How Hard Would It Be For China To Invade Taiwan?

How Hard Would It Be For China To Invade Taiwan?

Modern Military

“I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we [US] will fight [China] in 2025”. General Mike Minihan, Commander, US Air Mobility Command

On September 17th, 1940 Hitler indefinitely postponed Operation Sealion; the planned invasion of Britain. He had good reason.  None of the basic conditions for a successful invasion had been met. First, on September 15th the Luftwaffe had received a mauling at the hands of the Royal Air Force which denied any chance the Germans could establish air superiority over the Channel and proposed landing grounds near Hastings. Second, the Kreigsmarine was in no position to escort the Wehrmacht across some 30 miles/40km of open sea under ferocious attack from the Royal Navy, world’s biggest navy at the time. The plan was to land three of the Wehrmacht’s best divisions on the southern English coast supported by paratroopers.  Had they tried it is likely all three divisions would have become destroyed.

Fast forward to 2023.  In late January a memo appeared online from General Mike Minihan warning US forces of a conflict with China as early as 2025, most likely over an invasion of Taiwan.  He warned that the 2024 Taiwanese presidential elections could be a pretext for invasion.  In August 2022, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) carried out a major exercise simulating just such an invasion.  

That begs a question: just what would it take for the People’s Republic of China to successfully invade the Republic of China?   

History would suggest that President Xi would need to feel pretty threatened to undertake such a gamble. Any Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be fraught with danger for Chinese forces.  Yes, in some ways such a massive air-maritime-amphibious operation would be different to those of the past.  It would doubtless be preceded by a massive missile barrage, as well as cyber and other information warfare attacks designed to take out critical Taiwanese infrastructures and people. However, it would not be THAT different.  

Plans, planning and experience

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder said that, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force”. Take the D-Day maritime amphibious invasion of France in June 1944. Portsmouth to the Normandy beaches is a distance of 180km or 110 miles, whilst the distance between mainland China and Taiwan across the Strait of Taiwan is exactly the same. However, prior to D-Day Anglo-American forces had undertaken five major maritime-amphibious invasions. Operation Torch in North Africa in November 1942, Operation Husky in Sicily in July 1953, Operation Avalanche at Salerno in October 1943 and Operation Shingle at Anzio in January 1944.

Experience gained is the best proof against such failure. Both Britain and the US were long-experienced blue water naval powers with corps of marines that had pioneered and were pioneering such operations both in the European and Pacific theatres of World War Two. Even so, D-Day was a gamble, even though Nazi forces were fighting in Russia and the so-called Atlantic Wall spread thinly from Northern Norway to the Spanish border with France. And yet, five American, British and Canadian divisions landed on D-Day. That D-Day was a success was in no small part because the conditions that were absent for Operation Sealion were in place for Operation Overlord: excellent intelligence, the support of the local population and undisputed Allied control of both air and sea. The ‘only’ contest Allied forces faced was getting ashore and establishing quickly an unassailable bridgehead. 

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No doubt the Chinese have studied the extremely extensive and intensive Chiefs of Staff Supreme Allied Command (COSSAC) plans that led to D-Day in their own planning, which they have clearly now completed.  However, recent exercises testing Chinese Naval Infantry suggest the force is neither big enough nor experienced enough to successfully assault Taiwan without being effectively destroyed in the process.  For all their burgeoning and impressive equipment the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and its air force simply lack the experience of contested blue water power projection and/or massive joint maritime-amphibious operations. Therefore, at present, Chinese planning suggests more Operation Sealion, i.e. an attempt to force a settlement through the threat of invasion, rather than Operation Overlord, an actual invasion.

The First Battle of the Next War?

Early in 2023 Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released the findings of a series of war games entitled, “The First Battle of the Next War” they had conducted simulating a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in which the US and Japan was engaged. They suggested that under any scenario the People’s Liberation Army and Navy would see at least 10000 troops killed with tens of thousands more taken prisoner. The Chinese would likely lose 138 ships and 155 aircraft.   However, both the US and Japan would also suffer very significant losses, with Taiwan losing its entire navy of destroyers and frigates.

There is an additional factor President Xi would have to take into account – the ferocity of the defence. This would certainly be the case given the past history between the Chinese Communist Party and Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist Party which retreated to then Formosa following the latter’s defeat in 1949. My father once told me a story that had been told to him by my grandfather. In the summer of 1940, at the height of the invasion scare, my grandfather was serving in a Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Mallard, off the south coast of England.

Moreover, he told my father that they were ordered to intercept what appeared to be a commando-style raid by German forces. When they intercepted the German force they discovered they were in wooden boats and were about to take them prisoner when an order came through from the very top of government that there were to be no prisoners. Rather, they were ordered to ring the German force in fuel oil and set it alight as a message to Hitler about the ferocity with which German forces would be met if they attempted to invade.  

My grandfather was not prone to telling lies; however I have never found any corroborating evidence in support of his story, although there are stories of burnt corpses of German soldiers washing ashore. Sadly, any ‘evidence’ if it exists has now become lost to the world of conspiracy theorists. If it is true, the information would probably become covered by a 100 year release restriction because it would have been a war crime; not dissimilar to the murder of 80 members of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment by the Waffen SS at Wormhoudt in June 1940. However, I do know my grandfather lived with the images of what he says happened for the rest of his life.  Chinese forces could expect a similar reception if they ever attempted to invade Taiwan.

It may be that General Minihan’s leaked memo is simply a general musing to keep his forces focused on their mission. They do that. Still, the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is a real one and must not become discounted.  

Written by Julian Lindley-French

Julian Lindley-French 

Moreover, analyst, author, commentator and speaker. With ten books to my name. Including three for Oxford University Press, including “Future War and the Defence of Europe. My job is to speak truth unto power in an age when the gap between power, people and politics is growing dangerously wide. In addition, my focus is the tension between strategy and politics. In additin, with an emphasis on security and defence policy. Furthermore, my analysis is the product of many years policy and practitioner experience, allied to long and deep research. Sadly, I also support Sheffield United Football Club – the triumph of endless hope over long, hard, and painful experience!

Forthcoming Book

Future War and the Defence of Europe (Oxford University Press English Edition and Kosmos Press German Edition)

Recent Books:

2017: The Geopolitics of Terror – Demons and Dragons (Routledge)
2015: NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2015 (Routledge)
2015: Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power ( 2nd and paperback edition) (Amazon)
2014; The Oxford Handbook of War (paperback edition) (Oxford University Press)
2014: Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power (Kindle e-book)
2012: The Oxford Handbook of War (Oxford University Press)
2007: A Chronology of European Security and Defence (Oxford University Press)
2007; NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2007 (Routledge)
2003: Terms of Engagement (EUISS)
1998: Coalitions & the Future of Security Policy

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How Hard Would It Be For China To Invade Taiwan?