“Wishful thinking in Beijing, Taipei, and Washington could spell war in 2019,” Peter Gries and Tao Wang wrote recently in Foreign Affairs. 2019 is the authors answer to the broader question that many experts are speculating about recently: When will China seize Taiwan? The range of possible years for when China could invade Taiwan span from Gries and Wang’s 2019, through the 100th year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2049, and various points in between. This article is the first of a two-part series assessing the prominent anniversary years in the near future when China could invade Taiwan—2019, 2020, 2021, and 2023. My next article will assess predictions for the distant future beyond the quarter century.
While there is no direct evidence that an attack would take place in those specific years, the recent trend of cross-Strait rhetoric heating up between Xi Jinping (習近平) and Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and a broad trend of China’s military modernization are causing many scholars to question whether there is an increased possibility that China would forcefully act against Taiwan. Of course, it is quite possible that there will be no military action on any of these specific years, and I address these various counterarguments in the end. Still, discussing anniversary years is a useful exercise as it drives analysts to think about China’s domestic political pressures that may weigh on the Chinese leadership’s decision at certain points in time.
Rhetoric Heating Up and China’s Military Capabilities Improving
The current cross-Strait environment is ripe for speculation about when an attack may occur for two main reasons: First, rhetoric is heating up on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. During President Xi Jinping’s January 2019 speech on the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” Xi said that the historical and legal facts are that Taiwan is part of China and the two sides across Taiwan Strait belong to one and the same China, which can never be altered by anyone or any force. Referring to unification, Xi explained, “[i]t is a historical conclusion drawn over the 70 years of the development of cross-Straits relations, and a must for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era.” Xi continued by saying that the Taiwan question concerns China’s core interests, and added, “[w]e are willing to create broad space for peaceful reunification, but will leave no room for any form of separatist activities.”
In response to Xi’s speech and in reference to his talk about “one China,” President Tsai Ing-wen said, “[t]his is a major disregard of the fact that the ROC, Taiwan does exist, and is in full operation like all other democratic countries.” Polls show that Tsai’s support surged after her comments, which suggests that Xi’s tough talk on Taiwan backfired.
A second major reason for the flurry of speculation is that China’s military is modernizing and working toward its goal of taking military action against Taiwan. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has developed and deployed its new anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities, which are a mix of aerial defense and surface-to-air missile capabilities used to keep the United States out of China’s periphery. This makes it harder for the United States to intervene in a cross-Strait crisis or conflict scenario.
However, China’s amphibious lift capabilities are currently thought to be insufficient for a Taiwan invasion scenario, though it is improving over time. China’s PLA Army and PLA Marine Corps currently equip, plan, and train for sustained amphibious operations with the purpose of seizing and defending small islands . However, the US Department of Defense assesses that there is no indication at the moment that China is significantly expanding its landing ship force necessary for an amphibious assault on Taiwan . Nonetheless, the PLA is moving in this direction and China’s military modernization is a factor in the recent abundant speculation on anniversary years.
Significant Anniversary Years in the Near Future: 2020, 2021, and 2023
2020: While Gries and Wang predict 2019 as a year that “could spell war,” Ian Easton’s book The Chinese Invasion Threat instead mentions the year 2020 . To support this claim, Easton cites Taiwan’s 2013 National Defense Report, which suggests that China has developed a plan to invade Taiwan by 2020. Specifically, Taiwan’s 2013 National Defense Report pointed out that during the 18th National Congress, the PRC revealed that it will continue to carry out preparations for military conflict, build a powerful military force that matches its international status, and follow the “three-step” strategic concept to make significant progress in mechanization and informatization by 2020.
Researchers in China also target the 2020 year. China’s Charhar Institute think tank researcher Deng Yuwen (鄧聿文) rhetorically writes: “Is China planning to take Taiwan by force in 2020?” His argument is that since Xi pledged to achieve “reunification” with Taiwan in his report to the 19th Party Congress, China has to do so by force, and Deng argues that sooner is better than later. Deng cites a list of factors for why China will use force against Taiwan rather than keeping on the path of peaceful unification. To Deng, the military confrontation would be caused by the following:
- Trump labeling China as a strategic rival
- Beijing’s concern over the pro-independence movement in Taiwan
- Beijing’s belief that it now has the ability to resolve the “Taiwan problem”
- Misjudgments by President Tsai
- Xi’s sense of his own legacy
Painting Beijing as both gracious and acting as the victim, researcher Deng writes that “after extending economic help to the island for years […] cross-Strait relations have deteriorated.” He claims the Chinese people are calling for unification by force, as if the government is behaving reactively to the demands of its people. Deng controversially concludes: “Thus, though on the surface Beijing has continued to call for a peaceful reunification, it has in fact ditched the idea.”
2021: Further along, 2021 is also an anniversary year for a possible PRC invasion of Taiwan because it is the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a party on July 1, 1921. In addition to 2020, Ian Easton mentions in an article published by the National Interest that PRC sources indicate that Taiwan’s “time is running out.” Taiwan may experience an “amphibious blitz”–“perhaps before July 2021 to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP.
Within Xi’s Tenure
2023: China’s invasion of Taiwan could take place in 2023 or soon after since President Xi is taking a less patient approach than his predecessors. Xi warned in his January 2019 speech as he did earlier in his 2013 speech that the Taiwan issue “should not be passed down generation after generation.” This indicates a new sense of urgency—especially considering Deng’s admonition for China to “hide its strength and bide its time”—which is likely spurring speculation about which anniversary year China would invade Taiwan.
Only two to three years ago, such warnings would mean that if Xi were to single-handedly unify Taiwan within his tenure as president, then military action would have to occur before 2023. Jiang Zemin served as president from 1993 to 2003, and Hu Jintao served from 2003 to 2013, so Xi’s tenure as president would have been from 2013 to 2023. But, this is no longer the case. This 2023 deadline is now flexible as China’s National People’s Congress has removed term limits for President Xi. It appears that Xi would now be what a Newsweek article called: “Emperor for life.”
Yet, China’s state-run People’s Daily newspaper suggests Xi will not necessarily serve for a lifetime. Specifically, the newspaper wrote: “This amendment does not mean changing the retirement system for party and national leaders, and does not mean a life-long term system for leading officials.” While it is certain that Xi will be president through 2023 since that is the standard presidential term period, by how much longer is uncertain. If Xi wants to take military action against Taiwan within his tenure—within his “generation”—it would be by 2023 or likely soon within the following decade.
A combination of heated rhetoric across the Taiwan Strait between Xi and Tsai, plus China’s military modernization are driving scholars and retired military officers alike to place their bets on which specific year China will invade Taiwan. However, carefully considering internal CCP dynamics and regional military trends that relate to anniversary years is more promising and nuanced than placing a bet on a specific year. In my next article, I will discuss the discourse on anniversary years beyond the quarter century: 2025, 2030, 2049, and 2050.
The main point: Experts point to many notable deadlines for China to unify Taiwan—2019, 2020, 2021, and 2023. While predictions of specific years abound, considering the reasons behind these years that could possibly drive military action against Taiwan should be coupled with a nuanced understanding of Xi’s decision making along with internal dynamics within the CCP at each point in time.
 US Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018, 103.
 Ibid, 100.
 Ian Easton, The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and the American Strategy for Asia (Arlington, VA: Project 2049 Institute, 2017), chap. 1.