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  • In many ways, the Russian invasion of Ukraine  felt all too familiar to the people of Taiwan.

  • Here is a larger, more powerfulauthoritarian, and revisionist bully  

  • attacking its democratic neighbor for  nothing more than historical proximity.

  • And beneath a mountain of explanationstheories, and models is really just  

  • one man's deranged pursuit of empire. Orsomething else entirelywe truly don't know.

  • It even began like we expect an attack on Taiwan  wouldwith a long, drawn-out buildup of forces,  

  • followed by a sudden and  chaotic barrage of missiles.

  • With very large present populations  but below-replacement fertility,  

  • both China and Russia are what you might call  “demographies in decline” — and there isn't  

  • much time left. A man born today can expect to  live 74 years in China and a mere 67 in Russia.  

  • Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow”  isn't just hypothetical, either.

  • Quotereunifyingwith the island has been the  goal of every Chinese leader for the last 70 years  

  • and chairman Xi Jinping has gone well  out of his way to eliminate ambiguity.

  • Needless to say, China's refusal to call  Russia's actions in Ukraine what they  

  • arean invasionwasn't too comforting  to the 23 million residents of Taiwan.

  • Yet, China is not Russia. And Taiwan is  not Ukraine. For all their similarities,  

  • there remain huge differences the  world would be unwise to ignore.

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  • Just 100 miles, or 160 kilometerseast across the narrow Taiwan Strait,  

  • you could be forgiven for thinking China could one  day just swallow up its little disconnected tail.

  • Russia has three times the population of  Ukraine. China, 60 times more than Taiwan.

  • The Russian economy isor, more accuratelywas — 9 and a half times larger than Ukraine's.  

  • China's is 22 times the size of Taiwan's.

  • The Russian landmass is 28  times larger than Ukraine's.  

  • And China's, 265 times larger than Taiwan's.

  • In 2020, China spent $244 billion on defense.  

  • Taiwan, just 11, about as much  as the Netherlands or Colombia.

  • Of course, as the American Navy demonstrates, not  every dollar spent on defense is created equally.

  • Still, the disparities are quite dramatic. China  has upwards of 2 million active duty troops,  

  • thirty-three hundred fighters, and 59  subs to Taiwan's 160,000, 560, and four.

  • In other words: China is probably every bit  as big, strong, and powerful as it looks.

  • And yet, ask just about anyone in the  defense community and they'll tell you:  

  • a Chinese invasion of Taiwan  would be just downright hard.

  • Now, there are many different ways China could go  about thisby launching a Cuba-style blockade,  

  • by first seizing smaller islands on its  periphery, or even infiltrating from within.

  • But the most likely sequence  of events would be as follows

  • First, China would start bombing critical  Taiwanese infrastructureports, airports,  

  • and basesin hopes of causing chaos, confusionand a breakdown in the chain of command.

  • Second, China would attempt to establish air  

  • superioritycontrol of the skies and  therefore cover for what comes next.

  • As we've seen in Ukraine, this  is much harder than it sounds,  

  • even for an ostensibly larger  and more powerful attacker.

  • Still, up to this pointthere's no doubt China could,  

  • at the very least, quickly inflict  serious and irreparable harm.

  • This next phase is when the People's  Liberation Army likely runs into trouble.

  • As anyone who's seenSaving  Private Ryancan attest,  

  • amphibious assaults are no walk in  the park, even on the best of days.

  • Generally speaking, to be successful, they  require three conditions: air superiority,  

  • overwhelming fire and manpower or surpriseand the ability to quickly reinforce.

  • Every battle is different, of  course, but historical successes  

  • have, with few exceptionspossessed all three criteria.  

  • In the vast majority of cases, the absence  of even one of these has led to failure.

  • If everything goes as planned for China, it  will have accomplished the first. But that  

  • still leaves two very difficult hurdleswhich brings us to the real challenge

  • Russia's struggles so far in Ukraine make it  easy to lose sight of the basics. This is not,  

  • with one major exception, a geographically  challenging environment. When you come across  

  • pictures of the war, make a note of what you  see: roadsand what you don't: mountains.

  • We're used to seeing Russia's invasion on a map.  

  • But this is what it looks like on the  groundwhat geographers would call  

  • flat, Eurasian Steppe. The biggest natural  impediments are trees, grass, andtractors.

  • The coast of Taiwan, on the other hand, is much  trickier. Sure, there are flat mud plains and  

  • coastal rice paddies, but any invader would  soon be met with 2 and 3-thousand foot peaks  

  • within artillery distance of the shorelineIn between are fairly populous, urban areas.

  • Take the usual defender's advantage — 2  or 3 attackers per defending troop and,  

  • thanks to Taiwan's tall and irregular  coastline, multiply it several times over.

  • If that sounds hard, well, the  world's most powerful military agreed.

  • The United States considered  attacking then-Japanese-occupied  

  • Taiwan in 1944 — going so far as to  draft plans forOperation Causeway”.

  • Overtaking a patchwork of 30,000 starving  Japanese defenders, it estimated,  

  • would require an invasion force over twice the  size of D-Day — 400,000 marines and 4,000 ships.

  • Despite commanding this  incredible concentration of force,  

  • Pacific War planners considered the idea too  risky and opted for the Philippines instead,  

  • referring to Taiwan as an  “unsinkable aircraft carrier”.  

  • Suffice to say, China would need a figurative  boatload of troops. Somewhere between 1 and  

  • 2 million, to be precisemaking it the  largest amphibious operation in history.

  • If war is primarily an exercise in logistics,  

  • this would be the ultimate challenge. Moving  that many bodies simultaneously is no easy feat.

  • Take a simple, back-of-the-envelope calculationfor instance. Assuming China was using that same  

  • 2020 equipment from earlier, this is all it  could transport across the Strait at a time.

  • Even if all it transported were troopsit  could only move about 30,000 — or 3% of the  

  • total number of active PLA Ground  forcesat a time. And remember,  

  • that's if they just carried  peoplewith no tanks or armor.

  • For obvious reasons, this hypothetical operation  has been nicknamed themillion-man swim”.

  • Oh! And by the way, nothing  about this would be a secret.

  • Experts estimate the world  will have no fewer than 30  

  • and up to 60 days of warninggiving Taiwanfull 1-2 months to make itself as impenetrable  

  • as possiblelaying mines, staging weaponsand repositioning critical infrastructure.

  • Not only that but we also already know during  which parts of the year China could attack.

  • Waves are too strong in the Winter  and typhoons too unpredictable in the  

  • Summerleaving just two good  candidatesApril or October.

  • So too do we know where it would happen.

  • There are only about 13  beaches across all of Taiwan  

  • suitable for landingand  “suitableis being generous.

  • Take one of theseLinkou beach, for instanceAlthough invaders would be welcomed by about  

  • a mile of flatland, they would soon be  confronted by two huge mountain ranges.

  • This would also be these PLA soldiersand generals' first real experience  

  • with combat. China hasn't foughtsingle major war for over 40 years,  

  • when it invaded Vietnam and  was quickly forced to withdraw.

  • Now, even if it was 'successful',  China would now face a new challenge:  

  • occupying an island of 23 million people  — most of whom hate itwith much of  

  • what it considers 'valuableabout Taiwan utterly destroyed.

  • Military doctrine suggests a 1:10  ratio of soldiers to population  

  • for successful counterinsurgency operations,  

  • which, on paper, would require the entire  PLAleaving no one for anything else.

  • As we see in Ukraine, local resistance can  be incredibly powerful, especially given  

  • that Taiwan has been preparing for its entire  modern existence for precisely this scenario.

  • In one 2020 poll, 77% of the Taiwanese public said  they werewilling to fightfor their country.

  • Still, it should be noted thatat least today, conscription  

  • only lasts 4 months in Taiwan. How much  can one really do or learn in 120 days?  

  • And, in general, conscription armies  are less competent and more apathetic.

  • But don't get too lost in the weeds asking  whether China can attack before asking if it will.

  • Balance of strength is importantbut it's far from the whole picture.

  • Any theory about what China wants or how it thinks  

  • has to contend with two  seemingly contradictory facts

  • On one hand, China has been beating the drum of  war for seven decades, making countless explicit  

  • threats and seemingly preparing its population  for conflict. Like North Korea and missiles, the  

  • issue seems to percolate to the surface several  times a year. Each time feels like a crisis.

  • Yet, on the other hand, China hasbeen beating the  drum of war for seven decades and has never once  

  • actually followed through. No  matter your political affiliations,  

  • you can't say China hasn't had the full range  of American administrations to choose from.

  • The funny thing is that, look at a graph  of Google searches for headlines related  

  • to war between Taiwan and China, and a clear  pattern emerges: Panic, at least by this metric,  

  • is a relatively recent, and uniquely  English phenomenon. Searches in traditional  

  • Chineseused in Taiwanhave been pretty  much steady for as long as the graph goes back.

  • Likewise, when Chinese jets make mock attack  runs toward Taiwan, it's very often the American,  

  • not Taiwanese public who panics. So, what do  calmer minds know that the rest of us don't?

  • In democracies like the U.S., it's often said that  each party needs the other. That, if one party  

  • were ever given too much power for too long, it  would be forced to deliver on its promisesmany  

  • of which it never intended to. It would have no  excuse, no scapegoat to blame when it failed.

  • A similar dynamic plays out in autocracies  like China. The enemy, in this case,  

  • is not the opposing partythere are none —  but some manufactured national humiliation.

  • Remember! Taiwan, the island, was  never ruled by the Communist Party.  

  • The framing of Taiwan assource of shame for China,  

  • that it can only ever becompleteafter  quotereunification” — is entirely artificial.

  • China, in other words, wilfully  chose this version of history.  

  • And its predictable effects give us a hint as to  why. Chinese citizens are regularly told their  

  • country could easilytake Taiwan in a day”,  constantly reminded that they, personally,  

  • are being transgressed upon when American carrier  groups sail through the Taiwan Strait. Chinese  

  • artists render video game-like scenes of valiant  Chinese soldiers roaming the streets of Taipei.

  • This mix of shame, patriotismand thirst for conquest  

  • makes a large number of Chinese citizens  love the party just that much more.

  • One can't help but wonder: Given what  an invasion would entail, is Taiwan  

  • more useful to the Chinese leadership asperpetually imminent national rejuvenation?

  • A button, in simplistic terms, Chinese authorities  can press, whenever things aren't going  

  • particularly well at home, not only to distractbut more importantly, to stoke Nationalism?

  • This does not, however, rule out an invasion.

  • The danger, for China, is that it can  easily become dependent on this button.  

  • Each time China gains short-term  domestic approval for threatening  

  • Taiwan or making outlandish claims  about how easy an invasion would be,  

  • it is, in effect, writing a check that  would be extraordinarily costly to cash.

  • Yet, it has created conditions under which  it may feel forced toif, for example,  

  • Taiwan were to formally declare independence  or if it faced a legitimacy crisis at home.

  • And, ultimately, predictions can only get  us so far. One of the principal lessons