As fireworks set Taiwan’s sky alight to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China in 1912 earlier this month, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the People’s Republic of China, was conducting a simulated invasion of the island in the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. Amid rising military tensions that see the PLA making almost daily incursions into Taiwanese waters and air space, General Secretary Xi Jinping has urged the army to achieve a “high level of readiness” for war.

Taipei must now calculate whether these threats are merely attempts by the Chinese leader to boost nationalist spirits as it emerges from the pandemic, or if there is a credible threat of invasion. Perhaps Beijing has spotted an opportune moment for attack against the backdrop of declining US hegemony.

Relations between Beijing and Taipei – already at rock-bottom after the landslide re-election of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen against her Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) opponent at the start of this year – plummeted new lows as Washington sent two high level officials to the island since August. The Secretary of Health Alex Azar and Undersecretary of State Keith Krach both demonstrated their support for the island and congratulated President Tsai on her successful handling of the pandemic. Taiwan has had fewer than 600 reported cases to date.

China views Taiwan as a renegade province and the goal of unification with the island or, as the CCP terms it, the “liberation of Taiwan” has been the central goal of Xi’s leadership. Beijing has explicitly warned Tsai against making any declarations of independence, saying it would amount to a provocation of war. For her part, Tsai is supportive of the status-quo and will reject internal party pressure towards loudly asserting independence, saying that this is unnecessary as it is “an independent country already”.

The operational challenges of mounting an invasion on the island and the likely defence provided by the US, have thus far made threats of invasion appear to be little more than militaristic posturing. A recent poll indicates that, despite escalating cross-strait tensions, nearly 60% of Taiwanese people think a war will not break out.

However, as Charlie Lyons Jones, Researcher in the Defence and Strategy Programme at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argues, the PLA has grown more confident of its combat readiness after being successfully deployed in marshalling the national lockdown earlier this year. Its military has an estimated two million people enlisted in its armed forces, supported by a budget of $178bn, and dwarfs Taiwan’s 215,000 soldiers and defence budget of $12bn.

Despite its increasingly bellicose rhetoric, the PLA is still hesitant about involving itself in what would a highly complex and costly invasion of Taiwan. The island’s inhospitable geography and its first-rate arsenal of anti-ship missiles creates significant barriers to an amphibious attack. Furthermore, while the US does not have a formal defence alliance with the island, key figures, including Joe Biden, have said that they would help repel an invasion so long as Taiwan had not provoked one by formally declaring independence.

Even if the PLA does manage to overcome Taiwanese and US defences, Beijing would then have the task of subjugating an island with a thriving democracy in the face of international economic sanctions.

The risk of a full-on invasion is remote at this stage, but Beijing is likely to keep raising military threats and putting pressure on Taiwan. Probing military exercises – such as the breaching of the median line, which the PLA broke through for the first time in 20 years in March of last year – will continue, raising the danger of an accidental incident.

There is also a growing risk that China could ratchet up the conflict by seizing some offshore assets, as it did from the Philippines in 2012. In that case, Beijing took the Scarborough Shoal that rests nearby the largest island in the Philippines, an operation carried out in the absence of meaningful resistance. Military analysts are increasingly concerned that Beijing will take Taiwan’s southerly Pratas Islands, also known as Dongsha. Located in the northern part of the South China Sea, the islands lie nearly 300 miles south-west of the Taiwanese mainland and 200 miles from Hong Kong. They are uninhabited aside from ROC military personnel. The PRC claims them as part of Guangdong Province.

Last month, the PLA held a two-day military exercise near the islands, leading Taipei to increase its military presence there. However, Lyons Jones says Taipei is limited in its ability to defend Dongsha, as that would divert key resources from the strategically more significant northern islands of Jinmen and Mazu, both sites of conflict during the early Taiwan Strait crises.

It is questionable whether the US would intervene to defend uninhabited islands. Beijing wants to test the boundaries of the US’s deliberately unclear security relationship with Taiwan, which has been defined by “strategic ambiguity” after Washington shifted diplomatic recognition to the PRC in 1979 and ended its formal security alliance with the ROC.

The combination of political instability in the US along with China’s growing military self-assuredness risks fracturing the fragile status quo established after the KMT fled to the island in 1949 – and that has maintained peace between the two sides ever since. 

Eva Moody is an independent journalist who has previously worked in Taiwan.