Going to War Over Taiwan: Who Decides?

President Joe Biden speaks in Baltimore on March 1, 2023. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Will China invade Taiwan? If so, when? 

These questions are now routinely batted around in Washington. Not too long ago such a scenario was routinely dismissed as improbable. But CIA Director William Burns told Congress in early February that Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered his military to be ready to conduct an invasion by 2027, and Burns warns that Xi’s ambitions to unite the island democracy with China should not be underestimated. While Biden administration officials are often quick to reassure us by arguing that Xi is unlikely to act sooner or that he must know the high cost for doing so, the fact is, U.S. intelligence does not have the most sterling record on predicting the behavior of ambitious autocrats. 

Authoritarian leaders habitually believe they have taken the measure of a “soft” and “weak-willed” U.S., overestimate their own military’s capabilities, and act in ways which—in hindsight—appear less than rational. As U.S. Army Pacific Commander Gen. Charles Flynn has noted, Chinese forces “are rehearsing, they are practicing, they are experimenting, and they are preparing those forces for something.” And a leader doesn’t “build up that kind of arsenal just to defend and protect.” 

If you are sitting in Taipei and see Chinese naval and air assets aggressively and regularly directed your way, confidence about how Xi will act is hardly firm. With a better than even chance that Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party—which strongly rejects any notion of unification with the mainland—might win Taiwan’s presidential election next year, Xi might believe that the time is right to “intervene” on behalf of “Chinese patriots.” Moreover, with Taiwan, America, and allies attempting to beef up defenses in the region, Xi might well believe it is better to act sooner than later and before the window of opportunity to do so possibly closes. 

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