The Possibility of a War in the Taiwan Strait Should Not Be Overlooked

March 12, 2021 Updated: March 12, 2021


China military expert Oriana Skylar Mastro told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in a video conference on Feb. 18 that Chinese military leaders have told her personally that Beijing will force reunification with Taiwan in a year or two.

Mastro stated that “the U.S. failure to build robust coalitions to counter Chinese regional aggression” and “cross-strait deterrence is arguably weaker than at any point since the Korean War.”

This caused heated discussion. Is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) going to or able to force Taiwan to be reunited with the mainland? There are different opinions of various angles and analyses. I believe that the possibility of a war in the Taiwan Strait should not be overlooked. I’d like to discuss two reasons.

Taiwan’s Security Predicament

Let’s compare the militaries of Taiwan and Israel in order to understand Taiwan’s security dilemma.

Let’s look at the basic situation in Taiwan first. Taiwan has a population of 23 million, a land of 36,000 square kilometers, a GDP of $635.5 billion in 2020, and a per capita GDP of $26,910.

The Taiwanese army consists of 190,000 personnel. The annual military expenditure has not exceeded 2 percent of GDP for many years. The military budget for 2021, which set a record high, is only NT$366.8 billion (about $13.1 billion, while the CCP’s military expenditure is about 15 times that of Taiwan), accounting for 2 percent of GDP in 2020. Even with the special budget of NT$29 billion and non-operating special funds of NT$57.6 billion for the purchase of new jet fighters (a total of $16.23 billion), the military budget only accounted for 2.5 percent of GDP in 2020.

In the 2016 election, Tsai Ing-wen publicly promised that the annual military budget would reach 3 percent of GDP. However, the four-year defense budget (2017-2020) compiled during her first term in office still accounted for less than 2 percent of GDP.

Israel is a developed country with a population of about 8 million, an actual control area of 25,000 square kilometers, and a GDP of $403.3 billion in 2020.

However, Israel is much more militarized than Taiwan. The Israeli army consists of about 180,000 personnel (equivalent to 4.66 percent of the national labor force, which is the world’s leading proportion).

Epoch Times Photo
Israeli troops advance against Palestinian infiltrators during a training exercise in Pe’at Sadeh settlement in the Gaza Strip on Aug. 16, 2005. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Military expenditure is Israel’s largest single item of fiscal expenditure, and accounts for more than 5 percent of its GDP and in some years, it exceeds 6 percent. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Israel’s military expenditure in 2019 was $20.5 billion, and accounted for 5.3 percent GDP, making Israel the 15th largest military spending country in the world that year. The 2020 defense budget has increased to approximately $22 billion.

Taiwan’s militarization is much less than Israel’s, and Taiwan’s security environment is much worse than Israel’s.

First, although some Arab countries threatened to erase Israel from the earth and they are generally “bigger” and “richer” than Israel, the internal division of the Arab world has made it difficult in terms of combat capability and military strength to fight against Israel. The situation in Taiwan is quite the opposite. The CCP’s military strength has formed a crushing advantage over Taiwan, a seriously out of balance situation along the strait.

Second, Israel’s strong will to fight a war, mature defense system, and rich experience in warfare are prominent in the world, and it can even be said to be unparalleled. The research and development in weapons and equipment, the military training, and the actual combat operations are the three magic weapons for Israel to maintain a strong combat capability and military strength.

Relatively speaking, Taiwan is inferior in this sense. For example, Israel has participated in eight major wars and countless other conflicts of various types since its founding in 1948, while the Taiwanese army has a long history of peace and lacks actual combat experience.

Conscription is required of all Israel citizens over the age of 18. Taiwan has also implemented a policy of compulsory conscription for a long time, but since 2018, it has changed to concurrent recruitment and conscription. Male citizens born after January 1, 1994 are required to accept four months of military training in Taiwan. The combat power of Taiwan’s military, especially its reserve combat capabilities has been a controversial issue.

Under wartime conditions, Israel can effectively mobilize at least tens of thousands of defense reserves into active service within 24 hours and immediately into actual combat—this has become a model for countries, including Taiwan, to learn from.

Third, the United States has given Israel firm and strong support and both countries are de facto strategic allies. In 2019, the United States provided $3.8 billion in foreign military aid to Israel. Moreover, the United States provided a steady stream of advanced technology and weapons to support Israel’s military superiority over Arab countries.

As for Taiwan, there are no firm and strong supporters. The Biden administration has not taken a strong stance on its Taiwan policy.

CCP: Unpredictable and Irrational

From a rational point of view, many believe that the CCP will not dare to attack Taiwan in the short to medium term. Of course, they are backed by concrete reasons.

For example, there was an opinion article published by the Chinese language Epoch Times which analyzed data on the CCP’s military power. It concluded that the top CCP officials’ ambitions, but lack of military strategy has led to an imbalance of the military that focuses more on offense than defense. The CCP’s offensive operations have taken the United States as the enemy. Therefore, the CCP’s army has long been ignored with lagging equipment, its Air Force is still inferior, and the Navy is in an embarrassing situation of receiving the most development but still lacks competitiveness. The army can neither defend itself effectively nor attack with enough strength, its intention and ability are highly mismatched, and the strategy is chaotic.

Epoch Times Photo
A Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning (C), during military drills in the South China Sea, on Jan. 2, 2017. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Given the gap in the military power between China and the United States, the United States absolutely has a way to repel the Chinese army and defend Taiwan. In this situation, the CCP shouldn’t just go ahead and attack Taiwan until the day that “China’s market size and overall economic competitiveness exceeds that of the United States, making the United States unable to implement comprehensive economic sanctions against China when there is a serious military conflict with China,” said Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of state-run tabloid Global Times.

Some experts believe that Xi Jinping will be re-elected for a third term. Beijing must maintain a steady economic development for another year or two. Therefore, the CCP’s plan to attack Taiwan in the near future is unlikely.

However, history shows that many major decisions made by the CCP are often irrational such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the June 4th Massacre, and the persecution of the spiritual practice Falun Gong. If the CCP were rational, it wouldn’t dare rush into taking Taiwan by force; but when the CCP’s irrational decision-making impulse is taken into account, a war in the Taiwan Strait is not unlikely.

On June 4, 2020, former British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt stated in an article in The Times that the CCP may be on the verge of invading Taiwan and abandoning plans of a “peaceful” reunification with the self-ruled island. The reasons include: the CCP leaders witnessed that the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has gained momentum and they worry that it could spread in Taiwan; Taiwan won’t accept the “one country, two systems” framework as the CCP is dismantling it in Hong Kong; the CCP will use military force to bring Taiwan under its control if necessary. The last point is the most concerning.

In fact, the CCP’s claim that the unification of Taiwan as its “core interest” is not out of national interest considerations. The CCP has a hidden agenda: the secure its rule and legitimacy. The CCP violently subverted the Republic of China (ROC—a sovereign state based in mainland China between 1912 and 1949) during the civil war and the ROC retreated after being defeated by the CCP in 1949 and fled to Taiwan. The existence of independent Taiwan has been a reminder of the CCP’s illegal occupation of China. To secure its dictatorship in China, the CCP promoted its brainwashing propaganda: the people must unite with the CCP to fight against the common enemy, the separatist Taiwan. Under this circumstance, the CCP must reclaim Taiwan as its territory.

If a major event triggers the CCP to react, it may make a crazy move to launch a war with Taiwan. Therefore, a war in the Taiwan Strait in the short to medium term isn’t unlikely and the international community should be on high alert.

Wang He has master’s degrees in law and history, and has studied the international communist movement. He was a university lecturer and an executive of a large private firm in China. Wang now lives in North America and has published commentaries on China’s current affairs and politics since 2017.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.