A coming crisis over Taiwan is now popularly treated as a foregone conclusion. China is increasing its military budget, expanding its fleet, and securing regional allies, all the while saber-rattling over its small democratic neighbor. But uncertainty still underpins the thinking of policy makers in the U.S. and its allies — a conflict is coming, yes, but when and how? And what could be done to avert it?
Time is not necessarily on Beijing’s side, and the Chinese Communist Party knows this. The diplomatic avenue to integrating Taiwan is shut, likely forever. Such an approach was perhaps most plausible in the 2000s and early 2010s, when the China-sympathetic Kuomintang (KMT) dominated Taiwanese politics and when China’s “reform and opening up” seemed to be developing apace. Since then, however, Taiwanese civic identity has grown, and the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party has decisively supplanted the KMT in Taiwan’s politics. The CCP may speak of working with “compatriots in Taiwan” toward reunification, but the reality is that the party’s friends on the island are now few and dwindling.
The economic route to integration looks similarly implausible. Although China remains Taiwan’s largest trading partner, trade has fallen as a proportion of gross domestic product. Taipei is also well aware of the fact that its economic ties to the mainland pose a security risk, and it has created headlines (and much consternation in Beijing) with its very public efforts to seek closer trade relations with the U.S. instead. As with the diplomatic route, the longer that China waits, the worse odds it will have for dominating Taiwan without bloodshed.
Hence, as both sides of the conflict over Taiwan have by now understood, any communist takeover of Taiwan will have to be achieved through force. Knowing this, one pivotal question remains: when does China believe it will be most advantageous to begin a war over Taiwan?
Some geostrategists argue that the danger is imminent and will never be greater than it is now. A case to that effect is made in the recent book Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China by Michael Beckley and Hal Brands, two American professors of geopolitics. The central contention of the book is that China’s hard power already peaked in the 2010s, alongside its working-age population, and that its coming decades will be a story of decline, not domination. Feeling that its prospects are dimming, the authors argue, Beijing will make increasingly risky and reckless moves on the world stage — up to, and including, attacking Taiwan.
There are certainly credible grounds on which to distrust the dominant growth narrative. The country’s official population figures don’t quite add up, according to some researchers; neither does its official GDP growth rate. If China is in fact ready for a fall, its current property-market meltdown provides the perfect straw to break the camel’s back. Japan’s downfall three decades ago occurred in very similar circumstances, led by a downturn in inflated asset markets.
Prominent figures in Washington have endorsed the imminent danger narrative. In mid-October, Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that Beijing was shifting to a “much faster timeline” for seizing Taiwan. Two days later, Blinken’s remarks were followed by a much more explicit warning from Admiral Michael Gilday, head of the U.S. Navy, that America would have to be prepared for “potentially a 2023 window” for a Taiwan crisis.
Despite the warnings, however, China does not appear to be changing its posture to one of imminent war. President Xi Jinping’s remarks at the most recent National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party reaffirmed China’s commitment to seizing Taiwan but seemed to indicate no greater urgency than in previous years.
Militarily, if not diplomatically, time could indeed be on China’s side. The country currently spends a modest sum on its armed forces, at 1.7 percent of its GDP compared to America’s 3.7 percent. Compare either of these figures with the late Soviet Union, which was able to sustain a military budget equal to about 15 percent of its GDP for decades before its eventual collapse. In other words, the People’s Liberation Army has a lot of room to grow if political pressures require it to do so. The fact that China has made no indication of a plan to increase its relative military spending cuts against the idea that Beijing is becoming desperate.
Nonetheless, Beckley and Brands are correct in identifying the severity of the country’s demographic situation. A dearth of young people will constrain the growth of its economy and military in the coming decades. The furious rate at which Chinese manufacturers are installing robots could ward off an economic decline, but, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated, a preponderance of hardware cannot always compensate for a lack of manpower when it comes to war.
There is also the fact that Taiwan itself is far from militarily negligible. The Taiwanese armed forces are currently in poor shape, but so was Ukraine’s army in 2014. Putin’s invasion, and the redoubled attention on the Pacific by both China and the U.S., may serve to stir Taipei out of complacency. Taiwan has increased its pace of arms imports from America. It may eventually expand its compulsory military-service program — long considered a political impossibility but now looking increasingly like a necessity. While the gross strength of the Taiwanese army may never match that of its neighbor, it still possesses hundreds of tanks and combat aircraft and thousands of artillery pieces, and this may already be sufficient to repel whatever fraction of army forces that China could actually transport across the strait. The longer that Beijing waits, the more that Taiwan’s capabilities will grow and the more costly any eventual war will become.
The aforementioned economic, diplomatic, and military constraints mean that China cannot afford to wait forever. But neither can it afford to be hasty. Beijing does not want a war — it much prefers to influence other countries through economic means — and especially not a war with the United States.
War between China and the U.S., even of the likely non-nuclear kind, would be one of the most economically destructive events in modern history. Some estimates suggest that the sanctions alone would directly cause 7.6 percent of China’s GDP to disappear, nearly double the economic contraction experienced by America during the Great Recession. Of course, China would also lose the ability to import vital materials and components from the West, destroying many of its domestic supply chains. Even an eventual Chinese victory could cause permanent economic damage, as international firms would shift their manufacturing to safer shores. And that is assuming victory: a defeat would be grounds for regime change, given that the CCP’s legitimacy is rooted in restoring China’s regional hegemony.
This threat of American intervention means that, despite seemingly close calls like this year’s simulated Chinese blockade of Taiwan, the threat of war is still minimal for the next few years. What China will instead seek to do throughout the 2020s is to erode America’s military and economic leverage, to the point where direct U.S. intervention on Taiwan’s behalf becomes implausible and indirect intervention becomes ineffective.
On the economic front, China seeks to immunize itself against sanctions by stockpiling resources, keeping critical manufacturing at home, pushing for a consumer-driven economy that is less vulnerable to trade disputes, and securing alternate means of buying and selling goods. When the first China–Russia railway bridge opened earlier this year in the midst of the Ukraine war, it was cited as a means by which China could indirectly support Russia’s war effort by increasing trade and alleviating its sanctions burden. But Beijing’s primary interest lies in keeping its trade options open, as was evidenced when it signed a deal last month for another railroad with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, this time bypassing Russia. The CCP seeks a position of strength in which any trade war would result in more damage to the U.S. and its allies than to China.
Then there is the military. Here, China’s intentions are unambiguous; the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is currently deploying new ships equivalent to a European great power navy every year. This buildup is obviously not meant for Taiwan, which possesses a tiny navy composed almost entirely of coastal defense ships. Instead, the scale of the buildup, combined with the continued emphasis on large numbers of relatively small missile ships, has long been recognized as a challenge to the U.S. Navy. Specifically, China has built its navy to counter the U.S. Navy’s carrier group doctrine, with the premise that capital ships such as aircraft carriers can be safely taken out at extreme range using massed missile strikes. This does not mean, however, that Beijing is itching to try out its weapons on live targets. The primary intention is, again, to change the U.S. military’s cost-benefit analysis over any hypothetical Taiwan intervention — to encourage a passive and cautious response from America, or, even better, no response at all.
If a date is to be placed on a Taiwan war, it is likely to be when China has achieved the goals outlined above and, therefore, believes that the risk of American involvement is sufficiently low or manageable. When might this be? A good starting point is Xi’s own proposed deadline: 2027, according to testimony provided last year by the U.S. admiral Phil Davidson. According to Davidson, this is the year by which Xi wants the Chinese military to possess “the capability and the capacity to forcibly reunify with Taiwan, should they choose force to do it.” Implied in this forcible reunion is, of course, the Chinese navy’s being able to go toe to toe with the U.S. Navy.
Given the current trajectory of the Chinese naval buildup, 2027 may indeed prove to be a pivotal year. Between 2014 and 2018, the PLAN deployed about 678,000 tons’ worth of ships; by 2019, it possessed a total tonnage of about 1.8 million, compared to the U.S. Navy’s 4.6 million tons. Assuming the PLAN’s current rate of buildup continues, 2027 could see it reach around 2.5 million tons. This would put it roughly on par with the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which comprises anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of the Navy’s total deployed assets.
But keep in mind that China wants to fight Taiwan, not the United States. Merely being on par with U.S. Navy tonnage is unlikely to be of sufficient assurance, particularly given American superiority in actual naval-warfare experience and most (though not all) areas of naval technology. The year 2027 might be when the PLAN reaches viable, but not optimal, capability for a Taiwan war.
The U.S. is willing to go to war with China over Taiwan, and China knows it.
What is more likely is that China will wait a while longer, probably until the early 2030s. By this time, a few key pieces will have fallen into place. The PLAN could be displacing up to four million tons, easily larger than any fleet that the U.S. Navy would be able to sustain on the other side of the Pacific. It is also during this time that the size of the U.S. Navy will reach a low ebb as it decommissions old ships at a faster rate than it can deploy new ones. (The PLAN, having much newer ships on average, will not face this issue for a couple more decades.)
If the CCP’s plans come to fruition, China could dominate key technological sectors like semiconductors by 2030, making economic warfare a less sustainable option for the United States. The early 2030s could also see China’s household consumption as a percentage of GDP rise to 50 percent, up from around 35 percent now. This reduced reliance on trade would make it all the more difficult for the international community to impose consequences over a Taiwan war.
Any delay past the early 2030s would begin to cause problems for Beijing. China’s population is expected to enter into decline around that time; the government will have trouble sustaining the size of the military with a shrinking pool of young people to recruit from, and it will be politically distracted by tens of millions of elderly Chinese entering retirement and facing a weak pension system. The PLAN will also begin to experience the same problems with aging ships that the U.S. Navy currently has, while the latter by that point may have cleared out its obsolete assets and begun expanding again.
There is also, as aforementioned, the fact that Taiwan’s movement toward cultural, political, and economic independence will continue apace. The 2040s and 2050s will see the centennials of the Second World War and the Chinese Civil War; by that point, the CCP’s continued clinging to historical territorial claims will seem increasingly unjustified even to its allies.
Therefore, if an invasion of Taiwan is to happen sometime this century, the early 2030s would appear to be the most opportune time for Beijing to strike.
Provided that this is true, how should the U.S. prepare itself and its allies? A lot hinges on what Washington actually wants. For decades, the American policy of “strategic ambiguity” — that is, of being intentionally vague about whether the U.S. would militarily intervene to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion — has been ironclad in Washington. But since America’s “pivot to Asia,” begun by Barack Obama and continued by his successors, the American position on Taiwan has started to become less ambiguous. Last year, President Joe Biden seemingly blundered when he declared that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if the latter were attacked; the White House quickly walked back his comments. Last month, in an interview with CBS, he stated again that the U.S. would assist Taiwan, only for the White House to once again retract his comments on his behalf.
Such discordant messaging could perhaps be attributed to Biden’s senility. But the American position on Taiwan is by this point barely even an open secret, and it is likely that Biden was simply repeating what his own military staffers had told him. The U.S. is willing to go to war with China over Taiwan, and China knows it. The only real question is the extent and duration to which the U.S. would be willing to commit to such a conflict.
Keeping China guessing as to the degree of U.S. involvement has worked to deter aggression for decades. Yet such a strategy only works if China genuinely fears total commitment from the U.S., in the form of the might of its Navy and all of its sea and air assets. If Beijing feels that the upper limit of U.S. conventional capability no longer represents an existential threat, then strategic ambiguity loses its utility, and Biden’s unambiguous threats lose their bite.
If the Biden administration wishes to commit to Taiwan’s defense, it must be able to back up words with actions. The “capability gap” between obligations and actual military strength will begin to show itself in the coming years. The Chinese Communist Party knows that the current budget for the U.S. Navy would see it shrink by eighteen ships in the next five years, all while the PLAN is aggressively expanding. Unless Biden commits to keeping the U.S. Navy on pace with the PLAN’s growth into the 2030s, his current rhetoric is reckless, and he would be better off saying nothing at all.
John Jiang is an alumnus of The American Spectator’s Young Writers Program.