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. assistance, the possibility for a Taiwanese victory in a full military confrontation with China is slim. Regardless, it is obvious that any attack would be at a high cost to both sides and A China victory would most likely be a pyrrhic victory.
The ROCN has a potent anti-ship capability with modern U.S., French, and indigenous systems. The ability to counter an amphibious assault fleet is important as the destruction of several People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) troop and equipment ships would seriously impede the ability for China to make gains in an assault. One must not underestimate what the loss of several thousand troops or the equipment of a brigade would mean to China, regardless of the size of its military. Such a situation would see battle plans having to be redrawn, operational delays, and a blow to morale. The indigenously produced Tuo Jiang-class stealth corvette is well optimized for this role and the ROCN plans to acquire 12 of them.
The problem though is that the ROCN is less modern, outnumbered, and outgunned by the PLAN. Taiwan repeatedly requests advanced hardware from the U.S. which Washington is reluctant to sell out of fear of angering Beijing. When Taipei requested advanced Aegis-equipped destroyers, Washington instead offered four capable, yet vastly less sophisticated Kidd-class destroyers. Taiwan’s four boat submarine fleet is antiquated and ageing and despite spending years of trying to procure new submarines, Taipei has yet to find a willing seller. The U.S. has failed to keep to its promise to develop and sell diesel submarines for over 15 years.
Without ships fitted with advanced aerial-defense systems or a significant submarine force, the warfighting ability of the ROCN against China is highly diminished. PLAN submarines would pose a serious threat to ROCN assets which would be operating in a complex environment with aerial, undersea, and surface threats. Meanwhile, the lack of advanced long-range anti-air systems in sizeable numbers would greatly increase the threat of aerial attacks from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).
While recent unconventional conflicts have shown that the importance of airpower is somewhat overstated, it remains vital to conventional engagements. The primary mission of the ROCAF is to maintain air superiority over and around Taiwan. Without air superiority, the ROCN is at the mercy of PLAAF attacks. Taiwan has invested heavily in protecting and ensuring combat operations pf the ROCAF in the event of conflict. Over 100 fighters can be protected in two hardened bases, one of which is in a hollowed-out mountain. Additionally, Taiwan has the ability to rapidly repair airbases if damaged by Chinese missiles while a sophisticated air-defense missile system covers the country.
The ROCAF is ageing though and increasingly more of its aircraft are grounded due to airframe life or spare part issues. Opposing it are hundreds of PLAAF aircraft, the most modern of which are vastly more capable than Taiwan’s premier aircraft which date back to the 1990s. While its pilots are highly trained, the ROCAF would be faced with massive missile attacks from China’s Second Artillery Corps, and repeated airstrikes. Attrition would occur quickly as wear and tear, pilot fatigue, and losses grind down the ROCAF. Regardless, any naval and aerial Chinese attack would incur heavy losses at the hands of the ROCAF.
Importance of the U.S.
The importance of the U.S. and its response will weigh heavily on Beijing’s decision to initiate conflict. Arguably, Washington is Taipei’s most important ally in the west though the relationship is not as close as it is often portrayed. A U.S. military response to Chinese aggression is not assured as contrary to popular belief, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act does not commit the U.S. to militarily defend Taiwan. Furthermore, the U.S. does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country nor does it support its independence. As China grows in importance globally, both economically and militarily each year, Washington is more hard-pressed to firmly support Taiwan.
Nevertheless, Taipei is an important regional partner and friend to Washington and has been for over a half century. The U.S. continues to sell defensive weaponry and currently four decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates are being prepared for sale to Taiwan. While the weapons the U.S. sells are not the most modern, they do provide Taiwan with added warfighting capability.
The question of the response from the U.S. is quite complicated. While it is possible that the U.S. might not rush to the defense of Taiwan, it is more likely that the U.S. would be forced to fight. If U.S. military power is removed from the equation, China will most likely achieve victory over Taiwan. The problem for Beijing is how to remove the U.S. from a potential conflict. If the U.S. willingly becomes involved, China’s chances for success drop; if China militarily attempts to keep the U.S. out, it will undoubtedly draw it in with a stronger resolve.
China can attempt to keep the U.S. from responding through deterrence made possible by its A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) strategy which would raise the risk for U.S. forces operating in the area. The fear of losing for example an aircraft carrier and thousands of sailors might be enough to restrain a U.S. response. On the other hand, failure to act by the U.S. seems unlikely and so China would have to seek another option a military option.
The first strike of a conflict might be made against the U.S. airbase at Kadena, Japan by missiles and aircraft, or against a carrier as a way of putting U.S. forces in the region out of commission. This would provide China with a temporary advantage but rather than force the U.S. out, would more certainly draw the U.S. into a fight and perhaps Japan as well. Instantly the situation faced by China grows more complex and hostile.
According to RAND, by 2017, China will only have an advantage over the U.S. in a Taiwan conflict in two operational areas; an air base attack and anti-surface warfare. While the U.S. would face tremendous losses against China, enough advantages exist to the U.S. in other operational areas that can prevent a China victory. The U.S. question is one Beijing cannot take lightly. China does not want the U.S. to enter into a fight over Taiwan but keeping the U.S. out during the initial phase runs the risk of a full U.S. response and escalation outside of Taiwan. Washington understandably does not want a fight with China over Taiwan but failure to act would be a massive political and diplomatic blow.
Types of Conflict and Potential Outcomes
In its annual report to Congress on China’s military capabilities and strategy, the U.S. Department of Defense presents four military options available to China against Taiwan in escalating order of force. These are a naval blockade, limited force or coercive options, air and missile strikes, and finally an amphibious invasion. Several factors must be taken into account in each scenario; the immense preparation that China would have to make, the early warning provided by U.S., Taiwan, and Japan intelligence of these preparations, initial resistance, and resolve in the face of high losses or a sudden game-changing shift such as a nuclear threat from the U.S.
China could in the future employ a naval blockade of Taiwan in an attempt to force Taipei to reverse its course or back down. Though considered an act of war under international law, such a move if on its own might be a safe option for Beijing if it wishes to initially avoid an all-out shooting war or draw the U.S. into a direct conflict. Conversely, a blockade would not engender the Taiwanese people positively to Beijing and might actually increase rather than diminish Taipei’s resolve over its course. As of now China lacks the ability to enforce a full blockade and any such operation would be lengthy, allowing for considerable global pressure to be exerted on Beijing.
Enacting a naval blockade would require a significant commitment by China of its naval forces beyond those already in the East Sea Fleet. Even by drawing ships from other fleets, China is still unable to mount a full blockade. Furthermore, any reduction of ships from other theaters such as the South Sea Fleet which covers the South China Sea would limit China’s ability to effectively respond to a country such as Vietnam taking advantage of the situation. Such an unwarranted act of war by China would quickly draw a strong rebuke from the international community, especially those countries that have extensive trade with Taiwan such as Japan, Singapore and the U.S. It is conceivable that Taiwan’s trading partners might attempt to break a blockade by escorting cargo ships with their own warships. Since the legitimacy of such a blockade will be called into question, China would be faced with the option of letting these foreign ships through or expanding a military conflict by engaging them.
It’s unlikely that Taipei will not attempt to counter a naval blockade though if China is primarily utilizing submarines, the ROCN would face massive difficulties due to deficiencies in ASW warfare capabilities. A blockade by PLAN surface ships would be threatened by ROCN ships and ROCAF aircraft equipped with advanced Hsiung Feng III supersonic anti-ship missiles. The only way China can remove that threat is by moving beyond the blockade and launching attacks on ROCAF airbases and ROCN ships in port. Overall while a blockade could work in discouraging a certain course of action by Taipei, it could also increase Taiwan’s resolve and is just as likely to lead to conflict escalation.
Limited force or coercive options are available to China as well. China’s extensive cyberwarfare capabilities might be used to cripple Taipei politically, militarily, and economically. It is also possible that Special Forces can be sent on missions to sabotage and destroy critical elements of Taiwan’s infrastructure. Sabotage operations on integrated command, control, communications, computers (C4) systems would deprive Taiwan of critically important defense systems and leave the country open to missile and aerial attacks, a fact that Taipei would have to realize in plotting its next course of action. Fear would pervade in Taiwan and if the government is unable to effectively respond, confidence in it will fall.
This course of action would be more direct militarily than a blockade by involving actual attacks on Taiwan and as a result, the risks for China increase as well. The possibility of ROCA forces capturing or eliminating PLA Special Forces teams on Taiwan soil would be an incredible achievement by Taipei that would be used to maximum effect to rally the people and bargain with Beijing. Such operations run this risk which Beijing is aware of. Furthermore, if China were to utilize Special Forces to decapitate Taiwan’s leadership, such a move might rally the international community more strongly against Beijing.
With its significant military might, Beijing could decide to launch a massive air and missile strike on Taiwan to cripple its defensive capabilities. Air defense systems, air bases, communication facilities, and other key defense systems would be targeted and destroyed. Without aerial support from the ROCAF, ROCN assets would be sitting ducks while ROCA forces would be stripped of future close air support. In such a scenario, the likeliness of China being able to successfully conduct an amphibious operation would rise exponentially. Understanding of this could lead Taipei to back down or for the people to force the government to do so. Additionally in the case of a missile attack, the risk to China’s forces would be minimal.
Such an operation would require a sizeable buildup of Beijing’s forces though preparations for a missile-only attack would be harder to identify beforehand. Geospatial imagery would show significant movements of air squadrons to frontline PLAAF bases as well as the movement of mobile missile launchers of the Second Artillery Corps. Already, the PLA has over 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) targeting Taiwan and is producing more each year.
Taiwan has a significant ability to defend itself from a missile attack with hundreds of Patriot and Hawk missiles. Even though a full salvo from China cannot be fully countered by Taiwan, its defenses can ensure that at least a third of the incoming missiles are destroyed. While there would be significant damage to Taiwan, the effects of China’s barrage would be greatly mitigated and substantial ROCAF forces conceivably would remain untouched. This no doubt would increase morale in Taiwan by showing that defense is possible. As said earlier though, initial sabotage attacks or the use of cyberwarfare on defense systems could eliminate the value of Taiwan’s C4 systems and remove key areas of its missile defense.
One thing is certain; Taiwan is well aware of this missile threat and has made moves to protect the ROCAF. Hardened air shelters can protect nearly a third of the ROCAF while it has developed the capability to rapidly repair damaged airfields within hours. China’s military doctrine meanwhile states that PLAAF forces will only be committed once Taiwan’s air defense capabilities are seriously degraded, something which might take longer than anticipated.
The last option for China is an amphibious assault. This type of operation would require a massive effort on the part of China’s military and would result in the highest casualty figures. It would also have the greatest chance of leading to U.S. involvement militarily. China would either seek to establish a secure beachhead in Taiwan or move to occupy key cities or the entire country itself. The damage to Taiwan’s infrastructure would be immense, the perception of China by Taiwanese would transition from dislike to outright hatred, and the economic and human costs would be astronomical. An amphibious assault is also beset with complications for China.
In launching an amphibious invasion, it would be advantageous for Beijing to launch a rapid assault. As ships set sail from China’s ports, a massive missile strike would be conducted on Taiwan followed by air strikes. The goal would be to achieve surprise by inflicting extensive damage in a short period of time and by carrying out an amphibious operation in the midst of the resulting confusion from the air and missile strikes, throwing Taiwan’s defenses into disarray. On the other hand, China can mount the missile and air strikes and wait until it is assured Taiwan’s defenses have been significantly weakened before its invasion forces set sea. Both scenarios are easier said than done.
China can either opt for a small amphibious assault with the goal of securing a beachhead on Taiwan or for a full invasion. In either case, a significant amount of preparation would need to be undertaken on a scale that would be impossible to hide. The larger the size and scope of the impending attack, the more time it will take to prepare and the greater chance countries like the U.S. will have to move forces into the region. Undoubtedly, Taiwan will be at full battle readiness and in so much, the element of surprise that Beijing hopes to achieve will be lost. If China decides to delay the launch of the invasion fleet until it is supremely confident that Taiwan’s defenses have been weakened, days will be spent on trying to accomplish this resulting in a possibly more dangerous U.S. response as the later has more time to move its forces.
While China can conduct an amphibious assault of Taiwan’s South China Sea possessions or against one of Taiwan’s outlying islands such as Matsu, the maritime sealift ability to carry out an amphibious assault of the type necessary to attack, and occupy Taiwan is currently beyond China’s reach. This can be seen in PLAN exercises earlier this year where civilian vessels were used to compensate for a lack of military ro-ro ships. A full-scale assault of Taiwan would involve time-consuming multiple transits by ships across the strait under fire giving time for the U.S. and possibly other countries time to respond as Taiwan’s own defenses readjust. The initial wave of PLA and PLAMC troops, numbering less than 20,000 would be at the mercy of well trained, prepared, and vastly more numerous ROCA troops. Taiwan’s shores are defended against an amphibious assault and all components of the military regularly drill for such a situation.
Even if China is able to eradicate half of Taiwan’s air force and navy in the opening salvo, its amphibious forces will still be harried by survivors and casualties will be suffered before the first troops even set foot on Taiwan’s shores. If China delays its assault, the same situation will still occur. Less than 20 percent of Taiwan’s beaches are suitable for amphibious assault and so Taiwan would not be forced to thinly spread its land forces. Even with the loss of air superiority due to the destruction of the ROCAF, PLAAF close air support aircraft would be at the mercy of the extensive air defense assets of the ROCA ranging from vehicle launched indigenously produced Sky Sword missiles to man-portable surface-to-air missiles (MANPAD) such as the Stinger.
The success of the invasion itself rests on several factors; the resolve of Beijing and Taipei, the willingness of Taiwan to hold out, and the role played by the U.S. and other countries. Over time without foreign intervention, China will be able to achieve air and sea superiority allowing for a rapid buildup and sustainment of supplies and troops on shore with constant support. Though the losses to China would be immense and ultimately would seriously degrade its warfighting ability in the immediate future, the commitment of forces to such an assault conceivably represents a decision by Beijing which there is no turning back from; anything short of victory no matter how pyrrhic it is would be a defeat.
Taiwan would be emboldened in a fight against China initially due to the losses it would be able to inflict but repeated defeats would take their toll and if Taipei sees that the U.S. will not assist them, capitulation might occur as a way to spare more loss of life. The surrender of the government though would not spell the end of resistance in Taiwan and China’s occupying forces would face strong organized resistance from a hostile population.
If the U.S. becomes involved, China runs the risk of escalating a regional conflict into a much wider one. China will not risk a nuclear conflict with the U.S. and vice versa over Taiwan. To that end, the fate of the battle would rest on conventional forces. Despite China’s growing military advantages, it is still behind the U.S. in several critical areas. The U.S. would not be the only foreign power China might have to contend with. While they might not offer direct military aid, countries such as Japan and Australia might provide logistical assistance and intelligence.
Who wins in a conflict over the Taiwan Strait? Well that question depends on who the combatants are and what the situation exactly is. If China is committing its forces to defeat Taiwan, one can safely assume that Beijing will accept nothing short of victory. Even if the U.S. does not become involved, the casualties will be immense; Taiwan would be left in ruins while China’s capability to wage war will be set years back. It is hard to imagine though a scenario where the U.S. does not become involved though. While U.S. forces would also suffer great casualties, China would be forced to back down. The end result regardless of who is the victor will see China condemned and isolated internationally and regional powers more dedicated than ever before to oppose China or take advantage of its weakened state in regional disputes. In every scenario in the immediate future, China faces a defeat one way or another.