Taiwan is China’s COVID Antidote: Why an Invasion is Likely

一箭双雕: one arrow, two hawks. This chengyu, analogous to the Western idiom “kill two birds with one stone,” appears frequently in Chinese politics, recently used to describe Chairman Xi Jinping’s financial sector purge — a move to eliminate corruption and to quell political opposition. [1] Xi’s China faces two targets impeding its road to “great-power” status, which it has given itself until 2049 to attain. The first is “reunification” with Taiwan. The second is a departure from an unsustainable zero-COVID policy. Both targets lack clear execution strategies — the first lacks an entrance strategy, and the second has no exit strategy. If Xi wants to complete China’s transition to superpower status, he can prove it by felling both targets with one carefully aimed shot. War against Taiwan will end war against the coronavirus.

This first target has plagued the People’s Republic of China since its ascension to power in 1949: Mao gave his new regime a century to take Taiwan, and that charge remains unfulfilled. An unprecedented, unrivaled “great-power” China – as the Chinese Dream goes – necessitates a clear and incontrovertible definition of self. China cannot wear its chosen mantle of the new, “modern socialist nation,” the first in the history of the world, with “separatism” lingering right off its shores. [2] For Xi, not only would this pose a threat to China’s Pacific expansion, but it would leave its greatest rival, the United States, with a potential stronghold in Asia. Most importantly, tolerating the de facto sovereignty of what China deems a “breakaway province” means cementing a century-long rejection of the One China principle cornerstone to its founding — hardly the behavior of a great power. 

But when evaluating how China can accomplish grand objectives like this, many tend to focus solely on the means by which it can do so. China possesses the military strength to invade Taiwan. Many defense officials and military experts agree that China could invade now, albeit with a cost. [3] The People’s Liberation Army Navy, the largest navy in the world by number of vessels, commands over 300,000 personnel, 2 aircraft carriers, 51 destroyers, and 79 submarines. [4] Hence, facing an America distracted by internal division, global disengagement, and Russia’s war on Ukraine, Xi faces strong odds. What he lacks is a strategy for capturing Taiwan without suffering international repudiation and punishment.

China’s second goal, the eventual triumph of its zero-COVID policy, proves even harder to attain but more necessary to secure the nation’s continued growth. For a government which has worked for over two years to eradicate the virus – devoting more resources, attention, and propaganda to this task than any other on the planet – abandoning this mindset is no easy task. Xi has even declared this public health struggle a “people’s war;” accepting the virus, then, amounts to surrender. [5]

For just as with Taiwan, China also has the means to eventually forsake its zero-COVID strategy: though its vaccines are less effective than Western counterparts, it administered over two billion doses in merely nine months. Such a feat could be replicated with a more effective shot. It constructed a new hospital in just ten days. [6] It has already purchased Pfizer’s Paxlovid drug and can purchase at least two billion doses of an effective mRNA vaccine. [7] China could successfully inoculate its population and upgrade its hospital capacity to prepare for a COVID surge, and if it opens after implementing these measures, it may not see deaths or hospitalizations exceeding a bad season of a respiratory virus.

But it won’t. Because China also lacks a strategy to end zero-COVID that neither triggers pandemonium in a populace encouraged to fear the appearance of a single case, nor leaves the West – targeted by China as the ideological losers of the pandemic – with an opportunity to expose China’s failed zero-COVID gambit. [8] Facing not only blame for failing to contain COVID in its early stages, but also censure for failing to escape from the pandemic two years later – particularly because of the adverse economic effects this has on the global economy – Xi risks losing to the rest of the world the ideological war he started. For a nation which has sought to use the pandemic to prove the supremacy of its political system, it risks failure on all counts. [9] Xi’s China, perpetually brooding over its “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers, cannot accept this defeat.

But abandoning zero-COVID remains imperative. Incessant lockdowns threaten China’s business climate and encourage corporations to look elsewhere. Though high foreign direct investment in China endures, the impossibility of business travel makes forging new relationships and importing innovation more difficult, critical for a nation whose domestic innovation is not yet self-reliant. Travel restrictions make exchange of citizens and diplomats sparse, leaving China further isolated in a Pacific climate that demands alliances. Most importantly, zero-COVID hampers economic growth, China’s most powerful engine for rejuvenation. The IMF already downgraded this year’s GDP growth target by a full percentage point, and that was before the disastrous lockdown in Shanghai. [10] An eternal zero-COVID China forces an exchange of “great power” for “great pariah” status. 

Most importantly, a zero-COVID China cannot invade Taiwan. China barely hosted the 2022 Olympics in Beijing without viral spillover; it can hardly shuttle half a million soldiers to and from Taiwan without instigating a massive outbreak. Maintaining zero-COVID policies ad infinitum bars China from “reunification” and, hence, from ascendancy to great-power status. 

China has declared an unwinnable war for which it will accept no terms of surrender, either to the virus itself or to a world that has moved on to other contests. 

So, it must change the war. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will likely not influence the timing or justification of this operation. Rather, by following this strategy, China will coordinate its “reunification” campaign with its own domestic issues, monopolizing control of the narrative to fell two hawks with one arrow. It will employ the art of distraction to shift the front from the “dissident virus” to the “dissident province.” Preparation for battle will take the form of properly vaccinating the Chinese people and bolstering healthcare services for the fight with COVID — but the spotlight will shift to Taiwan, when the opportunity for war arises. [11] Preparation will help China avoid mass casualties or hospitalizations. And war will give China the opportunity to simply stop counting COVID cases. China will surrender nothing and distract the populace with a far grander campaign, infequently reporting cases of COVID or roiling Chinese media because they can. Glaringly apparent are ripples in a tranquil pond; in a tumultuous sea, they are invisible. 

Simultaneous timing is essential to the success of this strategy. Delaying an invasion of Taiwan until long after the end of the pandemic will see an aged Xi who risks deferring the fulfillment of Chairman Mao’s hundred-year goal to another hand. For China’s aspiring next “Chairman of the Communist Party of China,” ceding this opportunity cedes his place in history, keeping him in the shadow of his predecessor, China’s only true “Chairman.”

Likewise, invading Taiwan in the next 1-5 years, but after relaxing COVID restrictions, ensures instability not once but twice. China will fall victim to homegrown hysteria amidst millions of COVID cases for which the government has prepared no distraction. After the dust has settled, it will be shaken anew with the consequences that follow invasion. 

一箭双雕. Simultaneity ensures the best success. Two hawks for the price of one. And one arrow spared. 

The absence of any exit path from China’s zero-COVID policy offers an efficient opportunity to weather two transitions with one fell swoop. China will bite the bullet that follows an invasion of Taiwan, and it will stage the conflict of the century precisely when the previous act needs to end.  

This piece perhaps reads as CCP propaganda. It should. Narratives and slogans are the primary tools through which Chinese leadership crafts and enforces policy — yet few have contemplated what a post-COVID narrative for China looks like. To predict China’s actions, one must think as a Chinese policymaker and consider what narrative and slogan could best be trumpeted down the ranks and emblazoned on the front cover of the People’s Daily. This is one.  

An invasion of Taiwan in some form is most likely forthcoming — there is simply no reading of Xi’s Chinese Dream that allows the current arrangement to continue. Taiwan and its allies must prepare for this day — which could come sooner rather than later. The whole world understands that the days of zero-COVID are numbered. Yet day after day, we ask: When will it end? When the Taiwan Strait hears the first trembles of war.

Andrew DeWeese ’24 is the Vice President of the AHS chapter at Yale University, where he is majoring in Classics and Global Affairs.


[1] 陈筠, “习近平’零容忍’惩治贪腐收’一箭双雕’之效,” Voice of America Chinese, 25 January 2022, https://www.voachinese.com/a/Xi-Jinping-s-zero-tolerance-crackdown-on-corruption-achieves-dual-goals-20220125/6409817.html.

[2] Xu Wei, “Xi stresses strength arises from united efforts,” China Daily, 1 January 2022, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202201/01/WS61cf8f20a310cdd39bc7e9f9. html.

[3] J. William Middendorf II, “Yes, China Could Invade Taiwan,” Heritage Foundation, 1 November 2021, https://www.heritage.org/asia/commentary/yes-china-could-invade-taiwan.

[4] Fatima Bahtić, “Chinese navy is the largest navy in the world, new report shows,” Naval Today, 5 November 2021, https://www.navaltoday.com/2021/11/05/chinese-navy-is-the-largest-navy-in-world-new-report-shows/. 

[5] Yew Lun Tian, “In ‘People’s War’ on coronavirus, Chinese propaganda faces pushback,” Reuters, 13 March 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-china-propaganda-a/in-peoples-war-on-coronavirus-chinese-propaganda-faces-pushback-idUSKBN2100NA. 

[6] Sophia Ankel, “A construction expert broke down how China built an emergency hospital to treat Wuhan coronavirus patients in just 10 days,” Business Insider, 5 February 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/how-china-managed-build-entirely-new-hospital-in-10-days-2020-2.

[7] “China approves use of Pfizer’s Paxlovid COVID drug,” Reuters, 14 February 2022, https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/china-gives-conditional-approval-pfizers-covid-drug-paxlovid-2022-02-12/. 

[8] Zhao Ruinan, “US fails miserably in response to COVID-19,” China Daily, 9 August 2021, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202108/09/WS611115e2a310efa1bd667b49.html. 

[9] Dong Yuzhen, “CPC most important source of confidence for Chinese people,” People’s Daily, 4 March 2020, http://en.people.cn/n3/2020/0304/c98649-9664589.html.

[10] Ji Siqi, “China GDP: IMF cuts growth forecast to 4.8 per cent, warns property sector pressure a ‘prelude’ to broader slowdown,” South China Morning Post, 25 January 2022, https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3164685/china-gdp-imf-cuts-growth-forecast-48-cent-warns-property.

[11] Xu Wei, “Li stresses bolstering of healthcare,” China Daily, 24 January 2022, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202201/24/WS61ede2f7a310cdd39bc82add.html.

Image: “Scholars depicted on Han dynasty pictorial brick,” by 四川成都青杠坡出土, 重庆中国三峡博物馆收藏, retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Han_dynasty_scholars_relief_讲学画 砖四川成都青杠坡出土 重庆市博物馆 藏.jpg. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.

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