China has drawn up secret military plans to take over the island of Taiwan by 2020, an action that would likely lead to a larger U.S.-China conventional or nuclear war, according to newly-disclosed internal Chinese military documents.
The secret war plan drawn up by the People's Liberation Army (PLA), the Chinese Communist Party's armed forces, calls for massive missile attacks on the island, along with a naval and air blockade that is followed by amphibious beach landing assaults using up to 400,000 troops.
The danger of a Taiwan conflict has grown in recent years even as current tensions between Washington and Beijing are mainly the result of U.S. opposition to Chinese militarization in the South China Sea and China's covert support of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
"Of all the powder kegs out there, the potential for a war over Taiwan is by far the largest and most explosive," the 290-page book states, adding that the growing likelihood of a war over Taiwan will dominate worries within the Pentagon for years to come.
"China has made clear that its primary external objective is attaining the ability to apply overwhelming force against Taiwan during a conflict, and if necessary destroy American-led coalition forces," the books says.
Democratic-ruled Taiwan poses an existential threat to China's communist leaders because the island, located some 90 miles off the southeast coast "serves as a beacon of freedom for ethnically Chinese people everywhere," the book states.
"Consequently, the PLA considers the invasion of Taiwan to be its most critical mission, and it is this envisioned future war that drives China's military buildup."
Parts of the PLA invasion scheme were first revealed publicly by the Taiwan Defense Ministry in late 2013. The plan calls for military operations against the island to be carried out by 2020.
The invasion program was confirmed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping during the major Communist Party meeting five years ago when Xi committed to "continue the 2020 Plan, whereby we build and deploy a complete operational capability to use force against Taiwan by that year."
Other internal PLA writings that surfaced recently indicate China is ready to use force when it believes non-military means are not successful in forcing the capitulation to Beijing's demands, and if the United States can be kept out of the battle.
Current U.S. law under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act requires the United States to provide defensive weaponry to Taiwan to prevent the use of force against the island.
China currently is using non-lethal means—psychological, diplomatic, propaganda, and informational warfare—against Taiwan. Once these are exhausted, the plan for large-scale amphibious assault will be carried out.
Any attempt by the Chinese military to take the island will be difficult and costly, the book says. The island has rough, mountainous terrain that has created a wind tunnel effect in the strait that produces very difficult weather for carrying troop and weapons transports, both air and sea.
Taiwan is around 230 miles long and 90 miles wide. Taiwanese military forces have been preparing for an invasion since Chinese nationalist forces first took refuge on the island at the end of the civil war with the communists in 1949.
However, since the 1980s, China has been rapidly building up its military capabilities for a battle to forcibly unify the island with the mainland. Over 1,000 ballistic and cruise missiles currently are stationed within range of the Taiwan.
According to the book, China's invasion plan is known as the Joint Island Attack Campaign.
"Only by militarily occupying The Island can we fundamentally conquer the ‘separatist' force’s natural living space, and totally end the long military standoff across the Strait," one PLA field manual states.
The war plan calls for rapidly capturing the capital Taipei and destroying the government; seizing other major cities and clearing out surviving defenders; and occupying the entire country.
Military operations will emphasize speed and surprise to overwhelm coastal defenses and create so much destruction in the early phase that Taiwan would surrender before the U.S. military can deploy forces to the area.
"The conceptual plan, which is referred to in internal PLA writings as the Joint Island Attack Campaign, appears to be highly centralized and updated regularly based on the latest intelligence, weapons production, and lessons learned from exercises and training," the book says.
The campaign is one of China's most closely held secrets but has been discussed in internal military manuals and technical writings that recently leaked from within the PLA.
"These provide an extraordinarily detailed look into Chinese thinking on this campaign," the book says.
The step-by-step invasion process will involve three phases: blockade and bombing, amphibious landing, and combat operations on the island.
Several layers of a naval and air blockade and massive missile strikes on 1,000 targets will be used in the first phase. China then plans to launch sea-borne assaults with an armada of warships against 14 possible beach sites.
"Before the invaders began landing along Taiwan's coast, the PLA would launch wave after wave of missiles, rockets, bombs, and artillery shells, pounding shoreline defenses, while electronic jammers scrambled communications," the book says.
The PLA believes a future invasion of Taiwan is inevitable, although the exact time is uncertain.
China regards Taiwan as a "renegade province" and considers reuniting the island with the mainland part of larger Chinese strategic goals of achieving global dominance.
"In the end, only by directly conquering and controlling the island can we realize national unification … otherwise ‘separatist' forces, even if they momentarily compromise under pressure, can reignite like dormant ashes under the right conditions," one PLA document states.
A PLA field manual warns that Taiwan's geography and defenses will require massive and masterful military campaigns that will be extremely challenging, requiring great sacrifices.
A restricted PLA manual, "Course Book on the Taiwan Strait's Military Geography" warned military officers that external militaries could use Taiwan to cut off China's trade lines and for use as a U.S. military base to blockade China.
Also, many of China’s seaborne oil imports, pass through the Taiwan Strait and are highly vulnerable to military interdiction. "So protecting the security of this strategic maritime passageway is not just a military activity alone, but rather an act of national strategy," the manual says.
China also regards Taiwan as a critical chokepoint for Japan and could be used by China to choke its rival.
On the information warfare front, China plans to use the internet and other media outlets to wage psychological warfare aimed at weakening Taiwan's resistance prior to a main attack.
Psychological warfare actions will be combined with legal and media warfare and other political warfare tools.
An internal Chinese military report outlines the use of information operations:
Utilize legal warfare and public opinion warfare together with psychological warfare to divide and erode the island's solid willpower and lower the island's combat strength. Of these, utilize legal warfare against the enemy's political groups and their so-called ‘allies' as a form of psychological attack. Clearly make the case that a joint attack campaign against the main island is legally justifiable and based on a continued, and internal, war of liberation…utilize public opinion warfare against the enemy's military groups as a form of psychological attack. Point out the benefits of giving up their support for ‘independence' with effective messaging themes…Use the Internet media heavily against non-governmental groups on the island and the masses as a form of psychological attack. Proactively spread propaganda regarding the benefits of unification for the nation and the people, and erode the social foundation of the ‘separatist' forces on the island.
Taiwan's leaders also will be targeted in bombing strikes, including the presidential office in Taipei and other government leadership headquarters.
A PLA document tells military leaders to find leadership organizations and their defenses.
"Then you should use high tech weapons that have a strong capability to penetrate their airspace with precision and destructiveness to execute fierce strikes against their head person(s)," the document says. "Assure they are successfully knocked out with one punch."
Chinese commandos also will be used to abduct or kill Taiwan's key political and military leaders, weapons experts, and scientists using clandestine means and direct attacks.
China, according to the book, would "almost certainly" fail in its full-scale invasion of Taiwan but its military appears driven to prepare and carry out such an attack.
"China's leaders recognize the roadblocks in their path and will continue to invest heavily in strategic deception, intelligence collection, psychological warfare, joint training, and advanced weapons," the book says.
"Barring countervailing efforts, their investments could result in a world-shaking conflict and an immense human tragedy."
For the Pentagon, China's plan to seize Taiwan has worried those in the Air Force who expect Chinese missile and other attacks on nearby U.S. bases, notably Japan's Kadena air base, a central U.S. military hub in the Pacific.
American Navy officials fear Chinese submarines will sink U.S. aircraft carriers or the USS Blue Ridge, the region's only command ship.
"No one seemed clear on exactly what might happen, but all were sure a future Chinese surprise attack would be worse than Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined," the book says.
Others note that a Taiwan conflict could rapidly escalate to a U.S.-China nuclear war.
"The trigger could very well be an accident or innocent act, something calculated as benign but perceived as hostile," the book says. "It may go down in history as an infamous event, or it may not be understood what exactly happened. Like the case of World War I, the true cause may be debated for a century and still undecided."
Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the book presents important policy prescriptions for deterring war. The use of restricted Chinese military writings also provides new clues to Chinese intentions, plans and its ambitions to conquer Taiwan.
"What Easton has done is provide a vital warning to America and its allies, China could try to invade Taiwan as early as the first half of the next decade," Fisher said. "That means we are right now in a Taiwan Straits crisis and we need to react like we are in a crisis or we risk falling into a war we have successfully avoided since 1950."