U.S. Increasingly Concerned About a Chinese Attack on Taiwan

The Pentagon says reunification is the primary driver of China’s military modernization.

A Chinese People's Liberation Army guard of honor marches during a ceremony on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June, 26, 2000.
A Chinese People's Liberation Army guard of honor marches during a ceremony on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June, 26, 2000. (GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. Defense Department is increasingly concerned that China’s growing military might could embolden it to launch a full-out attack on Taiwan.

A new assessment of China’s military power published by the department’s Defense Intelligence Agency hints that Beijing is building up its military capabilities so that it will have a range of options to attack Taiwan if it decides to—and potentially the United States if it intervenes militarily.

The news comes amid Washington’s renewed focus on Beijing’s mounting economic and military clout. The two countries are locked in a trade war that has roiled global markets and dampened economic outlooks. Meanwhile, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, in his first day on the job earlier this month, told his staff to focus on “China, China, China.”

As the assessment began to emerge in the U.S. news media, a senior Chinese military official warned the U.S. Navy’s top officer on Tuesday in Beijing against any “interference” in support of Taiwan’s independence. In a meeting with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, General Li Zuocheng, a member of the Central Military Commission, said Beijing would defend its claim to Taiwan “at any cost.”

Beijing has signaled for years that it wants Taiwan to be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary. The two split after China’s 1949 civil war won by Mao Zedong’s communists. It has opposed any attempt by the island nation to declare independence. This goal “has served as the primary driver for China’s military modernization,” according to the report.

The Pentagon is also concerned about China’s growing military presence far from its borders, including in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, where it has built a permanent base, a senior defense official told reporters Jan. 16.

“We now have to be able to look for a Chinese military that is active everywhere,” the official said. “I’m not saying that they are a threat or about to take military action everywhere, but they are present in a lot of places, and we will have to interact with them, engage with them, deal with them, monitor them more broadly than we’ve ever had to before.”

The Defense Department is particularly worried that this increase in capability makes a regional conflict more likely, the official said, with the most likely target being Taiwan. Leaders of the People’s Liberation Army might inform Chinese President Xi Jinping sometime soon that they are confident in their capability to take on both Taiwan and the U.S. Navy, the official stressed.

“As a lot of these technologies mature, as [China’s] reorganization of their military comes into effect, as they become more proficient with these capabilities, our concern is they will reach a point where internally, within their decision-making, they will decide that using military force for a regional conflict is something that is more eminent,” the official said.

In recent months, U.S. Navy ships have repeatedly traversed through the Taiwan strait, which separates mainland China from the island nation.

Elbridge Colby, the director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, said the change in the Pentagon’s assessment of the risk to Taiwan is “very significant”—particularly because for China, taking on Taiwan means taking on the U.S. Navy.

“A change in the assessment on Taiwan would be very significant, particularly if they believe the Chinese think they might be able to use force and achieve their objectives and either seize or suborn the island,” said Colby, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development from 2017 to 2018.

In that capacity, Colby was the lead official in the development of the department’s National Defense Strategy, which lays out a shift in focus from the counterterrorism fight in the Middle East to a potential clash with a near-peer competitor such as Russia or China.

In the coming years, the Chinese military is expected to acquire advanced fighter aircraft, modern naval vessels, sophisticated missile systems, and space and cyberspace assets, said Dan Taylor, a senior defense intelligence analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

China is also investing in hypersonic glide vehicles, medium-range ballistic missiles that could reach Guam from the Chinese mainland, and a capability to shoot down targets in space—such as U.S. satellites, the senior defense official said. Meanwhile, the deployment of China’s first strategic bomber would provide Beijing with its first credible nuclear triad, according to the report.

While China may be catching up with the United States in terms of technology, the official said the Chinese military is a long way from achieving parity with the U.S. military on an operational level. Beijing has not fought a war in 40 years, the official said, while the United States has been engaged in operations in the Middle East for decades.

But Beijing is working quickly to reorganize and boost its training.

“There will be significant growing pains, but they seem to have chosen a blueprint for how they want to move forward to be what they consider an advanced military,” the official said. “But it will take some time.”

Update, Jan. 17, 2018: This article was updated to include remarks by Chinese Gen. Li Zuocheng to U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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