Is Taiwan on the Brink of Defeat?

September 6, 2021 Updated: September 6, 2021

Commentary

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) dropped a bombshell last week when it presented an incredibly downbeat assessment of the growing Chinese threat toward the island state.

In its annual report to the parliament, the defense ministry stated that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could “paralyze” Taiwan’s defenses.

The report, according to Reuters, stated that China could launch both “soft and hard electronic attacks,” knocking out communications and take down Taiwan’s internet. This, in turn, would “paralyze [Taiwanese] air defenses, command of the sea, and counter-attack systems abilities.”

Saturation attacks with missiles could incapacitate command centers and military installations. Meanwhile, computer network attacks and fifth columnists of Chinese spies inside Taiwan could sabotage transportation, traffic systems, and public utilities, as well as “decapitate” the political leadership.

Finally, the MND report argues that China’s growing force of long-range missiles and an increasingly capable PLA Navy—operating three aircraft carriers by 2025—could be sufficient to prevent foreign militaries (that is, the United States and perhaps Japan) from intervening on Taiwan’s behalf.

Why such a gloomy forecast? Military leaders usually think like pessimists but talk like optimists, especially in public. They plan for worse-case scenarios but almost always expect to win.

This simply could be a good bureaucratic move on the part of the Taiwan military: scare the civilian leadership into coughing up more money for defense.

That’s a tricky play, however. It could just as easily backfire, by convincing too many people that defending against China is a hopeless task, so just give up and negotiate a settlement.

Nevertheless, it is past time for Taiwan to have a hard, serious look at its capabilities to deter China or, increasingly, be able to defeat an attack by the PLA.

Air-Force-F-16
A Taiwanese Air Force F-16 in the foreground flies on the flank of a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) H-6 bomber as it passes near Taiwan on Feb. 10, 2020. (Chinese Ministry of National Defense via AP)

Take defense spending, for example. Roughly 25 years ago, Taiwanese military expenditures totaled around US$13 billion. Earlier this year, the Taiwan government approved a 2022 defense budget of US$16.9 billion.

Over the same period, Chinese defense spending has grown nearly twenty-fold: from around US$10 billion in 1996 to more than US$209 billion in 2021. And while this does not consider inflation, neither does it include suspected “off-budget” military expenditures such as spending on the People’s Armed Police, the Chinese Coast Guard, or military pensions.

Of course, one does not expect Taiwan to match China dollar-for-dollar when it comes to defense spending, but surely it can do better than a 30 percent increase spread over 25 years.

To be sure, Taiwan has its strengths. It has made considerable strides in building up a long-range precision-strike capability. It deploys a variety of anti-ship, air-launched, and land-attack cruise missiles (ASCMs, ALCMs, and LACMs), including a 745-mile range supersonic LACM. It also has several short-range Tien Chi ballistic missiles forwardly deployed (probably on Kinmen and Matsu).

In addition, Taiwan has acquired a variety of stand-off smart munitions from the United States, as well as the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) ballistic missile in mobile launchers.

Taiwan has also expanded its ground-based air defenses, hardened shelters for its fighter jets (or moved them to underground hangers or dispersed highway strips), and improved its capabilities for rapid runway repair and camouflage.

Finally, as Ian Easton of the Project 2049 Institute has noted, Taiwan is “a defender’s dream come true,” its few beaches bordered by “cliffs and urban jungles,” its granite hills “honeycombed with tunnels and bunker systems,” and its outer islands bristling with missiles, rockets, and artillery.

Overall, therefore, Taiwan has made remarkable progress on building a large conventional deterrent. As such, there is some cause for optimism.

In fact, the MND report acknowledged that the PLA still lacked the capacity—particularly when it came to transport and logistics—to launch a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. Nevertheless, China is working to boost those capabilities.

Epoch Times Photo
Four U.S.-made AH-1W SuperCobras attack helicopters launch rockets during the 35th “Han Kuang” military drill in southern Taiwan’s Pingtung county on May 30, 2019. (Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)

The questions remain, therefore. When will the Taiwanese public take the threat seriously? When will Taiwan start spending more on defense, and in the right places?

One of Taiwan’s first fixes should be to its ground forces. Admittedly, modern, high-tech warfare emphasizes navies and air forces over armies, as well as stand-off precision-strike with missiles and guided munitions. However, an island state like Taiwan still needs a respectable army for anti-invasion duties.

Taiwan has downsized its ground forces to the point of incredulity. The Taiwan Army is down to around 150,000 soldiers, far less than the 215,000 troops the MND says it needs to repel an invasion. Moreover, the conscription period has been cut to just four months—hardly enough time to train a “battle-ready” soldier. The army even lacks sufficient numbers of bullets for training.

And while 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, he argues, the reserves would be “cannon fodder” in wartime.

Secondly, Taiwan needs to make a long-term commitment to making significant annual increases (say, a minimum of 3 percent) in defense spending and to allocating funds to those areas where it could build up potent, asymmetric counters to the PLA. These include stealthy surface ships, carrier-killer missiles, sea mines, cyber weapons, and a variety of stand-off, long-range precision-strike weapons such as smart drones.

Finally, the United States and other countries (particularly Japan) that are increasingly concerned about a growing Chinese threat in the region can do their part by reaffirming their commitment to the defense of Taiwan, as a means of preserving a peaceful cross-strait relationship. Fortunately for Taipei, a sizable percentage of Americans continue to support Taiwan’s self-government, even to the point of sending U.S. troops to its defense.

Going back to the MND report, therefore, pessimism is perhaps not unwarranted. Neither, however, is defeatism.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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.