Recently, I've noticed some "big shrimps" on Chinese bbs mention that China is likely to invade Taiwan by 2018. We can all guess the reasonings, but will China be able to improve enough by then to make this possible?
I will just go through a list of projects related air force and navy that should be ready by 2018.
Aircraft Carrier - The symbol of super power status. According to all reports, it seems China will start with Varyag as the training carrier (and possibly attack helo carrier in the future) and then build 2 CATOBAR carrier by 2018. These 2 will be the first generation of Chinese carriers. From all reports, the suppliers have already supplied most of the parts. They are just waiting for the construction to start in the new Changxin shipyard. By 2015, we might see these carriers being launched and conducting sea tests. So, the next question is what kind of aerial fleet will support them.
J-11 Naval - Currently, China is working a twin-seated version of flankers based on su-30mkk called J-11BS. So, converting J-11B into a multi-role strike platform like F-15E. Needless to say, this flanker will have higher payload and longer range than the existing J-11B. The radar will be more multi-roled. It might get a powerful AESA radar when it is ready. The weapons on this plane will include all of the latest Chinese weapons like PL-12, PL-8B, KD-88, YJ-91, YJ-83K, LS-500, LS-6, FT series and next generation weapons like more SGBs, new SRAAM and LRAAM. This was chosen as the naval fighter ahead of J-10 due to PLAN's requirements for more multirole capability + longer range. With the help they are getting from the Ukrainian. This might be ready to go by early next decade and fly off the Varyag.
Twin-Engined "J-10" - This possibility has been discussed for a long time and maybe J-10 is not a good name for it. But it seems that CAC has a project (that will sort of compete with 5th generation fighter) that will build a heavy fighter (although smaller than flankers) based on a lot of aerodynamic lessons from J-10. This fighter is supposed to be very stealthy, be able to supercruise without afterburners, have the latest avionics like AESA radar, built in IRST, more advanced EW suite and such. There are some talk that this might end up as the second generation of naval fighters, but that's still a long time from now. The air force version should be ready by around 2012 (the upgraded Taihang engine should be available by then), but a possible naval version would come at a later date (possibly ready for the first indigenous carriers, > 2015).
Y-7 AEW - We have also seen pictures of Y-7 AEW. Knowing the success of Y-8 surveillence projects, I think the hardest part might be getting Y-7s to be able to fly off the indigenous CATOBAR carriers. This is another project that doesn't need to be fielded before 2015.
Now, for the rest of the fleet.
095 - We've seen 093 pictures coming out and it has surprised many with more Western similarities than Russian features. 095's reactor vessel is supposed to be finished by 2010. So, the construction of 095 should start by early 2010s and be finished and commissioned between 2016-2018 (using 093's path). I think the goal of this submarine is to match Virginia, but whether that can be achieved is another story. Of course in the mean time, I would expect more 093s to be built to possibly 8?
096 - A new generation SSBN - not much details have come out, I'd suspect 094s would still handle majority of the action for the next decade. The number that I've typically seen speculated for 094 is 4 to 6.
SSGN - There has been some talk of SSGN development, but the progress of this is unknown.
052D/... - It looks like 052C was stopped for a few years due to JiangNan relocation + sorting out all the issues on 052B/C. But the new generation 052D is suppose to start construction in early 2008 in Changxin. We could easily see production of 2 or more per year until there are enough to replace the Ludas. Of course, each iteration will be slightly better than the previous one.
054 series - This is the lo-end of the combination. Future 054s should be using CODOG rather than CODAD propulsion according to what Richard Fisher's article talked about. Whether the number of air defense missiles and ASW suite will change or not is not known at this point. We know that once they decide on producing 054s, they can build them very fast (more than 4 per year). So, it's quite possible we will have 30 054s by 2018.
Conventional Submarines - The mass production of Yuan (039A) has recently started. It's hard to see that this will continue more than the mass production run of 3rd variants of Song. So, we might see 10 Yuan at most. Although, I think China will soon be developing a class of conventional submarine to match U-214, Scorpene and Amur. I'm guessing Oyashio and Collins are still in a league of their own. Either way, this new class will most likely endure a long initial production process like Song did before mass production. Although judging from Song's production of 4 per year (at its height), it shouldn't be long before Yuan or this new diesel class replace all the Mings plus earlier Song class submarines.
071 and helo carriers - The first 071 is already in sea test. It looks like the displacement of 071 is over 20K tonnes and can carry about 2 Z-8s in the hangar + 2 or 3 on the helipad. A lot of people have been disappointed by what they view as inadequate air defense. But realistically speaking, LPDs really don't need that much air defense. Also, it's likely that future 071s will have some SAM launchers. Once they've sorted out all the problems in the design, we will probably see 1 being built per year. And we will likely see 5 to 10 071s by 2018 and they will probably be instrumental in any invasion attempt. At the same time, a helo carrier design is definitely being worked on. From PLA's fascination with Western systems, I would guess it would go for something similar around the displacement of the WASP class. It would most likely field a combination of Z-8, helix, new 10 tonne helo, Z-15 naval and Z-10 naval. Although, I think it would be interesting to see whether China develops something like V-22 and/or VSTOL aircraft. I've definitely seen plans for this. As for numbers, I guess 2 or 3 by 2018? With 071 and aircraft carrier already in the work, PLAN don't have that much resource left.
022 - We have seen these FACs come out at an extremely fast rate. By my calculation, their production should be finished in the next 5 years and form the basis of coastal defense for years to come. The number can go anywhere from 60 to 100.
Corvette- Although we haven't seen any ships of this class come out, it's clear that China will need something like this for ASW duties and such. In between 022 and 054 series, there exists a need for something that is between 1500 and 2000 tonnes in displacement. We've seen a SWATH ship coming out recently possibly as an intelligence ship and equipping with a Chinese equivalent of SURTASS, but that should not eliminate this requirement.
Supporting fleet - We've seen other ships coming out recently like Medical ship, replenishment ships, new MCM ships (like 804, 805), Yuanwang and such. These are not noticed, but they would definitely support any long distance expedition or invasion against Taiwan. It seems from these past development that China is not neglecting these supporting units.
For the remaining air force related ones:
J-XX - This is the code word given in the west on the 5th generation PLAAF jet. The project is believed to be carried out by SAC. Although, it probably is a combined effort between SAC and CAC. The twin-engined J-10 is supposed to be developed to counter F-35 and be able to defend on home soil against F-22. Whereas the aim of J-XX is to be on par with F-22. So when will this be ready? With the recent work on avionics, I don't think developing a word class avionics system will be the most difficult part. So, the two biggest problem are stealth and engine. Can China develop the necessary stealth technology to make J-XX as invisible as F-22. That remains to be seen, but work on the recent PLAN ships and even up close pictures of J-10's intake provide confidence for J-XX. The engine will most likely start off with an upgraded version of Taihang with a T/W ratio of 9 to 10 (The version with 9 is suppose to come out with twin-engined J-10) and then switch over to the much talked about WS-15. WS-15 seems to be ready by 2015-2018, so I would say that J-XX will probably join service at around that time.
J-11BS/J-10 mod - The remaining influential part of the air force will probably consist of J-11BS (China's Su-34/F-15E) and the "stealthy" J-10. The stealthy J-10 supposedly has just test flied recently. It will have much better avionics, lower RCS and eventually use better engine than the current J-10. It will definitely be holding down the fort until twin-engined J-10 comes along. I suspect that due to its cheaper cost as a single engined fighter, it will be procured even when J-XX and twin-engined "J-10" are established in the force.
AAMs/Engines - Timelines for engines seem to be 2008 for WS-13 (since it already is in the midst of long duration testing), 2010 or earlier for the higher thrusted WS-12 (which unlike WS-13 is apparently not a copy of RD-93), 2010 for the T/W ratio = 9 WS-10, 2014 for T/W ratio > 10 WS-10 and 2017 for WS-15. As for AAM, there seems to be a need for a 5th generation SRAAM, a modern LRAAM in the mode of KS-172 and continuous upgrade to PL-12. Past interviews have mentionned that these projects are well under way.
Large Transport - The demise of the IL-76 has untold number of consequences for PLA. The most notable ones are lack of airframes for KJ-2000 and large transport. There are other ones too. PLA at the moment is forced to use Y-8 as the platform to test out all of its new surveillence platforms. Some of which may make more sense on a large transport like the proposed 60 tonne aircraft under development. Other than large AWACS, other uses for the large transport includes refueller, ABL platform and E-8 Jstars like surveillence aircraft. Even with Antonov's help, it probably won't be ready until the middle of next decade. Even then, production will be slow. So, it looks like PLA will have a tonne of trouble with IL-76 situation until then. I would put this as one of the biggest trouble spot for any invasion attempt.
Attack Helicopter - It looks like Z-10 is almost ready to join service. Even domestic engines for Z-10 are close to being ready. Although due to the cost, Z-10 may not be fielded in large numbers.
Support Helicopter - Right now, Z-8F and Z-9 are the other two main helicopters in service with PLA. HC-120 seems to have cornered the trainer helo market. Mi-26 will be inducted in some numbers to offer its 20 tonne of payload. Mi-17 will be continuously purchased due to its low cost and good performance/reliability (better cost/performance ratio than Z-8F). The 10 tonne helicopter and Z-15 should both be ready by the beginning of the next decade. The 10 tonne helicopter would be an idea naval helicopter platform to replace helix, whereas Z-15 naval could be used for frigates. By 2018, I would expect both of these platforms to be equipped in sufficient numbers to resolve China's problems with transport and naval helicopter.
In general, many of the major ticket items we know about are finishing from 2012 to 2016. It's part of China's drive to further close its gap with US military. Whether or not the platforms will be developed on time and the performance/training on these platforms will decide the future conflict.