It’s what we’ve all been dreading for years, a massive military attack by an aggressive, repressive, authoritarian China. One minute, we’re peacefully going about our business in this free, democratic, and basically humane country, Taiwan. The next, life is turned upside down. Bombs are dropped and missiles launched, causing death and destruction to people, property – and maybe the entire Taiwan dream. It’s a nightmare scenario both for native-born Taiwanese and for expats who love their adopted home, like waking up to find that the monster has finally crawled out from under your bed.
Terrifying, yes. And also damned inconvenient. If China did attack, the internet would almost certainly be cut off, as well as much of the infrastructure we take for granted. Phone service, electricity, and even water services might be problematic. Food could soon run out, and access to medical services, fire fighters, the justice system, and banking all severely curtailed. Life as we had known it would be over, perhaps even literally over for people living too near a military target. Even those far from the battle zones would be seriously impacted.
But could an attack possibly happen? Will it actually happen? And if so, when and how?
Could it happen? Yes, it definitely could. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have consistently vowed to “re”-unify with Taiwan, by hook or by crook. China’s military build-up over the last few decades has been the largest peacetime military expansion in human history. And much of that enhanced capacity – such as the development of “carrier killer” hypersonic missiles – is based on being able to exclude the US and its regional allies from getting anywhere near Taiwan if the PLA decides to apply serious military pressure. PRC Chairman Xi Jinping – who is 69 years old – has said on several occasions that he wants to accomplish the “re”-unification with Taiwan within his lifetime. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine serves as a grim reminder that superpower politics can be very brutal indeed. Oh, yes it certainly could happen. Have no doubts on that score.
But will it? No one knows. It depends on a host of factors, including who’s running the show in Beijing, Washington DC, and Taipei. Will Xi get his 3rd term and thus likely be leader for life? Likely but not certain. Who will be the next US president? Will China hawks continue to prevail in the US State Department? Unknown. Will Taiwan finally harden its own defenses? Will the CCP accept some sort of compromise in talks with Taiwan? There are many opinions about all these things. But no clarity.
OK, so let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it does happen. When is the most likely time? And what is the most likely scenario for the attack? This is again unclear, but there are a few points most experts agree on.
Firstly, for an amphibious invasion, there are two main windows, October and April. In the winter, the winds in the Taiwan Strait are too rough for large-scale naval action. In the summer, there is the risk of typhoons. However, for missile and bombing attacks, there are no such limited time windows.
Secondly, there would most likely be a noticeable movement and buildup of forces and materiel in PLA bases near Taiwan in the months before any actual amphibious attack. US and allied satellites and other intelligence sources would notice this and probably publicize it in an attempt to pressure China into backing off.
Finally, given China’s political culture, there would need to be some sort of political pretext, a legitimization. It seems very unlikely that they would launch a surprise attack without a formal process being announced, such as a law passed in China, and the opportunity presented to Taiwan to enter formal negotiations (negotiated surrender) by a certain deadline.
Taken all together, these factors could amount to something like a six-month timeline from first clear warning sign to an actual amphibious invasion.
But let’s consider the full range of possibilities. Here are some hypothetical but (hopefully) realistic scenarios of Chinese military aggression against Taiwan:
Scenario 1: The minimalist approach. The PLA occupies Jinmen or Matsu islands, as well as Taiwan’s islands in the South China Sea, and maybe even the Penghu Islands. They also declare part or all of the Taiwan Strait a “no go” zone to foreign military shipping. This would probably be fairly easy for the PLA, and Taiwan would probably not want to overcommit to naval action against the huge PLA Navy (PLAN) if it didn’t directly approach the main island.
Scenario 2: Hybrid warfare. Some sort of partial naval and aerial blockade of Taiwan intended to interfere with the economy, combined with stepped-up harassment, such as direct flyovers of Taiwan’s territory by PLA Air Force (PLAAF) jets, or incursions into Taiwan’s maritime space by China’s naval militia, protected by PLAN warships. This might also be accompanied by cyberattacks designed to shut down the internet and other infrastructure for days at a time. Taiwan would have no choice to assert a stiff defensive posture, resulting in real engagements between Taiwanese and Chinese forces, posing a serious risk of escalation.
Scenario 3: A serious attack but no invasion. This would involve air and sea warfare only, no boots on the ground. A full aerial and naval blockade, a protracted set of naval and aerial battles designed to degrade Taiwan’s military, combined with ballistic missile attacks on military targets. Aggressive cyberattacks turning off the internet and shutting down critical infrastructure for days or weeks. Once air and naval superiority were established, China could pick off targets at will, ratcheting up the threat until the government breaks.
Scenario 4: The Full Monty – a proper invasion. Total air and sea blockade, massive ballistic missile attacks on military targets, massive cyberattacks to paralyze virtually all military, governmental, and civilian communication and shut down critical infrastructure. Aggressive naval and aerial engagements to degrade Taiwan’s forces and achieve battlespace superiority, followed by sustained aerial assaults by fighters and bombers on military targets. A decapitation strike at Taipei by special forces units to try to seize key leadership personnel. Well-coordinated insider treason and sabotage actions by gangsters, planted CCP agents, and other groups sympathetic to China – the so-called “5th column”. An amphibious assault with close air support from fighters, helicopters, and battle drones at one or more locations in Taiwan, and very possibly a move to seize a major port, such as Keelung, Taipei Port, Taichung, or Kaohsiung. Then hundreds of thousands of troops would start rolling in until the island was occupied. That would be the plan, anyway. PLA success in such an endeavor is very unclear. But they could do a hell of a lot of damage trying. And yes, they might actually succeed, at least partially, such as in seizing and holding the region around Taipei.
Scenario 5: Worst Case (short of nuclear) scenario. Full air and sea blockade, massive ballistic missile attacks on military targets, massive cyberattack, aggressive naval and aerial attacks to degrade Taiwan’s forces and achieve battlefield superiority, followed by aerial assaults by fighters and bomber on military targets and area bombing of civilian targets. There are massive casualties, and Taiwan is crushed by brute force, surrenders, and then the occupiers enter the country and take it over.
At the current moment, as far as I have read, China could probably accomplish any of these scenarios except for scenario 4. Scenario 5 is so extreme that it is unlikely to happen. Scenario 4 is the riskiest for China, as they would have to deal with an angry populace, the ROC forces on their home turf, in addition to the aforementioned long warning window. Scenarios 1 and 2 are most likely to stiffen Taiwan’s resolve and get it even more international support, without really giving China what it wants. So, my bet is that scenario 3 is the one we have to worry about. If and when the PLA can accomplish effective area denial to allied forces, it becomes even more likely.
Of course, no one really knows. There are so many complex and unpredictable factors. But one thing is clear: tension is building and building, and no one looks ready to back down. I really hope that “scenario 0, no war at all” is what happens, as do we all.
But if and when war does come to this Fair Isle, are you ready for it? For most of us expats, it’s not like we can just go to Uncle Chen’s farm in Nantou and wait things out. The fact is that – barring the scenario of being allowed to board a plane and fly “home” – foreign residents would be at a relative disadvantage in coping with such an event. Most expats lack the benefits of family and other people networks, proper language skills, and detailed cultural knowledge, that would aid local Taiwanese in a major crisis.
So, what would YOU do if the stores ran out of food and medicine, the water stopped flowing from your taps, the electricity was shut off, your phone and Internet were cut off, and fires and explosions started occurring around you? Got a plan?
Some people do, largely thanks to the invasion of Ukraine. In my next article, I’ve interviewed four different people for their unique takes on the possibility of war and how everyday citizens can prepare for it. These include South African film-maker Tobie Openshaw speaking about his elaborate yet efficient bug-out bags and bugger-off plans; Taiwanese computer consultant T.H. Schee, a member of Open Knowledge Taiwan, a group that is focusing this year on promoting public awareness of wartime disaster preparedness; the young and idealistic Australian Kameron James who has created a quasi-military organization called the Civil Guard to help protect citizens in the event of disasters such as a war; and Taiwanese police colonel known only as Leo, who offers insight into civil defense in Taiwan. So, stay tuned for part 2.
John Groot is the author of “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan”