China's Insane World War 3 Plan
If you go ahead and spin the proverbial wheel of global worry today, there’s a good chance you’ll land on the words “China” and “World War III.” Unfortunately, there are several reasons for that and they all lead to the question no one wants to think about: Is China getting ready for World War 3? It’s true that nowadays you can’t go far without someone talking about the perils of Taiwanese reunification, artificial Chinese islands, Cold War 2.0, or the specifications of the latest hypersonic missile. Add to that the increasing frequency of Chinese incursions into Taiwanese airspace, Japan’s recent decision to purchase hundreds of new weapons for its own defense like these American-made Tomahawk missiles, and closer military cooperation between the US and Australia and we are starting to see the signs of another global conflict on the horizon, one that is likely to begin somewhere in the Indo-Pacific. It all adds up to another doomsday scenario waiting in the wings and some believe it could take place as early as 2024.
Does China have a World War 3 plan in place and if so, what does it look like? China’s rise over the past few decades seems to indicate that the worrisome and likely answer to the first question is ‘yes’. Here’s why. Tensions between China and the West have not been this high in a long time. Rewind several decades, and many experts would have laughed at you if you claimed you were a time traveler from the future and China posed a serious geopolitical threat to the international order. That’s because the 1990s were a strange time—and not just because of the oversized jeans and the kids’ obsession with green slime. It was a period of untempered western optimism—yeah, you heard that right—optimism. From our pessimism-soaked
vantage point today, the geopolitical arc of that decade was almost unicorn-like, a surreal period of national unity, hope, and security brought back down to earth with the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the twin towers. But for a while, things seemed, well, good. Emerging victorious from its forty-five-year ideological standoff with the Soviet Union, for a brief unipolar moment in time the United States enjoyed unmatched power and prestige on the global stage. There were no more near-peer threats; while terrorists and revolutionaries conspired at the peripheries of power, America’s military and its coalition partners, equipped to the eyeballs with the latest technology and fresh off their rollicking victory in the Persian Gulf, bought into the idea that democracy was spreading and would continue to do so with assistance and persistence around the globe. It was in this geopolitical climate that things
started to really change for China—not that many western observers really noticed. Between 1949 and 1971 it had existed “behind the ‘Bamboo Curtain,’” a totalitarian dictatorship under the authoritarian communist revolutionary Mao Zedong. Things changed when the United States sought rapprochement with China in the 1970s, thereafter reopening diplomatic relations and turning China into a willing Cold War partner through strengthening economic relationships and a degree of exposure to the west it had not enjoyed since World War II. China started modernizing. Like, a lot. Americans profited. China grew. As China grew, Americans hoped the exposure to western values and ideas would liberalize and democratize China. There were social and cultural reforms amid the modernization, yes, but not many.
China’s benign growth lulled the west into a false sense of security. Some pundits argue that it was in the 1990s—the heyday of American optimism—that China started really playing the long game, hatching a secret fifty-year plan to “achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” after a century of downturns. Entangling its economy with the United States, it grew fast enough to convince the west it deserved a place in the World Trade Organization (WTO), something it achieved by the early 2000s. “Yes, we will play by the rules of the international order,” Chinese leaders proclaimed with enough zeal to make their western partners proud.
It was around then its economy started booming, growing almost 10% every year for the next two decades. Between 1980 and 2000, its GDP quadrupled. Starting at under $90 billion in 1980, it now hovers around $13 trillion, the fastest growing increase in human history; hundreds of millions of Chinese residents were lifted out of poverty as the country’s economic potential skyrocketed. As globalization continued and China received hundreds of billions of dollars of global investment, it established a trade footprint to rival much of the rest of the world, providing cheap labor that built most of the products now adorning your home while becoming competitive in cutting edge cyber, space, and technology sectors. It has long since become East Asia’s economic titan par excellence. It thrived under the auspices of global capitalism. It took on some of the trappings of the west—especially its business and trade practices. But it never really democratized. To this day it maintains
its communist, centralized authoritarian regime under the singular vision of its latest ruler, Xi Jinping. And Xi has a vision, alright. Having covertly flourished under the umbrella of American power for several decades, China is now preparing the next phase of its grand strategy: To catapult itself into the realm of peerless global hegemon—one that can impose itself in its Indo-Pacific neighborhood at will while projecting enough global influence to shape the “rules-based international order” in its own image. It’s taken them fourteen “Five Year Plans” to get to the point, but they have finally arrived. Now China wants to “build a community of common destiny,” essentially, a nice way of saying it wants to coercively achieve what it views the US doing all over the world—leading international organizations, becoming a political and economic model for developing countries, being able to project world-class military power all across the globe, all while leveraging its trade relationships, allies, and partners to achieve its interests—AKA replace “the United States as the world’s leading state.” They chose 2049 for the date to achieve all of this—the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But each successive milestone for modernization has
amped up the tension between China and the West. National security insiders have been sounding alarm bells for a decade now, but only recently have things started getting real. Over the past three decades China has spent its way to military might. In 2019 it was spending more than South Korea, Japan, India, Russia, and Taiwan combined, accounting for over half of Asian GDP and half of all Asian military expenditures. China didn’t have to just outspend their
competition, however. Over the past decade a growing number of Western defense officials have started kicking themselves for not realizing the pitfalls of economic interdependence with China. It’s been no secret that for decades Chinese spies have been stealing valuable intellectual property—including U.S. military secrets. Just look at their latest stealth fighter, the J-20. It’s a surreal mashup of the latest in stealth technology, the type of thing you might get if an American F-22, F-35, and a Russian MiG 1.44 walked into a bar, had one too many, and started spilling their secrets within earshot of a Chinese spy. China has stolen immense amounts of data,
too—some we unwittingly give them by opting in to use Chinese-owned platforms like Tik Tok—data that U.S. officials claim gives them enough “personal information to identify potential targets for intelligence collection and other subterfuge.” Just like the West can—and probably does—China uses this data to geolocate top national security targets, recruit spies, conduct massive remote cyberattacks, and steal military and technology secrets. The issue isn’t just that China has shiny new advanced submarines, missiles, aircraft, drones, and other toys to play with. It is that it now looking like it has the logistics, infrastructure, and know-how to utilize them effectively. And that’s something we need to explore further. Now, you know as well as I do that nation states can’t just fling military power around the globe willy nilly. You have to have the national industrial base to build up your power,
the domestic support to use it, the transport infrastructure to move it, agreements in place to base it, and an effective doctrine and strategy to employ it. It took the United States four years of total war and victory in two theaters to emerge as a bonafide global superpower after World War II. Were it not for the destabilization in the aftermath of that war and the exigencies of the Cold War that followed it, it would not have many of the military basing agreements or the alliances and partnerships it now enjoys around the world today. Many of those relationships—and the infrastructure sustaining them—took decades, even generations to build. And today that is something we often take for granted.
But not China. They know the price of obscurity, and the difficulty of restoring national power and prestige back to superpower levels. Their long-term strategy, in part, is to achieve the same degree of global agency the United States enjoys—it, too, wants bases for its military all over the world, flourishing economic relationships, and safe trade routes for its commercial fleet. Without a world war to create the conditions for its rise to power, China has had to engineer its rise artificially—partially through guile and subterfuge, partially using state-sponsored initiatives that scream “we are trying to go global, and we will make it happen whether you like it or not.” One of China’s global projects stands out from the rest in terms of ambition, scale, and significance: The One Belt One Road Initiative (Or Belt and Road Initiative, BRI). Much like
the ancient Silk Road that connected Chinese traders and goods with rich foreign markets, the BRI strives to achieve the same degree of global influence for China in the modern era. To understand China, you have to grapple with the BRI. Many analysts view the project as China’s answer to the Marshall Plan—a post-WWII economic assistance package that sought to revitalize war-torn Europe. Unlike the Marshall Plan the BRI is extended to any willing economic partner. Formal agreements between China the a host nation to build economic and political ties generally precede a litany of Chinese investment, funding, infrastructure projects, tech collaboration, and more. In the process, China gets access to ports and airfields, markets for state-owned companies, safeguards for international trade, and international influence. For years the BRI has been the litmus test for global Chinese power projection. “The Belt”
connects China with Europe and the other dozen nations on its borders via a series of overland trade routes, while “The Road” refers to its maritime interests—fueling stations, ports, industry, infrastructure scattered throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. A great example of “periphery diplomacy,” BRI projects can now be found from the Himalayas to the Horn of Africa and Mediterranean basin. It has funded infrastructure deals in Malaysia, gas pipelines and railroads in Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Kenya, maintains port operations in Greece, projects in Sri Lanka, and has other projects in the works. The west has viewed the BRI warily. Some criticize China’s “debt trap diplomacy,” a tactic of luring economically vulnerable states into taking out Chinese loans and then jacking up the rates to unpayable levels as a form of coercion over the government in question. Others fear China’s growing telecommunications and economic influence over Europe and the Global South. But there still hasn’t been a really unified response. And China continues
to shovel money into this initiative—with another $124 billion pledged in 2017. One of the big warning signs came that same year, when China decided to establish a hub in Djibouti, a developing nation strategically located in the Gulf of Aden on the horn of Africa. China had essentially said it would never open an official military base there. And then they did, calling it a “logistics facility” even though PLA Navy Marines and other forces regularly mull about with armored vehicles and artillery. It is considering similar projects in Cambodia,
Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan—evidence of China’s expanding military footprint around the globe. These military bases hold great potential for regional destabilization. Such developments are a warning that countries can become unwitting partners to PRC military expansion by giving China access to airfields and ports it would otherwise lack.
A global footprint, therefore, is a prerequisite for China’s national rejuvenation, and has certainly empowered its actions at home. Maritime disputes in the waters around China are so common they’ve almost become normalized. These waters in the South China Sea are heavily-trafficked, including some of the richest shipping lanes in the world. Xi Jinping made a promise not to militarize certain islands China artificially built in the South China Sea. Now the Parcel and Spratly Islands are militarized, and can be used to intimidate and coerce coastal states throughout the region. The bullying continues in the East China
Sea as Chinese merchant vessels regularly dominate lucrative shipping lanes, coast guard, military, and commercial ships deprive foreign fisherman of access to resources, and policymakers make ambitious maritime claims that are frequently rejected as lacking basis in international law. (For the record, territorial waters are considered up to twelve nautical miles off a country’s coastline—a fact China ignores). China wants to monopolize the natural gas, oil, and hydrocarbon reserves it feels it has a claim to, even hundreds of miles away.
A lot of the tension arises near the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islands that in 1971 reverted back to Japanese administrative control under the Okinawa Reversion Agreement. Over these seas China has set out to create Air Defense Identification Zones, increasing its operational reach even further. Taken together, China’s economic and cultural influence combined with its renewed military strength add up into a scary equation for Beijing’s neighbors. There have also been regular border conflicts on the China/India frontier since a PRC instigated-clash in 2020 left dozens dead. India claims China has the onus to withdraw; they haven’t. South Korea is worried about North Korea, China’s only major Asian ally,
doing something stupid. Even Japan, you know—those guys who were so committed to pacifism after World War II they called their military a “Self Defense Force”—are now so alarmed they’re arming themselves with hundreds of Tomahawk missiles, writing “counterstrike capabilities” into their fighting doctrine, and conducting joint-military exercises with American and Australian forces—an image that surely would have made our grandparents both proud and perplexed. And nobody should be more scared than Taiwan. I’ll spare you the history lesson, but the
small independent island nation will almost undoubtedly be ground zero in any World War III scenario with China. Here’s why: China is bent on reuniting Taiwan with mainland China. The spat goes back to World War II, when nationalist rebels fled to the island and created a vibrant democratic society—one China refuses to acknowledge or respect. Ever since, China has wanted Taiwan back more than a prepubescent teen who accidentally traded their holographic first-edition Charizard for a bag of potato chips. And this is a problem, since the United States has all but formally pledged to intervene and protect Taiwan in the event China decides to invade. And boy has it probably thought about it. In August 2022 The China State Council produced
a white paper whose table of contents made China’s position on the issue explicitly clear: Chapter 1: Taiwan is part of China—This is an indisputable fact. Chapter 2: Resolute Efforts of the CCP to Realize China’s Complete Reunification Chapter 3: China’s Complete Reunification is a Process that Cannot be Halted Chapter 4: National Reunification in a New Era Chapter 5: Bright Prospects for Peaceful Reunification It’s okay, you can tell us how you really feel, Beijing. “We are one China,” the paper alleges, “and Taiwan is a part of China. This is an indisputable fact supported by history and the law. Taiwan has never been a state; its status as part of China is unalterable. The CPC is committed to the historic mission of resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification.” So China is overwhelmingly focused on reunifying Taiwan. They say they won’t use force. Hmm…where
have I heard this before…authoritarian leader claims he won’t use force to reunify territory he believes is rightfully his? But hey, this type of tension has been brewing since the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis when the PRC had a showdown with an American carrier group after conducting a bunch of missile tests in the Taiwan Strait. The outcome of the Taiwan issue has real global bearings. Taiwan is the epicenter of the global semiconductor industry. What’s a semiconductor, you say? Anything that has an electronic chip—your phone, your computer, your wireless modem, your electronic toys, your average ballistic missile, medical instruments, televisions, cutting edge satellites—they all rely on semiconductors for computing. It is a $556 billion dollar industry, one that for better or worse hinges on the whims of a Taiwan-China-US love triangle. You see, the US sells 46% of global semiconductors, but only manufactures 12% of them; China consumes the most, importing $378 billion dollars worth and putting what it buys into 35% of the world’s devices. And Taiwan, as you might expect, has 53% of the
global semiconductor market share—and produces 90% of the world’s most advanced ones, ones you might see in cars, smartphones, and military tech. That’s a serious share of the market! Interdependence is a problem. The US is now trying to decouple itself from the Taipei-Beijing chip drama and become self-sufficient. But Taiwan’s predominance on the global chip market is one reason Beijing literally cannot afford to let Taiwan continue to independently exist. It needs to set the terms of trade in the region, not Taiwan and the other western-facing nations. Otherwise it will always be seen as a second-rate power. What does this all amount to? Well,
this situation has produced the “worst security crisis in the Taiwan Strait in 20 years.” China means business. As Taiwan becomes more eager to carve out its independence from the mainland, China views its very sovereign existence as an existential threat. China worries about being hamstrung behind the “First Island Chain,” a series of nations that includes the Philippines, Borneo, Japan, and the Ryukyu Islands that it fears can contain and limit its ability to project power beyond its shores. Taiwan is at the heart of this island chain—a cornerstone of western power
in the region, one that perpetually transmits dangerously subversive messages of western-backed prosperity while it remains independent. With Taiwan under America’s orbit, it is a thorn in Xi’s side; with a reunified Taiwan, China gains the ability to break the first island chain and wield influence deep into the Pacific. Predictably, China is throwing caution to the wind regarding Taiwan’s territorial sovereignty, violating Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and the Median Line dividing the Taiwan Strait once considered an invisible barrier between the two entities with frightful regularity. Between 1954 and 2020 there were only four Chinese violations of these internationally recognized demarcations. In 2020 alone there were 380. And there were more than double that number the following year with 969 incursions. The biggest came on October 4,
2021—a day that saw 56 aircraft enter Taiwan’s air defense zone unironically coinciding with China’s national day of celebration. By May of this year there had been a 50% increase in the number of incursions over the same span in 2021. Partially to send a supportive signal in response, the US conducted a series of high-profile political visits to the island. China didn’t buy it. To them, the visits were needlessly escalatory. They responded with more overflights,
setting a new record for monthly sorties. Since the summer, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has flown over 1,000 sorties near Taiwan, 40% of them in the ADIZ or over the Median Line. Today, it is coming into Taiwanese airspace on a near-daily basis, ramping up its intimidation efforts around Taiwan in other ways too—from anti-submarine warfare, drone reconnaissance, and cyber attacks to the growth of its naval and missile presence in the region.
China’s end goal is clear. Taiwan has voiced alarm and concern over their “near-constant encirclement drills,” labeling them the escalatory equivalent of a sea and air blockade of the island. If these are, in fact, dress rehearsals for a full-scale invasion, China will continue to ramp up the pressure as time goes on. The on-ramp to war, then is there—and it is volatile. Some pundits compare the existing slate of geopolitical relationships in the Indo-Pacific to the entangled alliance systems in Europe on the eve of World War I. This is, at least, a line of reasoning Hal Brands, a prominent political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, has espoused, comparing Japanese, Australian, and American collaboration as a “latter-day Triple Entente—the pre-World War coalition that sought to contain Imperial Germany—in the Western Pacific.” It didn’t take much for the World War I power
keg to erupt in the Balkans, fueling a chain reaction that resulted in the First World War; if history is any guide, it won’t take much to escalate a regional clash in the Indo-Pacific into a global war, either. “It is here in Asia’s maritime heartland, where all the ingredients of a global cataclysm are conspiring against the post-Cold War period of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific,” one analyst observed. “It’s also here where the naked edge of China’s hegemonic ambitions are on full display, with dire consequences for smaller neighbors and the broader liberal international order. Here lies the defining
geopolitical dilemma of our times.” Well-put. So how are the major players gearing up to play their part? We’ve already talked about China, at least their geopolitical maneuvering. Militarily they’ve been following the same path, modernizing at an impressive rate to add bite to their bark as they pursue their strategy of recasting the global governance system in its own image. Its to-do list has, so far, taken a page right
out of America’s playbook. China has adopted the model that made America powerful, first building a “moderately prosperous society in all respects,” then using that as the foundation to build a truly competitive “world-class military.” The fusion of civil-military power is deliberate. Industrial developments in quantum computing, AI, robotics, and biotechnology not only help China become competitive in the civilian sphere, these technologies can be appropriated to help the Chinese network their military forces. And make no mistake, this is something it is eagerly doing. To create a state of the art force, it has set a goal to fully network its combined and joint chains of command by 2027. Advancing dual-use technologies—ones that can benefit civilian and military infrastructure alike—will enable rapid information exchange between its army, navy, air, rocket, and yes, even its space forces, easily setting the Chinese military apart from anything America’s nearest peer, the Russians, have been able to achieve in Ukraine if they succeed.
For awhile now the CCP has portrayed a west in relative decline. This narrative fuels Beijing’s hopes it can supplant the United States as the preeminent global superpower. And to be fair, things in the United States haven’t been all that peachy over the past decade or so—race riots, populism, rampant misinformation and fake news, capital uprisings, COVID, political polarization, mistrust, and fear have exposed internal fractures and brought American democracy to its weakest point in generations. But America has been gearing up for its marathon clash against China for years now in the hopes that if things did spill over into a full-scale war, it would be ready. American leaders, regardless of political party, are now mostly unified on this; they know the coming struggle will be ideological and cultural as much as it will be an out-and-out technological, economic, and military competition. Still, it wasn’t really until 2018 that the United States officially changed its strategic posture to address China’s rise. At the tail end of two fruitless decades in the Middle East, its
national security strategy shifted to recognize China, not terrorists or Russia, as the main peer adversary. This year the Biden administration updated its national security strategy but did not depart from the rhetoric of strategic competition that pervaded earlier iterations. American strategy emphasizes this as the “decisive decade” to get ahead and “win the competition for the 21st century.” Some people criticize American strategy for reviving antiquated Cold War mentalities, painting over Soviet tropes with Chinese skins in another zero-sum adversarial competition that could needlessly escalate into war. Vastly different political systems aside, there are more similarities than differences between China and the United States than there were between the US and the Soviet Union, especially in the realm of economics. The two competing powers are not mutually exclusive. But disagreements and mistrust
are common enough destabilizers that many fear the status quo can’t be maintained for long. China is aware that it still cannot compete with the United States in many areas. The United States Navy for instance, though technically smaller than the Chinese Navy, continues to patrol strategic waterways in the Indo Pacific, ensuring vital sea lanes remain open for free and flourishing international trade. American carrier groups have bases throughout the first island chain. American submarines and aircraft tend to be more robust, possessing longer range and better stealth technology than their Chinese counterparts. Chinese jet
engines are not as advances as American ones; its military suffers quality control issues with its imbalanced admixture of antiquated and modern military systems and vehicles. Its logistics and transport capabilities lag far behind their globetrotting American adversary. And, above all, the Chinese lack concrete fighting experience, having fought (and lost) their last major operation in Vietnam in 1979—experience the United States, coming off its own unfortunate Middle Eastern odyssey, nevertheless has in spades. But the PLA’s military strategy is catered to overcome these shortcomings. In a World War III scenario—especially one involving Taiwan—the United States, its allies, and partners, namely Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, and possibly India—would have to operate in China’s neck of the woods at the tail end of an incredibly long logistics network. The United States’ geographic isolation makes it reliant on small overseas bases, refueling tankers, transport vessels, and carriers to convey and sustain its units abroad. While China continues modernizing its forces and
develops its own expeditionary capabilities, it has developed an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy to keep America and its allies at bay in the Indo-Pacific. The strategy has seen China prioritize the construction of a bristling array of ground-based missiles, naval assets, and aircraft equipped with the latest air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles that can outrange their American counterparts—and thus discourage them from intervening in a regional conflict. This active defense strategy will make American intervention in Taiwan both risky and potentially deadly. Most security experts will be the first to tell you that war against China is anything but inevitable. If both powers learn to manage their competitive relationship, they can peacefully coexist despite their adversarial posture. But wars can ignite from inauspicious sources. As Peter Warren Singer,
a strategist and senior fellow at a think tank called New America and award-winning author, has written, “In the coming decades, a war might ignite accidentally, such as by two opposing warships trading paint near a reef not even marked on a nautical chart. Or it could slow burn and erupt as a reordering of the global system in the late 2020s, a period at which China’s military build up is on pace to match the US.” Singer has spent a lot of time thinking the type of war we might expect in the Pacific. The war, he argues, will be a multi-domain conflict, meaning it will transpire in the traditional domains of air, sea, and land, as well as futuristic domains like space, the lifeblood of modern military communications, and cyber, where digital military systems and civilian infrastructure may be prone to attack. The United States has not waged a multi-domain war against a peer adversary since 1945, and so many of the lessons it learned in Iraq and Afghanistan may not be as relevant to a war with China.
Likewise, America’s traditional approach to wars has been to “overmatch” its enemies, relying on military technology at least one generation ahead to produce qualitative advantages on the battlefield. “US forces can’t count on overmatch in the future,” Singer argues, since much of America’s intellectual property has been stolen outright by Chinese spies, while its R&D has been accelerating its experimentation with space, drone, hypersonic, and cyber technologies. Still, experimentation is not the same as full-scale acquisition and implementation. China’s two biggest vulnerabilities are historically significant: First, that it is reliant on imported semiconductors and microchips, things it cannot produce itself, and second, that it is heavily reliant on imported oil. The situation is not unlike Japan’s in the early 20th century—a rapidly modernizing imperial power with a plucky navy totally reliant on oil imports to sustain itself. As it started to expand into China and the Pacific seeking access to raw
resources, the United States embarked the export of oil and other military goods. Pearl Harbor, the start of the last world war the United States fought in the Pacific, came in part because Japanese leaders viewed war with he United States as inevitable. It needed an independent oil supply—something it would seek in the oil-rich Dutch East Indies—and it knew if it attacked the US would come knocking, so it needed to prevent its own geopolitical encirclement by striking a knockout blow on the American fleet, then stationed at Pearl Harbor. It had a narrow window, given its limited oil reserves at home. And so they attacked.
Some say another Pearl Harbor is brewing, this time with Taiwan at the epicenter. Reunifying the island by force will give China access to the semiconductors it needs, but it would have to ensure the United States could not meaningfully intervene. Toshi Yoshihara, a China expert who works at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, has warned that the PLA’s views on a Pacific conflict are “consistent with Pearl Harbor,” that they are “predisposed to delivering a decisive first blow against U.S. forward deployed forces in the western Pacific, particularly those in Japan.” Chinese doctrine indeed emphasizes surprise at the outset of war—all part of a “counterintervention strategy” to keep the Beijing—Tianjin—Shanghai—Nanjing—Guangzhou—Shenzen corridor open. Its precision-strike arsenal,
primarily made up of DF-21C missiles, are capable of hitting any target on the entire Japanese archipelago, while its DF-26 missiles can fire conventional and nuclear warheads almost 4,000 kilometers—far enough to strike the strategic US base at Guam. In all likelihood, if it were to spring an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, China’s tactic would be to saturate America’s roving carrier groups and their escorts with waves of ballistic anti-ship missiles, overcome their defenses, and send billions of dollars of valuable equipment to the bottom of the ocean before it can be brought to bear. This would help overcome the early gulf in military shipping, aircraft, and tonnage between the two sides. They would then target vulnerable American sensor aircraft,
refueling tankers, and cargo ships to curtail America’s ability to get close to Chinese territory. The United States has far more battle force missiles than the Chinese—meaning the total number of missiles capable of being fired in combat before resupply—but the Chinese do have enough to saturate and destroy three American carrier groups simultaneously, potentially turning the American naval forces in the Pacific into a moot point before a war begins. There is even evidence they have been practicing such preemptive strikes in the Gobi Desert in western China. Such a move might be good in the short-term, but short-term tactical victories do not win wars. China would then have to contend with the galvanization of American morale, the mobilization of its entire economy for war, and the possibility of intervention from its many regional and global partners—one of whom is Japan, the world’s third largest economy with a powerful navy of its own. If China went to war, it would be anything but subtle. For an operation that big in the
twenty-first century, it’s almost impossible to achieve the element of surprise. Observers would see a flurry of activity in China’s Eastern and Southern Theater commands opposite Taiwan for weeks and even months prior to invasion—ports of embarkation, airfields, field hospitals, and mobile command posts buzzing, units deploying with oil and gas pipelines, transport ships loading, commercial ships looking to provoke and escalate. The forces far from Taiwan would be placed on high alert, national mobilization efforts would increase, and the military would begin commandeering civilian vessels, ferries, aircraft, trucks, and trains. China would have to surge its production of ballistic long range
missiles and cruise missiles for a massive anti-air, anti-ship, air-to-air, and beach bombardment. It would need to achieve a degree of economic self-sufficiency in anticipation for the sanctions that would undoubtedly be implemented. It would be a lot like what we saw in Ukraine with Russian forces massing not he border—not unlike a classic game of Risk: You mass on your enemy’s border, you claim you “come in peace!” You are only there to defend yourself, you claim. Meanwhile, battle plans are circulating and you are one move away from starting World War III. Unlike the Japanese at Pearl Harbor who failed to authorize a third strike to neutralize the American carrier and submarine fleet, the Chinese would have to find a way to continually pressure the Americans in the Pacific to deter further intervention, making it so prohibitively costly it’s morale and will to assist Taiwan would crumble. An invasion of Taiwan would be tantamount to Germany’s invasion of the Rhineland in 1936. Unless the west is willing to stand up and deter Chinese aggression from the start,
an invasion could spark emergency rearmament programs, mass mobilization, and quickly escalate into a global war. Xi and the CCP are no fools, however. They know it would be a Rubicon moment if they were to invade Taiwan, something they could never walk back from. They will have been watching Putin’s adventure in Ukraine with great interest, observing firsthand how aggressive regional land-grabs can spiral into an out-and-out, no holds barred contests against deceptively capable nations with western backing. They know if they act, they will immediately forfeit their national image abroad and become international pariahs.
In the end China will to figure out what ultimate victory would look like, and if it will be worth the price of an all-out world war. The ball is really in their court; reunifying Taiwan by force is a massive obstacle—overturning an entire global order is even harder by an order of magnitude. Could China do it? Is war really inevitable? Tell us what you think in the comments below.