Can Taiwan deter China?
It’s not a rhetorical question, nor is it an idle inquiry. In fact, whether or not Taiwan can successfully dissuade China from attacking it could be the focal point for war and peace in Asia for the next 20 years.
Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have persisted for decades. Twenty-five years ago, the Chinese threat to Taiwan was perhaps the paramount security concern in East Asia. A war between China and Taiwan was considered to be the most likely military clash during the time, as evidenced by the 1995–96 missile crisis.
Interestingly, cross-strait tensions soon lessened. In fact, relations between Beijing and Taipei improved dramatically in the late 1990s and 2000s, with a host of new political, economic, and cultural cooperation. Twenty-five years ago, one couldn’t mail a letter directly from Taiwan to China; today, there are nonstop flights between Taiwan and the mainland.
The 2020s, however, promise to be an era of renewed hostilities, mostly driven by Xi Jinping’s growing ambitions. Xi is very much a “man on a mission,” profoundly aware of his limited time as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to realize his deep-seated dream of a strong and globally powerful China, but also totally confident in his abilities to do so.
Xi is a man of hubris, and hubris causes people to take risks. Absorbing Taiwan into China could easily end up on Xi’s near-term agenda—perhaps as early as 2027, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
That said, actually invading and occupying Taiwan might be more difficult than Xi expects. To be sure, the PLA is much more capable than it was in the mid-1990s. It has greatly expanded the PLA Navy (PLAN)—particularly its amphibious forces—and the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is nearly fully modernized with 4th- and even 5th-generation fighters. Nevertheless, Taiwan would not be a push-over.
Ian Easton of the Project 2049 Institute has closely studied Taiwan’s defensive capabilities. He notes that Taiwan is “a rugged, heavily urbanized nation … made up of over 100 islands, most too tiny to see on the map. Many of Taiwan’s outer islands bristle with missiles, rockets, and artillery guns.” In addition, the island’s “granite hills have been honeycombed with tunnels and bunker systems.”
As such, Taiwan’s “coastal terrain … is a defender’s dream come true. Taiwan has only 14 small invasion beaches, and they are bordered by cliffs and urban jungles.”
Moreover, Taiwan’s military is a modern force in its own right, with upgraded F-16 fighters, AH-64 helicopter gunships, and Javelin anti-tank missiles, and it is acquiring 100 M1 tanks from the United States. The Taiwanese Navy is taking delivery of a dozen Tuo Chiang-class stealth corvettes—these are heavily armed with supersonic anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles, and their combination of speed and stealth make them well-suited for ”hit-and-run guerrilla operations at sea.”
Moreover, Taiwan increasingly possesses advanced cyber weapons, electronic warfare suites, smart mines, and even armed drones.
Consequently, Easton argues that China might require a force of up to 2 million troops—practically the entire PLA—in order to overcome Taiwan’s counter-invasion force of at least 450,000 (based on the conventional wisdom that an invader needs at least a 3:1 ratio of numerical superiority over a defender).
Finally, invading and occupying Taiwan demands a level of confidence that even Xi cannot muster up. Such an attack would be a crapshoot of monumental proportions, an all-or-nothing proposition. If Xi were to try and fail, it would mean not only his own political demise, it could threaten the very future of the CCP.
Again, Taiwan wins by deterring an attack, not necessarily by defeating one.
Nevertheless, weakness can undermine deterrence, and many have noted Taiwan’s continuing deficiencies in its defense capabilities. According to Wendell Minnick, a long-time defense journalist who also lives in Taiwan, the country’s military is woefully lacking in many areas.
In the first place, it is particularly under-manned. Force numbers continue to be cut, and conscription is only four months long—hardly enough time to consider a new recruit “battle-ready.” Although Taiwan says that it can count on 1.5 million reservists, Minnick notes that they train only five days every two years (if they are called up at all), “during which time they typically perform simple chores and not weapons training.” In fact, the reserves would be more than useless in wartime, Minnick argues, they would simply be “cannon-fodder.”
Minnick further argues that annual exercises have become just “dog-and-pony shows for the media,” and that individual infantry companies “must borrow heavily from other companies to fill [manpower] gaps.”
At the same time, the cross-strait military balance has shifted significantly in China’s favor. Of course, China has always had the numerical advantage over Taiwan, but now it possesses a qualitative edge as well. Since the turn of the century, the PLAN has added more than 30 modern attack submarines (both diesel-electric and nuclear-powered), 20-plus destroyers and more than two dozen frigates, seven large amphibious assaults ships, and two aircraft carriers; in addition, it operates around 1,000 4th-, 4th-plus-, and 5th-generation fighters.
In comparison, Taiwan has not acquired a new submarine in more than 30 years or a new fighter jet since the late 1990s. It operates only 26 destroyers and frigates, and perhaps 460 combat aircraft. According to Minnick, the Taiwan air force has perhaps one day’s worth of missiles and other munitions.
In the mid-1990s, Taiwanese and Chinese military budgets were roughly equal. Today, Beijing outspends Taipei by more than twenty-to-one.
Of course, the United States contributes to Taiwanese deterrence efforts through its general support of the island and specifically through the Taiwan Relations Act (a “semi” security guarantee). Washington knows that if a Chinese invasion and occupation of Taiwan were successful, it would totally disrupt the status quo in the Indo-Pacific. The United States would lose a valuable outpost in the far western Pacific. Meanwhile, China would gain access to airbases and naval facilities on Taiwan, permitting it to tighten its hold over the South China Sea and control strategic lines of communication, affecting Japan, Australia, and U.S. allies and partners in Southeast Asia.
Taiwan’s continued existence as a self-governing and democratic entity could become the linchpin to security and stability in the Indo-Pacific in the 2020s and 2030s. Deterrence is the job, and the job never ends.
Richard A. Bitzinger is an independent international security analyst. He was previously a senior fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, and he has held jobs in the U.S. government and at various think tanks. His research focuses on security and defense issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, including the rise of China as a military power, and military modernization and arms proliferation in the region.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.