The recently released RAND report, The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996-2017 offers a superb assessment of the military situation faced by the U.S. and People’s Republic of China in multiple operational areas if a conflict were to develop in the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea. The report concludes that China’s massive military buildup is paying off as its capabilities are improving by leaps and bounds to the point where currently, significant problems would be faced by the U.S. in a conflict. Of course the question then asked is who would be the victor in a conflict in that region, something easier asked than answered since conflict is not as linear as often portrayed.
In this first part of a two-piece series on possible future conflict outcomes in East Asia involving China, we examine China and the Republic of China (Taiwan). I present a brief yet concise analysis of what a military engagement between both countries might resemble, why it can happen, and who might emerge victorious.
In recent years it would seem that disputes in the South China Sea have eclipsed Taiwan as the greatest potential source for future conflict in East Asia involving China (understandably, conflict on the Korean peninsula due to the erratic nature of North Korea’s government is just as likely, though for the purposes of this series, only possible conflicts where China is one of the two dominant warring parties are considered). The Taiwan issue has been relatively benign since the last flare up in the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996.
In fact the last military engagement between both countries was 57 years ago during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958 (if one discounts the 1960-1961 conflict along the China-Burma border involving Nationalist forces that had escaped to Burma). While recent relations have been arguably calm, the possibility for future conflict cannot be discounted due to the underlying drivers of the dispute and as the existing status quo is not perpetual.
A decision by Beijing to wage conflict against Taiwan would require a situation drastically different from that today. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense in its annual report on mainland China this year lists six possible scenarios where Beijing would invade Taiwan under: Taiwan declares independence or takes steps toward de jure independence; Taiwan obtains nuclear weapons; foreign forces interfere in Taiwan’s affairs; foreign troops are deployed in Taiwan; domestic unrest in Taiwan; or cross-strait negotiations on eventual reunification are delayed by Taiwan. Additionally, many feel that a sudden shift in domestic politics in China, a belief that an invasion would not be countered by the U.S. or a militarily advantageous opportunity presenting itself to China might also lead Beijing to this course of action.
Regardless of the fact that only 22 countries recognize Taiwan as the sole legal government of China, any conflict launched against Taiwan by China will not be well received by the world and Beijing will have to be prepared for the diplomatic fallout. The direct economic costs to China and Taiwan of such a conflict, even in limited military scenarios would be immense and the global economy would be affected as well. Just as important would be the high cost in human life.
Who Would Emerge Victorious?
At the least, a simple factual quantitative comparison of the equipment holdings of China and Taiwan showing a massive advantage by the former presents a wholly inadequate measure for estimating the victor in a conflict. On the opposite end of the spectrum, an expert advanced capability analysis like that found in the RAND report provides an outstanding military appraisal though is still unable on its own to answer the question. There are a host of other considerations including political reasons that must be taken into account when examining potential conflict outcomes. In so much, the complexity of the dispute between China and Taiwan and the significant number of variables makes such a conflict difficult to evaluate under existing conflict theories and much harder to guess a victor.
China and Taiwan: What Would Lead to Conflict
Taiwan has morphed over the years from a military to political threat to China. Unification is one of the core elements of Chinese national identity and if Taipei is to declare independence without a response from Beijing, the Communist Party of China would face a severe legitimacy crisis. Furthermore, Taiwan holds historical and strategic importance to China. China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law allows Beijing to utilize as a last resort, “non-peaceful means” to prevent Taiwan independence. It is inconceivable that China would just let Taiwan slip away. On the other hand, at least in the immediate future, such a move by Taiwan seems unlikely.
Recent polls conducted in Taiwan reveal some interesting figures. A poll in the Liberty Times showed that nearly 65% off respondents believe that China and Taiwan are “independent, sovereign nations that do not belong to each other.” Just as striking, a summer 2015 poll by National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center showed only a paltry 9.1% of respondents support unification with China. This poll is part of a study that has been ongoing since 1992 and that figure is a record low. Overall though, a majority of Taiwanese support maintaining the status-quo that currently exists between China and Taiwan; whether one regards Taiwan’s current status as de jure or de facto, it is widely accepted that any moves towards full independence would have negative complications.
China though might not need Taiwanese independence as a motive for engaging in conflict. A sudden political shift in Taipei where future independence becomes more likely might motivate China to act. As of now it appears that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will oust the Beijing-friendlier Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in the January 2016 election. Taipei and Beijing have seen relations improve over the past eight years with the KMT in power though this may very well end with a DPP victory, a prospect that Beijing has already voiced concern at as the DPP views Taiwan as distinct from China.
Taiwan’s Military Capabilities
Taiwan has a sizeable military and the Republic of China Navy (ROCN) and Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) are its most important assets. Taiwan military doctrine dictates that fighting should be conducted as far from civilian population centers as possible to limit casualties and in so much the navy can bring the fight far from its shores while the air force can protection through provide air superiority. Meanwhile, the army (ROCA) and marines have established an elaborate defensive system that can turn Taiwan’s shores into a meat grinder for invading Chinese troops. Regardless, the military of China is multiple times that of Taiwan, both in size and funding.
In 2014, Minister of National Defense Yen Ming stated that the military could hold out for at least a month at a legislative meeting when questioned on Taiwan’s ability to defend itself against China without U.S. assistance. An accompanying military officer was overheard though informing the minister “about 21 to 28 days”. It is clear to Taipei that without U.S.