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China-US-Taiwan Scenarios in 2022

Jan 18, 2022

The year 2022 could be a decisive year for China-U.S. relations, primarily due to the possible evolution of the Taiwan crisis. One can imagine a range of scenarios for these trilateral ties, from major conflict to partial reconciliation. Thinking about these situations now can help decision makers in the United States, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) manage them later.

One widely discussed scenario is that the mainland will use force to seize all of Taiwan. Such a military operation would aim to decisively defeat the Taiwanese armed forces and secure Beijing’s control over the island’s major policies. The PRC leadership has been increasingly vocal in its demands for Cross-Strait unification. In recent years, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has conducted a growing number of air and naval patrols in Taiwan’s vicinity. President Xi Jinping and other PRC leaders have described controlling the island as a prerequisite for ending centuries of humiliation and realizing the Chinese Dream of rejuvenation. President Xi might also want to leave a legacy as a great PRC leader who accomplished what none of his predecessors could—realization of all Beijing’s territorial ambitions. Other factors contributing to a confrontation are Taiwan’s growing capacity for self-defense, the accelerating tempo of Taiwanese-U.S. ties, and the island’s expanding non-diplomatic relations with foreign countries. This last development challenges Beijing’s objective of marginalizing Taiwan through constraining its international ties. 

Before an attack, the PLA would mobilize critical naval and air forces and move these units, along with other high-demand, low-density capabilities, from other parts of the Chinese mainland closer to Taiwan. The PLA would strive to conceal signs of the buildup, while covertly reinforcing forces and mobilizing reserves. The PLA would also conduct repeated large-scale exercises, raising and lowering its activities to lull Taiwanese and U.S. intelligence analysts into not anticipating an invasion. The assault would pursue a rapid victory over the Taiwanese defenders before the United States and its partners could render substantial assistance. PLA kinetic strikes and cyber-attacks would aim to disable critical Taiwanese command, control, and logistic networks as well as key airfields and ports before occupying the island with regular forces conveyed across the Strait on ships and planes. 

Another scenario might be a limited war. In this case, Beijing’s goal would be less to seize Taiwan and more so destroying the U.S.-based alliance network in the Indo-Pacific region. This objective would be broader than Taiwan but achieved by means of Chinese military action against the island. 

Both Chinese and U.S. analysts consider the U.S.-led alliance network in Asia as a major, perhaps the most important, U.S. political-military advantage over the PRC. Through a limited attack against Taiwan, perhaps by seizing one or more of the small islands governed by Taiwan near mainland China, such as Matsu or Kinmen, PRC decision makers might hope to undermine the credibility of U.S. defense guarantees to Japan, Australia, and other countries. Lacking faith in the U.S. will and capacity to defend them, other Asian states, including India and South Korea, would strive to appease rather than resist China. 

A third scenario would involve the deliberate manipulation of risks rather than the actual use of force. In this case, China would intentionally elevate the dangers of war to compel the Taiwanese authorities and their U.S. backers into making concessions to Beijing’s demands. The objective would be to generate leverage for Beijing to compel concessions from Taiwan and the United States on various issues. In essence, Beijing would strive to get rewarded for solving a crisis that the PRC had itself created by threatening an attack that China does not intend to execute. 

In this case, China would make multiple demands—with specific deadlines, requirements, red lines, and threats for non-compliance--in the expectation of securing several if not many of them. The PRC would combine these efforts at intimidation with offers of reconciliation if Taiwan and the United States met some requirements. For example, Beijing might offer to reduce air patrols across the Taiwan Strait Median Line if Taipei and Washington agreed to limit U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and curtail efforts to participate in international institutions like the World Health Organization. The Chinese demands and compromises would aspire to alienate the United States from Taiwan from each other and their other regional partners. 

The PLA would take some escalatory steps to make the threat to use force credible. The PLA would engage in similar preparations as for an actual invasion, though its actions would be more overt. Unlike in the first two scenarios, this third scenario would see a large but slow and visible PLA buildup designed to attract international attention. The PRC strategy would aim to exploit the fears of war in Asia. PLA nuclear forces would elevate their alert status and conduct tests of anti-satellite and missile systems. These actions would aim to create a sense of danger, risk, and escalation in Washington and its regional allies and partners to alter their cost-benefit calculus of resisting China. Still, though PRC policy makers would seek additional gains through posturing for an invasion, they would not risk an actual attack due to the incalculable economic and military costs of war. 

A final scenario is more benign and overtly (overly?) optimistic. In this case, the prospects of a war over Taiwan would, combined with the need to address common global and regional challenges, lead the parties to recoil from confrontation. Beijing and Taipei would adopt various transparency and confidence-building measures to avert inadvertent military clashes. The measures could include advanced notification of military activities in the vicinity of Taiwan and expansive dialogues on bilateral security issues. Some of these arrangements would be open to participation by third parties such as the United States and Japan. In this case, the improvement in cross-Strait relations would create a benign environment for Sino-American cooperation in other areas, such as managing climate change, stabilizing Central Asia, and promoting Korean denuclearization.

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