June 12, 2023 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1697

The Art Of War: China's Strategic Considerations In Conquering Taiwan

June 12, 2023 | By Chris King*
China | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1697

The Art of War is the oldest military book in the world and is considered the sacred text of military science. Written approximately 2500 years ago by famous Chinese military strategist and statesman General Sun Tzu, the book is composed of 13 chapters, each devoted to a different strategic or tactical concept, and it can be summed up in one quote: "Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting."

Sun Tzu elaborates: “A clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease."

In addition, he writes: "In all fighting, the direct method may be used for battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory. "

Sun Tzu adds a caveat, however: When fighting is necessary, the battle must be won swiftly and decisively, and prolonged war must be avoided.

Emperor Kangxi’s Conquest of Taiwan: An Implementation of Sun Tzu’s Ideas

The late-17th-century conquest of Taiwan by Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty can be regarded as a model of the flexible practice of Sun Tzu's Art of War.

Emperor Kangxi's annexation of Taiwan was an alternation of war and negotiation, a contest of strength and wisdom with rivals, and a long-term process of winning hearts and minds.

In 1681, Emperor Kangxi had completely put down a rebellion and had consolidated power in an unprecedented fashion, making the conditions ripe for conquering Taiwan and realizing national unification. To this end, Emperor Kangxi decided to adopt a policy of "using both suppression and pacification to stabilize the maritime territory".

On July 8, 1683, General Shi Lang (施琅), the commander of the Qing navy, led more than 20,000 troops and 200 warships to cross the sea to the east. Taiwan's ruler Zheng Keshuang (郑克塽) sent Liu Guoxuan (刘国), a brave and battle-hardened general, to defend the Penghu (澎湖) islands with a force equal in number to Shi Lang's. The two armies fought fiercely for seven days and nights. In the Penghu naval battle, Zheng's elite troops were wiped out. The Qing army sank 159 enemy ships and 12,000 of Zheng’s soldiers were killed or wounded. Their corpses were floating all over the sea. Liu Guoxuan led only 31 ships to escape to Taiwan.

Defeated in Penghu, Taiwan’s ruler Zheng Keshuang and others panicked. Under the instructions of Emperor Kangxi, General Shi Lang actively sought to win the hearts and minds of the captured Taiwanese soldiers. He treated them with courtesy and rewarded them with silver and rice. After receiving medical treatment, the wounded were released back to Taiwan, and they were told to declare the Qing court's intention to appease Taiwan. Hence, the people of Taiwan lost their will to resist and were willing to surrender.

Under such circumstances, Taiwan’s ruler Zheng Keshuang was totally unable to put up any resistance, and he decided on is own to submit to the Qing Dynasty. Emperor Kangxi responded to Zheng’s petition to surrender by stating: “If he can come back sincerely, he will be absolved of all his crimes, and if he thanks the imperial court for its arrangement, he should be ensured that his demands are met.”

On August 11, 1683, the Qing army arrived in Taiwan. Zheng Keshuang led civil and military officials to meet the army on the shore. Taiwan, an enemy of the mainland for 22 years, was peacefully annexed by the Qing Dynasty. In 1684, the Qing dynasty established the Taiwan Prefecture and three counties within Taiwan. The dynasty stationed 10,000 soldiers in Taiwan and Penghu respectively, and it set up government agencies to govern and defend the island.

The overwhelming victory of the Qing army against Zheng‘s army was the result of taking the initiative to create momentum, careful planning, and full preparation. Emperor Kangxi used both “soft” and “hard” methods, and he made very effective use of his general Shi Lang, who had intimate knowledge of the way Zheng’s army operated. This was a perfect implementation of Sun Tzu’s dictate: "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles."

Emperor Kangxi was able to accurately assess the situation and overcome dissenting opinions within his court. He only employed force against Taiwan after his domestic unrest was stabilized, and when he did use force, he did so decisively and without hesitation, in a fashion that totally avoided prolonged warfare.

Xi Jinping May Aim to Repeat Emperor Kangxi’s Victory

Xi Jinping is well aware that the PLA is unlikely to win a prolonged war in Taiwan, particularly since such a war would likely involve American, Japanese, and other foreign forces. The U.S. has made it clear that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would bear severe consequences. These risks are intolerable for Xi, because losing a war in Taiwan would very likely result in the CCP losing its power in mainland China.

The political pressure applied by the U.S. against the CCP may serve as an effective deterrent against an immediate invasion of Taiwan, particularly after the economic and social unrest that China is still suffering from after the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Western pressure does not preclude Xi from taking the opportunity to consolidate the Chinese domestic front in preparation for a future surprise attack, and neither does it prevent China from exploiting the very diplomatic means that the West insists upon to break Taiwan’s resistance without any fighting.

Indeed, it seems that the Beijing authorities have begun to show signs of a soft hand. The tone of reunification of Taiwan by force has been significantly reduced, and the intention of releasing a soft orientation such as the United Front (the CCP’s foreign influence arm) has been continuously emerging

For example, Beijing wants to influence Taiwan's elections with a variety of United Front tactics, such as wooing Taiwan's politicians and businesspeople with economic interests, in order to help politicians from the Kuomintang (KMT) or other pro-China parties win power in Taiwan's presidential election early next year.[1]

Xi’s goal is to influence Taiwan's political situation as much as possible, so that a presidential candidate from a party like the China-friendly KMT can replace the Democratic Progressive Party, thereby giving Beijing more room to maneuver and more time to prepare for further soft seizure of Taiwan, or even for a rapid and decisive military conquest that would avoid the risks inherent in a drawn-out war. These moves can also enable Beijing to further infiltrate Taiwan and cultivate people inside Taiwan who can help the Communist Party in the future.

This approach by Beijing can at least avoid a military showdown between the two sides for a foreseeable period of time, and may even achieve peaceful cross-strait reconciliation or a breakthrough at the political level with the help of years of United Front operation.

Importantly, the Chinese economy is currently facing serious difficulties, the unemployment rate is soaring, and investment, consumption, and foreign trade are not picking up. Xi knows that now is not a good time for war, because without economic support, a campaign against Taiwan would certainly be difficult to sustain.

Even China's hawkish military strategist Dai Xu has already suggested that a military conflict is unadvisable at this point in time.[2] Dai believes that China's coastal areas are close to the U.S. bases in Japan and South Korea, and the U.S. can even airlift short- and medium-range missiles from the United States to launch positions near China, from which devastating strikes can be carried out on China's coastal areas. Dai added that although the PLA has first-class anti-missile systems, they would still be vulnerable to missile attacks on coastal areas in the face of American land-based and shipborne missiles. Dai elaborated that a war would be costly for both countries.

Hence, Xi Jinping is likely to employ a hybrid strategy with regard to Taiwan. On the one hand, he will demonstrate to the U.S. and Japan that China has strength and is not afraid to fight. On the other hand, he will intensify United Front work in Taiwan, try to manipulate public opinion in Taiwan, influence Taiwan’s general election next year, and simultaneously try to regain domestic stability in China.

However, it is important to note that if the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wins next year's presidential election, the possibility of Xi taking military action against Taiwan will greatly increase.

There is one other thing to take into consideration. Sun Tzu wrote: “When capable of attacking, feign incapacity; when active in moving troops, feign inactivity.” This means that even as Beijing might temporarily shift its focus to non-military routes towards reunification, as soon as the West is complacent, it might take advantage of the opportunity and take rapid military action at any time. Any “shrinkage” or “de-escalation” on the part of the PLA may only be a calm before the storm of a surprise military action against Taiwan – the use of force is never off the table.


*Chris King is Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project.


[1] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1695, Beijing's Taiwan Strategy And The Recent Escalation, May 18, 2023.

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