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How Worried Should We Be about Taiwan’s Future?

A Taiwanese navy honor guard looks on in front of a Taiwanese flag at a ceremony in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, April 13, 2021. (Ann Wang / Reuters)

With China running another wargame on Taiwan’s doorstep, and Chinese state-run media taunting Taiwan that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is “a clearer demonstration of US impotence than the Vietnam War — the US is indeed like a ‘paper tiger,’” Asia-watchers are understandably concerned that a Chinese invasion has rapidly become more likely.

Three big questions to consider:

One: If you were a Chinese military planner preparing for an invasion of Taiwan, would you want Chinese-run state media taunting Taiwan that “once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours and the US military won’t come to help”? Or would you prefer that state-run media shut up to maximize the element of surprise?

Would the psychological morale value of this state-run media message be worth it, considering the offsetting factor of Taiwanese forces and the population being on high alert? Or would Chinese military planners prefer for cross-strait tensions to settle and grow quiet, in hopes of catching the Taiwanese government and people off-guard?

Two: If you’re a Chinese military strategist, and you think the U.S. ability to defend Taiwan declined from 2001 to 2011, and from 2011 to 2021, would you want to invade now, or wait and see if your geopolitical leverage is even better a few years from now? What is the trend-line in U.S. readiness and willingness to defend Taiwan?

Three: One of the lowest-hanging fruits that a Chinese invasion would target is Kinmen Island, “Taiwan’s DMZ,” six miles from the Chinese coast, and about 170 miles from the main island of Taiwan, what used to be called Formosa. One of the other lowest-hanging fruits that a Chinese invasion would target is the Matsu Islands — where the Chinese are sending hundreds of dredgers to scoop up sand off the seafloor, in what Taiwanese authorities fear is a Chinese attempt to wear down, provoke, or intimidate the residents there. Matsu is also only about six miles from mainland China, and 130 miles from the main island of Taiwan.

If the Chinese doubt the American willingness to make sacrifices to defend Taiwan’s main island . . . how much is the United States willing to sacrifice to defend Kinmen and Matsu? And if you wanted to test American resolve, wouldn’t some small obscure islands be the right spot to start a small conflict that would, in theory, be easy to de-escalate from?

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