If China wants to capture Taiwan, now is the time?

January 26, 2023 09:07
Photo: Reuters

Last week I had lunch with my former instructor at graduate school who is a China expert. Naturally, I took the chance to ask questions on the thorniest geopolitical topic in Asia Pacific – whether China would attack Taiwan and, if so, when. As a very fine scholar, my teacher unsurprisingly did not give me any concrete answers but commented that factors pushing for a war have gradually overweighted those stopping it, and this imbalance would increase the likelihood of a war.

So, let’s assume a war will happen. But when? The risk of war is predicted to be at the highest around 2026 and 2027 when President Xi Jinping needs to secure his fourth term as leader of the Chinese Communist Party. A victory over Taiwan would not only be more than enough politically for his continuous clinging to power but for cementing his political status on par with that of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

We have outliners to the above prediction though. US Admiral Mike Gilday has publicly warned of a “2023 window” for a war with Taiwan. However alarmist Gilday might have sounded, I in principle agree with this prediction that a war against Taiwan might come sooner than what is generally agreed.

Recent war-game simulations predicted that China would end in a defeat if launching an attack against Taiwan in 2026. But I cannot help suspecting that China might in fact stand a better chance if it has a go sooner, if not now, in that its opponents appear to be least prepared for such an event at the current stage and, more concernedly, they are gearing up in earnest to prepare for the attack.


As a stark truth, the US deterrence is the only reason why Taiwan still exists as an independent jurisdiction. This deterrence, however, might not be currently at its prime. The US has been preoccupied by the Russo-Ukrainian War, with a lot of military assets having been sent to or earmarked for Ukraine, possibly at the expense of Taiwan’s defence needs.

In December 2022, a letter from US Senator Josh Hawley to the Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the concern that the weapon transfers to Ukraine were impeding the efforts of arming Taiwan against China. In the same month, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission made the same warning that “the diversion of existing stocks of weapons and munitions to Ukraine and pandemic-related supply-chain issues have exacerbated a sizable backlog in the delivery of weapons already approved for sale to Taiwan, undermining the island’s readiness.”

The backlog is concerning for Taiwan. In May 2022, the US told Taiwan that the 155mm self-propelled howitzer systems, whose sales were approved as part of the broader US military aid to Taiwan, would be delayed in delivery until 2026 at the earliest due to a crowded production line. In the same month, Taiwan said that the delivery of the shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles could also be delayed.

The Ukrainian war has not only affected the military aid to Taiwan but also certain military supplies to the US military itself. For example, the 155mm artillery shells that the US has sent more than 800,000 rounds to Ukraine have drawn down its inventories to the extent that might have affected its own warfighting capability, warned by Pentagon. Replenishment orders have been made but it takes time for ammunition and weaponry to be produced, particularly for the more technologically sophisticated ones.

Granted, the weapon systems for the war in Ukraine do not entirely overlap with the ones in Taiwan. The Ukraine War has nonetheless laid bare the inefficiency of the US weapon production base, caused in part by sluggish contracting procedures and bureaucracy, according to a recent study by Seth Jones from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank. Mr. Jones commented that the US military production base currently operates in a manner “better suited to a peacetime environment.” In other words, the US military may not be able to sustain a protracted war with against China at the current stage.


Fundamentally, the chance to victory over China hinges on the ability of the Taiwanese military withholding the first wave of attack. In fact, the wargame simulations mentioned above were built upon one major assumption – “Taiwan must resist and not capitulate”.

As such, Taiwan has just started stepping up efforts in earnest of boosting up its military preparation beyond weapon purchases. The island recently announced to extend its compulsory military service to one year from 2024. The forces will also revamp its ineffective and out-dated military trainings mirroring that of the US forces.

That said, everything takes time. The Taiwanese forces will remain a poorly trained and equipped fighting forces for a long period of time. The Ukrainian forces, for example, have been trained by NATO members since 2015 to be able to fight Russian forces effectively. The same also applies to the newly purchased US weapons, which will only be deployable to battles after a long period of trainings and drills by the Taiwanese forces following their delivery.


The US has maintained its global hegemony through making alliances. For this, the US is building a military coalition in Asia resembling the support network to Ukraine in Europe to deter China and, if necessary, to protect Taiwan.

Japan is expected to play a lead role in the allied forces against China in the future, but equally it is not fully prepared as yet. Japan just recently flashed its new security posture through a plan of doubling its defence budget from one percent of GDP to two percent by 2027. The military ties between Japan and the US are also being constantly strengthened. In the recent US-Japan Security Consultative Committee meeting, diplomats and military officials from both countries pledged to enhance their security cooperation and coordination, including adding a newly upgraded Marine unit in Okinawa by 2025. The pair has also continuously expanded the scope of their defence treaty to include areas from cyberspace in 2019 to outer space in January 2023. Japan is catching up and driving ever closer to the US, making it a formidable enemy to the Chinese forces in the future.

More broadly, the US has been strengthening military cooperation with India, Japan and Australia via the Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Dialogue, or the Quad. Without naming China, Quad has an obvious posture of containing China militarily. In a similar vein, giving the coalition more time, they will just coordinate better and fight more effectively.


Our discussions so far have centred around the military readiness of the defence side. But is the offence side ready? This is a question no one can answer with confidence, probably not even the Chinese military itself. Afterall, the Chinese military has not been tested in warfare since the short-lived border conflict against Vietnam in 1979.

That said, the argument for waging the war sooner centres around the assumption that, proportionately, the growth of military capability of China would likely be less than that of Taiwan and its allied forces combined down the road. What we have discussed so far seem to in part vindicate this assumption.


If China wants to capture Taiwan through military means, doing it sooner appears to make more military sense. But ultimately, war is almost always a political instrument for political goals, according to Carl von Clausewitz. Although to outside observers Xi does not seem to have any pressing political needs to wage a war, the opaque nature of the Chinese politics and the unchecked power currently enjoyed by Xi just add an extra layer of uncertainty to our observations. A case in point, the abrupt end of the apparently ironclad Zero-Covid policy has surprised not just outside observers but local government officials and the country’s healthcare system.

I may have given out an impression of being a warmonger. I am not. My main intention of bringing my thoughts forward is to show that we should not be complacent about peace, thinking that a war will not happen that soon. On the flip side, this is an analysis inevitably far from comprehensive. In other words, I must have missed some counter factors equally, if not more, important. Do feel free to let me know!

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Founder of Richard Ip Consultancy, a due diligence and sanctions compliance advisory business, the writer is a global political and compliance risk consultant with a special focus on Asia.