When might China invade Taiwan? Depends who you ask

U.S. military leaders can’t seem to agree on a timeline for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Alex Willemyns for RFA
2023.01.30
Washington
When might China invade Taiwan? Depends who you ask Chinese tank crew members salute during a 2019 parade in Beijing.
Associated Press

When will China invade Taiwan?

Probably by 2027, if you believe Adm. Philip Davidson, the now-retired head of the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command.

“The threat is manifest during this decade – in fact, in the next six years,” Davidson told a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in March 2021, before he retired from the role.

“I cannot for the life of me understand some of the capabilities that they’re putting in the field, unless ... it is an aggressive posture,” he added, noting Taiwan was key to Beijing’s plans to “supplant the United States and our leadership role” in the world order.

Davidson reiterated his 2027 guess last week, noting Chinese President Xi Jinping could by then be seeking a fourth term in office, and could put the country on war-footing as he seeks legitimacy.

But it could be even sooner – like in 2025, according to U.S. Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, who caused a stir last week with a memo directing his 50,000 subordinates to “aim for the head” in the war.

“I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025,” wrote Minihan, who heads the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command and is responsible for transport and refueling operations.

“Taiwan’s presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a reason. United States presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a distracted America,” he said in the leaked memo. “Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025.”

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The Pentagon distanced itself from Minihan’s comments. But not everyone disagreed: Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House foreign relations committee, said he only hoped Minihan was wrong. “I think he’s right, though, unfortunately,” he said.

Even 2025 might be too optimistic, though, if you ask Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of U.S. naval operations, who reckons even later this year cannot be ruled out, given “how the Chinese behave.”

“What we’ve seen over the past 20 years is that they have delivered on every promise they’ve made earlier than they said they were going to deliver on it,” Gilday said at an Atlantic Council event Oct. 5. “When we talk about the 2027 window, in my mind, that has to be a 2022 window or potentially a 2023 window; I can’t rule it out.”

2023, 2025 or 2027 

So why are there so many different estimates?

Jeffrey Meiser, professor of political science at the University of Portland and former associate professor at the National Defense University in Washington, said military leaders had a clear incentive to predict things “that will increase the readiness of U.S. forces.”

“Saying you think it is going to happen in a specific year adds credence to the prediction and gets people’s attention much more than saying it will happen in the next five or ten years,” Meiser said, adding there was a perverse incentive when prognosticating.

“Bad predictions are so common that they are forgotten quickly,” he explained. “Good predictions are less common and if you get something big correct, like war with China, then that will likely get a lot of attention, and in the context of generals making these predictions they may go down as prescient, having special insight, and maybe even be credited with saving the republic.”

But Meiser said it was all, in the end, mostly performative. 

“Nobody knows when or if China will invade Taiwan,” he said.

Still, Xi has never minced words when it comes to Taiwan.

At the 20th Communist Party National Congress in October, shortly before he was appointed to a norm-bending third term as president, Xi vowed that Beijing would “never promise to renounce the use of force” to take over Taiwan and return it to mainland control.

“Resolving the Taiwan question is a matter for the Chinese, a matter that must be resolved by the Chinese,” Xi said. “We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.”

Military restraint

The threat is being taken seriously by the Department of Defense, which outlined four scenarios for an invasion in its China Military Power Report late last year, without offering any timeline.

A separate report from the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies based on a wargame it ran concluded that any Chinese invasion of the democratic island would likely fail and cause extensive economic damage to all those involved.

But Xi’s rhetoric has not gone unnoticed by American officials, even outside the military. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last year said Beijing was seeking to take Taiwan “on a much faster timeline” and could use “forceful means to achieve its objectives.” 

“Instead of sticking with the status quo that was established in a positive way,” Blinken said, “a fundamental decision [was made] that the status quo was no longer acceptable and that Beijing was determined to pursue reunification on a much faster timeline.”

In fact, one of the few officials with some pause is the top U.S. general himself: Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who says he didn’t see an invasion as imminent given the lessons of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion.

“He’s a rational actor,” he said of Xi in November. “It would be a political mistake, a geopolitical mistake, a strategic mistake similar to the strategic mistake that Putin has made in Ukraine.”

Milley explained that the U.S. military was watching the Chinese military’s build-up of capabilities “very, very closely” and that Beijing would likely be aware that it was far from ready to take Taiwan. 

“Most of Taiwan is a mountainous island,” he said. “It's a very, very difficult military objective [to invade] – a very difficult military operation to execute, and I think it'll be some time before the Chinese have the military capability and they're ready to do it.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, too, has made clear he does not believe Beijing has immediate plans to launch an invasion.

“I’ve met many times with Xi Jinping, and we were candid and clear with one another across the board,” Austin said during the G-20 leaders’ meeting in Bali, Indonesia on Nov. 14. “I do not think there’s any imminent attempt on the part of China to invade Taiwan.”

Incalculable but inevitable?

But experts around the world agree Xi’s eyes are on Taiwan.

The Mandarin-speaking former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who is due to take up duties as ambassador in Washington next month, in a recent speech dismissed the idea that Xi had “shelved” long-term plans to take control of Taiwan.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Rudd said.

“China still remains on track to enhance its military preparedness, as well as its financial, economic and technological preparedness, to take action against Taiwan from sometime in the late 2020s or in the 2030s – when Xi, of course, still aims to be in power,” he said.

But while that day may come, the different estimates for the date of the invasion from U.S. military leaders, in the meantime, are not helping with readiness, said Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS, during a call with reporters on Monday.

“What we're effectively signaling is we have no idea – and I'm not sure we understand how damaging that is,” Blanchette said.

“Having this menu option of various years, depending on the official you’re talking to,” he added, “comes across as undermining the credibility of our statements in our assessments.”

“We're basically the boy who cried wolf.”

Whatever the case, one thing is clear: A Chinese invasion of the self-governing island would clash with U.S. commitments under the  1979 Taiwan Relations Act to “resist any resort to force” that jeopardizes Taiwan’s security. That commitment, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price has said, is “rock solid.”

When – or if – that happens, though, is anyone’s guess.

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