Connect with us

Politics & Security

Simulating Five Scenarios for a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan

The Canon Institute examined current regional conditions and analyzed the risks and potential of five scenarios that might prompt China to invade Taiwan.



China's President Xi Jinping reviews PLA troops in Beijing on October 1, China's National Day in 2019. ((©Xinhua via Kyodo)

The Canon Institute for Global Studies, with which I am affiliated, conducted a policy simulation called "Post-Taiwan Emergency" in Tokyo over the weekend of December 9-10. Five scenarios were considered in this event. It was the43rd time since 2009 that we have conducted an exercise of this kind.

On this occasion, we again brought together around 40 influential individuals. They were members of the Diet, civil servants, officials with the Self-Defense Forces, academics, businessmen, and journalists. We then had them realistically play the roles of relevant government and media personnel from China, Taiwan, and Japan. It was a simulation that lasted all day and into the night. 

The results are currently being reviewed. Nevertheless, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the participants for their intellectual contributions. 

I am glad that in recent years many "Taiwan emergency" simulations have been carried out here in Tokyo. Nonetheless, there is some dissatisfaction with such simulations carried out in Japan as compared to those held in Europe and the United States, where there are fewer legal restrictions on the conduct of military operations.

Wasting Time with Definitions

Let's consider what would happen in the event of an emergency in the form of an "armed attack" by China. In short, as things now stand a lot of effort is wasted on pointless legal debates over whether the situation constitutes an armed attack, a prediction of an armed attack, or an emergency response. 

In the first place, who determined that a "Taiwan emergency" would involve an "armed attack?" 

I don't mean to brag, but I can honestly say that the recent Canon Institute exercise was handled completely differently. We considered various "non-emergency" crises created by the Chinese side that did not rise to the level of an armed attack. This is because we assumed that they would focus on "winning without fighting." In other words, they would make full use of information warfare and economic coercion.

Xi Jinping Senkaku defense panel defense boost Japan China maritime. predictions Quad Senkaku Islands
The largest China Coast Guard vessel yet, equipped with a 76mm gun, was caught navigating the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands, Ishgaki City, Sakishima Shoto, in Okinawa Prefecture in November 2022. (provided by the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters)

Considering All Possibilities

This time, the exercise organizers comprehensively analyzed various kinds of information. We judged it to be highly likely that the Chinese side would take a page from Sunzi's (Sun Tsu) "Art of War." 

They would seek to create situations in which it will be difficult for Japan and the United States to respond militarily. In that case, over time the "liberation" of Taiwan would be accomplished through a series of fait accompli. 

The actions taken by the Chinese side might not have been an "invasion of Taiwan." And the Japanese team might not have had to discuss whether such actions should be considered a "recognized situation" under Japanese law. Nevertheless, couldn't what was taking place also be deemed a "Taiwan emergency?"

Be that as it may, I do not deny the possibility that China will attempt to conquer Taiwan by force. In that case, the following five scenarios are imaginable:

1. Taiwan Declares Its Independence

China adamantly maintains that there is only "one China." It insists that if Taiwan formally declares its "independence," China will have no alternative but to use armed force. 

The "one China" principle is one of the foundations for the legitimacy of rule by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). If this is denied, the Chinese leadership has no other option. 

Conversely, if it does not employ armed force, that will likely mean the demise of the CCP. Fortunately, as things now stand for the Taiwanese authorities to declare "independence" is an extremely remote possibility. 

A Chinese warship fires toward the shore during a military exercise near Fuzhou, China's Fujian Province, near Taiwan's Matsu Islands, April 8, 2023. (©Reuters)

2. Overconfidence on the Part of Military Hardliners

On the other hand, there are risks. They include that the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) may underestimate the US military and overestimate its own military strength. 

Under that assumption, it could assure the political leadership that "we could successfully gain control [of Taiwan] at this time." 

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on September 30. (©Kyodo)

3. There is a Power Struggle within the CCP

A powerful political opponent could emerge to challenge the current leader. He could begin criticizing the current leadership's foreign policy as "weak" and "insufficient." In that case, the powerholders might feel compelled to take some actions to quell the opposition. 

If economic and social conditions in China worsen in the future, there is a possibility that power struggles within the CCP will again flare up. 

A silent apartment construction site in the suburbs of Beijing reflects the deteriorating real estate market and cash flow problems plaguing China’s economy. August 2, 2022. (©Sankei by Shohei Mitsuka)

4. An Explosion of Popular Discontent

From a macroeconomic standpoint, China's economic policies are inadequate. There is fear of an explosion among the Chinese public already stirred up by nationalism and dissatisfaction due to myriad problems. Those include a depressed Chinese real estate market, a balance sheet recession, a worsening youth unemployment rate, and deficiencies in the social security system. 

In that case, there is also a risk that China's leadership may adopt a hard line on the foreign policy front.

China National Security Strategy
China televises the firing of ballistic missiles into "training" areas around Taiwan and in Japan's EEZ in Okinawa Prefecture. August 4, 2022. Photo from Weibo.

5. Miscalculation by a Dictator 

Most frightening all is the possibility that a dictator may make strategic mistakes. Such was the case with Russian President Vladimir Putin's war against Ukraine. Perhaps the probability of this happening is the highest of all. 

If the above analysis is correct, Japan has no choice but to prepare for unforeseen situations while pursuing the "maintenance of the status quo" in Taiwan. 

To do so, it is important not to let China underestimate the deterrence power of Japan and the United States and to avoid the "dictator's fallacy." This, more than anything else, is why regular dialogue at the summit level is essential.


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Kunihiko Miyake, Research Director, the Canon Institute for Global Studies

Our Partners