China’s Taiwan Invasion Plans May Get Faster and Deadlier

Russian mistakes offer some warnings for Beijing’s ambitions.

By , the director of the China Power Project and senior fellow for Asian security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and , a retired senior intelligence officer who was national intelligence officer for East Asia from 2015-2018.
A man holds a Chinese flag on a Chinese navy boat
A man holds a Chinese flag on a Chinese navy boat
A man stands on board a Chinese navy boat during an open day in Hong Kong on June 30, 2019. Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has fueled concern over China’s plans for Taiwan, which it has repeatedly threatened to invade. Some speculate that the odds of invasion have increased, while others argue that Western unity and Russian military failures should counsel Chinese caution regarding the island.

This discussion conflates two different questions: Has the Ukraine conflict changed Beijing’s willingness to use force against Taiwan? And has the Ukraine conflict altered Beijing’s and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) assessments of its ability to conduct a successful amphibious invasion of Taiwan?

China’s willingness to use force is a political decision that is shaped by more than just assessments of military capabilities. Even if China is not confident it can successfully execute an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, Beijing could believe that the geopolitical and internal costs of not using force outweigh the risk of military failure. Beijing could instruct the PLA to engage in a significant military operation short of an invasion, such as a seizure of key islands in the Taiwan Strait, or to adjust its invasion plans to increase China’s chance of political success.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has fueled concern over China’s plans for Taiwan, which it has repeatedly threatened to invade. Some speculate that the odds of invasion have increased, while others argue that Western unity and Russian military failures should counsel Chinese caution regarding the island.

This discussion conflates two different questions: Has the Ukraine conflict changed Beijing’s willingness to use force against Taiwan? And has the Ukraine conflict altered Beijing’s and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) assessments of its ability to conduct a successful amphibious invasion of Taiwan?

China’s willingness to use force is a political decision that is shaped by more than just assessments of military capabilities. Even if China is not confident it can successfully execute an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, Beijing could believe that the geopolitical and internal costs of not using force outweigh the risk of military failure. Beijing could instruct the PLA to engage in a significant military operation short of an invasion, such as a seizure of key islands in the Taiwan Strait, or to adjust its invasion plans to increase China’s chance of political success.

To date, there is no clear evidence that the Ukraine conflict has altered China’s willingness to use force against Taiwan. Beijing remains ready to use force if Taipei crosses Beijing’s redlines. The Ukraine crisis has not caused China to revise or add additional redlines. The power differential between China and Taiwan continues to grow to Beijing’s advantage—this allows the Chinese leadership to argue that time is on Beijing’s side and China does not need to take immediate action against Taiwan.

It is possible that the conflict may introduce some near-term uncertainty and doubts into the PLA’s assessments of its military capabilities. However, in the long term, the PLA can learn from the Ukraine conflict and could adjust its military plans for Taiwan to be more lethal, faster, and more escalatory.

The swift and sweeping Western sanctions on Russia suggest that the economic and stability costs to China for using military force against Taiwan could be far higher—and come far faster—than Beijing had assumed. However, China’s economic and financial heft significantly surpasses that of Russia, and Beijing may believe that economic sanctions could be more difficult to implement against China without significant collateral damage to global trade, supply chains, and financial institutions. Nevertheless, Beijing will likely deepen its investment in self-reliance measures and alternative systems to blunt such potential future costs. A heavier emphasis on nationalism, rather than economic growth, as the basis of the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy might also give Beijing some political breathing room.

The conflict in Europe has also increased international support for Taiwan and heightened public awareness within Taiwan of the need to take the island’s defense more seriously. This is a worrisome trend for China, but it is partially mitigated by the potential that Ukraine will require significant U.S. and NATO attention for some time and the United States may not be able to focus its full attention on Taiwan.

On the other hand, Beijing sees an opportunity to play up a cautionary tale: Russia’s invasion showcases how devastating a war with China could be and why the Taiwanese public should not support actions that provoke China. China is amplifying such messages and arguing that Taiwan should not be a “pawn” for U.S. efforts to counter China.

The high costs of conflict are resonating within Taiwan: Some Taiwanese political leaders are advocating that Taipei avoid war and seek dialogue with Beijing, while others note that both China and Taiwan would pay a heavy price in the event of a conflict. The United States’ and NATO’s reluctance to send conventional forces into Ukraine have also decreased the Taiwanese public’s confidence in U.S. and Japanese military support, which China is likely to exploit.

Many hope that Russia’s poor military performance in Ukraine will encourage China to think twice about using force against Taiwan. It is possible that the conflict could introduce some near-term uncertainty and doubts regarding the PLA’s capabilities. This effect will be limited, however, because China does not have a single political or military plan for Taiwan, but a set of options to deal with a range of contingencies.

Less confidence in the PLA’s ability to invade Taiwan could, for example, encourage Beijing to consider other military options such as a blockade of Taiwan. In addition, China’s plans for a rapid amphibious invasion of Taiwan differ significantly from how Russia invaded Ukraine. Chinese political and military leaders are unlikely to view Russian failures as fully translatable to how China may perform in a Taiwan invasion scenario.

Yet given Ukraine’s strong resistance, the PLA may need to reconsider its prior assessments of Taiwan’s will and capacity to resist. Before the Ukraine conflict, some Chinese military leaders and experts assumed that China could achieve a rapid victory over Taiwan owing to China’s military superiority, the island’s perceived lack of will to fight, and China’s repeated espionage penetrations of Taiwan’s military, government, financial institutions, and critical infrastructure.

This view that China would meet limited resistance resembles incorrect U.S., NATO, and Russian assessments prior to the invasion that Russia would be able to successfully take over Ukraine in a matter of days. Beijing recognizes that Taipei—and Washington—are drawing lessons from Ukraine’s surprising resilience, and China could face a more formidable Taiwan. Chinese commentators have observed the Ukrainian military’s urban warfare operations and have criticized Ukraine for what they view as Kyiv’s attempt to use civilian causalities to win international support.

As Taiwan learns from Ukraine, key questions the PLA may face are: Is it possible for China to limit deaths and atrocities committed against civilians in an invasion of the island? Even if the PLA can gain control of Taipei quickly, would China face a long war of resistance in other parts of Taiwan? Does the Russian Army’s poor performance demonstrate even greater risks for the PLA, which last fought a war in 1979?

These questions will likely reinforce China’s prioritization of information dominance. Information dominance involves: seizing the battlefield initiative and using political warfare to shape the operating environment; using faster and more complete flow of information to enable rapid decision-making and efficient military operations, including improved command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and networked precision strikes; and dominating the cybersecurity, space, and electromagnetic domains. Chinese analysts emphasize that information dominance enables weaker militaries (like Ukraine’s) to fight stronger opponents.

Chinese commentators note that a major failure in Russian operations is its lack of political warfare efforts and Russia’s inability to undermine Ukrainian morale and will to fight. Russia has not disabled Ukrainian communication networks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky maintains a visible public presence and continues to rally his troops and lobby the international community for support. Ukrainian and Western media and social media censored information advantageous to Russia and spread Russian battlefield losses and Ukrainian victories.

The PLA may well seek to destroy and cut off Taipei’s ability to maintain internal and external communications to instill panic and fear across the island. This could be paired with efforts on the ground in Taiwan—such as Beijing-controlled Taiwanese media outlets sharing stories of Beijing’s victories and PLA special operations forces infiltration to sabotage Taiwan’s infrastructure and kill its leaders—to hammer home the message of either devastating Taiwanese military losses or Taipei’s incompetence.

Chinese analysts have also identified how Russia did not sufficiently adapt to informatized warfare. This includes the lack of a Russian informatized command and control system that could effectively process and transmit intelligence to Russian troops on the ground; Russia’s limited number of precision-guided munitions and their underperformance, which degraded Russian targeting and ability to achieve air dominance; and Russia’s need to improve its defenses from attacks by Ukrainian drones. These are areas that the PLA is likely to improve on.

In addition to information dominance, the Ukraine conflict could also reinforce China’s desire to move faster and embrace the element of surprise in its military operations. China observed Russia’s slow accumulation of military forces near Ukraine. This visible buildup spanning several months gave the United States and NATO time to prepare their responses and to provide Ukraine with more weapons.

Chinese outlets, for example, reprinted Russian assessments that Ukraine was “stuffed” full of NATO weapons and Western military advisors prior to the invasion. Russia’s setbacks could encourage China to consider ways to further conceal its preparations to use force or confuse the United States and international community. However, the ability of the U.S. intelligence community to accurately assess Russian military intentions may weaken China’s confidence in its ability to do so.

The safer bet may be for the PLA to move faster and shorten its timelines for mobilization and initial key operations. A rapid invasion would allow China to minimize the possibility of U.S. and foreign intervention. This could lead to what Chinese media report some Taiwan experts fear: a concentration of PLA forces against Taipei to engage in “decapitation” and control of the capital.

This rapid invasion could be accompanied by demonstrations of China’s nuclear capabilities. The Ukraine crisis likely strengthened Beijing’s belief that nuclear deterrence could enable conventional conflict, limit escalation, and deter foreign intervention. Chinese scholars watched Russian President Vladimir Putin exercise and place his nuclear forces on high alert, which deterred U.S. and NATO conventional intervention in Ukraine.

China, however, recognizes that Taiwan is not Ukraine, and the United States is more willing to use force to defend Taiwan. It is uncertain how much China believes nuclear deterrence will prevent the United States from intervening in Taiwan and China will need to be prepared to counter U.S. military operations to assist the island. What is relatively more certain is that China is likely to continue to shift away from a “minimal nuclear deterrent” and “no first use” policy. China will also continue its massive expansion of its nuclear arsenal. Beijing may be more willing to use (or threaten the use of) nuclear weapons in a conflict with Taiwan.

The PLA is also learning how to operate better on the battlefield. The losses that Russia suffered by engaging in military operations during the daytime, for example, underscore the PLA’s determination to improve nighttime operations.

The PLA has already invested significantly in logistics reform as part of its massive 2015-2016 military restructuring that led to the creation of the Joint Logistic Support Force. As Chinese commentators watch Western sanctions shut down Russia’s ability to purchase military spare parts abroad, Beijing may push the PLA to be more self-reliant, focusing on domestic production of its military equipment.

The PLA is a remarkably opaque organization even by Chinese standards. Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, may also not have confidence in the PLA’s self-assessments or may not believe that the PLA candidly reports its weaknesses up the chain of command. Russian military overconfidence—especially the failures of supposedly elite groups such as the Russian Airborne Troops—may reinforce these fears. If that is the case, Beijing is likely to require more PLA training and investments, and the leadership may be more cautious of asking the PLA to engage in large-scale military operations in the near term.

Historically, it has taken PLA military strategists a year or two after a major conflict to digest and conclude its major lessons learned. It will take an even longer time for China to translate those lessons into new or improved PLA investments or operational changes. As China is doing so, the United States, Taiwan, and like-minded allies and partners should monitor PLA changes and invest in their ability to deter and defeat a potentially more dangerous and lethal Chinese military.

Bonny Lin is the director of the China Power Project and senior fellow for Asian security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

John Culver is a retired senior intelligence officer with 35 years of experience as a leading CIA analyst of East Asian affairs. He was  national intelligence officer for East Asia from 2015-2018.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia

Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.

While America Slept, China Became Indispensable

Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.

A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation
A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation

The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.

Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.