Xi Jinping wants to take Taiwan and would if he could, but he lacks confidence in the PLA.
What worries Xi Jinping (XJP) most about Taiwan? He is worried that Taiwan will not become part of the PRC because:
1. “Peaceful means”: The peaceful takeover of Taiwan by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) charm offensive is not working. Taiwanese do not want to be under CCP control, and Taiwan polling trends are increasingly desiring “status quo” or towards independence, currently over 86% as of June 2023.
2. “Non-peaceful means” (war): Taiwan’s military is improving its lethality due to direct US military training conducted for the first time since 1979 because of the US 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
3. Additional US weapons due to concerns about the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) aggressive actions.
4. Lessons learned from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Note: One of the reasons that Russia failed in taking Ukraine is directly due to the lethal training approved by President Trump in 2017. Xi must stop this trend otherwise war with Taiwan will be increasingly risky.
What can he do to get the US to stop the lethal training? He needs to create leverage. By ordering the PLA to take an island(s), he can make the cessation of US military training a pre-condition for negotiations. He also might try to use this leverage to reduce or stop future weapons sales and transfers.
Five key indicators (timing, Xi’s statements, new laws, missing leaders, military indicators) point to XJP ordering the PLA to conduct a military operation to demonstrate that the PLA is competent and capable. Without this military demonstration, XJP will be forced to take a higher risk in a future invasion or blockade of Taiwan. Considering Russia’s failure in their invasion of Ukraine, XJP will not take a chance of increasing the risk of failure.
The most likely time for this military operation to occur is mid-August after Taiwan’s Vice President William Lai (and Presidential candidate) transits through the United States (12-18 August) on his way to Paraguay’s Presidential inauguration on 15 August. Instead of conducting another military exercise (as was done in August 2022 as a result of former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and President Tsai Ing-Wen’s meeting with Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy in California in April 2023) the PLA could use the cover (deception) of another military exercise to take a small Taiwanese island. Deception is a core concept in the CCP and in the PLA and as demonstrated by Mao who stated in his speech from On Protracted War: “There can never be too much deception in war.”
MOST LIKELY COURSE OF ACTION
The most likely candidate is Pratas (Dongsha) Island which is 315 kilometers (170 nautical miles) southeast of Hong Kong, and 450 kilometers (240 nautical miles) away from Kaohsiung, Taiwan. F
XJP wants to take Taiwan and would if he could, but he lacks confidence in the PLA. Conducting an invasion of Taiwan has the highest level of risk and is the most dangerous course of action (COA) he has regarding Taiwan.
XI DOESN’T TRUST THE PLA TO BE CAPABLE OF TAKING TAIWAN
XJP’s power over and confidence in the PLA has been rattled by recent arrests and investigations. As Prof Madhav Nalapat noted in his recent brilliant analysis in The Sunday Guardian regarding the former Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang that “if Qin Gang has truly been disgraced, that may be an indication that Xi’s absolute grip on the CCP is under challenge.” Besides Qin Gang’s fall from grace, the following indicate internal challenges:
* PLA: ROCKET FORCES (PLARF) LEADERSHIP
Four senior PLARF leaders died or were sacked:
# Wu Guoua, the deputy commander of the PLARF died by suicide on 6 June 2023—the same day that XJP conducted an inspection of the Eastern Theater Command.
# Li Yuchao, commander of the rocket force, was taken away for an investigation on June 27.
# Former deputy commander of the rocket force Zhang Zhenhong is under investigation.
# Liu Guangbin, deputy commander of the rocket force is facing investigations.
* PLA: SPACE AND STRATEGIC SUPPORT FORCE (SSF)
Shang Hong, the deputy commander of the SSF and commander of the Space Force, is facing investigations.
XJP wants to stop the US from training the ROC military. He must test PLA’s capabilities prior to an invasion of Taiwan.
BLOCKADE OF TAIWAN
A choice that has slightly less risk than an all-out invasion of Taiwan could be a full blockade, but the military action which will still draw the US and allies to assist Taiwan. The PLA is also not ready to conduct this kind of operation either and cannot guarantee success for XJP.
LIMITED ISLAND CAMPAIGN
Since he does not have confidence in the PLA, he will want them to prove they are capable before he goes for the full “Monty.” Therefore, a limited island campaign or a Joint Island Landing Campaign (JILC), according to PLA doctrine, is a campaign designed to “seize and occupy a whole island or important target.” The JILC has the least risk for a military operation, and he can claim success even if the PLA takes only one small island. He will most likely want to take at least one island in the so-called “South China Sea” (I prefer to call it the South East Asian Sea [SEAS]), primarily Pratas in the northern mouth of the SEAS. F
Medium Risk: Increasing his risk, he might also direct the PLA to take and/or blockade some or many of the islands close to China (Matsu, Kinmen, and Wuqiu island clusters) with a medium level of risk. F
Highest level of risk for the JILC: The PLA could take the closer-in islands to Taiwan such as Green and Orchid islands F , but these would have the highest risk under the JILC due to their proximity to Taiwan’s military forces. Based on history (the US-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty did not cover any of these islands), no country will likely support ROC militarily in defending these outer islands.
Strategically, the island campaign will provide more control for PLA forces around Taiwan; it probably will cause some nearby countries to make some compromise agreements with the PRC due to their fear of the CCP, and the PRC will continue to demonstrate that they are a rising force in the region and the US is weak. These countries could also become anti-PRC which is the preferred response.
In addition to XJP’s JILC, he might later impose a blockade around the islands that the PLA took and prevent any interference from the US and others that might try to interfere. Most likely, the US and other allies will do little in economic terms against the PRC since it will hurt themselves and they are already boycotting Russia. The CCP expects a similar reaction to the Russia 2014 Ukraine war.
Therefore, the most likely COA XJP will choose is to focus on an easy PLA win and to test the PLA’s capabilities and capacities to conduct a war against a limited objective. Considering the embarrassment of PLA UN troops in South Sudan (Battle of Juba) in 2016 and the fighting along the China (Tibet)-India border (2020-2021), he currently does not have confidence in their abilities and will need proof. A small JILC would address his concerns with limited risk. All of these options will challenge the Taiwanese government.
For those that say the XJP would not do such an action because it will strengthen Taiwan’s resolve against China, I agree. But this assumes that XJP doesn’t make mistakes. He has made plenty and many countries in the Indo-Pacific region have woken up to the CCP threat.
Taiwan, the US, Japan, the Philippines, India, South Korea, Australia, and other allies and partners of Taiwan should prepare accordingly. I hope this scenario does not occur, but it is better to be prepared than to be surprised or as an Indian proverb says:
“We can’t change the direction of the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”
Guermantes Lailari is Visiting Scholar at National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan (ROC).