Editor’s Note: This article is part of our 2023 Writing Contest called The Taiwan Offensive, which took place from March 1, 2023 to July 31, 2023. More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.
Elliot Pernula is a currently serving U.S. Army officer, assigned to the United States Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing the People’s Republic of China’s Current and Future Offensive Operations Against the Republic of China (Taiwan) in the Context of China’s International Ambitions
Date Originally Written: July 31, 2023.
Date Originally Published: August 21, 2023.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author believes that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) poses a significant threat to the current world order and that the PRC is currently engaged in a deliberate and focused multi-front offensive operation against Taiwan. This offensive will transition from measured and deliberate to dynamic and kinetic if/when the PRC assesses that an exploitable opportunity has developed.
Summary: The PRC is currently engaging in deliberate, strategically unified, and organizationally layered offensive operations against Taiwan. If left unchecked, the PRC’s deliberate goal-based actions, national initiative, and conceptually aligned efforts will result in the termination of Taiwan’s independence.
Text: The PRC’s current and future means and mode of conducting offensive operations against Taiwan may be viewed through the lens of the Chinese phrase: wei ji, or loosely translated, where danger lurks, opportunity awaits. It is under this concept that the PRC is preparing to boldly strike against Taiwan as soon as circumstances are favorable, while concurrently hedging its goals for Taiwan against its international ambitions.
The PRC’s desired international end state is to be a world power, capable of projecting its influence without external constrains. Subservient and corollary to this is the PRC’s operational end state: the “reunification” of Taiwan through the termination of Taiwan’s ability to independently engage in international commerce, international negotiations, and internal political decision making. While the PRC’s efforts to achieve control of Taiwan span the full spectrum of the instruments of national power (diplomatic, information, military and economic (DIME)), the PRC’s actions are premised on a fundamental informational precept: that any offensive operation taken against Taiwan must be projected to be a defensive operation taken to protect China’s own national sovereignty. In that, the PRC is currently engaged in offensive informational operations that emphasize that it seeks to “reunify” with Taiwan, under the essential premise that there is only one China.
The PRC’s mode of offensive operations center on the concurrent employment of all instruments of national power. To the PRC, a reunification achieved without ever engaging in military action through a de facto diplomatic blockade would be far superior to military operations; however, no instrument of national power exists in a vacuum. Thus, currently, the PRC has launched all instruments of national power against Taiwan with the goal of developing exploitable weaknesses. To the PRC, this full spectrum offensive operation is a gamble on all four elements of DIME; if the PRC presses to heavily in any one area before conditions are ripe, then they may face a backlash from the international community that could hamper its long-term goals. In essence, the PRC will seek to maintain a measured offensive of constant pressure across all instruments of power while watching for an exploitation point and concurrently remaining sensitive to the international community’s responses.
Having accepted the fact that the PRC views the future termination of Taiwan’s independence as a non-negotiable outcome, the critical assessment then must turn to when and how the PRC will act by applying overwhelming force under any one or all of its instruments of national power in its four front gamble. The PRC’s ability to employ maximum military capability will degrade eventually as the PRC’s population ages in the context of its failure to foster future population growth. Essentially, the PRC’s population is aging and the military aged, combat capable population will decrease within the next decades. While this aging makes a near-term military option more attractive, the PRC is not able to independently defeat the Taiwanese military, engage in a global conflict against the United States and its potential responsive coalition members, and then meet its national goals of serving as a post-war superpower.
The projected destruction that would be wrought in a international armed conflict (IAC) between the PRC and the United States makes a direct military offensive against Taiwan unlikely, unless the international environment experiences a circumstance-shift that would make this option feasible. Critically, there are multiple scenarios that would likely trigger the PRC’s rapid employment of direct military action against Taiwan. These scenarios include any United States’ military entanglement in another area of the world such that the PRC assesses that the United States is unable to muster the national will or resources needed to engage in a direct military confrontation with the PRC. To that end, the PRC has employed a consistent emphasis on a one China perspective; this will serve to allow the PRC to characterize any future military conflict as a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) between the legitimate Chinese government and a secessionist faction. This NIAC characterization would likewise serve as the foundation to assert that any foreign direct involvement in support of Taiwan would place the PRC in a defensive status in a conflict that would have then transformed into a IAC. Likewise, there are multiple traplines that have been laid that may trigger an immediate, direct, and full spectrum offensive with the purpose of immediate “reunification,” such as any formal declaration of independence by Taiwan, direct foreign basing within Taiwan, offensive-capable military alignment with a foreign government, or dire economic internal PRC turmoil that would make internal societal unification against a common enemy (Taiwan) attractive.
The PRC will, therefore continue to engage in unified offensive operations across all of its instruments of national power while it waits for a exploitation point. Essentially, the PRC has one clear goal: to stand as an unencumbered world power; reunification with Taiwan is an essential brick in the road to achieve this goal. To that end, the PRC will develop redundant threat capabilities that will allow it to concurrently muster all instruments of national power against Taiwan with a goal of applying pressure and then exploiting any opportunity to achieve immediate reunification as well as to disincentivize intervention by the United States. Thus, the PRC seeks to apply the methodical principles of the game of Go against both Taiwan and the United States with the hopes of a bloodless offensive, while holding onto the willingness to launch unified offensive operations if the conditions so warrant. In Go, one may gain a critical advantage by securing exterior blocking positions before moving against near opponent positions. This strategy requires a player to both push far against an opponent while simultaneously strangling center and near opponent positions (i.e., securing positions in with a corner, side, then center order formula); yet, this strategy works when one spends the time to calculate an endgame scenario well in advance of striking against near-opponent pieces. An early assault may foreclose future opportunities. One must both block in the deep game, develop exploitation opportunities in the near game, and strike when one may win with power enough to take advantage incrementally developed initiative.
Fundamentally, the United States’ options are limited. The PRC’s goal is clear, its efforts unified, and its power regionally great. The PRC has indicated that it will abolish Taiwanese independence. This unified effort is contrasted with the United States’ apparent goal of simply maintaining the status quo; the United States will not have the ability to rally national will for the purposes of defending this undefined, poorly understood, and operationally difficult position. Thus, the United States will either deter the PRC until future circumstances prevent the PRC’s actions to reunify, or it will align itself with Taiwan in such a way that the PRC’s reunification ambitions are quashed. However, such as during the Peloponnesian War, a goal-based, rising power has a near spiritual advantage when applying pressure against another great power whose goal is to mere defend the status quo.
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