In recent days, two government officials — one Taiwanese, the other American — have made noteworthy predictions about just when the People’s Republic could attack Taiwan.
Chen Ming-tong, the director of Taiwan’s national-security bureau, last week told his country’s parliament that Chinese officials had debated attacking the Pratas Islands but decided against doing so before 2024, according to Reuters. Chen didn’t reveal the source of his intelligence.
The islands, which are in the South China Sea, are frequently cited as a potential target if Beijing decides to begin an incremental assault on Taiwan. In a report on the islands last summer, Bloomberg noted that they are “uninhabited except for a garrison of Taiwanese marines and coast guard officers” and that Beijing’s air-defense identification zone incursions regularly follow a path between Taiwan and these outlying islands, some 250 miles apart. On this Taiwanese defense-ministry map indicating the most recent incursion, the Pratas are marked by the purple dot, while the Chinese aircraft routes are shown by the red and green arrows:
3 PLA aircraft (J-11*2 and KJ-500 AEW&C) entered #Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ on November 8, 2021. Please check our official website for more information: https://t.co/uywqhwiSy0 pic.twitter.com/DvaIvxXkrq
— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. 🇹🇼 (@MoNDefense) November 8, 2021
In addition to the distance from Taiwan, defending Pratas Island entails a number of other challenging factors, as Yoshiyuki Ogasawara, a professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, described at The Diplomat:
Pratas Island (the other “islands” in the group are essentially rocks) has an airport, but no permanent inhabitants, only a number of civil officials of the Taiwanese Coast Guard and researchers. It is believed that around 500 soldiers of the ROC Marine Corps are also now stationed there. However, because the island is so small and flat, it is almost impossible to defend.
Clearly, the Pratas would make for an enticing target if Beijing were to attempt an attack short of invasion to test the international response. Seizing the island group would be a viable option if Chinese officials wanted to impose punishing “half-measures,” as Stanford University’s Oriana Skylar Mastro put it in her testimony to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission earlier this year. That scenario could well be the prelude to a more intense assault.
If the assessment presented by Chen is reliable, Taiwan’s leaders can be confident that such a contingency is not in their immediate future, though it may still be on the horizon: “Our assessment is that this will not happen during President Tsai’s tenure,” he said, according to Reuters. “In the next one, two, three, years, within President Tsai’s tenure, it won’t happen.” That’s not a long time. Tsai’s tenure will end in May 2024, when a new Taiwanese leader is inaugurated.
It’s not clear how Chen reached this conclusion, or whether a Chinese decision not to attack the Pratas means that Beijing won’t take a different stab at escalating its pressure on Taiwan, perhaps via going after a different island or putting in place a blockade. However, his comments give us a sense for how Taiwanese officials are thinking through this challenge.
Their American counterparts are also situating Chinese strategy in the context of major international events. Former national-security adviser Robert O’Brien told Nikkei Asia in an interview published November 2 that a Chinese attack on Taiwan could follow the U.S. political calendar and that the Chinese would be unwilling to act before the Beijing 2022 Olympics: “That window between the Olympics and the next presidential election could be a window that President Xi believes that he has an opportunity to create mischief when it comes to Taiwan.” According to Nikkei, O’Brien said that Beijing would be eager to act before the potential election of a China hawk like Donald Trump or Mike Pompeo.
Taken with Chen’s comments, that suggests a narrower window — between Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election in January and the U.S. election ten months later — that could be particularly perilous.