in which China could reasonably conduct large-scale military operations against Taiwan. As Ian Easton of the Project 2049 Institute has noted, conditions in the Taiwan Strait are only suitable for PLA amphibious operations between March and May, and April would be the best time of year to launch an invasion. We can thus expect the US military to be at heightened levels of readiness between March and May from now through to 2025.

That said, there are reasons to doubt that the PLA will be prepared to launch an amphibious assault against Taiwan in the next five years. For instance, the PLA has serious doubts about its ability to think through, train for and launch complex naval operations. A recent article in the PLA Daily quoted the results of a meeting on naval operations held by the PLA Navy’s submarine training centre (海军某潜艇支队训练中心) in which the participants claimed that ‘research into maritime tactics isn’t deep and lacks [insight into] methods of tactical command’.

Another finding of the meeting was that the PLAN was overly risk-averse and that ‘battlefield training gives much consideration to safety, but gives little consideration to the enemy’s circumstances’. Senior PLAN leaders clearly believe that the fleet isn’t capable of planning for the myriad contingencies that could eventuate during a naval operation as complex as an amphibious assault. To meet Xi’s ambitious timetable, it’s likely that the CCP will be placing serious pressure on the PLAN to resolve those issues as soon as practicable.

Ultimately, the PLA’s doubts about its own combat capability might not be enough to dissuade Xi’s Central Military Commission from taking some sort of coercive action against Taiwan. Recent reports from Reuters and from Wen Li on 9 Dash Line have shown that China is mounting various grey-zone operations, such as land reclamation and the proposed construction of water, electricity and gas pipelines near Kinmen and Matsu.

Further actions geared towards Beijing assuming administrative control over those islands are to be expected before 2025. Beijing probably has the capability to launch a Scarborough Shoal–type annexation of Kinmen and Matsu in the near term. And, given that control of those islands would be a prerequisite for a successful amphibious assault on Taiwan, it appears likely that Beijing may seek to seize control of them before 2025.

Key events in Taiwan also need to be considered, as they could well alter Beijing’s strategy and timeline for any coercive measures against Taiwan. For instance, Taiwan will hold its nine-in-one local government elections in 2022, followed by a presidential election in 2024. Beijing could try to capitalise on Taiwan being preoccupied with its domestic politics and calculate that further grey-zone or military operations would have a higher probability of success. Those are contingencies that the Biden administration will need to think through carefully.