China’s commercial ferries are (mostly) still on their regular runs. And that’s a sign Taiwan is safe from invasion – for now.
Beijing’s warships have surrounded the small island democracy. Combat aircraft are pushing its boundaries. Missiles are set to be fired into hastily vacated shipping lanes around – and inside – its territorial waters.
But, military analysts say the warning signs of a full-blown invasion are yet to materialise fully.
“We would also see the efforts to mobilise civilian vessels, given the limits of China’s own amphibious units,” says MIT Security Studies Program director Taylor Fravel. “In this era of real-time surveillance, there would be satellite imagery akin to those in the run-up to the Russian invasion.”
The cross-strait tension is intense.
One accident. One misunderstanding. That’s all it can take for a clash to erupt between the armed forces of China, Taiwan and the United States.
“We are not eager for a fight, nor will we shy away from one,” says the Tawainese Ministry of National Defense. “The People’s Republic of China announcing air-naval live-fire drills around Taiwan is self-evidently apparent that they seek a cross-strait resolution by force instead of peaceful means.
“Activities around our territory are closely monitored … and will meet our appropriate responses when needed.”
For its part, China’s Eastern Theatre Command issued a press release stating the wargames called as a snap response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei were to practice “joint blockade, sea assault, land attack and air combat capabilities”.
China’s most modern Type 055 guided missile cruisers and aircraft carriers have been observed heading towards the region. Mobile ballistic missile vehicles carrying “carrier-killer” weapons have also been seen moving towards the Taiwan Strait.
But, so far, the core components of a physical invasion remain absent.
No troops are massing at major military ports. No mass gathering of tanks, trucks and transports has been spotted. And China’s secret invasion fleet of disguised civilian ferries largely remain on their commercial routes.
Talking the talk
US Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Philip Davidson told the US Senate Armed Services Committee last year that Beijing would likely attempt to invade Taiwan within the next six years.
“I think our concerns are manifest here during this decade … the numbers of, you know, ships, aircraft, rockets, etc. that they’ve put in the field,” he said.
Chairman Xi Jinping has also made completing his Communist Party’s “unfinished business” a core component of his reign. Taiwan is the last undefeated holdout of the 1949 civil war.
He’s spent much of the past decade ensuring China has a military capable of carrying out his wishes. In fact, he gave it a deadline by which to be prepared: 2020.
The 69-year-old’s navy is now the world’s largest, if not the most powerful. His air force has been modernised. His army reorganised. Islands and reefs in the South China Sea have been seized and converted into enormous fortresses.
Recently, the rhetoric coming out of Beijing has become dramatically heated. Taiwan is back on the agenda. US officials recently warned China might be planning to make a “strong move against Taiwan” within the next 18 months, according to a recent New York Times report.
Not everyone agrees, however. CIA Director Bill Burns said last week that no imminent attack was expected – but added the risk “becomes higher, it seems to us, the further into this decade that you get”.
Walking the walk
Now only uncertainty over the ability and willingness of the US to intervene appears to be holding Xi back.
If he decides to move, the mobilisation of China’s army would likely become apparent months in advance.
And a dead giveaway would be the diversion of China’s ferries.
China launched the first of its helicopter-dock assault ships, the Type 075 class, just last year. Analysts point out these – and their smaller amphibious assault ship cousins – are far too few to carry an invasion force to Taiwan.
But Beijing’s policy of “civil-military fusion” (essentially ensuring civilian infrastructure is built to military standards) means its enormous fleet of roll-on, roll-off car ferries are ready for the job.
“These are vessels equipped with built-in ramps that enable wheeled and tracked cargo to load and offload under their own power. Such ships have the potential to deliver a significant volume of force, providing access to port terminals or other lighterage is available,” Jamestown Foundation analyst Conor Kennedy noted last year.
“For China’s RO-RO ships to support an amphibious assault scenario, their ramps would need to be capable of in-water operations to launch amphibious combat vehicles. This capability appears to have been publicly demonstrated in the summer of 2020 by the PRC-flagged vessel Bang Chui Dao.”
Centre for a New American Security strategic consultant Thomas Shugart has since done the maths. He’s identified 34 large, military-grade RO-RO ships capable of rushing between four and seven Chinese army brigades to Taiwan’s beaches within one day.
“Bear in mind that this is *in addition to* what could be delivered via paradrop, helicopter-borne assault, and of course the PLA Navy’s traditional amphibious assault ships, which would probably lead the assault,” Shugart tweeted.
Signs and portents
“PLA drills surrounding Taiwan are intended to show that it is capable of blockading the entire island and of resolving the Taiwan question through non-peaceful ways, if the situation becomes irretrievable,” threatens China’s Communist Party mouthpiece, the Global Times.
“The drill should be viewed as a war plan rehearsal … In the event of a future military conflict, it is likely that the operational plans currently being rehearsed will be directly translated into combat operations.”
Three of China’s largest RO-RO vessels last month diverted from their usual routes. Shugart tracked them to beaches near the Taiwan Strait often associated with Chinese beachhead practice events. Training their crews to handle an invasion force is another step towards being fully prepared, he adds.
At least two have since headed back towards their home ports.
But that doesn’t mean a snap invasion of Taiwanese territory is off the cards.
“I think they could potentially seize something like Pratas Island without engaging in mobilisations that would be visible at the open-source level,” Shugart says. “For all we know, there’s enough LSDs [dock landing ships] to go take something like Pratas Island – but not Taiwan proper.”
But Columbia University Professor of political science Andrew Nathan believes Beijing has been so successful in its “long game” tactics so far that it’s unlikely to take direct action.
“Beijing can afford to wait for power in the Western Pacific to tip decisively in its favour,” he writes.
“When Washington comes to understand that the cost of defending Taiwan is beyond its means, and Taiwanese officials realise that Washington no longer has the appetite for a clash with China, Taiwan will pragmatically negotiate an arrangement that Beijing can accept.
“In the meantime, China needs only to deter Taipei and Washington from attempting to lock in formal Taiwanese independence. Beijing’s shows of force are not precursors of an imminent attack, therefore, but measures intended to buy time for history to take its course.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel