BAKU – Sometimes, there is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of others. After subduing the popular unrest in Hong Kong, China is turning to the next target: self-governing Taiwan. The two have been bracing for conflict for decades, but the battle for the island has recently entered a dangerous new phase. The ‘one country, two systems’ principle has come to a closure, and Beijing is running out of diplomatic options to reverse Taiwan’s drift towards independence. Top US military officials believe that China could invade Taiwan within the next six years owing to the fact that America is distracted by domestic issues. Beijing has been stocking up on weapons, expanding its navy, and drilling for amphibious operations. But how did it get to this point? And, hypothetically speaking, how would such an assault take place?
Measures short of war
Independent Taiwan is a political stain on the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Although the ruling government in Beijing has never exercised authority over the island, Chinese policymakers consider it part of the People’s Republic of China. They have vowed to take it back, by force if necessary. This uncompromising approach wasn’t always so. In the early 1980s, Beijing designed the ‘one country, two systems’ principle to regain control over Hong Kong and Macau. Simultaneously, the principle set a roadmap for Taiwan’s reunification with China somewhere down the line. However, in the decades following Hong Kong and Macau’s merger into China, Taiwan had drifted further away.
Beijing used economic isolation and political interference to coerce reunification, while Washington provided sophisticated weaponry to the Taiwanese military. Tension fluctuated for years, and Beijing’s ‘carrot and stick’ policy kept on backfiring. Eventually, in 2016, China cut ties with Taiwan after the election of the pro-independence forces. Washington then sold even more arms to Taiwan while Beijing increased military activity near the Taiwan Strait. The biggest game-changer, however, was the Hong Kong protests in 2019. The way Beijing handled the protests, and its steady encroachment on Hong Kong’s legislature, completely vaporized the last chance for peaceful reunification.
China and Taiwan are now on irreparable ends, and Beijing is switching from soft power to hard power. Its air force flies near the Taiwanese airspace on a daily base, and its incursions have breached previously respected boundaries. At the same time, China’s navy has procured high-tech weaponry for offensive purposes and openly drills ‘for a Taiwan takeover’. In Beijing, policymakers believe that America, long viewed as the custodian of Taiwan, might be too preoccupied at home to bear the costs of intervening on Taiwan’s behalf. So, there is talk of acting against Taiwan sooner rather than later.
Yet, of all the anxieties on China’s ambitions for Taiwan, none carry more weight than the assessment of Admiral Philip Davidson, the chief of the US Indo-Pacific Command. During a senate committee in February 2021, Davidson argued that China’s consistent development and procurement of ships, warplanes, and rockets serve to displace the United States as the dominant power in Asia-Pacific by 2050. Taiwan is one of China’s ambitions, and Davidson believes a conflict is possible in the next six years. Bringing Taiwan under China’s wing would grant Beijing a commanding position in Asia. It would entrench the Chinese military in the middle of the first island chain, which is a string of islands stretching from the Japanese archipelago to the Philippines to Indonesia. Control of Taiwan would also allow China to dictate terms in the nearby shipping lanes, giving it tremendous leverage over rival powers such as Japan and South Korea, who are entirely dependent on the sea lines of communications. Having consolidated power in its enclosed seas, China would have free access to the Pacific and Indian oceans. Needless to say, the stakes are high for regional and global powers alike.
Military capabilities and risks
Be that as it may, China faces an undeniable conundrum: its military may not be up to the task, at least not without taking massive losses. China has a vast military that is increasingly becoming more sophisticated, but it also has a lot of territory to cover with powerful adversaries on all fronts. Taiwan also has a sophisticated military, and though its size is much smaller, they only need to operate in a small battlespace, facing one opponent. This then, coupled with the fact that America and Japan would de-facto back Taiwan, levels the playing field.
China’s annual military budget is estimated at 250 billion USD, compared to only 11 billion USD for Taiwan. The Chinese military also has 12 times the manpower of the Taiwanese, and last year, Beijing commissioned 25 advanced new ships to its fleet, including cruisers, destroyers, and ballistic missile submarines. Taiwan is also expanding its navy, particularly its submarine fleet. By 2026, the Taiwanese fleet will quadrable to eight diesel-powered submarines. Though the additional submarines would make China’s amphibious landing all the more difficult, the rate at which China expands its military capacity is incomparable. With each year, the military imbalance grows in favour of Beijing.
Having said that, even with China’s growing capabilities, invading and occupying Taiwan would be an extraordinarily difficult act, not to mention a risky proposition. To invade Taiwan, Chinese forces would need to make an eight-hour journey into the teeth of Taiwanese firepower coming from well-entrenched onshore positions. The bulk of the Chinese troops would perish under fire, and those who manage to reach the Taiwanese coastline would come under a barrage of artillery. Only a tenth of Taiwan’s coastline is suitable for an amphibious landing. So, the odds of a surprise attack are slim, and the Taiwanese would likely mobile their forces at the anticipated landing zones.
Taiwan has roughly 130,000 troops, plus another 1.5 million in reserve, plus thousands of armoured fighting vehicles and artillery pieces. Thus, to overrun the island, China would need overwhelming firepower, which it currently does not possess. Going up against such a tremendous force would be one of the largest and most complex amphibious operations in history. And, that is saying something. Of all the types of military operations, amphibious warfare is one of the most complicated because it entails precise coordination between air, land and sea forces at a massive scale. Not every military is capable of such tactics. China has no experience in amphibious warfare. The last major war China fought in was the border conflict with Vietnam in 1979, and even then, it performed poorly.
Still, China’s amphibious disadvantage is only a strategic vulnerability if America gets involved. For argument’s sake, if somehow a Chinese amphibious assault succeeds, the Chinese army would then have to occupy an island with a hostile population of 23 million. That’s not going to be easy. An insurgency would be unavoidable. So, a lot of things would have to go right if China’s invasion is to succeed, and that is not likely. The first casualty of any battle is the plan of attack. An all-out Chinese invasion, at this point in time, could theoretically succeed, but it could just as much fail miserably. A military disaster would have catastrophic political consequences. Above all, it would brand the Chinese military as a paper tiger and encourage foreign incursions elsewhere. For China, these considerations and too risky.
The makings of a hybrid war
So, a full-scale invasion is not likely in the near future. What is possible, however, is that China begins a hybrid war, which is a type of conflict that stops short of an actual shooting and seeks to subdue the foe through fear and exhaustion. It’s the type of conflict employed by Iran, Russia, Turkey, Israel, etc. If performed correctly, a hybrid war can be decisive.
That’s why Chinese warplanes are flying around Taiwan almost daily, sometimes launching multiple sorties on the same day. The pace of the Chinese incursions is unrelenting. Last year, Taiwan had scrambled its air force nearly 3,000 times against Chinese warplanes, costing Taiwan a whopping 900 million USD in fuel costs, pilot fatigue, and wear and tear. So, without firing a single shot, China is depleting Taiwan’s resources. The Chinese military has more than 2,000 fighters, bombers, and other warplanes, compared with Taiwan’s 400 fighters. So, Beijing can afford to keep the pressure. By increasing the tempo of these operations, the Chinese air force can inflict disproportionate stress on Taiwan. It’s a deadly effective strategy. The purpose of hybrid warfare is to make the target feel as if it is isolated. As if its allies are not coming to its rescue and that the military threat is not a bluff. For this to work, the assault needs to be low-risk, as not to provoke a backlash from the United States. That would require China to find the right tune in posturing and yet give itself enough room to back down.
China could, for instance, impose a naval blockade to suffocate Taiwan. It could intercept Taiwanese cargo ships, claiming that they’re carrying illicit goods or weapons. No one would believe China and much of the international community would condemn Beijing’s policy. But, none of that would matter because no one would physically come to Taiwan’s defence. Such a naval blockade wouldn’t result in an armed conflict and would likely force Taiwan into concessions, allowing Beijing to claim victory and back down.
Another example would be for China to shock-and-awe Taiwan into political concession by seizing the Taiwan-controlled Kinmen and Matsu islands just off the Taiwanese coast. These islands are lightly defended and have some strategic value. Control over the islands would expand China’s buffer while also extending the range of Chinese bombers and anti-ship missiles. America would be unlikely to go to war over a remote island well within China’s anti-ship missile umbrella, which would leave Taiwan feeling isolated once more.
The trouble with hybrid war, however, is that it means abandoning soft power. Physical action against Taiwan would stir up a zealous independence movement, which would make the occupation all the more difficult. So, while China could manufacture a crisis to reverse Taiwan’s drift towards independence, the prospect of an all-out invasion is overblown, at least in the coming decade. Even then, China would only invade Taiwan if it is confident in its victory or desperate for domestic support. However, this reassurance doesn’t mean that Taiwan can let its guard down. Quite the contrary. Defence is the first duty of a state, and it is an unfortunate fact that peace can only be secured by preparing for war.
Lachin Garibli and Shirvan Neftchi
Watch it on YouTube
- 31st Han Kuang military exercises, which train soldiers to preemptively counter enemy boats attempting a covert landing – Taiwan Presidential Office (總統府) via Flickr
- Naval live fire drills during 30th Han Kuang military exercises – Taiwan Presidential Office (總統府) via Flickr
- Taipei, Taiwan – Timo Volz via Pexels
· Davidson: China Could Try to Take Control of Taiwan In ‘Next Six Years’ by Mallory Shelbourne (USNI News, March 2021) https://news.usni.org/2021/03/09/davidson-china-could-try-to-take-control-of-taiwan-in-next-six-years
· US should rethink Taiwan’ strategic ambiguity’: Indo-Pacific chief by Ken Moriyasu (Nikkei Asia, March 2021) https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Indo-Pacific/US-should-rethink-Taiwan-strategic-ambiguity-Indo-Pacific-chief
· Taiwan Reports Large Incursion by Chinese Air Force (voice of America, January 2021) https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/taiwan-reports-large-incursion-chinese-air-force
· The Precarious State of Cross-Strait Deterrence by Oriana Skylar Mastro (American Enterprise Institute, February 2021) https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/2021-02/Oriana_Skylar_Mastro_Testimony.pdf
· China’s island war games rattle Taiwan by Didi Tang (The Times, May 2020) https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/chinas-island-war-games-rattle-taiwan-pdtt5spqw
· Taiwan’s Overall Defense Concept, Explained by Lee Hsi-min and Eric Lee (The Diplomat, November 2020) https://thediplomat.com/2020/11/taiwans-overall-defense-concept-explained/
· Mainland China is in no position to take Taiwan by force by Cui Lei (East Asia Forum, February 2021) https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2021/02/26/mainland-china-is-in-no-position-to-take-taiwan-by-force/
· China Eyes Reunification With Taiwan by Tatyana Bolton and Mary Brooks (The Dispatch, January 2021) https://thedispatch.com/p/china-eyes-reunification-with-taiwan
· China launches ‘gray-zone’ warfare to subdue Taiwan By Yimou Lee, David Lague, and Ben Blanchard (Reuters, December 2020) https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/hongkong-taiwan-military/
· China’s Xi Sets His Sights on Taiwan After Subduing Hong Kong by Iain Marlow and Cindy Wang (Bloomberg, July 2020) https://www.bloombergquint.com/businessweek/china-set-its-sights-on-taiwan-after-hong-kong-crackdown
· After Hong Kong: China sets sights on solving ‘the Taiwan problem’ by Emma Graham-Harrison and Helen Davidson (The Guardian, October 2020) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/02/after-hong-kong-china-taiwan-invasion-armed-forces
· Hong Kong Today, Taiwan Next? By Bradley Bowman (Newsweek, May 2020) https://www.newsweek.com/hong-kong-today-taiwan-next-opinion-1508842