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May 11, 2021

When and Why China Might—or Might Not—Attack Taiwan

By Jacob Stokes

Security tensions are brewing in East Asia. China has on several recent occasions sent military aircraft to fly around Taiwan, including into its air defense identification zone, complete with taunts from the Chinese pilots. Officials and analysts worry that an attack on the self-governing island could be in the offing. But when? Sometime between tomorrow and mid-century. Or never. No one knows, and that’s because no one really knows what drives China’s decision-making.

Some commentators have advanced what might be called structural theories about when and why China could attempt to invade Taiwan. General Secretary Xi Jinping has proclaimed the goal of achieving the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by the centennial anniversary of the founding the People’s Republic of China in 2049 (often shorthanded as “mid-century”). Rejuvenation and unification are inextricable in the eyes of the CCP. Xi asserted in January 2019 that the “Taiwan question…will definitely end with China’s rejuvenation.” Others expect it sooner: by 2035, when state-run media say the People’s Liberation Army, will “basically” be modernized enough to fight and win a regional war against another advanced military. The implication being that China will invade once it concludes the PLA can win.

Washington should continue to emphasize to Beijing the costs of aggression and the value of the status quo for China, the region, and the world—saving the most vehement messages for private channels

Alternative structural assessments see a more imminent peril. They argue the world, especially the United States, is entering a dangerous decade in relations with China generally and with regard to Taiwan specifically, where Beijing’s relative power is reaching an apex compared to would-be geopolitical competitors. Those theories posit that Chinese leaders might conclude they must attempt to forcibly annex Taiwan while they are at their strongest or risk it falling out of their grasp forever. Others acknowledge China faces future challenges but note that even slowing economic growth rates would arrive on top of a massive base, so Beijing’s power, at least relative to Taiwan, will likely continue to accrue.

Another category of theories about when China might send mount a full-spectrum invasion might be described as events-driven.

Read the full article from Defense One.

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