Taiwan has been in and out of the headlines in 2022. Its importance spiked briefly after the February invasion of Ukraine by Russia, with many wondering “is Taiwan next?”. Since then, it has mostly exited the mainstream headlines, but the news cycle has gotten far more concerning in the past two months. What had been an ‘it might happen someday’ risk of a move by China against Taiwan is now becoming more probable. We are not saying definitively that China does something by the end of the year- but we are pointing out that the actions and rhetoric are continuing to escalate to very risky levels. Keep a close eye on Taiwan for the rest of the summer.
We did a detailed piece last year outlining the very troublesome future facing Taiwan- it’s outnumbered, surrounded, and its allies are in no position to help in the event of a major conflict. Re-taking Taiwan is the Chinese Communist Party’s number one strategic goal, and they are preparing to do it. While everyone expects a D-Day style landing on the island, we are looking for something different. We think they would start with a blockade, cyber-attacks and attacks on civilian infrastructure. Then they would escalate the military pressure until Taiwan folded. This entire process may take just three or four weeks, or several months.
This takeover has been discussed in the press for years. Timing has been the million dollar question. In the prior piece, we highlighted that the window of 2022-25 seemed the ideal time for China to make a move. But now we are seeing several things pointing to more imminent action, which are being missed by other commentators. It’s very possible that the Chinese could start making their initial moves by this October.
China Moving to A War Time Footing
News from the past two months has seen China seemingly adopt a war time footing, with domestic planning for a war time economy. China has increased its aerial and naval provocations of Taiwan. We think they are doing this to confuse the Taiwanese over the next year. If they routinely fly 20 or 30 Chinese planes into Taiwanese airspace, the Taiwanese will be complacent when ‘the real attack’ comes.
Multiple stories and recordings are emerging of senior military and party officials briefing local officials on the need to transition to a war time economy.
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Taiwan Strait Controversy
More recently, China has come out with a very bold claim- that it owns the Straits of Taiwan, the body of water separating China and Taiwan. It has regarded recent US aircraft and ships going through there as a violation of its sovereignty.
This is typically the last step before a war. It creates a new narrative. China is not being an aggressor towards a small island nation- China is defending its waters against foreign incursions. They must act decisively now to make sure foreigners will not menace the country like they did in the 19th century, when the Brits, French, Japanese, Russians and Americans all took chunks of Chinese territory.
The Ukraine Precedent
China and Russia have developed a deep strategic partnership over the past ten years. Both feel boxed in by the West, and they bring complementary strengths to the table. Russia is abundant in natural resources like coal, wheat, platinum, oil, and water. China is short on all of these. On the other hand, China has a well-developed financial and technological system and is the world’s leading manufacturer of nearly everything at this point. It is the Western Pacific hegemon again and rapidly catching up to the US globally.
Since the 2014/15 sanctions from the US, the two have developed close ties and military cooperation. Indeed, visitors to a Moscow airport will be surprised to see that immigration has set up ‘express lanes’ for Chinese visitors with signs in Chinese characters, a privilege shared by no other language. The vast majority of those visiting Red Square and the Kremlin are Chinese. Both countries must have been laughing heartily at the US military during its bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan. The first government the Taliban called was China, to help develop rare earth minerals.
The first big test in combat of this partnership was earlier this year, at the start of the Russian ‘special operation’ in Ukraine. The Russians likely briefed the Chinese extensively, but with enough plausible deniability. The USA repeatedly told the Chinese of the likelihood of an attack, the New York Times says, but they played dumb and never interfered with Russia.
The invasion went off and although the Chinese have not committed troops or actively supported Russia, they have also not done anything to impede it. No sanctions, no restrictions, no public outrage or anything along those lines. Clearly, the Chinese are being a very good silent partner here.
After Biden criticized the Chinese for being on the wrong side of history, China’s officials blasted back in no uncertain terms: “The claim that #China is on the wrong side of history is overbearing. It is the #US that is on the wrong side of history,” Hua Chunying, China’s assistant foreign minister said in a tweet. (Bloomberg, March 18 2022).
With the US and NATO proving feckless five months into the Ukraine operation, the Chinese must sense they have no US led stop sign preventing them acting on Taiwan. Thus far the US has sold a few weapons, levied sanctions and said nasty things about Russia. But they have committed no real troops to combat, no major equipment to the Ukrainians, and not tried to confront Russia anywhere else (i.e. Syria). Taiwan is even further afield, and would represent a second front for the US. Do they really want to commit to a long drawn out naval war with such economically important partners? Unlikely.
The Russians will be a very good silent partner, covertly helping Chinese cyber and military efforts and informing them of Western troop movements. There is a rumor going around that they already have been briefed and know the date (see later). The US and NATO, knowing that they potentially face taking on both powers at the same time, would be even more cautious to get involved. The recent assassination of Shinzo Abe in Japan also removes the most prominent hawk against China / for Taiwan from their national dialogue.
Timing the Inevitable
With tension going from red hot to white hot of late, when could we expect something? If anything is going to happen, we are banking on a start to activity in late August to mid October. After a long discussion of tides, weather, and winds in the Straits of Taiwan, author Ian Easton concludes: “Given these limitations, PLA materials express a belief that there are only two realistic time windows open for invading Taiwan. The first is from late March to the end of April. The second is from late September to the end of October.” (The Chinese Invasion Threat, 2018, Chapter Four).
The end of August is the start of the window when cyber, naval and air operations could begin, preparing the island for a final conquest by ground troops, if necessary, in October. Xi Jinping will face the 20th Communist Party Congress in November of 2022, and will have to bring some red meat to the nationalists and military hard-liners who support him. This confluence of increased provocation, diplomatic spats over the Taiwan Straits, the technical window, and the political calendar, all points to an ugly September/October for Taiwan.
Recently, the opposition KMT party in Taiwan has made some pro-China comments, and only backtracked after public opposition. I think they are being groomed/bribed to govern.
“On Tuesday (June 28), the KMT’s Director of International Affairs Alexander Huang (黃介正) during an online interview said that while the KMT did not accept Chinese claims that the Taiwan Strait is its internal waters, Beijing did have the right to claim waters beyond its maritime boundaries as its exclusive economic zone. Huang also went on to say that the U.S. has no legal basis to claim the Taiwan Strait as an “international waterway.” (Taiwan News, June 30th)
The Chinese have said in all their materials that they have many ways to attack Taiwan, and that the ideal solution is to combine them. The Chinese planners have long admired America’s actions in Operation Desert Storm, and want to follow that model of containment, bombardment, and surprise attack. Something similar will likely happen in Taiwan. Initial attacks would be on crucial infrastructure, cyber attacks, cutting Internet and power. It may not even involve kinetic weapons. China would then move to isolate the island nation by a blockade or a destruction of major ports. Then they would establish air and sea dominance by a massive bombardment of military assets. Only then, if necessary, would they seize a few key landing points for a ground invasion.
Taiwan is an island approximately the size of Maryland, or about half the size of Scotland. While it has a large coastline, the fact is that Taiwan is very mountainous and only has roughly 15 beaches that would work militarily. Taiwan knows that and has spent 50 years heavily fortifying all of these locations. They have troops, machine gun nests, missiles hidden in mountains, artillery, and other defensive assets. They have put substantial fortifications and obstacles for a half-mile off of the coast. Some writers have speculated that Taiwan has even wired some potential landing sights with a napalm like substance that could send an entire beach of invaders up in flames in seconds. A day one ground invasion, without removing these defenses, would be an unmitigated failure for China. The PLA would need a several week buildup before attempting a large troop landing. Don’t look for “D-Day 2022”, look for a continued escalation across all fronts before it (possibly) ends in a large maritime invasion.
Putin’s Emergency Meeting and The Rumor Mill
On June 23rd, Putin made a rare appearance at the Kremlin, for an emergency meeting at 11pm on a Saturday night in the middle of summer. Putin does nearly all of his meetings at a villa outside of Moscow, or at international venues. To call this late night visit to the Kremlin unusual would be an understatement. Everyone wondered what was going on but there were no official reasons.
We often read the rumor mill on all sides to sift for data, monitor viewpoints, and listen for what governments push to the people. Most of it is inaccurate or not worth passing along, but in this case, it is worth noting that a couple of the reliable Russian rumor mill accounts had an explanation. They were sure that this meeting was the Chinese laying out its Taiwan plans to Putin and his inner circle. A date has been set and they are going to move along the path to annexation by year end. The specific timing remains shrouded in secrecy, of course, but the timeline has moved up. This would mirror the Chinese knowledge of Russia and Ukraine that happened late last year / early this year.
Taiwan is a small island with roughly 25m people. Ordinarily this would mean that Taiwan’s economy does not have global significance, but Taiwan’s tremendous importance in one industry makes that untrue. Taiwan is the world’s dominant maker of semiconductors, producing at least 50% of the world’s supply depending on how you slice it. The country’s largest maker, Taiwan Semiconductor, popularized the foundry model: other companies design and sell the chips, and can use Taiwan Semi’s production facilities to make them. Companies can scale up or down production as needed and keep pace with current manufacturing technologies. Given that a new chip plant can easily cost $10bn and up, few companies have the capital to design and operate one.
Globally important companies rely on Taiwan for production of chips and assembly of things like motherboards. As an example, Apple only recently saw China overtake Taiwan as a production hub for the company.
Nvidia produces all of its GPUs in Taiwan via Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC).
The trend is so pervasive, estimates are for 70-90% of all US chips coming from Taiwan
China could use this dominance in reverse, as a strategic weapon. If they are successful in a blockade or a full takeover, they could simply cut off shipments of semiconductors to countries that fight against China or that don’t recognize Chinese control over Taiwan. It would take several years to transition all the production from Taiwan to the US, Korea, India etc and this interim period would wreak havoc on the global economy. This cost is simply too high for most advanced economies.
What to Watch For
China seems to be preparing behind the scenes, more and more, for some sort of move on Taiwan. Aggressive rhetoric towards the US, constant ‘drills’ seeing carriers and planes surround Taiwan, and the naval buildup within China all point to preparation. The claiming of the Taiwan Strait, and move to ban international participants, seems like a causus belli in the making. The timing looks likeliest for the September and October window, although nothing is set in stone. But if China desires to do anything in the next three years against Taiwan, then this window is politically and militarily their best bet.
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