To some observers, it may seem like Xi Jinping is itching to unify Taiwan with China.
The Chinese president has repeatedly asserted that doing so is vital to achieving his “China Dream” of national rejuvenation. He has instructed the Chinese military to be prepared by 2027 to take Taiwan by force, if necessary, and China increasingly uses its growing military might to intimidate Taiwan’s people into yielding to Chinese control. Last month, it staged large-scale naval drills involving an aircraft carrier in waters east of Taiwan and, days later, flew 103 warplanes toward the island — a single-day record.
But this bluster masks significant misgivings within China’s leadership about whether its largely unproven People’s Liberation Army forces can seize and control Taiwan at an acceptable cost, doubts that have very likely been accentuated by Russia’s military failures in Ukraine. In this light, a P.L.A. takeover of Taiwan is not inevitable nor, perhaps, even likely in the next few years, which gives the United States and Taiwan time to bolster their military capabilities and avert conflict.
Recent purges of senior Chinese generals, including the defense minister and two leaders overseeing the country’s nuclear and missile arsenal, hint at Mr. Xi’s lack of confidence in his military’s warfighting capability. While the reasons for these cabinet removals have not been made public, signs point to possible corruption and its impact on military preparedness. Officers who are lining their own pockets, if that is the case, are likely not taking seriously enough Mr. Xi’s instruction to be prepared to seize Taiwan by 2027. Mr. Xi has frequently admonished the P.L.A. to improve military training and strengthen combat readiness.
Russia’s debacle in Ukraine is a cautionary tale for Mr. Xi. Early in the war, the battle-hardened Russian military failed in the relatively straightforward task of crossing a land border to capture Kyiv. The P.L.A. would face even greater difficulty in crossing the Taiwan Strait. A large-scale amphibious invasion is among the most difficult military operations, requiring air and maritime superiority and the ability to sustain an invading force during a lengthy campaign.
For Mr. Xi, the political risks of anything less than a quick, low-cost and successful invasion are huge. A protracted stalemate could undermine his assertion that China is strong and powerful again, jeopardizing his goals of national rejuvenation and a powerful military. Even more worrying for Beijing is the possibility of defeat at the hands of a well-equipped, dug-in and defiant Taiwan, aided by the potential intervention of U.S. forces. It’s a nightmare scenario that could weaken Mr. Xi’s hold on power and even threaten Communist Party rule.
The Chinese leader can also not help but grasp the heavy price being paid by Russia in Ukraine: military casualties estimated at nearly 300,000 and counting; a severe weakening of the Russian economy because of international sanctions; incalculable harm to its global reputation; and an accelerated decline in Russia’s national power.
It’s a perilous time for Mr. Xi to court such danger.
China’s economy is facing long-term slower growth. This raises the specter of dissatisfaction or even social instability if the government continues to prioritize security and political control over economic well-being. Thousands of demonstrators across the country protested Mr. Xi’s obsession with control late last year, taking to the streets to denounce strict Covid policies, which were subsequently lifted. Some demonstrators voiced rare demands for political change, including Mr. Xi’s removal. Domestic support for a potential bloody war over Taiwan might not last long. Because of China’s now-lifted one-child policy, its armed forces are mostly composed of sons with no siblings. Their parents expect those soldiers to support them in old age and may take to the streets if casualties were to rise.
Yet another factor likely to restrain Mr. Xi is the prospect of the United States aiding Taiwan. Bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress for Taiwan’s security has never been stronger, and President Biden has repeatedly said the United States would support Taiwan militarily if China attacked. My conversations with Chinese experts suggest that Beijing firmly believes the United States values Taiwan as an important strategic bulwark in containing China and will intervene to prevent a Chinese takeover of the island.
Still, there are scenarios where Mr. Xi may feel compelled to take military action. If a future Taiwan government pushes for formal independence through a referendum or constitutional revision, Mr. Xi could conclude that the political risks of inaction — to him and the Communist Party — outweigh the risk of war. A move by an American president or Congress to restore diplomatic recognition to Taiwan — or return to the defense treaty that it had with Taipei before the United States switched diplomatic recognition to Communist China in 1979 — could similarly force Mr. Xi’s hand, even if he is not confident of battlefield success.
Even without such an outright trigger, the upcoming January elections in Taiwan could result in another four, or even eight, years of rule by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. Mr. Xi may decide to strike if he begins to feel that Taiwan is slipping further from his grasp, especially if the United States continues to bolster Taiwan’s military and its own forces in the region.
But unless his back is against the wall, Mr. Xi will likely conclude that the risks of an unsuccessful military adventure are too high. This provides an opportunity that the United States and Taiwan must use wisely.
Taiwan must accelerate its shift toward investing in defense capabilities that can survive — and prove lethal against — a potential attack. Since resupplying the island will be extremely difficult if conflict breaks out, it must make a greater effort to stockpile not only munitions, but also food, water and energy. It needs to adopt a whole-of-society approach to its defense that emphasizes national resistance, resilience and the willingness to fight.
The United States should do more to help Taiwan achieve these goals. It also needs to continue efforts to reconfigure its own military posture in East Asia, including spreading out American forces, making them more resilient and procuring more advanced long-range missiles that can outmatch China’s weapons. The overall goal of U.S. military strategy in the region should be to deny Beijing the ability to achieve a rapid, low-cost military victory over Taiwan.
Finally, the United States must also provide credible assurances to Beijing that as long as China refrains from using force against Taiwan, Washington will not support the island’s independence nor return to its past defense treaty with Taipei. Assurances like these can help to avoid war.
In the meantime, China’s rhetoric and aggressive maneuvers should be viewed not as a sign of imminent attack, but for what they are: a demonstration of Chinese resolve that it will not accept Taiwan’s permanent separation from China, and a chance for the P.L.A. to hone its skills — should Beijing one day feel compelled to use them.
Bonnie S. Glaser (@BonnieGlaser) is the managing director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She has worked on China issues as a consultant for the Defense and State Departments.
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