Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Invasion Persuasion

China’s current capabilities suggest an invasion of Taiwan is not on the horizon. Why does Washington’s foreign policy blob keep trying to manifest one?

Army Training

The American Conservative’s new managing editor, Jude Russo, has a fun column about a worrisome topic on the site today. My summary doesn’t do justice to the brilliance of this concise piece, but Russo begins with a hypothetical scenario in which a powerful landed power seeks to conquer an island power capable of punching far beyond its weight if seen as just a blotch of green on a map. It sounds like the current situation between mainland China and the island of Taiwan. But as the hypothetical continues, it becomes clear that Jude’s not talking about China and Taiwan. Rather, he’s giving his own summary of Athen’s campaign against the island of Sicily in Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War.

“Yet the story of the Sicilian Expedition shares enough fundamentals with the current Taiwan situation to provide useful points of caution both to China and to the U.S.,” Russo writes. “It is simply difficult to project force onto a rugged island inhabited by the rich, the well-armed, and the hostile. Efforts to do so will certainly meet with difficulty, sometimes with catastrophe.”


Indeed, and such difficulties I’ve discussed in the pages of TAC before, but they bear repeating for the hawks scattered throughout the government and their corporate backers who overlook the imperial city from their highrises across the Potomac in Arlington. 

For a Chinese invasion of Taiwan to be successful, it would likely take the largest amphibious assault in history. At war colleges today, future military strategists are taught that attackers traditionally need a force three times the size of the force defending. As it stands now, Taiwan’s defending force is an estimated 450,000 soldiers. If China adheres to the three-to-one rule, that means their invading force would be upwards of 1.3 million soldiers—well more than half of China’s total active military force of about 2.1 million. 

To put that in perspective, Operation Overlord, the allied invasion of Normandy in WWII, employed around 150,000 men and nearly 7,000 naval vessels. Over the 19-day Battle of Normandy, total casualties on both sides numbered about 425,000. The U.S. invasion of Okinawa was even larger in terms of manpower. About 545,000 troops, supported by 12,000 aircraft and 1,600 ships, stormed Okinawa in Operation Iceberg on April 1, 1945. Over the next three months, the U.S. military fired nearly 30 million bullets and more than 7.5 million shells at Okinawa. When the dust settled, more than 200,000 were dead or missing. The U.S. suffered almost 50,000 casualties, with about 12,500 men dead or missing. The Japanese lost an estimated 110,000 men. Some estimates place Okinawa civilian casualties as high as 150,000. In terms of killed and injured, most estimates suggest the battle was more devastating than the nuclear bomb that landed on Hiroshima.

Given the difficulty of amphibious assaults, the ideal ratio may be even higher. At least, that’s what the U.S. military believed when it considered its own invasion of the island in 1944. Operation Causeway, the U.S. plan to retake Formosa, as the island was then called, proposed landing 400,000 soldiers on Formosa’s beaches from 4,000 ships to take the island from just 30,000 starving Japanese soldiers. That’s more than a dozen attackers for every single defender. President Roosevelt, on the advice of General MacArthur and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, decided not to go forward with the invasion of Formosa, and approved MacArthur’s proposed invasion of Luzon to the south instead. 

A Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan would be a massive undertaking, one the People’s Liberation Army Navy is completely incapable of undertaking in the near future. As it stands now, China has nowhere near the amount of ships and transports needed for an amphibious assault of 1.2 million troops. Even if they did, China quickly runs into another problem that Jude briefly touches on in his column: geography. Taiwan has only a few places where Chinese invaders could land on the west coast. Most are blocked by massive mountains, places where Taiwanese defenders could pick off the invading force, and if overwhelmed by the sheer size of the Chinese force, could recede into and wage guerrilla warfare. And once the PLA is on the ground, it would be incredibly difficult to house and support the massive invasion force, and open China up to massive casualties. 

It’s true that an outright amphibious invasion of Taiwan isn’t the only way China could take the island. China could decide to go forward with a naval blockade paired with economic and financial embargoes that try to force Taiwan into a settlement that eventually leads to Taiwan’s annexation. Or China could rain down hell on the island with volleys of missiles, though stockpiles might quickly become a concern. No matter how you slice it, however, if China wants to take Taiwan, at some point there will have to be a massive influx of Chinese troops to secure the island. A brief consideration of China’s capabilities and what it would take to capture Taiwan makes an invasion unlikely in the near term, which leaves this writer wondering: Why do the warmongers want this war in particular so badly?