The recent victory of the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Lai Ching-te in Taiwan’s presidential election has heightened tensions between China and Taiwan, renewing the debate on a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan. While most defense analysts do not perceive a war in the Taiwan Strait as imminent, some notable figures have often warned that China might be tempted to launch a military offensive against Taiwan anytime soon. A four-star U.S. Air Force general even suggested last year that Beijing might take military action against the island by 2025.
Undoubtedly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been relentless in its pursuit of control over Taiwan. Since the presidency of Beijing-skeptic Tsai Ing-Wen began in 2016, the Chinese state has employed a large-scale hybrid warfare campaign against Taipei to subvert Taiwan’s independence-leaning government. China’s hybrid warfare efforts have comprised isolating Taipei diplomatically, undermining public trust through propaganda and fake news, cyber-attacks, economic coercion, and military intimidation through air defense identification zone (ADIZ) incursions and large-scale military exercises.
Despite China’s prolonged hybrid warfare campaign, the pro-independence DPP’s candidate emerged victorious in the recent election. This victory prompts a reevaluation of China’s approach and raises questions about the potential for the escalation of hybrid warfare to a full-scale military operation. The fact that the Kremlin turned its protracted hybrid warfare campaign against Ukraine into a full-scale military operation on February 24, 2022, reveals that the hybrid model of warfare is not the sole element in the revisionist powers’ national security toolkit, and traditional warfare is here to stay.
On paper, Chinese hybrid warfare activities against Taiwan may also escalate to conventional military operations at any time in the future. To assess the likelihood of a military invasion of Taiwan by China, it is crucial to understand the four key factors that led Beijing to adopt the hybrid warfare approach over the past eight years and whether those factors remain relevant.
The first one is Taipei’s preference for the status quo. Beijing has long warned Taiwan that any attempt to declare formal independence from the mainland means war. Even though Taiwanese policymakers repeatedly asserted that Taiwan is already a sovereign and independent country and, thus, there is no need to proclaim independence, it is evident that they have refrained from making a formal declaration to avoid provoking Beijing. Due to Taipei’s hesitant position, China’s perception of the threat stemming from the Taiwanese independence movement has not reached the alarm threshold. Since the perceived threat has been significant but not vital, Beijing has preferred to employ the hybrid model of warfare, which falls somewhere between diplomacy and conventional warfare.
Taiwan’s new president-elect, Lai Ching-te, has frequently emphasized during the electoral campaign that he desires to maintain the status quo with the mainland and has offered dialogue with Beijing. Lai’s emphasis on maintaining the status quo suggests this factor will likely persist.
The second factor is the U.S. support for Taiwan. Although Washington cut off its diplomatic ties with Taipei in 1979, it continued to maintain a robust informal relationship with Taiwan and to sell weapons to its army in the decades that followed. Furthermore, during the previous decade, China’s rise to become the world’s second-largest economic and military power has been perceived as a significant threat to its global interests by the United States. As a result, it has sought to create alliances to restrict its role in Asia-Pacific. In that regard, Washington has seen Taiwan as an important strategic partner and often stated that it will protect Taiwan if China carries out an outright invasion campaign on the island. Therefore, direct military intervention in Taiwan could prompt Washington to impose serious sanctions on China. Moreover, it could spark an all-out war between China and the United States. As such, in recent years, China has prioritized hybrid warfare operations against the island to avoid Washington’s possible countermeasures. The United States has not altered its position regarding a possible Chinese invasion campaign over Taiwan. Indeed, recently, as tension from China intensified, Washington approved a $300 million sale of equipment to help Taiwan upgrade its tactical information systems.
The third factor involves China’s portrayal as a peaceful actor. Despite seemingly asserting a stance against the pursuit of regional or global hegemony and opposing the use of military force in international relations, China’s rapid economic growth raised concerns about potential dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. In response, Beijing introduced the ‘peaceful rise’ concept in the early 2000s to allay suspicions and assure the global community that its expanding political, economic, and military capabilities would not jeopardize international peace and security. This policy remains essential for China to sustain economic growth and enhance diplomatic influence globally.
An overt military operation against Taiwan would significantly damage China’s international image, as has been case with the Russian Federation. Hence, the Chinese leadership has opted for a hybrid warfare model to achieve political objectives concerning Taiwan, avoiding direct military confrontation. Ensuring China’s economic development still depends on its commitment to a peaceful rise, and there is no urgency for Beijing to veer away from the trajectory of peaceful development.
The fourth and last key factor is that occupying the island might not be that straightforward in military terms. Beijing has consistently modernized and enhanced its military forces over decades, making the People Liberation Army (PLA) currently possess the world’s largest active-duty military personnel. Despite this, undertaking a potential invasion of Taiwan poses significant challenges for China’s military. China has not fought a conventional war since the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. The absence of recent experience in conventional warfare has left the Chinese military without an opportunity to test its doctrine and capabilities. Additionally, a prospective Chinese invasion of Taiwan would require a large-scale amphibious warfare operation. However, currently, the PLA lacks the military capability and capacity to conduct a full-blown amphibious operation against Taiwan.
In conclusion, China’s reasons for adopting a hybrid warfare approach against Taiwan remain valid. Therefore, hybrid warfare operations still fit better into China’s cost-benefit calculus. China’s invasion of Taiwan seems unlikely in the short term. Instead, China would prefer to step up its hybrid warfare activities. The military aspects of China’s hybrid warfare operations may be more visible in the near future. Beijing may use maritime militias called ‘little blue men’ on a broader scale to harass and intimidate Taiwan.
One day, Taiwan might experience a fate similar to Ukraine. However, the timing of such a scenario will depend on evolving circumstances, including Beijing’s perceptions of the threat posed by the Taiwanese independence movement, Washington’s stance on the Taiwan issue, and China’s military and economic posture. Changes in these factors may either heighten the probability of an all-out invasion campaign or contribute to the maintenance of peace.
Tarik Solmaz is a Ph.D. Candidate and research assistant at the University of Exeter.