18.07.23 China Review

Island vs. Mainland: Experts examine Taiwan's ability to resist a Chinese invasion

In a recent study conducted by the Atlantic Council, 70% of experts surveyed expressed concerns about the likelihood of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan before the end of this decade. This collective sentiment has prompted analysts to seriously consider various possible scenarios for such a conflict, with its outcome hinging on the possible paths this may take. The historical ties between these two territories, which has led to a contested Taiwanese identity, makes this potential conflict in some ways similar to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. According to experts from the RAND Corporation, the key factors determining Taiwan's ability to resist an invasion, particularly before the deployment of allied forces, will be the strength of its political leadership and the level of social cohesion in the face of aggression. In the face of the threat of invasion, initial mobilisation may give way to apathy and declining public support should the conflict be prolonged. Meanwhile, the United States would require at least 90 days to deploy military assistance to Taiwan in the event of an invasion.

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, which escalated into a large-scale war, has reshaped perceptions of what was once considered probable or improbable. Many experts and politicians now view Russia’s war against Ukraine as a prelude to a more intense phase of confrontation between the United States and China, with Taiwan serving as the focal point. In January of this year, over 70% of experts surveyed by the Atlantic Council believed that China's aggression against Taiwan is likely within this decade. As a result, experts interviewed by Foreign Policy, including high-ranking Taiwanese military officials, believe that we need to prepare for such a scenario.

The RAND Corporation, in its report titled 'Can Taiwan Resist a Large-Scale Military Attack by China?,' examines the potential scenarios of the China-Taiwan conflict and the factors that may influence its duration and Taiwan's ability to withstand the pressure from the mainland (Taiwan's population is approximately 60 times smaller than China). The authors identify four key factors that will determine the country's resilience in the face of a high-level attack: 1) political leadership and social cohesion; 2) effectiveness of the armed forces; 3) resilience (economic resources and infrastructure vulnerabilities); and 4) military intervention by allies. The analysts regard the last variable as a necessary condition as Taiwan will need to hold out until it receives this support, because victory against China seems uncertain without assistance from the United States and other countries. The report also notes that it would take approximately 90 days for the US to deploy its armed forces to Taiwan and its territorial waters.

Paradoxically, at first glance, the RAND experts attribute the most critical factor to be political — the quality and strength of Taiwan's political leadership and the degree of social cohesion among its population. The scenario of a China-Taiwan war shares similarities with the Russia-Ukraine conflict in terms of the deep historical entanglements between the two countries, the associated ideas of 'borderland identities' and the 'big brother' model. However, in a democracy, declarative support for the country's political leaders is much lower than in authoritarian regimes: the approval ratings of both the current and past Taiwanese presidents has not exceeded 40%. This is compounded by Taiwan's ambivalent approach to China, which is in line with the official policy of the United States: economic interdependence against a backdrop of political confrontation. Public opinion surveys reveal a certain ambiguity regarding Taiwanese identity, with 66% of those polled identifying as Taiwanese and 28% embracing a dual identity, both Chinese and Taiwanese. Notably, however, in 2020, the island witnessed mass protests in opposition to increasing economic dependence on China.

The question of how public opinion will evolve in the face of aggression remains somewhat uncertain. According to the RAND analysts, heavy casualties and economic losses may lead to two outcomes. Initially, the population may rally behind the national leadership ('rally around the flag' effect) and support resistance against China's aggression. However, in the long term, the high costs of the conflict are likely to erode public support for the war, a scenario that the Kremlin is also counting on in Ukraine.

The other two factors, military strength and resilience, are considered secondary by the RAND experts. Despite the higher quality of Taiwan's armed forces (trained to Western standards), the disparity in the scale of armies is too vast. Any modernisation and reinforcement of Taiwan's defence capabilities will be viewed negatively by Beijing and could lead to an arms race. Given China's military might and economic potential, the eventual winner already seems clear (former NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen contradicts this view, however, suggesting that Taiwan should become a 'porcupine' to demonstrate to China the inevitably 'high cost' of an invasion).

Finally, Taiwan's economy is export-oriented, which means that a war and naval blockade would severely undermine its economic position. Meanwhile, China accounts for 44% of its external trade, and Taiwan imports 99% of its energy resources, making the country vulnerable when it comes to maintaining its infrastructure during a full-scale armed conflict. Addressing these challenges requires advanced preparation. However, the RAND study underscores that the main focus during any potential confrontation should be on maintaining political leadership and societal cohesion. With the right political course, the public and the military may demonstrate a greater willingness to sacrifice economic prosperity.