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.
David Degenhardt is a Major in the United States Army who has previously deployed to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. He currently works at Headquarters, Department of the Army G-1 as a Diversity Planner. 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 Multi-Decade Offensive Against Taiwan
Date Originally Written: May 15, 2023.
Date Originally Published: May 28, 2023.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is an active-duty U.S. military officer who believes that self-determination is a legal right and a key principle of international law.
Summary: The People’s Republic of China has been engaged in an offensive again Taiwan using all four instruments of national power for decades. This offensive is intended to isolate Taiwan, increase dependence on China, control the narrative on Taiwan’s status, and weaken Taiwan’s military. Counteracting this offensive requires Taiwan to recognize this reality and respond to each element of China’s strategy.
Text: Current speculation on the possibility of armed conflict between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan does not address the reality that the PRC has been engaged in an ongoing offensive for decades across all elements of national power. The goal of the PRC’s strategy is to isolate Taiwan from other nations, increase Taiwan’s dependence on China, control the narrative on Taiwan’s independence, and weaken Taiwan in preparation for direct military action. Rush Doshi described the basic form of this strategy as a multi-pronged methodology to place China at the center of a new global order using political, economic, and military instruments. For Taiwan to respond successfully, it must also consider information as an element of national power and respond to all levels of China’s offensive. Because China has been engaging in a complex offensive toward Taiwan for some time, a military invasion of Taiwan would be the culmination of China’s offensive rather than the beginning.
Beginning with the political instrument of national power, China has used diplomatic pressure over the last five decades to reduce the number of countries officially recognizing Taiwan from 56 to 13. Much of the pressure that China applies to accomplish these changes in diplomatic recognition depends on the economic instrument of national power, using continued access to Chinese markets or direct payoffs of development funds as in the case of the Solomon Islands. Although effective, analysts observe that this coercion is motivating some countries to push back by drawing closer to Taiwan and making joint statements about defending the island from invasion. Aside from the obvious response of strengthening relationships with remaining allies, Taiwan could also pursue agreements with those allies to conduct pass-through trade to maintain access to markets in countries China has pressured into compliance.
In addition to using the economic instrument to support its diplomatic efforts, China is also attempting to intertwine its economy with Taiwan’s. According to the Foreign Policy Research Institute this policy is intended to encourage economic dependence, cultivate pro-China factions, and restrict Taiwan’s pursuit of independence and democracy. While some Chinese corporations are nominally independent, under President Xi Jinping the Chinese government has increased pressure on corporations to act in service of government aims or acquired corporations as state-owned enterprises. Even when the Chinese government is not directing corporate engagement in Taiwan, it exercises its authority to permit or encourages these activities. Despite China’s efforts, the Heritage Foundation recently found that changes in U.S. policy and other factors are causing the interdependence of the two economies to grow more slowly or even reverse in some sectors. Taiwan could continue to support businesses driving this trend and consider additional measures such as tax breaks and preference in government contracts for companies that move investment and production facilities out of China.
Turning to the information instrument, China’s uses information efforts to support the other three instruments by influencing foreign and local perception of Taiwan. Doshi describes China’s information strategy as an attempt “to shape public opinion… for political purposes,” citing efforts to intimidate journalists using libel laws and harassment campaigns as well as an incident where a major Taiwanese media company began publishing pro-China stories after a businessman tied to China purchased it in 2008. China has also attempted to leverage United Nations Resolution 2758, which recognized the PRC as the government of China, to push the message that Taiwan is an inseparable element of Chinese territory. Building on this message the PRC claims that the entirety of the Taiwan Strait lies within its territory, making free use of the channel a threat to Chinese sovereignty. Shaping the narrative about Taiwan helps China to delegitimizes the Taiwanese government and lays the groundwork to claim future military action as an internal security matter. To fight these efforts Taiwan might continue to push for de facto and real recognition of its status as an autonomous government through international agreements and high-profile visits of foreign government representatives.
Finally, China has already begun using the military instrument of national power in its offensive against Taiwan through increasingly frequent incursions into Taiwanese air space. China sent planes into Taiwan’s airspace more than 1,700 times in 2022 and more than 600 times in the first four months of 2023. Taiwan is effectively forced to respond to these incursions because not responding would accept China’s right to enter Taiwan’s airspace and run the risk of allowing China to achieve surprise in an actual invasion. Each response degrades Taiwan’s military equipment and incurs maintenance costs, rising into the hundreds of thousands of dollars due to the flight hour cost of Taiwan’s F-16 fleet. These incursions also provide valuable intelligence to Chinese forces concerning how quickly the Taiwanese military can detect and respond to their presence. By normalizing activities around Taiwan, China can also increase complacency and blunt response speed in the event of an invasion. Although Taiwan must logically respond to each incursion, Taiwanese forces could intentionally alter their response patterns and speed to create uncertainty about the real state of their military’s capabilities.
Xi Jinping has stated that China’s goal is reunification with Taiwan, whether that goal is accomplished peacefully or through force. The PRC’s all-instrument offensive against Taiwan is aligned with these principles, allowing for multiple methods to achieve China’s goal while allowing for a military solution. A sufficiently isolated Taiwan might accept a diplomatic agreement with China, pressured by economic concerns as it loses access to markets. Increasing economic interdependence and influence operations could shift public perception to support pro-China political factions in Taiwan. If China resorts to force, international acceptance of China’s narrative on Taiwan’s status would limit the support Taiwan receives from abroad. An actual invasion of Taiwan following China’s ongoing incursion campaign would face worn down defenders whose response times and patterns are well known and incorporated into China’s plans. Taiwanese hopes of defeating such a comprehensive campaign require acknowledging the complexity of the threat and responding in an equally comprehensive manner.
 Doshi, R. (2021, August 2). The long game: China’s grand strategy to displace American order. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/essay/the-long-game-chinas-grand-strategy-to-displace-american-order/.
 Cheung, E. (2023, March 26). Honduras establishes diplomatic ties with China, severs them with Taiwan. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2023/03/25/asia/honduras-cuts-diplomatic-ties-with-taiwan-intl-hnk/index.html.
 Herscovitch, B. (2022, July 5). China’s efforts to isolate and intimidate Taiwan are pushing U.S. allies closer. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. https://gjia.georgetown.edu/2022/07/05/chinas-efforts-to-isolate-and-intimidate-taiwan-are-pushing-u-s-allies-closer/.
 Chang, C. C., & Yang, A. H. (2020). Weaponized interdependence: China’s economic statecraft and social penetration against Taiwan. Orbis, 64(2), 312–333. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.orbis.2020.02.002.
 Wakabayashi, D., Che, C., & Fu, C. (2022, October 17). In Xi’s China, the business of business is state-controlled. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/17/business/china-xi-jinping-business-economy.html.
 Chiang, M. H. (2023, March 23). Taiwan’s economy is breaking away from China’s. The Heritage Foundation. https://www.heritage.org/asia/commentary/taiwans-economy-breaking-away-chinas.
 Doshi, R. (2020, January 9). China steps up its information war in Taiwan. Foreign Affairs. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2020-01-09/china-steps-its-information-war-taiwan.
 Drun, J. & Glaser, B. S. (2022, March 24). The distortion of UN resolution 2758 and limits on Taiwan’s access to the United Nations. The German Marshall Fund of the United States. https://www.gmfus.org/news/distortion-un-resolution-2758-and-limits-taiwans-access-united-nations.
 Liu, Z. (2022, June 13). China insists it has sovereign rights over Taiwan Strait. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3181554/china-insists-it-has-full-sovereign-rights-over-taiwan-strait.
 Brown, G.C. & Lewis, B. (2023, May 7) Taiwan ADIZ violations. Retrieved May 7, 2023 from https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1qbfYF0VgDBJoFZN5elpZwNTiKZ4nvCUcs5a7oYwm52g/edit#gid=2015900050.
 Government Accountability Office. (2022, November 10) GAO-23-106217: Weapon Sustainment, pg. 232. https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-23-106217.
 Chung, L. (2021, September 7) Taiwan’s air force budget reveals the high cost of China’s aggressive military flights around the island. South China Morning Post. https://www.businessinsider.com/taiwan-air-force-budget-reveals-cost-of-china-military-flights-2021-9.
 Tian, Y. L. & Blanchard, B. (2022, October 16) China will never renounce right to use force over Taiwan, Xi says. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/china/xi-china-will-never-renounce-right-use-force-over-taiwan-2022-10-16/.