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REVIEW | "The Chinese Invasion Threat"


By Shuhei Omi
When Ian Easton studied Chinese in Taipei, he was surprised to find a society that continued routine air raid drills in the 21st century. And yet, few Taiwanese people he met had given much thought to the prospects of a Chinese invasion. Those who did were resigned to inevitable defeat, as “in their minds, China could invade Taiwan any time it wanted.” As he entered Washington, D.C.’s military research institutes and think tanks, he observed the same resigned silence surrounding cross-strait relations.
“We’ll talk about outer space or cyberspace, but [American think tanks] won’t talk about Taiwan,” he said, speaking to a gathering of journalists at the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club in November. As a result, Easton, now a researcher on Asian security issues at the Project 2049 Institute, published “The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defence and American Strategy in Asia” in October 2017.  Through the book, Easton aims to raise the profile in the mind of American decision-makers of the Taiwan Strait, which he calls a “far more dangerous flashpoint” than the volatile Korean Peninsula.

“We’ll talk about outer space or cyberspace, but [American think tanks] won’t talk about Taiwan,”

Despite the two and a half years he labored over “The Chinese Invasion Threat,” he did not foresee the attention his book would receive from the press. Western papers from Slate to The Daily Mail blared headlines like “China has secret plans to invade Taiwan by 2020.” In Taiwan, the spotlight became a frenzy. Nearly every news outlet on the island carried stories of an American think tank researcher predicting a Chinese invasion and directed awkward questions at Taiwanese defense officials during press briefings. The hype was built on misrepresentation: the book notes that China has ordered its military to plan and prepare for an offensive by the year 2020, but developing the capability to invade is altogether separate from putting those capabilities to use.
Still, Easton was unfazed by distortions of his book.“If it gets people to think about and read about the situation that’s a good thing,” he said.
Supported by meticulous research, the book proves an invaluable addition to the “understudied and underfunded topic” that is Taiwan’s defence. It brings to light for the first time in any language a trove of internal People’s Liberation Army documents across the years detailing a planned invasion of Taiwan. And they paint a gruesome, bloody picture. In stark contrast to the septic images of fighter jets and missiles invoked by American arms sales to Taiwan, Chinese planners anticipate brutal knife fights across the urban sprawl that covers the Western half of the island. Especially alarming, Easton noted, is the evident lack of concern within the PLA for preserving human security. “They don’t provide any guidance at all on how to deal with the civilians,” he said. It was a pleasant surprise to hear someone from the American military establishment centre much of his discussion around human rights, rather than solely on American interests. This sets Easton apart from other think tank strategists, whose calculative thinking often detach themselves from Taiwanese people.
However, Easton’s optimistically evaluates  Taiwan’s odds in a war with China. Taiwan’s geography and climate mean Chinese planners have limited options when it comes to launching an invasion. It will also be impossible for China to catch Taiwan off guard. The PLA will mobilize millions of combat and logistics personnel from around the country to gather around the southern China coast and build new port facilities to accommodate the amphibious invasion fleet. Moreover, the thorough longtime planning and professionalism of the Taiwanese military ensures when the worst comes, Taiwan can cripple the momentum of an invasion, rendering casualties from an assault too high for Beijing to politically bear. However, Easton touches only lightly on a crucial sector of defence: Taiwan’s human intelligence networks on the mainland. Granted, the very nature of intelligence makes a thorough evaluation of this area difficult. Still, it is rather underwhelming for a significant length of the book to stand of unsubstantiated and, especially compared to the rest of Easton’s analysis, vague claims.
In the context of increasing Chinese influence in Western democracies, Easton said he hopes his research of PLA sources will “tell the story of what China really thinks of Taiwan.” By giving a detailed overview of Chinese and Taiwanese war plans, developed through primary sources from both sides, the book makes a successful case that, contrary to popular belief, Taiwan is not a lost cause. “The Chinese Invasion Threat” makes for a both convincing and informative read on the practical side of preserving Taiwan’s continued autonomy.
“The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia”
By Ian Easton
The Project 2049 Institute. 406 pp.

Easton’s book is now available at the Upper School Information Commons. Check for its availability here.

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