While Taiwan currently needs to wait years for its crucial asymmetric-warfare weapons, one former CIA analyst explains what signs the U.S. intelligence community is looking for to determine when China plans to go to war.
When Xi Jinping ordered the previous leader of China to be forcibly removed from his chair at the assembly of the 20th National Communist Congress of the Chinese Communist Party last week, it very likely sent shivers through the spines of China’s elites. The message was clear: Xi isn’t just president for life now — if he can do that to the previous president, he can do whatever he wants to whomever he wants in China.
With Xi now in full control of China, some analysts believe the new situation spells danger for Taiwan, as Xi has spoken often of his desire to make Taiwan part of China, by force if necessary. The mystery as to if and when exactly China would launch an invasion is a huge issue, as Taiwan is currently facing a long and unsettling wait to receive U.S. weapons it ordered years ago.
However, according to former senior CIA official John Culver, there are signs that China is probably not currently preparing to go to war within the next two years. Culver says any conflict with Taiwan would be preceded by specific types of preparations that should start around two years before the planned date of invasion. He says these preparations would not be subtle, and are sure to be spotted by the U.S. and Taiwanese intelligence communities.
Culver says the CIA used these indicators to see that Russia was building up its forces, resulting in the CIA warning of Russia’s plans almost four months before the invasion of Ukraine. He says that if the CIA saw the same thing happening in China, it would be releasing that information publicly, and not just to one news outlet.
One of the first signs would be a noticeable switch of focus by the CCP’s propaganda outlets. Currently these outlets are still focusing on the CCP’s main achievement as being the country’s impressive economic growth that has been uninterrupted since 1978. Culver says these outlets would start focusing much more on nationalism and the need to take Taiwan in the year or two before any planned invasion date.
Another sign would be a surge in production of key munitions like guided missiles at least a year before “D-Day.” These key munitions include guided ballistic missiles and all missiles in general. Culver says such a production surge would be visible to international government and non-government observers.
China would also start to take steps to insulate its economy and key assets from sanctions and other disruptions. These would include stronger cross-border capital controls, a freeze on foreign financial assets in China, and rapid liquidation and repatriation of Chinese assets held in other countries.
Another indicator would be when China starts stockpiling emergency supplies like medicine and the key ingredients for producing crucial products. This would include halting the exportation of critical minerals, refined petroleum products, or food. It would also see the rationing of key goods like oil and gas, as well as the prioritization of key inputs for military production. International travel restrictions would also be slapped on China’s elites and high-priority workers.
The CCP would also be preparing China’s people psychologically for the costs of war, things like austerity, tens of thousands of combat deaths, and civilian deaths from U.S.- and Taiwan-launched strikes. Culver says these measures would already be happening now if China was preparing for a conflict that would begin in 2024, as some observers have predicted. However, Culver says these things are not currently happening, despite recent tensions.
Culver says that the PLA would also start implementing a comprehensive halting of demobilizations of enlisted personnel up to a year before D-Day, like it did in 2007 when it increased its pressure on Taiwan for that year’s elections. Three to six months before an invasion, the PLA would also halt regular training and perform maintenance on all major equipment, while preparing back-up locations to serve as emergency bases in case the U.S. or Taiwan bombs the existing bases.
In addition, the CIA would be looking for new field hospitals being set up close to embarkation points and airfields. The CCP would also most likely start to do public blood drives a few months before an invasion. Mobile command posts would depart from their bases and move to hidden locations, while units responsible for managing petroleum, oil and lubricants would deploy with field pipeline convoys.
Months before an invasion, hundreds of military and chartered flights would be needed to carry key material and senior officers to inspect preparations in China’s eastern regions. This would lead to normal passenger and cargo flights getting disrupted, a situation that would be noted even by amateur flight tracking enthusiasts, who in September helped to debunk claims that flights in and out of Beijing had been halted amid unsubstantiated rumors of a coup.
Culver also says that Beijing would order national mobilization at least three or four months in advance of planned combat. This would be a very public step that has not been taken since 1979.
The former CIA official concludes that “if China decides to fight a war of choice over Taiwan, strategic surprise would be a casualty of the sheer scale of the undertaking.” He says that even if Xi were tempted to risk a quick campaign and hope that Taiwan’s will to fight would quickly collapse, Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine would probably have induced more caution in Beijing. “Any invasion of Taiwan will not be secret for months prior to Beijing’s initiation of hostilities. It would be a national, all-of-regime undertaking for a war potentially lasting years.”
While this is good news in the short term, it unfortunately does not solve the current crisis surrounding Taiwan’s preparedness for an invasion. Judging from the years of lead time that’s currently required to order and receive weapons from the U.S., Taiwan urgently needs to start ordering the type of asymmetric-warfare weapons that would be needed to create an effective deterrent. As explained in former Taiwanese admiral and chief of the general staff Lee Hsi-min’s Overall Defense Concept, Taiwan needs to buy small, mobile, deadly, and easy-to-hide weapons that can survive a massive air bombardment — and it needs to do so “yesterday.”
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