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All-In: An invasion of Taiwan would be a huge gamble for Xi’s China

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

International Affairs Analyst

PLA Soldiers in 2007 - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Over the past decade, the Asia-Pacific region has seen itself become subject to escalating tension between both the mainland Chinese government, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the Taiwanese government, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC). In recent years, the PRC has escalated these tensions as part of their “One China” policy, and as an effort to assert themselves in the Pacific region. With the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, many analysts and pundits have treated a Chinese invasion of Taiwan as an inevitable conflict unfolding in the Pacific. While the international community should certainly take seriously the threat of the PRC annexing the island of Taiwan, any reasonable analysis should conclude that such an invasion is only, at least for the time being, an unlikely possibility. China is, arguably, in a vastly more vulnerable spot than Russia, and if anything, the war in Ukraine should show why such a military annexation remains highly unlikely in the near-term.

The first question worth addressing is whether China even possesses the military capability to annex Taiwan. In order to successfully invade a nation like Taiwan, China would be required to pull off an amphibious assault, with a navy powerful and experienced enough to secure the Taiwan Straits, shuttle troops, and provide cover to those troops once they make their landing. While China has certainly made impressive strides in their military strength, some perspective is needed when discussing their capabilities.

Firstly, the undertaking of an amphibious invasion is, by its very nature, an extremely complex and high-risk military operation. The Taiwan Strait, despite its relatively narrow width, presents a significant geographic challenge. It is notorious for its rough seas and unfavourable weather conditions, which could hinder an invasion attempt. Moreover, the task of transporting tens of thousands of troops, along with their necessary equipment, across the strait and establishing a beachhead in Taiwan is a logistic endeavour of massive proportions. At no point in Chinese military history has there been any attempt at an amphibious assault, and an invasion of Taiwan would require the largest one in recorded history.

Secondly, Taiwan has been preparing for the potential of Chinese aggression for decades, with the country's entire military strategy centred around a defensive war of attrition. The island has significant fortifications along its coastline and has invested heavily in asymmetric warfare capabilities aimed at deterring an invasion. This includes anti-ship and anti-aircraft systems, as well as a well-trained reserve force that could offer considerable resistance. The urban warfare that might ensue in Taiwan's cities would also likely prove costly for an invading force. While the Chinese military has certainly grown more advanced in recent years, it still lacks substantial real-world combat experience. This is particularly relevant in the case of a highly complex military operation such as an invasion of Taiwan, where theoretical training and preparation might fall short of the unpredictable realities of combat.

Many have used Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as proof that China could invade Taiwan. However, the inverse argument can be made: because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China is now less likely to invade Taiwan. One of the key miscalculations made by the Russian government was their expectation that the international community would essentially roll over, providing little to no resistance. Quite the opposite has happened. Russia has been hit with crippling economic sanctions, an international shipping insurance ban, and Western boycotts, all of which will prove disastrous to Russia’s economic future for decades to come. For China, similar sanctions could prove to be much more costly.

One can easily make a large number of criticisms of the Russian economy. It lacks any sort of diversification, being heavily dependent on foreign labor for any sort of value-add work, and its total economy smaller than the American states of California, Texas, and New York, individually. However, Russia is one of the world’s largest exporters of energy, food, and raw materials, meaning that despite Western sanctions, it is still able to feed its population and keep the lights on. China does not possess such an advantage. China’s breakneck urbanisation and economic growth has made it the world’s largest net importer of energy, food and other agricultural inputs, as well as a number of raw materials. In addition, 60% of all goods imported into China have to travel through the Strait of Malacca, in Indonesia.

The Strait of Malacca, a narrow, 550-mile stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula (Malaysia and Singapore) and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is one of the most critical shipping lanes in the world. It serves as the main maritime corridor between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and is consequently a crucial passage for China, particularly for its energy supplies and trade routes.

Due to its strategic location, the Strait of Malacca serves as a potential chokepoint that can be used by adversaries to impede China's energy supplies in the event of escalated tensions or conflict. According to a report by Tufts University, between 70-85% of China’s 11 million imported barrels per day (BPD) of oil pass through the Malacca Strait, in addition to 70% of its Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) imports. In addition, according to geopolitical strategist Peter Zeihan, China imports around 90% of its agricultural inputs, such as machinery, fertiliser, etc., the majority of which passes through the Malacca strait, and past a whole host of hostile countries, such as India, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, or Taiwan. In an era of U.S.-enforced peace in the Asia-Pacific, this is largely a non-issue. In a wartime environment, one can almost guarantee that the Strait will be blockaded and largely cut off from Chinese control.

Such a blockade here would effectively cut off China from access to the energy, fertiliser, and other crucial industrial inputs required just to feed its own population. Even if the Chinese were hypothetically able to keep the Strait of Malacca open, most of their imported hydrocarbon flows pass countries like India, whose biggest geopolitical rival is China; Vietnam, who is currently embroiled in a territorial dispute with China; Singapore, who hosts a U.S. Naval base; the Philippines, who also have their own territorial dispute with China; and Japan, whose relationship with the Chinese is certainly conscientious at best. Simply put, if China were to make any serious move to annex Taiwan, Western sanctions and blockades could very possibly result in serious food and energy shortages within China, with minimal damage to US forces.

Access to the alternative energy supplies would be incredibly difficult to come by for the Chinese with the Malacca strait blockaded. With oil imports from the Middle East, Africa, the United States, cut off, it is highly unlikely that any other country would be able to make up such a large shortfall. Kazakhstan exports just under 1 million BPD to China, and the Eastern Siberian pipeline is only capable of supplying another 3 million BPD. While these could theoretically act as alternative main suppliers for China, this is a dubious proposition for a number of reasons.

So far, the Russians have managed to keep the Eastern Siberian pipeline open, but continued Russian capacity is far from a guarantee. Russian industrial accidents are painfully common, for a bevy of reasons. First off, most Russian industrial equipment are holdovers from the Soviet-era and are extraordinarily error-prone. Additionally, the Russian technical education system has not recovered since the fall of the Soviet Union. Since the 1990s, Russia has struggled to produce a new generation of its own skilled vocational workers, most being in their 60s. Combined with Russia’s beyond-terminal demographic profile, it is not a stretch to believe that Russia will struggle to maintain its Eastern Siberian pipeline. This largely has not been an issue in previous years, as Russian companies would enter in joint ventures typically with Western companies, namely BP, to develop many of these newer oil and natural gas fields in Eastern Siberia. However, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, all of these western firms have left. Western capital and labor had been the main source in maintaining and increasing output, yet neither of these are available now. Further exasperating an already bleak demographic picture, as many as 4 million Russians are predicted to have fled the country following the 2022 invasion according to Al-Jazeera, with a majority being young and university-educated. This marks one of the most severe instances of brain drain in Russian history, greatly harming Russia’s ability to develop new technologies that could further increase output from its Siberian oil and gas fields.

China’s only other option would be Kazakhstan, a formidable oil exporter who could potentially act as an alternative supplier. However, Kazakhstan’s largest oil reserve, located in the Kashagan deposit, is notoriously unreliable. Situated 2 miles under the Caspian Sea, oil workers regularly battle 60 mph winds, moving sea ice in the winter, and a sea spray that regularly covers production facilities in meters of ice. If that’s not enough, Kashagan is a vertical deposit around 2 miles long, containing pressure levels that vary wildly, leading to impressively destructive and frequent blowouts. The oil that is pumped out contains sulphur levels so high that it has to be processed as soon as it reaches the surface, creating sulphur beds that stretch for miles at a time. The conglomeration of companies responsible for developing and maintaining this deposit spend over $130 billion in doing so, making start-up costs for oil drilling in Kazakhstan the highest in the world. Unfortunately for the Chinese, in a wartime environment, this may be the oil that they are stuck having to deal with.

In recent years as part of its ongoing Belt & Road Initiative, China has pledged massive amounts of capital towards the manufacturing of Greentech such as solar panels and windmills. However, as promising as these new green technologies are, a mass transition to green energy systems would be unlikely to succeed. Putting aside the fact that oil and natural gas have numerous other uses besides electricity production, these technologies are limited to the geographic potential of the areas they are being used. In layman’s terms, solar panels and windmills work where it’s sunny and windy. Below are maps of global wind and solar potential, with population centres marked:

As you can see, all but maybe three Chinese population centres inhabit an area where a green transition would even be theoretically viable, much less practical. Unfortunately for Chinese officials, a Greentech near-future is unlikely at best.

Despite all of these risks, there remains one critical x-factor: Xi Jinping. Xi has spent the better part of a decade systematically purging any opposition to him within the Chinese bureaucracy. As a result, Xi has consolidated more power unto his person than any other leader in the history of the CCP, even exceeding the days of Mao Zedong. He personally oversees every key aspect of decision-making within the Chinese system, and appointed sycophants to each committee within the CCP. While this has certainly done wonders for the stability of President Xi’s reign, it has also created an incredibly powerful cult of personality that has led to a series of catastrophic decisions from within the Chinese system.

For example, early in 2023, the day before U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was supposed to fly to Beijing, Chinese Intelligence flew a 300-foot-wide spy balloon holding equipment the size of an Embraer jet over closed American missile silos. Rather than immediately shoot it down, U.S. Intelligence instead flew their own slow-moving spy plane below it, monitoring all communications and emissions, and taking extensive digital photos from every angle possible, before shooting it down. In doing so, the Americans were able to learn how Chinese intelligence was transmitting commands to the balloon over their satellite and civilian networks, where these signals were coming from, down to the specific IP address. These findings allowed American intelligence agencies to track every individual who was involved in this decision, as well as obtain a complete copy of the Chinese encryption keys. Finding this information through a conventional intelligence operation would have likely taken 2-3 years, and the CCP basically handed it to the Americans, while gaining no information that they could not have otherwise gained through satellite footage. While this is one specific example, it demonstrates a strategic blunder which have become increasingly common in recent times.

Invading Taiwan would be another example of such a mistake, yet the West should not let that rule out the possibility of an attempted annexation. Taiwan should absolutely still remain a key concern of the international community. Despite the incredible strategic risks of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the annexation of Taiwan has still served to be a unifying issue for the vast majority of the Chinese population. Whether or not it is worth the catastrophic human toll is up to Xi Jinping and his cohorts within the CCP. One must hope he doesn’t try his luck in the pacific.


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