In any direct war with China (as opposed to a proxy war in, say, Africa), Taiwan will be the first objective of the Chinese. They simply cannot allow a Western aligned country to exist that close to them, providing bases for surveillance and attack. This is elementary war strategy (that the US has ignored multiple times to our detriment!).
In addition to the inevitability of a direct war, there is also the quite likely possibility that China may simply launch an assault on Taiwan outside the context of a general war – in other words, a focused campaign to reclaim Taiwan. This should not be a surprising possibility as China has been saying exactly this for many years. In their minds, they’re giving Taiwan time to come to their senses but China’s magnanimous patience will end at some point and China will take military action to reclaim their wayward territory. Even the US military has recognized this likelihood and has set a ballpark time frame of the next several years, according to Adm. Philip Davidson.(1)
A Chinese assault on Taiwan will be most comparable to Normandy in WWII. It will be a massive undertaking. Taiwan has an active military of 275,000 plus a reserve of 2.8M and a paramilitary (whatever that means) of 1.9M equipped with reasonably modern weapons and systems. For comparison, Germany had less than 50,000 troops available for the defense of Normandy.
Drawing on lessons from the Normandy assault, we can expect to see:
Speed – Whether as part of a general war or a narrowly focused Taiwan-only operation, it will be mandatory for China to accomplish its goals in a very short time frame. In a general war, a short time frame would allow China to move on to its other objectives and free up massive forces for other operations. Failure to do so would hamstring Chinese operations as the war progressed. In a Taiwan-only operation, China would have to accomplish its objectives very quickly or risk the US having time to gear up and enter the conflict in support of Taiwan. Failure to secure its objectives quickly would also open China to criticism from the world community to an even greater extent. Thus, regardless of the scenario, China would make every effort to see the bulk of immediate objectives completed and ground forces substantially ashore within the first 24-48 hrs.
Scope – A Taiwan operation would require a substantial portion of China’s forces with hundreds of thousands of troops poured into the effort. A staggeringly massive missile barrage would be required to render as many defenses inoperable as possible from the start. The Chinese amphibious fleet would be hugely supplemented by civilian transport ships. This would be quite doable and efficient since all Chinese merchant shipping is built with military conversion capabilities included in their design. The West will be stunned at the amphibious resources China can bring to bear. Air superiority operations will be truly massive and will be quickly followed by continuous air strikes and close air support. The Chinese navy will be deployed on the eastern side of Taiwan to prevent US interference.
Reinforcement – At the invasion site, Germany had a window of only hours or a few days, at most, to make effective use of reinforcements. As it happened, one of the major goals of the Allies was to cut off the movement of reinforcements to the Normandy area and they succeeded. Germany was never able to effectively reinforce their defenses. Longer term, Germany had all of Europe as well as the German homeland to assemble reinforcements and push the Allies back off of Europe but could not do it. Of course, the Soviet front siphoned off huge numbers of troops and resources that could have otherwise been used against the Allied landing.
In the same vein, Taiwan has very limited reinforcements – none, for all practical purposes, since the limited geography assures that every unit will be fully committed right from the start. Taiwan lacks any strategic depth wherein it can trade land for time to prepare counterattacks. What they have immediately available is all they’ll ever have. Conversely, China can draw on immense reserve forces although the aforementioned speed requirement suggests that the need for Chinese reinforcements would indicate a significant strategic, if not operational, failure by the Chinese.
Strategic Goals – The Allies goal was to seize ports to provide supplies for the subsequent march across Europe and they succeeded. China’s strategic goals would be to eliminate Taiwan as a US base of operations and to conduct the assault so quickly that the US would be faced with a fait accompli that would discourage US intervention. In essence, speed would be China’s method of interdicting US reinforcements.
More broadly, the seizure of Taiwan would allow Chinese mainland based air defenses to be substantially transferred to Taiwan which would significantly expand China’s defensive perimeter and make any counter-actions or counterattacks by the US much more difficult. Seizure of Taiwan would greatly expand China’s defensive cushion and eliminate a glaring salient that could, otherwise, be used against China.
If China conducts just an isolated assault rather than as part of a larger war, China will immediately announce to the world that it is an internal Chinese affair in an attempt to make the US seem like a meddling outsider on the world political stage. By doing so, China would hope to blunt any attempt by the US to build an opposition coalition. Quite likely, China would quickly offer to negotiate a final settlement which, of course, would never produce any result and would just serve to further erode any US justification for intervention while ensuring China’s continued occupation of Taiwan.
The key consideration is the size of Taiwan’s defensive force versus the speed with which China could secure the island. The defensive force is, potentially, much greater than was available to the German’s at Normandy but the question is whether that defensive force could retain its combat effectiveness after the initial deluge of missiles, bombs, and shells. Without question, the fixed defensive assets such as airfields, missile sites, AAW sites, etc. would be largely destroyed in the initial bombardment. Armored forces and artillery would also, presumably, suffer significant initial losses. Whether the remaining troops and mobile or protected assets would retain enough coherent command and control, mobility, and firepower to provide an effective, coordinated defensive force is an open question. Unfortunately, the result of the initial bombardment will be to reduce Taiwan’s forces toward the light infantry end of the spectrum and they would be left to fight heavily armored forces supported by air power and artillery. There is no doubt about the final outcome but there is a great deal of doubt about the speed with which China could achieve its goals. If Taiwan could delay the ultimate outcome long enough, China will have failed, strategically, as noted above which opens the possibility of US intervention.
In short, the Allies at Normandy were able to push supplies and troops ashore faster than Germany could reinforce their defenses. Whether China can push forces ashore faster than Taiwan can relocate and reinforce its defenses is an open question as is whether Taiwan’s forces can muster sufficient firepower to be effective.
(1)Washington Examiner website, “Pacific Commander Warns China Could Move To Take Taiwan In The Next Five Years If US Doesn’t Increase Deterrence”, Jamie McIntyre, 5-Mar-2021,