The Chinese military has now or will soon have the ability to invade Taiwan, a U.S. government agency has concluded, documenting also failed attempts by China and the U.S. to better understand one another’s intentions.
The People’s Liberation Army, China’s name for its military, is capable of landing at least 25,000 troops on the island nation to establish an initial beachhead, according to the newly released annual report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressionally appointed agency designed to provide specific and nonpartisan national security and economic advice to Congress and the president.
“They’re giving all the signs this is an option they’re considering to be viable,” former Republican Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri, now a member of the commission, told reporters Wednesday morning following the release of this year’s report.
Further complicating existing U.S. efforts to deter China from seizing control of Taiwan by force are new tactics the PLA has employed that offset some of the U.S. military’s potency in the region. The report documents that the Chinese military has trained with barges, ferries and other civilian vessels to transport military troops across the Taiwan Straits or elsewhere – in addition to more conventional military transports.
“Given these deployments, it has become less certain that U.S. conventional military forces alone will continue to deter China’s leaders from initiating an attack on Taiwan,” the report concludes.
The new assessment comes at a particularly fraught time for Taiwan, a democracy formally recognized only by a shrinking number of minor nations. China, which has used economic and diplomatic pressure to isolate Taipei internationally, considers its government illegitimate and the island nothing more than a rogue territory of the mainland.
Concerns about military action have spiked in recent months following U.S. and Taiwanese assessments that a Chinese bid to retake control of the island by force could take place within years. China has also expressed outrage at growing U.S. willingness to acknowledge the presence of American military trainers in Taiwan.
Though the current U.S. administration policies focus on overtures to Beijing, President Joe Biden fueled Chinese paranoia of U.S. support for formal Taiwanese independence during remarks he made during a high-profile video summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday. Biden later clarified, “We are not encouraging independence” – in keeping with decades-old U.S.-China policy – but not before Chinese state media blasted the original comments as “a dangerous sign.”
Indeed, Xi himself warned Biden about Taiwan during their summit, which was otherwise largely seen as a productive step toward a more functional relationship following the bellicose approach of the Trump administration. Any intention of using Taiwan to contain China is “just like playing with fire,” Xi said of one of the Chinese Communist Party’s most sensitive issues. He added, “whoever plays with fire will get burnt.”
A growing chasm in understanding between Washington and Beijing also contributes to rising concern about Taiwan. This shortcoming is particularly troublesome among the Chinese military leaders that would carry out an assault on the island nation or oversee other activities that the U.S. and its partners could misconstrue as such – such as China’s recent aerial incursions near Taiwan’s airspace.
“Having worked with the Chinese military for many years, it’s not a high priority for the Chinese military to engage in de-escalation measures,” Roy Kamphausen with the National Bureau of Asian Research, and another member of the commission, also told reporters Monday when asked about the two countries’ ability to slow an accidental march to war. “They regard that as a political set of activities and the military avoids those actions unless they are within very tightly bounded parameters.”
“In the event of miscalculation,” he adds, “there’s much less autonomy at the tactical level for the Chinese military leaders to respond in de-escalatory ways.”
That shortfall produces a higher likelihood of escalation in the short term, Kamphausen adds, pointing out that China’s political leaders would need to intervene.
“These include the inherent uncertainty of a military confrontation with the United States, the extensive damage that would likely result to the Chinese economy, and the risk that an attack on Taiwan could prompt the formation of a coalition of countries determined to constrain any further growth in China’s power and influence,” it states.
The U.S.-China commission recommended in its latest report that the U.S. enhance its deterrent capabilities in the region, including making it easier for Taiwan to buy military equipment that could contribute to its self defense and to move more U.S. military resources into the region to ensure their survivability in the case of conflict with China.
Yet despite recent bellicose rhetoric toward Taiwan, China’s commitment to a forceful reunification of the island remains unclear. Its political leadership ultimately would make a decision to invade, not its military, and it faces substantial constraints on its ability to wield that force, the commission’s report concludes.