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Why Doesn’t China Invade Taiwan?

Despite Beijing’s rhetoric, a full-scale invasion remains a risky endeavor—and officials think the island can be coerced into reunification.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A Taiwanese military outpost is seen beyond anti-landing spikes along the coast in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Aug. 10.
A Taiwanese military outpost is seen beyond anti-landing spikes along the coast in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Aug. 10.
A Taiwanese military outpost is seen beyond anti-landing spikes along the coast in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Aug. 10. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: China has plenty of reasons not to invade Taiwan—despite official rhetoric, Beijing pauses some cooperation with Washington, and 80,000 Chinese vacationers are trapped on a locked-down tropical island.

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: China has plenty of reasons not to invade Taiwan—despite official rhetoric, Beijing pauses some cooperation with Washington, and 80,000 Chinese vacationers are trapped on a locked-down tropical island.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox, please sign up here.


Invading Taiwan Is Still Too Risky

China officially ended its live-fire military exercises around Taiwan this week, but its Taiwan Affairs Office has issued a white paper emphasizing “peaceful reunification” with the self-ruled island—while reserving the right to use force. It looks like dramatic escalation in response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan can be ruled out, even as aggressive Chinese intrusions across the median line in the Taiwan Strait become the new normal.

In the aftermath of Pelosi’s visit, it’s worth considering just why China doesn’t invade Taiwan, despite near-constant threats to do so. There are a few factors that keep things from kicking off in the Taiwan Strait.

First, there is China’s hope that Taiwan will return to the mainland without war. Polls in Taiwan make that seem like a fantasy: Just 2 percent of Taiwanese identify solely as Chinese, a figure that has fallen from 25 percent a decade ago, thanks to generational change and Beijing’s aggression and crackdowns on human rights. Most of the Taiwanese public holds negative views of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and Beijing’s destruction of legal freedoms in Hong Kong turned the “one-country, two systems” principle into a joke.

But it’s possible that Chinese leaders have convinced themselves Taiwan’s return might happen: The white paper paints the Taiwanese public as deceived by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and the West, and China’s ambassador to Australia has said the polls are misleading. Chinese officials lie about their own system so regularly, they assume that others do the same. Furthermore, the Taiwan Affairs Office also can’t be honest even internally about its own failure to woo Taiwanese to the idea of reunification, because it would expose itself.

Perhaps more likely: The CCP leadership thinks it may be able to force Taiwan to surrender through coercion and subversion rather than outright war. The CCP has spent a lot of time and money building ties with groups in Taiwan, from the once-ruling Kuomintang to organized crime. As I argued last week, Chinese leaders also hold out for the possibility of U.S. collapse, leaving Taiwan without its main protector.

Even if Beijing rules out peaceful reunification, the risks that would accompany an invasion are very high. There is no guarantee of Chinese success if it invades Taiwan, even without direct U.S. intervention. China hasn’t fought an actual war for 43 years, since its failed invasion of Vietnam in 1979; although it has invested heavily in its military, it has had no opportunity to test its doctrine or technologies.

Despite Chinese claims that an invasion would be quick and easy, it would be an amphibious attack of an unprecedented scale against a Taiwanese opponent that has prepared for the scenario for decades—even if it faces its own morale and logistical problems.

Then there are the geopolitical risks of an invasion, most importantly the possibility of full-scale war with the United States. On the one hand, a faction within Chinese military academia genuinely believes invading Taiwan could demonstrate superior will and push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region. There are certainly questions about how willing Washington would be to go to war and if it could defend Taiwan. On the other, no one in Beijing wants to suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of the world’s most powerful military—or for the world to end in nuclear flames.

Putting the United States aside, an invasion of Taiwan would destroy China’s claims that it is a peaceful power—and with them Beijing’s relations with Tokyo, which has strong ties to Taipei. At least at first, a conquered Taiwan could not be sealed off from the world like Tibet or Xinjiang, where atrocities can remain somewhat hidden. Even if China cut off Taiwan’s internet, the island is high-tech enough to get out images of war or occupation that would damage China’s reputation.

Relatedly, an invasion could be followed by an economic recession at home. Southern China’s economy is entangled with Taiwanese suppliers and capital, which would be ruined by a war. Technology firms such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. have scorched-earth plans in place for their factories in the event of an invasion, and talent would flee wherever possible. The West’s financial muscle exerted over Russia’s war in Ukraine has also caused concern in Beijing, even though extensive sanctions on China would cause much more damage to the global economy.

Finally—and perhaps most potent—is the political risk of invading Taiwan. There are few scenarios where mass protests and public rage could overwhelm China’s extensive systems of control, and the humiliation that would come with a failed invasion of Taiwan is one of them. China has successfully sold the idea that reunification with Taiwan is just and inevitable and that military triumph would be easy—something that much of the public believes passionately. That magnifies the risks of failure.

Nationalism, overconfidence, fear, and stupidity are powerful forces in global affairs. But for the moment at least, the massive risk of China invading Taiwan—along with the assumption that the island can still be strong-armed into submission—work against the likelihood of war.


What We’re Following

China breaks off some U.S. ties. Beijing recently announced the end of three U.S.-China military discussion channels and the temporary suspension of five cooperation programs on topics ranging from climate to counternarcotics. This was a predictable consequence: China sought to demonstrate anger over Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. But it’s also dangerous, given the potential for accidental clashes in the absence of military-to-military discussion. (U.S. military leaders have hinted at other channels that remain open.)

Meanwhile, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry described China as “punishing the world” by suspending climate talks. But very little has emerged from U.S.-China climate engagement in the first place. Kerry may be concerned about the threats to his own agenda, which has been privately criticized within the Biden administration for being too soft on China. These discussions may resume once the mood in Beijing has cooled down, but U.S.-China relations continue to head down a steep slope with no clear road to improvement in the near future.

U.S. pushes for Pacific island embassies. China’s security pact with the Solomon Islands may have backfired, with the deal still attracting fresh U.S. attention to a region that Washington long considered a backwater. The latest sign: the Pacific Island Embassies Act, introduced with bipartisan support in both the House and Senate and likely to pass later this year. The bill would open U.S. embassies in three island nations—Vanuatu, Kiribati, and Tonga—that previously handled their diplomacy with the United States through other embassies in the region.

Continuing the trend, U.S. President Joe Biden plans to host a summit of Pacific island leaders at the White House in September. These moves are sensible, but they also reflect how underfunded Washington’s diplomatic efforts are relative to its global military presence. Respectful relations with smaller countries remain an area where China has a distinct advantage over the United States.


Tech and Business

Promoting pseudoscience. The Chinese government has suspended the social media accounts of major e-health provider DXY, one of few reliable sources for health information in China. The company seemingly faces government action for questioning Beijing’s promotion of traditional Chinese medicine—a dangerous pseudoscience as practiced in the mainland—to fight COVID-19. Industry experts have plagiarized or falsified research papers, and medicines promoted as herbal often contain unlabeled quantities of conventional drugs, such as steroids.

Government backing for traditional Chinese medicine, promoted as an alternative to Western science, has increased under Chinese President Xi Jinping; its pharmaceuticals are now a $27 billion business. The move against DXY is concerning because the quality of health information online in China is already bad, as Chinese academics and journalists pointed out this week: Baidu, China’s main search engine, has faced numerous medical scandals for promoting false information.

Holiday bust. The latest round of COVID-19 outbreaks has trapped 80,000 Chinese vacationers in the tropical island of Hainan; Sanya, a resort city, is under a nearly full lockdown. China’s domestic tourism has continued to decline this year, despite the difficulty of traveling overseas due to quarantine rules. The tourism income from a long holiday weekend in April was just 39 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

People fear getting trapped in lockdown far away from home, resulting in expensive hotel bills and lost workdays. But the tourism slump is another hit for a struggling economy.

Correction, Aug. 11, 2022: A previous version of this article misstated which embassy currently handles U.S. diplomacy with Vanuatu; it is handled by the U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea.

Correction, Aug. 11, 2022: A previous version of this article misidentified the capital of Hainan.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

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