Interviews | Security | East Asia

Taiwan Strait Conflict Scenarios

Insights from Peter Richardson. 

Taiwan Strait Conflict Scenarios

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Peter Richardson – director in the Asia Pacific investigations practice at Wallbrook in London – is the 353rd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Describe the plausible Taiwan Strait conflict scenarios. 

There are several ways a conflict could play out, each of which would have different impacts on the Asia-Pacific region and the global economy. These fall into three categories: a blockade; the occupation of outlying islands; and a Chinese air and sea incursion.

Blockade of the island of Taiwan: In this first scenario, the PLA Navy would encircle the main island of Taiwan and enforce a tariff regime or customs union in order to pressure Taipei to negotiate on reintegration. This might be accompanied by cyberattacks disabling Taiwanese critical national infrastructure, as well as grey-zone warfare like aerial harassment.

Occupation of outlying islands: In addition to the main island, Taiwan controls smaller islands in the Taiwan Strait and the wider South China Sea; these include Kinmen, Penghu, and the Matsu Islands. Some of these are very close to mainland China: Great Kinmen lies about three kilometers across the water from the Chinese city of Xiamen.

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In this second scenario, the PLA would rapidly overwhelm and occupy a string of these outlying islands. Reintegrating Taiwan is a hugely symbolic objective for the Chinese leadership. While falling short of retaking Taiwan as a whole, reintegrating peripheral Taiwanese territories would provide China’s leaders with a powerful propaganda victory. In addition, it would likely boost the ruling Communist Party’s legitimacy, at a time when the party has fewer economic achievements to point to.

Amphibious / air invasion: Under this third scenario, Chinese aerial bombardments would first destroy large parts of the Taiwanese army and navy, while cyberattacks would knock out critical national infrastructure. A PLA Navy encirclement would cut supply lines and reinforcements, while allowing troop carriers to cross the Taiwan Strait. This could trigger the arrival of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, as well as units from the Japan Self-Defense Forces. Fighting on the island could result in the destruction of the Taiwanese manufacturer TSMC’s semiconductor facilities, plunging the world into a tech recession.

What are the key variables and assumptions in each scenario? 

Much depends on the U.S. response, which in turn depends on the occupant of the White House after 2024. If a Taiwan conflict occurs during a Biden presidency, we can expect a response broadly in line with the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which does not oblige the U.S. to deploy troops. Rather, the U.S. would provide Taiwan with intelligence, as well as pre-deployed materiel and logistical support under the Taiwan Policy Act and other legislation. Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan can’t be easily supplied with weapons during a blockade. If the U.S. president is Donald Trump, the response is less predictable.

Much also depends on the response from Asia-Pacific countries. The Biden administration has deepened cooperation with the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea in order to preposition troops and equipment. It is unclear, however, how countries that China has courted since 2000 – like Cambodia – will react.

Explain the level of probability for each scenario. 

Blockade: This scenario is possible, but unlikely. A blockade aimed at pressuring Taiwan to negotiate might backfire, as it would necessitate actions that could severely damage the Chinese economy without delivering a victory. A blockade risks severely disrupting shipping through the Strait of Malacca; the strait is a vital artery for Chinese trade, 60 percent of which travels by sea. It could also sever undersea cables in the Luzon Strait and South China Sea crucial to global telecommunications.

Occupation of outlying islands: This scenario is a realistic possibility. Retaking some Taiwanese-administered territory would be a significant propaganda victory for the Communist Party. The outlying Taiwanese islands are of marginal economic and political importance to the Asia Pacific region, and Western governments will find it harder to persuade electorates that they are worth fighting over. In light of the immense difficulty of occupying the main island of Taiwan – not to mention the potentially catastrophic consequences – this is a less inflammatory achievement.

Amphibious / air invasion: A full-scale invasion before 2049 is a realistic possibility, although U.S. wargaming suggests the success of such an invasion is more remote. It would involve almost insurmountable problems: conducting one of the largest amphibious deployments in history across the Taiwan Strait; overcoming one of the world’s most sophisticated air defense systems; occupying a mountainous island suited to guerrilla warfare; running the risk of U.S. intervention; and surviving Western sanctions. However, the ideological winds may shift in Beijing, to the extent that the symbolic value of Taiwan outweighs the political risks.

Identify the key insights of your scenario-based analysis.     

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The Chinese leadership must weigh up an ever-shifting calculus of risk versus reward. Would the symbolic and legitimizing value of reintegrating Taiwan be worth a breakdown in foreign relations, as well as serious degradation of the Chinese armed forces? Perhaps the key takeaway is this: Like Brexit, Taiwan is as much an emotional question as it is a rational aim.

Assess the level of the United Kingdom’s preparedness for a potential conflict over Taiwan and how the U.K. would cooperate with the United States and Indo-Pacific allies in a cross-Strait conflict. 

Until about 2020, China policy was critically under-resourced within the British government establishment. This reflects the U.K. government’s traditional view of China as a peripheral concern secondary to Russia.

Recently there has been a marked hardening of the U.K.’s stance on Asia Pacific security issues. For example, the Royal Navy has “tilted” towards the Indo-Pacific in support of U.S. peacekeeping objectives. In the event of a Taiwan conflict, the U.K. will likely join a coalition of the willing to pursue indirect measures to degrade China’s military and economy.