In 1994, Zheng Langping (鄭浪平) published a best-selling book A Warning of Taiwan Strait War (一九九五・閏八月 : 中共武力犯台白皮書一九九五・閏八月 : 中共武力犯台白皮書) claiming that China would take action against Taiwan by August 1995. The author and former New Party political candidate, who was an avowed unification supporter, was ultimately wrong, but his sensational book became an instant bestseller. Such deadlines predicting an outbreak of war could be a moot point if Chinese leaders intend to follow Sun Tzu’s sage advice to “win without fighting” by employing “gray-zone” tactics to influence Taiwan’s public opinion to eventually voluntarily unify with China. This article is the second of a two-part series examining possible invasion years for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. My previous article explored the invasion dates within the next decade, while this second one examines the threat in a more distant future, two or three decades later.
While these deadlines could reflect drivers and incentives within China pushing for military action against Taiwan, they could also be red herrings that make China’s actions too predictable. China may refrain from attacking on these dates to preserve the element of surprise. Considering plausible years for a PRC’s attack is productive if it drives people to think about China’s internal political pressures in certain points of time, but pointless if there is an over-fixation on dates and years. Nonetheless, Taiwan and its security partners should be especially careful as these years approach.
Significant Years Beyond the Quarter Century: 2025, 2030s, 2049, 2050
2025: In addition to the 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2023 anniversary dates mentioned in my previous article, a retired Japan Air Force Commander General Orita Kunio says China will invade Taiwan by 2025. In his view, this threat also has implications for Japan. In his thinking, if Beijing expels the U.S. from the region, then shipping lanes throughout East Asia will be under the control of Beijing. It would allow China to potentially cut off vital food and energy supply lines to Japan. General Kunio believes that China plans to first annex Taiwan by 2025. Then, between 2025 and 2040, Kunio argues that China will consolidate power in the South China Sea to control shipping lanes to Northeast Asia. Then, China may attack Okinawa by 2045, or influence Okinawan media in favor of anti-American sentiments to persuade local Okinawans to declare independence from Japan and swear allegiance to Beijing without resorting to war. Taiwan annexation is among the first steps for what General Kunio imagines to be China’s plan for regional hegemony.
2030s: To fulfill a complete transition of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049 or 2050, military action would likely not occur in 2049 or 2050, but two decades beforehand in the 2030s. On May 17, 2018, US Naval Captain (retired) James Fanell testified in a full committee hearing to US Congress’ House Intelligence Committee to explain why the risk of China’s invasion of Taiwan is greater in the 2030s. He used the example of the low point in China’s relations with the rest of the world immediately after the Tiananmen Incident in 1989, followed by a high point of China’s international relations twenty years later with the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Likewise, if China was willing to risk another low point in the future caused by an invasion of Taiwan and expected to celebrate its 100th anniversary of the PRC in 2049, it would need 20 years to recover from this low point. Working backwards from 2049, twenty years prior would be around the 2030s. Therefore, the 2030s are also a plausible period for PRC’s invasion of Taiwan.
2049: Looking further into the future, there is an idea that China could invade Taiwan by 2049 since that year will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). To clarify, I wrote in my previous article that the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party will be in 2021, but the 100th anniversary of the PRC as a country in the international system will be in 2049. After all, Mao Zedong stood at the gate in Tiananmen Square to declare the formation of the PRC on October 1, 1949. Therefore, such an important centennial anniversary could be a driving force for China to take action against Taiwan—thus fulfilling some kind of a teleological inevitability.
2050: While Researcher Deng Yuwen (鄧聿文) at China’s Charhar Institute (察哈爾學會) argues that 2020 will most likely become the invasion year—as mentioned in my previous article on early invasion years—he deduces that 2050 is the final deadline for China to take Taiwan. Researcher Deng also cites Xi’s report delivered at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, which refers to a new era: from now until the middle of the 21st century. By mid-century, China is to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” to become a modern socialist power. In the list of 14 items in Xi’s 2017 report that describe this new era, one of the points pertains to “reunification”:
- Ensuring Party leadership
- Committing to a people-centered approach
- Continuing to comprehensively deepen reform
- Adopting a new vision for development
- Seeing that the people run the country
- Ensuring every dimension of governance is law-based
- Upholding core socialist values
- Ensuring and improving living standards through development
- Ensuring harmony between human and nature
- Pursuing a holistic approach to national security
- Upholding absolute Party leadership over the people’s armed forces
- Upholding the principle of “one country, two systems” and promoting national reunification [emphasis added]
- Promoting the building of a community with a shared future for mankind
- Exercising full and rigorous governance over the Party
In Xi’s report to the 19th Party Congress, “reunification” with Taiwan is introduced under point number twelve. Xi further elaborates in the same speech: “Resolving the Taiwan question to realize China’s complete reunification is the shared aspiration of all Chinese
Mid-century could also tie back to 2049 as the 100th anniversary year of the PRC’s founding as a country to spur action against Taiwan. These two years—2049 and 2050—complement one another: a great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation by the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PRC.
Counter-Arguments: Lacking the Element of Surprise and Winning without Fighting
Foreseeing military action based on anniversary dates could be too predictable, so there is an equal chance that China will avoid those years to maintain an element of surprise. It is also possible that there will not be an armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait as both sides continue to try to maintain the “status quo” or move toward a “peaceful (re)unification.” That said, the United States and others in the region should still be especially vigilant in the months and years leading up to these dates.
Despite all of the talk about anniversary years, Sun Tzu writes in the Art of War that the most desirable victory is to “win without fighting.” With this in mind, China might not fight at all if it bears in mind this ancient aphorism. Instead, China can pressure Taiwan diplomatically in international organizations, poach Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, pressure Taiwan through economic means, and use other tactics. It can use media and public diplomacy to try to convince the people of Taiwan that unification with China is Taiwan’s best course of action. Therefore, China could achieve its goals without bloodshed or dramatic military action occurring in any specific anniversary year.
False Prophets in the Past
The current predictions about the exact timing of when China will attack Taiwan is reminiscent of a similar attempt two decades ago when Zheng Langping claimed in his book A Warning of Taiwan Strait War that China would take military action against Taiwan by 1995. The book captured the attention of everyone in Taiwan and filled the bookstore shelves at the time. It was a bestseller then, but 1995 had come and gone without a Chinese invasion of Taiwan that year (although he was prescient about the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996).
It may be tempting for experts to pin a specific year for China to take action against Taiwan. To support a hypothesis about an invasion year, one can find evidence to back up a prediction for almost any year. This is not to say that the intellectual exercise is not without merits. Most importantly, discussing years can be a helpful exercise if it leads people to also consider Xi’s decision making and internal political forces driving the Chinese Communist Party.
The main point: Experts point to many notable deadlines for China to “reunify” Taiwan—2019, 2020, 2021, 2023, 2025, 2030s, 2049, and 2050. The counterargument against specific deadlines is that it makes military action too predictable, and ignores the possibility of China “winning without fighting.” Nonetheless, it would be wise for Taiwan and its security partners to be extra vigilant during these times as a precaution.