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China is not ready to invade Taiwan (yet)

Members of China's military are judged as much on loyalty as ability. Credit: Getty

January 2, 2024 - 4:00pm

China ended 2023 by doubling down on its military purges, removing nine generals and three officials from companies linked to the aerospace defence sector. Then, in his New Year address, Xi Jinping pledged ahead of presidential elections in Taiwan this month that “reunification is inevitable”. 

The problem is that the purge and reshuffle of China’s strategic top command posts demonstrates how far the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is from being able to sustain a war which would likely involve the US. Xi also recently culled leading members of the rocket force, responsible for China’s missile programme. This follows on from the detention and removal of defence minister Li Shangfu in October, as well as the sacking of two generals overseeing China’s nuclear missile programme in August.

As for the motivation behind these actions, there is speculation about corruption, political disloyalty, incompetence and even espionage. It is also possible that Xi has witnessed major shortcomings in his armies and is cleaning house before launching an attack on Taiwan. But regardless of the specific motive, what is clear from the ongoing purge is that despite his assertive tone, Xi is not confident in China’s armed forces. In that light, don’t expect China to engage in larger military operations against Taiwan or the US in the short term.

On several occasions, Xi has asked the PLA to be “ready to win wars”, and set an ambitious modernisation programme with the aim of being a “world class” army by 2050. That date would coincide with the centenary of the People’s Republic of China in 2049, when, according to the official narrative, “China’s national rejuvenation” should be completed. This means, among other things, reunification with Taiwan. 

Yet Xi’s internal cull shows he is not there yet. Corruption in Beijing’s military has been a decades-long problem, seen as an obstacle to the professionalisation and modernisation of the PLA. But in modern China, competence does not just mean professional talent, but political loyalty too. Control over the military has long been a preoccupation of Xi’s, ensuring the PLA doesn’t harbour senior officers opposed to his leadership. To this end, he has stressed that the PLA is the army of the Party, not of the Chinese nation. As the leader of the CCP, this should involve personal loyalty to him.

Amid this upheaval, China is not yet abandoning its ambition over Taiwan. Really, Xi is preparing for a future conflict over the contested territory. The appointment of Admiral Dong Jun, former head of the PLA Navy (PLAN), as the new defence minister reveals the larger role that the Chinese Premier wants for the PLAN within China’s military restructuring. This points towards a future invasion of Taiwan by sea, and the need for the PLAN to challenge the US Navy’s control of the waters. China’s army is not yet ready for war, but Xi is running out of patience.


Miquel Vila is a political consultant specialising in international affairs. He is also the executive director of the Catalonia Global Institute.

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Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
6 months ago

Why do we assume that conflict is a must? Inflicting heavy damage on Taiwan hardly benefits the CCP. It’s not likely that Xi will be a factor in 2049 and Taiwan has an upcoming election that could shape what the natives think. One of the contenders is friendly to Beijing, the incumbent leadership wants to keep Xi at arm’s length.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
6 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

If Xi is rational and logical, you are correct. The US is unlikely to initiate a conflict at any point because they have little to gain and much to lose.
Logically speaking, Taiwan is strategically significant for its microchip production and technology. China would like to acquire that, but doing so through warfare risks destroying much of it. The US will want to keep the chips flowing but not at the expense of surrendering military advantage. It’s likely that during the conflict, the irreplaceable chip making machinery would be mysteriously destroyed like Nordstream 2. The US could blame it on an irrational dictator in the same manner. More than this, the act of attacking Taiwan would trigger retaliations from trading partners that would hurt China’s already flagging economy. There would be no going back to normal. The US would have no more reason to tolerate China’s unfair trade practices and every reason, plus a good excuse, to ring fence themselves and their client states into a military-economic bloc arrangement similar to the first Cold War.
However, people are not always logical. While the costs to China of invading Taiwan far exceed the possible gains by most measures, Xi has nevertheless emphasized the symbolic importance of reunification. Symbols draw their power from people’s perception of them, and this one represents a simple pass/fail for China’s national pride. Either Xi succeeds at reunification or does not, a victory or a defeat. Rationality and cost calculations give way to stubborn pride, and the world faces a conflict only one side wants and nobody needs. There certainly doesn’t need to be a conflict, but we may get one anyway, depending on how irrational Xi Jinping truly is.

Carl Valentine
Carl Valentine
6 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Agreed. Why is everyone so obsessed with the idea that China will invade Taiwan, sure it belongs to them, but why risk so many lives, they just need to wait, the Americans are doing a great job of ruining things, why not just let them degrade themselves. Are the Chinese really that bad? Worse than the Americans? We do not have any real evidence to suggest they are, plenty of bad deeds from the USA, lots of enforced regime changes and wars, most recently Ukraine…

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
6 months ago

Xi is a dictator like Putin. Any dictator needs to be aggressive in order to demonstrate his suitability for the job. If Xi does nothing, there will be whispers, the whispers will become plots and another dictator will take over and Xi and his family will disappear off the face of the Earth.
Xi has to invade Taiwan. And soon. Better for us all that he does it before China is strong enough to succeed??

El Uro
El Uro
6 months ago

At a minimum, he is not governed by logic – the major mistake Westerners always make.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
6 months ago

Like Hitler in the 1930’s Xi is obsessed with his people attaining their rightful place among the nations; that is as a dominant power if not a global hegemon. Like Hitler, he keeps a long list of grievances and insults allegedly perpetrated against the Chinese people and nation over the centuries. Like Hitler, he has built up his military and pursued expansionism in various places. It would not surprise me if Xi made the same mistake, attacking before he had a decisive advantage, and for the same reasons, impatience, hubris, and ego.

j watson
j watson
6 months ago

Blockade before invasion. And putting a Navy man in overall charge may reinforce that.
Apparently the west coast of Taiwan is not very amenable to amphibious landings either. 90 miles is not the English channel either. So high stakes blockade more likely. Cuban missile crisis mk 2.
What Xi’s learnt from Putin is the corruption and sclerosis will run deep in the PLA and thus fact he’s grasped that and tackling it doesn’t indicate he’s not strongly minded to deploy.