Skip to main content

Military personnel stand next to U.S. Harpoon A-84, anti-ship missiles and AIM-120 and AIM-9 air-to-air missiles prepared for a weapon loading drills in front of a U.S. F-16V fighter jet at the Hualien Airbase in Taiwan's southeastern Hualien county, on Aug. 17.Johnson Lai/The Associated Press

The thunderous roar of jet fighters taking off from the air base near Wang Ting-yu’s house has become a familiar part of the Taiwanese legislator’s life. The other day, they launched at 6 a.m. local time, on their way to intercept Chinese warplanes that routinely harass the self-governed island.

Like many on Taiwan, Mr. Wang, a senior member of his Parliament’s foreign affairs and defence committee, is getting used to a faster tempo of military action as the Asian territory prepares for 2027, the year when many in Taipei believe China will be capable of invading.

Beijing drew the world’s attention in August when it encircled Taiwan with warships and launched ballistic missiles over the island as part of live-fire exercises – drills initiated in response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province, even though the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled the island since taking power on the mainland in 1949. It bristles against what it considers foreign interference in the matter and has reserved the right to use force to annex Taiwan.

Beijing’s August conduct, which Taiwan’s government condemned as a dress rehearsal for an attack, has raised the biggest question facing military strategists today: How much time does Taiwan have left before China invades?

The year 2027 looms large for Taiwan, which Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed will one day be brought under Beijing’s control. That’s when, as U.S. Admiral Philip Davidson, then-head of Indo-Pacific Command, informed a Senate committee in 2021, China will have acquired the capacity to take Taiwan by force. Last week, CNN reported CIA deputy director David Cohen as saying that while Mr. Xi has not made the decision to invade Taiwan, he wants the People’s Liberation Army to have the capability by 2027.

Taiwanese policy makers and military thinkers say they can’t ignore the threat that 2027 will represent. Nevertheless many hold out hope that they can dissuade Beijing, either by diplomacy or deterrence, to put off any timetable for invasion.

In Taiwan, fear of Chinese invasion sparks fresh interest in self-defence

Canada sails warship through Taiwan Strait

Alex Huang, the envoy to the United States for Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang, or KMT, said he believes through the right kind of negotiation and communication with China, a military attack on the self-ruled island could be delayed indefinitely.

“That’s our goal, to kick the can down the road as much as possible because Xi Jinping won’t be there forever,” he said.

Ou Si-fu, a director at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research, or INDSR, said a full-scale invasion could very well start like China’s August military drills. In a war, PLA warships and planes encircling the island would first enforce a blockade designed to starve Taiwan of energy and food.

The risk for Taiwan is a blockade alone might not rise to a threshold where the United States can justify getting involved.

Mr. Huang of the KMT, also chair of Taiwan’s Council on Strategic and Wargaming Studies, said he’d expect China would first launch missiles to destroy Taiwan’s electrical power. This would ensure Taiwan’s leadership could not copy Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in using social media and video conferences to rally support among compatriots or world leaders.

“There would be no Zelensky in Taiwan. ... You could not deliver a lecture or a speech in any parliament of any foreign country.”

With 2027 less than five years away, Taiwan is engaged in a race against time, acquiring new jet fighters and new battle tanks over the next few years, as well as domestically built submarines to harass the Chinese military at choke points at the north and south of the island.

Shen Ming-shih, the acting deputy chief executive officer of the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, noted that China’s 21st Party Congress will be held in 2027, when Mr. Xi could seek another term or wrap up his tenure as leader. ”He needs a big achievement to say, ‘Okay I already unified Taiwan so I can move to a fourth term.’ Or, ‘I can step down because the historic mission is done.’ ”

In recent years, Taiwan has faced pressure from U.S. officials to dial back its purchases of big-ticket conventional warfare assets and pivot to unconventional warfare strategies that could harass and slow down an invading force. And so Taiwan is embracing what Mr. Ou calls a “porcupine strategy” designed to make a land invasion so difficult that China, which wants a quick victory to pre-empt U.S. intervention, would think twice.

American assistance remains the wild card.

In Washington, wargaming scenarios run since February in a project affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies found the United States, with support from Japan, could in most cases stop an invasion of China – but at a very heavy cost to both sides. The simulations found the United States would lose between 500 to 900 aircraft, two air carriers and 20 to 30 surface combatant ships.

In one scenario where the United States declined to get involved, Taiwan held out for two-and-a-half months before losing to China, said retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the centre.

The United States has maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan that does not make clear how it would respond to a military assault of the island.

But that appears to have shifted under President Joe Biden, who has three times now said Washington would come to the military aid of Taipei.

Mr. Wang, a member of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said he believes Mr. Biden has retired “strategic ambiguity” and replaced it, for security matters at least, with “strategic clarity.” While Washington will never take a position backing Taiwan independence, it’s no longer being vague about whether it would lend a hand in a Taiwan Strait war, he said.