A couple of readers have asked me to write this article in light of recent cross-strait tensions. I have always avoided political and geostrategic topics because there are other better people to read on the topic. Besides, I enjoy my little niche, writing about insignificant aspects of daily expat life. Politics is not my forte, so take what I say as little more than one opinion. If nothing else, hopefully it will give some insight into the feelings of being an expat in Taiwan at this time, which is this blog’s purpose.
Nobody—not even experts—have any real idea if China will invade Taiwan. Here’s the problem: President Xi, in China, has created a massive cult of personality, systematically eliminating any sources of information that might act as reality checks to his perceptions. He’s even more isolated than President Putin, and we all know how that’s worked out. So, anything I say here has no meaning if one day President Xi wakes up constipated and decides he needs to invade Taiwan to clear his bowels. If he says so, then it will happen.
Mostly the Taiwanese are blasé about any threat of invasion, as you would expect of people that have dealt with this intimidation for generations. The Ukrainians also didn’t pay much attention as the Russian army rolled up to their border. It is perhaps a normal reaction.
Most of my expat friends living in Taiwan are rather less unconcerned, but comfort themselves with logical arguments why it couldn’t happen, usually centered on the idea that the Chinese military is incapable of successfully invading Taiwan. They are right. The PLA is massively corrupt, making the Russian army’s venal general staff look like little more than morally ambiguous street urchins. Broader Chinese society looks down on soldiers as uneducated hicks, causing morale problems. The amount of naval and air power required to get an invasion force across the Taiwan Straits is stunning. The times of year that the Straits are navigable by troop carriers is small. Once you get to Taiwan, where do you land? There are only a few places that might be suitable for landing an army. It is relatively easy to concentrate defensive forces at those beaches. The PLA would need to take, hold, and resupply those beaches before moving inland, where they would quickly run into mountainous terrain. Maintaining supply chains from China to troops fighting in Taiwan would be a logistical nightmare. How many casualties would the Chinese public accept? The actual fighting would, after all, fall upon the little emperors created by China’s One-Child Policy. With my limited military background, and without taxing my brain at all, I came up with these very obvious problems facing the Chinese military. I’m sure there are multitudes more obstacles facing a Chinese invasion.
I do not believe that China can successfully invade and take over Taiwan. Here’s what scares me—just because they can’t do it doesn’t mean they won’t. Even if unsuccessful, it sure as hell would ruin my life. All these larger reasons for why it couldn’t happen have no meaning if President Xi is responding to a different “logic”, and the stimuli shaping his outlook are different than for Westerners.
China has huge problems; socially, economically, politically, demographically, environmentally,…. But, let’s just look at what I think is China’s biggest problem—demographic collapse. Urbanization causes demographic decline as city dwellers no longer need kids for labor, nor can afford them. China just came through a period of the most vast and rapid urbanization in world history. There have been the expected declines in birthrate and the problem has been compounded by China’s One-Child Policy. Chinese society will not be able to sustain itself within the next 10-15 years. There simply won’t be enough people of productive age. Demographics is at the root of most of China’s other problems. Population contraction is being faced around the world, but is particularly acute in China. Barring massive immigration to China [not going to happen], China is facing monumental societal upheaval.
The CCP hates that. They’re all about control and maintaining power, whatever it takes. As social stability and the Chinese people’s ability to generate and maintain wealth declines the CCP finds itself in jeopardy. Their justification for holding power has been they’d keep citizens safe and provide a chance at wealth. Demographics, COVID, and CCP mismanagement have laid waste to that social contract. So, how can the CCP justify maintaining power? They have just one card to play—enflaming rabid ultranationalist sentiment. And that’s why I’m not so nonchalant about the threat posed by the Chinese military. Invasion might end up being the only option.
However, if China has any dreams of invading, they are on a timeline. They likely have to accomplish it within the next 10 years before demographic collapse makes it a nonstarter. Also, China has had a large military buildup over the last decade, and it’s unclear if they’ll be able to sustain that level of acquisition. They may need to use their toys or risk them decaying unused and irreplaceable. Sure invasion wouldn’t be “logical”, but the CCP does all kinds of things that defy [our] logic. They didn’t need to ruin Hong Kong. It wasn’t logical. But, they did it anyway, largely because of internal political struggles within the CCP. Those forces are still in play, and trying to use the Taiwan issue for political gain.
Personally I do not believe an invasion is imminent. I’ve always thought a blockade is a more likely scenario. I do think there was probably an invasion plan in place, for the near-term, that was made obsolete by the Ukraine war and the world’s response. President Xi undoubtedly expected a weak-kneed reaction from the anemic democracies of the world when faced with the military might of an authoritarian powerhouse bent on getting things done. [Remember Xi is drinking his own Kool Aid]. Now he needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with an alternate plan, but most his planners and freethinkers have been disappeared, so it’s a task.