With William Lai — who China views as pro-independence — set to become Taiwan’s next president, the question of a Chinese invasion of the self-governed island has re-emerged as one of the key security questions of 2024 for both Taipei and Washington.
A Center for Strategic and International Studies report released Monday found that three quarters of the U.S.- and Taiwan-based experts it surveyed, including former officials and academics, did not think China has the military capacity to invade Taiwan in 2024. Taiwanese respondents were less likely than their American counterparts to think China was capable of immediate invasion, but were also less confident that the U.S. would defend the island.
But both groups agreed that a “crisis” like a blockade or quarantine was more likely this year given another presidential administration opposed to reunification.
China is using invasion propaganda to boost morale after military reshuffle
China has been restructuring its military over the last year, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping most recently purging Defense Minister Li Shangfu as part of an alleged anti-corruption campaign. Experts told the Washington Post that the changes are meant to solidify Xi’s strategic ambitions in the South China Sea, worrying some military analysts that Chinese military leadership is now in agreement about a Taiwan invasion. But Taiwanese experts believe that a proliferation of recent Chinese propaganda promoting an invasion — and increased military drills near Taiwan — are to boost “military morale" after the “turmoil” over Li’s sacking, Taiwan’s TVBS news reported. Li was reportedly popular among the ranks, and Xi had to “keep soldiers busy at their posts” while finding new military leaders, according to the station.
Chinese troops have little combat experience and are up against Taiwan’s geography
China’s 2.2 million troops have little to zero combat experience. The last time they fought in battle was when China had a border skirmish with Vietnam in 1979, China reporter Josh Chin said on The Wall Street Journal’s What’s News podcast. “Experience matters,” he said, explaining that while the military is equipped with state-of-the art technology such as aircraft carriers, Beijing has only used them for peacekeeping operations. Taiwan’s coastal terrain is also a “defender’s dream come true,” according to the Diplomat. The strait’s rough waters mean that Beijing only has a few opportunities during the year to initiate a full-scale invasion, giving the U.S. and its allies ample time to prepare. Thick jungles and tall mountains surround the few suitable docking points on the island, providing Taiwan even more protection.
Taipei has outdated military deterrence plans
Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party lacks many military commanders who advocate asymmetrical warfare and a “porcupine strategy:” deterring Beijing with a smaller stockpile of more effective weapons. Security officials within the party have historically called for reinforcing the island with big tanks, submarines, and fighter jets that “Washington thinks Taiwan doesn’t need,” according to Foreign Policy. Incoming President William Lai must also convince young people “who are more concerned with trying to pay their bills than preparing for war,” that an invasion threat is real and they are the first line of defense, according to FP. To “win Washington’s trust” and ensure the U.S. would send military reinforcements during an invasion, Lai must also convince the White House that he will not pursue a “more radical cross-strait approach” and purposely provoke Beijing, according to security analysis site War on the Rocks.