How tensions between China and Taiwan are increasing

A striking warning from an American senior Senate commander: China is likely to invade Taiwan within six years. Admiral Philip Davidsons words impress, but are they realistic?

The Americans warning is at least to be taken seriously, says Alessio Patalano, expert East Asian security at Kings College in London. โ€œAnd I say that not only because such an admiral says so, but because of the observable steps China has taken since the reelection of Taiwanese President Tsai in early 2020.โ€

Exercises and patrols

Since then, the Chinese Air Force and Navy are increasingly performing exercises and patrols in the Strait of Taiwan and around the islands claimed by Taiwan. โ€œNot only are these activities more common, they have become more complex, using advanced spy planes, fighters and bombers,โ€ says Patalano.

Tensions between China and Taiwan increased during President Trumps term of office, who raised US-Taiwanese relations and greatly increased sales of military equipment to Taipei.

Taiwan itself remained open to dialogue with China, but as interlocutors on an equal footing.

The muscles of China

Those views of Taipei and Washington are at odds with Beijings one-China policy. China considers Taiwan to be a renegade province which ultimately needs to be reunited with the mainland.

Two years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that Taiwan should and should belong to China and that he kept the option of using all necessary resources. Since then, the language from China has not become milder.

For decades China had mostly turned inwards, but that time seems to be over, correspondent Sjoerd den Daas explained last year:

But would China really want and be able to achieve that through a military invasion? And that within six years?

โ€œIt is not far-fetchedโ€, answers Patalano. He looks at the trends in military construction and modernization by both China and the US, and concludes that the Chinese have their greatest military advantage between now and five years.

This is because Chinas military strategy focuses mainly on specific places in their own region where they want to dominate, such as Taiwan. While the Americans must always prepare for military readiness on a global scale. That difference in focus gives China a temporary chance to successfully take Taiwan is the thought.

And that advantage of China is temporary, because the Americans are increasingly actively interfering with Taiwan, with which they have informal ties but not diplomatic relations. Not only Trump explicitly supported Taiwan, his successor Biden does it, to the annoyance of Beijing.

America generally has a huge military lead over China and spends two to three times as much on defence as Beijing:

โ€œDo not stare blind at the difference in expenses,โ€ says military expert Patalano. โ€œThe Chinese can get more value for money than the Americans.โ€ In other words, the US has state-of-the-art resources, but all this costs much more than the equipment on which China spends money. Unlike the US, China feels no pressure to arm itself for warfare on all continents.

โ€œIn short: the Chinese play a home game, after having been allowed to study their opponent for a long time,โ€ says Patalano.

Taiwans fighting readiness limited

Meanwhile, Taiwan has been modernizing its own forces for years. President Tsai is reforming the army to reduce dependence on conscript military personnel. She wants a professional army. In addition, Taipei invests money in both air defense systems from Taiwan and foreign material.

โ€œThese are important reforms, but such programmes are time-consuming,โ€ explains Patalano. โ€œEqually important is the attitudes of the people, especially of Taiwanese youth. It is more opposed to reunification with the mainland than ever before. Young people also see how China behaves against Hong Kong and feel more and more Taiwanese. But that feeling does not simply translate into a willingness to fight.โ€

โ€œIn this respect, Taiwan is a very typical modern country, where young people have strong beliefs,โ€ says Patalano. โ€œBut pick up the weapons to defend the island? Just ho.โ€