In 2024, Taiwan will likely face a critical year for development of its military and deterrence capabilities. The most immediate threat will continue to be the campaign of gray zone warfare conducted by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with a moderate level of temporary escalation likely in the wake of Lai Ching-te’s (賴清德) victory in Taiwan’s presidential election. However, these aggressive actions mask a moment of distinct weakness for the PRC. In this brief, I will look at some of the strategic factors driving Taiwan’s security environment in 2024.
PRC Stumbles Buys Taiwan Time
Taiwan faces something of a paradox in its security environment. PRC military-technical capabilities continue to grow at a fast clip, particularly with respect to naval, air defense, and unmanned aerial system capability. The PLA continues its process of operationalizing gray zone warfare, while normalizing a higher level of incursions – now including numerous balloons. Despite these operational challenges, however, a number of factors have improved Taiwan’s strategic position vis-á-vis the PRC over the short term. These factors largely stem from Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平)’s mismanagement of the PRC’s economy and domestic social challenges. This buys critically needed time for Taiwan to revamp its defenses.
First, the PRC economy has suffered enormous costs from both a botched “Zero COVID” response, as well as the “Comprehensive National Security” (整體國家安全) hostile regulatory regime. This has translated to slow economic growth over the last two years, with the unbalanced economy threatening to drag out the period of slow growth into the medium-term. These issues, in turn, make it still harder for Xi to respond to long-term systemic issues such as poor demographics and real estate overinvestment. By comparison, the United States, as the PRC’s main competitor—and Taiwan’s main security partner—has experienced surprisingly robust growth. (Taiwan, unfortunately, has not done quite so well over the last year or so, especially the portion of the economy tied to exports to the PRC.) The unexpectedly strong US economic situation, combined with CCP discomfiture over the US ability to rally an unprecedented international sanctions regime against Russian aggression, has forced Xi to tactically adjust his competition strategy against the United States.
This new strategy was on display at the November 2023 meeting between Xi and US President Joseph Biden on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in San Francisco. Xi agreed to the relatively minor asks from Biden: resumption of some military-to-military dialogue, an agreement to governmental discussions on artificial intelligence use, and PRC curbing fentanyl-related ingredients. Xi resurrected the outward-facing propaganda of “mutual respect, peaceful co-existence, and win-win cooperation” (相互尊重、和平共處、合作共贏). This was a phrase Xi has selectively used since 2012 on American audiences, and he used it repeatedly in his address to US business leaders following the meeting with Biden. In rhetorical terms, this was rather different from the phrases that Xi used in the March 2023 Two Sessions, where he warned about US-led “containment, encirclement, and suppression of China” (以美國為首的西方國家對我實施了全方位的遏制，圍堵，打壓).
Image: Xi Jinping giving the keynote speech at a dinner with American business executives (November 15, 2023). During this speech, he used almost all the standard propaganda topics for “US-China friendship”—the Flying Tigers, pandas, ping-pong diplomacy, and his stay with the Dvorchaks in Iowa in 1985. It is clear that despite Xi’s attempts over the last decade to wall off the PRC high-tech economy from any potential sanctions, the PRC economy is still reliant on foreign investment. (Image source: PRC Embassy in Georgia)
In exchange for giving way on items of lower concern for him, Xi used the occasion to press harder on items of higher importance: Taiwan. The two messages that Xi passed on to Biden were: first, stop arming Taiwan and support peaceful reunification; second, the PRC will reunify Taiwan but the timing has not yet been decided. These set of messages put together are interesting in that it seeks to shift the “Overton Window.” Xi knows full well that Biden will not stop arms sales or transfers to Taiwan. However, this sets the rhetorical groundwork for the PRC to state that without active US support for reunification, “peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question” per the Three Communiques is not possible—and that US actions will determine if there is a so-called invasion deadline. This is a messaging strategy that seeks to limit perceived US “interference” on Taiwan at a time of relative PRC weakness. In short, Xi is not immediately interested in raising tensions with the United States, but instead seeks a modicum of stability to regain foreign investment in the PRC. This means some limitations regarding the extent to which Xi will employ coercive gray zone threats against Taiwan.
The second factor assisting Taiwan’s strategic position is Xi’s on-going anti-corruption campaign within the PLA. This started with the August 2023 toppling of Defense Minister Li Shangfu (李尚福) but has since expanded in scope to cover significant elements of the PLA. This purge seems to be even greater in both breadth and depth compared to the previous purges in 2015-2016.
While the PLA Rocket Force (解放軍火箭軍) has been the service under the most public scrutiny, other sections such as the Equipment Development Department (裝備發展部), as well as the state-owned military-industrial complex, are under investigation. The investigation implies significant levels of corruption in equipment acquisitions going back at least a decade, especially as the last round of investigations in 2014 also targeted corruption in acquisitions and logistics.
Past the bureaucratic chaos caused by sudden removals of commanders and investigations by anti-corruption units, the more significant effect is the effect on Xi’s trust in the PLA to carry out a mission with enormous blowback risks to the party. The PLA trusts in technical solutions to paralyze networks, combined with the “tyranny of distance,” to offset the perceived defense advantages of Taiwan as well as potential American intervention forces. If “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” then Xi must be certain that the gun will not misfire before ordering a war of choice. Relatively low-risk gray zone warfare will remain the primary coercive instrument of choice.
This is not to say that Taiwan should consider the PLA to be a reduced threat, either on account of the weakening PRC economy or the anti-corruption investigations. The Central Military Commission (中央軍事委員會) will almost certainly seek to fence off funding for identified priority acquisitions and reforms. The anti-corruption campaign will cause some disruption to long-range plans but will likely not affect day-to-day operations. However, it does provide Taiwan some reassurance during this decade of maximum danger from the PRC.
Image: Li Shangfu giving a speech on “China’s New Security Initiatives” at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (June 2, 2023). Two months after his appearance at this high-profile event, he disappeared and was later formally removed from his role as defense minister, due to corruption issues in his last position as head of the Equipment Development Department. That Xi was willing to tolerate such a public loss of face by removing the PRC’s chief military diplomat (especially one with Li’s Party credentials) likely indicates serious equipment issues which have not yet come to light. (Image source: IISS)
With DPP candidate Lai winning the Taiwan presidential race, the PLA will now almost certainly respond with a heightened pressure campaign—although likely not as aggressive as the one that followed then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August 2022 (see here and here). However, these gray zone activities cannot fully hide this period of PRC weakness. Taiwan should take advantage of this by continuing defense reforms that principally cost time and willpower. These reforms should largely be agnostic of platforms, budgetary priorities, and defense acquisitions, all of which will now need to factor in a Legislative Yuan (立法院) in which no party has a clear majority.
These reforms would include things like increased training under realistic conditions, such as assumption of a degraded communications environment under simulated electronic attack. Taiwan’s air force can practice operational concepts such as short-notice large force employment, particularly with respect to the east coast (where the density of PRC surface to air missile threats is not quite as high as in the west). Continued civil-military integration should proceed, expanding the scope of civilian ministry participation in contingency planning. While these training reforms are difficult due to organizational factors, they can be done with the people and platforms that Taiwan has on hand today.
The main point: Taiwan will likely face a relatively favorable security environment in 2024, despite the prospect of continued or even temporarily increased PRC gray zone activity. Xi Jinping has prioritized the revival of the PRC economy, while the PLA restructures following a significant anti-corruption purge. This, in turn, buys Taiwan valuable time to re-build its warfighting and deterrence capabilities.