How DC became obsessed with a potential 2027 Chinese invasion of Taiwan

How DC became obsessed with a potential 2027 Chinese invasion of Taiwan

At a summit near San Francisco in November, the leaders of America and China turned to the biggest threat to their relationship.

The topic was Taiwan, which China’s government considers part of its rightful territory and has threatened to take by force. When it came up, according to an American official who later spoke to the press, Chinese leader Xi Jinping grew exasperated — not at the risk of war, but at the timeline.

“Xi basically said: ‘Look, I hear all these reports in the United States [of] how we’re planning for military action in 2027 or 2035,’ ” the official said.

“ ‘There are no such plans,’ ” Xi said in the official’s telling. “ ‘No one has talked to me about this.’ ”

That first year, 2027, is a fixation in Washington. It has impacted the debate over China policy — a shift from the long term to the short term. It’s also helped steer billions of dollars toward U.S. forces in the Pacific. And in the last several years, it’s been a question mark hanging over the Biden administration’s approach to the region.

According to U.S. intelligence, Xi has told the Chinese military it needs to be ready to invade Taiwan by that year. But ready to invade is different than will invade; American officials stress the year isn’t a deadline.

Defense News spoke to sources in Congress, the Pentagon and Washington-based think tanks to understand what may be the most important, most misunderstood year in Sino-U.S. relations. The message was that 2027 has exposed a rift in Washington’s China strategy. The U.S. is more focused on the country it calls its “pacing challenge,” but experts disagree on whether it’s running a sprint or a marathon — and if it can prepare for both.

China “will not renounce the use of force as a possibility” around Taiwan, said David Finkelstein, who studies the Chinese military at the Center for Naval Analyses. “So the military option hangs over the Taiwan Strait like Damocles’ sword.”

The Davidson window

In the years leading up to 2021, Sino-U.S. relations had soured. Washington had become more confrontational during Donald Trump’s presidency, in large part as a response to Beijing’s own aggression. The People’s Liberation Army was — and still is — bulking up quickly, with weapons, reforms and exercises that could enable an invasion of Taiwan. Lawmakers concerned the U.S. was falling behind had just created the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, an effort to rush more money to military leaders in the region.

With that backdrop, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, began his questioning at a 2021 hearing.

“The common theme I hear with regard to China’s actions under Xi Jinping’s leadership is alarm,” Sullivan said, citing concerns over Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China’s strong-arming of U.S. allies like Australia and India.

Sullivan then asked the sole witness that day — Adm. Phil Davidson, the retiring head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command — whether that changed the odds of a conflict around Taiwan.

“The threat is manifest during this decade,” Davidson said at the end of his answer, “in fact, in the next six years.”

It’s rare to find a true before-and-after moment on an issue as complex as Sino-U.S. relations. This, said several experts, was one.

“It set off these warning alarms that broke outside the niche community and into the broader policy conversation in D.C.,” said a Republican congressional aide, granted anonymity because the individual was not authorized to talk to the press.

The concern it generated earned a nickname: the “Davidson window,” shorthand for the near-term threat of an attack on Taiwan.

And that changed how Congress spent money. The Pacific Deterrence Initiative doesn’t have its own budget, but in the last few years the U.S. has spent more on its forces in the region. Indo-Pacific Command sends Congress a yearly list of priorities, including what doesn’t make the Pentagon’s budget request.

The latest wish list has called for $26.5 billion in spending. And while $11 billion didn’t make the cut in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2025 budget request, that means about $15 billion did, with the chance lawmakers may add more in the next spending bill.

Congress also gave the Pentagon $1 billion in annual authority to send Taiwan weapons. The recently passed national security supplemental includes almost $2 billion to replace whatever the Pentagon sends, along with $2 billion more in financing to purchase American equipment.

“You can draw a direct line between Adm. Davidson’s comments and the ability to get something like the foreign military financing for Taiwan through,” the congressional staffer said.

Suddenly, in a considerable number of hearings, members of Congress were asking military leaders about their windows.

At the start of the summer, the chief of naval operations and the commandant of the Marine Corps said they shared Davidson’s concerns.

Gen. Mark Milley, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a later hearing that Davidson’s comments were based on a speech from Xi, calling on China’s military to “develop capabilities to seize Taiwan and move it from 2035 to 2027.”

U.S. officials haven’t shared the text of that speech.

‘I hope I am wrong’

This became the standard line across the administration — affirmed by Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns.

“President Xi has instructed the PLA [People’s Liberation Army], the Chinese military leadership to be ready by 2027 to invade Taiwan. But that doesn’t mean that he’s decided to invade in 2027 or any other year as well,” Burns said during a TV interview in February 2023.

And as the hearing with Milley showed, that distinction is easy to miss. Then-Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., argued with the general over whether other witnesses had said China would invade by 2027.

Milley said no, but added a caveat: “Intent is something that can change quickly.”

The back-and-forth showed two factors that have defined the 2027 debate ever since: For one, it’s hard to keep the year from looking like a timeline; and second, even though ability and intent are different, they’re still related.

The first issue has been clear in the three years since Davidson testified. More officials were pressed to offer their own assessments.

In fall 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China wants to unify with Taiwan on a “much faster timeline” than the U.S. expected. Then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday soon after said his service needed a “fight tonight” approach to the region.

Then in early 2023, a memo from Gen. Mike Minihan, head of Air Mobility Command, leaked.

“I hope I am wrong,” it read. “My gut tells me we will fight [China] in 2025.”

After this last case, the Pentagon intervened. Officials began repeating a new talking point: Conflict with China is “neither imminent nor inevitable.” They’ve stuck to that assessment ever since.

But by then, said a senior defense official, granted anonymity to speak freely, the concerns around 2027 had spread widely.

People around Washington would call the official’s office to ask if China would invade that year and whether the U.S. is ready. Since then, the official said, the misconception has become less common.

“It’s not like Xi Jinping has a calendar up in his office with a date in 2027 marked ‘invade Taiwan,’ ” the official said.

In fact, many of the experts who spoke with Defense News said it’s unlikely any Chinese leader would set a deadline. Chinese law doesn’t have timelines for an attack on Taiwan; it has conditions, particularly an attempt by the island to declare independence.

And Xi hasn’t scrapped China’s policy toward the island, which calls for unification without war. Some leading China analysts don’t think invading the island is a legacy issue for him.

“Xi is a politician,” said Toshi Yoshihara, who studies the Chinese military at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank. “All politicians want options, so the last thing you want is to be tied to a deadline.”

‘Seed corn’

The Pentagon doesn’t dismiss 2027 altogether. That’s because it’s a real goal for China’s military — just a nuanced one.

China’s government has set a series of year-based goals throughout this century, almost like mile times a runner wants to hit while training to win a race.

The most important one is 2049, which is 100 years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China. By then, China’s leaders want to reach “national rejuvenation” — or as they see it, again becoming the world’s most powerful country. A core part of that goal is unification with Taiwan.

China has also set short- and medium-term markers. The earlier one is 2027, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army. It was added to China’s calendar in 2020. The midterm one is 2035.

“It’s a yardstick,” said Chad Sbragia, a researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses and former head of the Pentagon’s China policy.

The logic isn’t so different from how the U.S. works. Take an initiative like Replicator, for example. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks has pledged to field thousands of drones by August 2025, which forces the Pentagon to move faster and offers a chance for accountability.

China’s military goals aren’t that specific. Instead, they’re captured in somewhat vague phrases repeated by Chinese officials. By 2035, the modernization of its armed forces should be “basically complete.” By 2049, it wants to have a “world-class” military.

The official said it’s not totally clear — to both the American and Chinese governments — what those phrases mean.

The goals for 2027 are more detailed, though hard to translate from the original Chinese. Here’s how it’s described in the Pentagon’s 2023 report on China’s military strength:

“‘Accelerate the integrated development of mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization,’ while boosting the speed of modernization in military theories, organizations, personnel, and weapons and equipment.”

The aims are simpler than they sound, the defense official said.

The first half focuses on the military’s equipment, its ability to gather data, and its ability to communicate or jam its enemies. The second part refers to doctrine — or the ability for all the different parts of the People’s Liberation Army to fight together.

These are the main areas where China thinks its military must improve if the nation is to surpass its rivals, most of all the United States. Others include corruption and the long time since China last fought a war, which means its leaders have less data on how their forces could perform today.

These goals all matter for a potential fight with Taiwan, though the official stressed that any conflict is still just that — potential. China’s government would prefer to annex the island without a war, and may think a stronger military could force Taiwan into negotiations. The defense official said it’s difficult to judge whether China is on pace to reach its goals, which are more difficult to measure than simply a weapons inventory.

“The amount of military equipment they’re producing is eye-watering,” Sbragia said.

In response, some people, like U.S. military leaders in the Pacific and hawkish lawmakers, say America needs to surge money to its forces in the region. American law doesn’t require the nation to defend Taiwan, but U.S. President Joe Biden has said several times that it would.

Others, such as officials in the Biden administration, argue the U.S. can’t fixate on a threat this decade.

“We don’t really get to choose one or the other,” the defense official said. “We don’t get to say we’re going to pour all of our resources into being ready right now and shortchange what we think we need to invest in for the future.”

Not everyone agrees the U.S. can do both. Even those that do — such as former Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., who until recently led the House’s committee focused on competition with China — argue the U.S. should be spending much more on the effort.

But China will likely be a long-term competitor — as illustrated by its goals, which stretch decades into the future. One of the benefits of the 2027 debate in Washington, multiple China experts told Defense News, is that it’s made America’s government take that competition more seriously.

But they also gave a warning: America shouldn’t think there’s zero chance of conflict before that year, and if nothing happens after that date, it shouldn’t get complacent.

That means spending the money it can on the short-term threat while also upgrading U.S. forces for the long term, said Zack Cooper, who studies U.S.-China strategic competition at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

“We don’t want to be eating our seed corn,” he said.

Noah Robertson is the Pentagon reporter at Defense News. He previously covered national security for the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and government from the College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.

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