Can China Take Over Taiwan by Force?A look at possible conflict scenarios in the Taiwan Strait, from surprise missile strikes to an amphibious assault, cyber attacks to ‘salami-slicing’
Experience tells us that we often fail to see the tragedies that loom on the horizon. This is difficult to avoid, since calling out a potential aggressor is a step that politicians are reluctant to take unless conflict seems inevitable. Indeed, an inherent problem with threat perception is encapsulated in what scholars term the “security dilemma.” Part of the problem is that a misperceived threat may become real via cycles of action-reaction steps taken merely to increase one’s own security.
However, this does not apply to relations between Taiwan and China, where the ambiguities of the security dilemma do not exist. Beijing makes no secret of its ultimate agenda regarding Taiwan’s future, and has repeatedly said it will impose its will by brute force if necessary.
Observers have credited the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the two term presidency of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) with improving cross-strait relations via cross-strait agreements, including direct links and increased economic integration. Though this rapprochement should be given credit, it remains essentially a rapprochement between two political parties, the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and not between two countries, as would be more appropriate.
Unlike Taiwan, China remains a one-party state. Thus, any rapprochement that runs on party-state logic cannot be considered stable. The uncertainty inherent in the KMT-CCP agreements stemming from the possible return of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to in 2016 is not as much a problem of the credibility (or lack thereof) of DPP’s China policy as it is the result of an unequal arrangement that does not fully correspond to Taiwan’s political conditions.
Moreover, while Beijing has offered apparent carrots, sticks in the form of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) capabilities to strike Taiwan have remained in place and become more sophisticated with the development, among other things, of measures aimed at preventing third-party assistance to Taiwan. Known as anti-access/area denial (A2AD) measures, those would come into play should the China decide to take Taiwan by force. Since the threat remains, the post-2008 rapprochement is hollow.
The latest developments suggest that Chinese officials won’t be sending warm wishes across the Strait anytime soon. If October’s announcement by Xi Jinping (習近平) that the “one country, two systems” formula remains Beijing’s policy for unification of Taiwan with China, made amidst the massive protests against this very model in Hong Kong, has not rung a bell, the recent proclamation of new air routes in the Taiwan Strait without prior negotiations with Taipei should. Both announcements have forced Taiwanese officials to publicly issue strong protests, suggesting that Beijing is no longer willing to avoid controversies for the remainder of Ma’s second term and beyond.
When the public discusses the possibility of force, perspectives are usually very bleak. After all, spending on the PLA has grown at a double-digit pace for at least a decade while Taiwan’s has stagnated below 3% of GDP. Nor does the expert community seem overly confident about Taiwan’s prospects. While in 2001 Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., argued that China cannot conquer Taiwan, by 2009 RAND Corp was contending in “A Question of Balance: Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute” that PLA modernization had reached a stage where the U.S. would lose if it intervened on Taiwan’s behalf. As a result of the PLA modernization, Taiwan’s defense situation is often considered hopeless barring substantial U.S. assistance.
However, taking Taiwan by force presents a greater challenge for the modernizing PLA than most observers assume.
To begin with, geographical conditions are favorable to the defense of Taiwan. This may appear incredible, since geographically Taiwan lacks strategic depth since its entire territory is within range of PLA’s advanced combat jets and cruise and ballistic missiles. However, Taiwan’s rugged coastline lacks suitable landing beaches and its mountainous landscape offers natural defensive advantages, especially given the weather conditions in the Strait. If defended by a determined population, Taiwan can be quite inhospitable to any external power attempting to land its forces.
Three scenarios are most frequently considered for possible use of force by China against Taiwan.
The first scenario involves missile and air strikes against key military and civilian infrastructure, including government buildings, communication nodes, ports, and airports. Those would aim to cripple air defenses, the Navy and communication systems, while blinding defenders and subjecting the political leadership to “shock and awe.” Beijing would thus hope to force Taipei to accept China’s terms without a costly invasion.
This is arguably a tempting option for Beijing. It has many benefits for the attacker: rapid, decisive action with minimal losses, resulting in the opponent’s surrender. Hence, it is commonly held that should Beijing decide to use force, missile strikes would be the preferred option. Proponents of this scenario argue that in recent conflicts, air strikes (including use of guided missiles) proved decisive, forcing opponents to surrender without the need to conduct ground operations. NATO’s intervention against Serbia in 1999 is sometimes cited as an example. However, this assumes nearly perfect execution of the plan, and as Von Moltke once observed “No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Moreover, NATO’s Kosovo campaign took nearly three months of sustained bombardment before Belgrade capitulated and withdrew from Kosovo.
Air power’s importance rose prominently throughout the 20th and into 21st century, but careful examination of individual cases reveals that air forces have never truly won conflicts on their own. Even in the face of considerable losses, there would be no guarantee that the Taiwanese government would simply surrender without PLA boots on the ground. Further, while the Second Artillery Corps may field over 1,600 ballistic missiles, it is limited by the number of launching platforms it possesses, allowing it to fire “only” a few hundred missiles in each wave. Even that would be a feat that the PLA has never performed.
Moreover, Taiwan is preparing extensively for this scenario, establishing rapid runway repair capability, redundant communication infrastructure, and underground bases, all designed to survive a first strike. Some of the expensive platforms that have been criticized as a waste of resources have potentially great value in preventing the effects of “shock and awe.” The long-range early-warning radar at Leshan in Hsinchu County will buy additional time, while a missile defense centered on the U.S.-made Patriots and Taiwan’s Tien-Kung III, although doomed to destruction in the process, will limit the impact of a first strike. The psychological effect of images of successful interceptions could provide balance to the destruction caused by airborne and land-based missiles. Beijing’s hope that Taiwan would quickly surrender therefore does not rest on a strong foundation.
A naval blockade is often regarded as a viable option for Beijing. The PLA Navy (PLAN) has benefitted greatly from ongoing modernization, with the recent introduction of new submarines and guided missile destroyers. A naval blockade (likely called a quarantine by Beijing, implying action within its territory rather than blocking a sovereign nation) is that it could be a relatively bloodless action, with the exception of likely exchanges between the Taiwanese Navy and the PLAN. The disadvantage is that naval blockades lack efficiency and take time. Moreover, they are logistically complex if the goal is total isolation. The PLAN, undergoing transformation from an offshore navy to ocean-going navy, is wanting in experience in exercising this type of sea-control. Moreover, a blockade would be a prolonged effort that lacks the advantage of surprise. Should a blockade fail to persuade Taiwanese leaders to give up, the PLA would have to strike against alerted defenders.
An amphibious invasion is the most radical option of all, and it is also in many ways a poor option for Beijing. However, given the problems with the first two options, this measure appears ultimately necessary if Taiwan is to be incorporated into the People’s Republic of China. Currently, the PLA is still far from having sufficient capacity to land forces and reinforce them with sufficient manpower to secure a beachhead. The element of surprise would be a challenge because of the necessary preparations resulting in concentration of transport ships and the PLA troops in civilian ports in proximity to Taiwan.
The first phase would be similar to the missile and air attack scenario, except that this time there would be a continuous action aimed at achieving complete control of the sea and air and destruction of Taiwan’s key assets on the ground. This is a necessary condition before attempting to traverse the unkind waters of the Taiwan Strait in slow, vulnerable, troop-carrying landing ships. Moreover, even with the sea and air secured, the danger of lurking mobile land-based anti-ship missiles would remain. Finally, the conditions of Taiwan’s coastline would make it easy for Taiwan’s defense planners to determine where the landings could take place. If Beijing’s preferred option is a quick victory, an amphibious attack does not offer it.
Ultimately, Beijing would prevail, perhaps even if the U.S. intervenes. However, the cost of victory would inevitably be high. China is no longer the China of the 1950s, when it could send hundreds of thousands of volunteers to die, as it did in the Korean War. This time its soldiers would be the only sons or daughters of parents who are reluctant to see them die. The CCP’s attempt to consolidate its power by “returning” Taiwan to China’s bosom could very well backfire and mark the end of its rule.
Chinese generals also face an additional dilemma: Whether to strike against U.S. bases in Japan to take them out pre-emptively, gaining additional time before Washington can dispatch new forces to the area, or refrain from striking in the hope that the U.S. will not intervene. The former option makes the U.S. (and Japanese) intervention a certainty, while the latter gives the U.S. the initiative with its bases intact.
Possible assistance to Taiwan in the case of a cross-Strait conflict is understandably a thorny issue, and Washington keeps its intentions deliberately ambiguous. However, while preventing the forceful seizure of Taiwan by China is too important for the U.S. (and even more so for Japan), assistance to Taiwan does not have to take the form of a full-scale intervention. The U.S. could limit itself to providing real-time intelligence or supplying war materials to Taipei. Though U.S. intervention should not be taken for granted, by the same token, it would be unwise to underestimate the value of Taiwan for Washington and Tokyo.
Though the most feasible, the three scenarios outlined above do not cover all the cards that Beijing has at its disposal. Two other options have been discussed lately: “Salami-slicing” and “Crimea-style” scenarios.
Some observers argue that Beijing is already using the salami-slicing method in the South China Sea, taking assertive steps that are not provocative enough to prompt a forceful reaction. In a Taiwan scenario, the PLA could opt for a phased invasion divided into three stages, using the time between respective stages to break Taiwan’s will to resist. The first stage would begin with the occupation of Kinmen and Matsu, two island groups near the Chinese coast. The second stage would be aimed at seizing the Penghu islands in the middle of the Strait, while the third stage would constitute the final attempt to take Taiwan proper if negotiations failed to convince Taipei of the futility of resistance. It is a possible though not optimal option, one that entails the loss of the element of surprise and prolonged operations, which Beijing does not appear to find palatable. However, seizing part of the territory governed by Taipei may be enough to satisfy Beijing’s short-term intentions. In fact, the time span between the respective stages could involve years. The ultimate downside of such action is that after the first move, Taiwan’s population would never again trust any “goodwill” moves by Beijing.
The Crimea-style/hybrid warfare scenario, with “little green men” operating behind enemy lines, gives the intruder plausible deniability and is a tempting option. However, there is crucial element missing in the case of Taiwan: widespread local support. Support for unification is extremely low in Taiwan. Even if we take into consideration that a United Front could mobilize manpower within Taiwan and manufacture perceptions of higher support, the emergence of an armed militia to protect “Chinese citizens” from the “separatist” central government in Taipei is hardly conceivable. This option is likely feasible only for Kinmen and Matsu, where both local support and ease of resupply is possible. The relevance for a Taiwan scenario lies not in the tactics used by Moscow in Crimea, but in the blatant disregard for Taiwan’s sovereignty.
China does not have many options for a rapid victory. Its best bet is to strike hard and hope that united front efforts and asymmetrical economic interdependence will do the rest. However, a United Front, relying on pro-Beijing sympathizers, will likely fade in strength once missiles start to fly. Economic leverage and exploiting cross-strait integration are arguably also part of the United Front’s arsenal. However, if economic factors alone could compel Taiwanese to accept Beijing’s rule, no use of force would be needed. In other words, use of force would ultimately mean that Beijing failed to absorb Taiwan by other means.
If a quick victory is out of reach, Beijing may still consider a prolonged costly campaign with amphibious invasion as the ultimate option. However, the longer the campaign, the more problematic it will become. Naturally, these are not all the options. Beijing may also choose to use a combination of individual elements for each scenario (e.g., a naval blockade and seizure of offshore islands).
Special Forces deployed in Taiwan prior to the outbreak of hostilities to strike at key targets, kidnap or kill political leaders, and secure airstrips for the PLA’s airborne soldiers is another option. This is a more traditional version of “little green men” deployment and presumably part of larger military operations. However useful Special Forces may be, their greatest utility lies in their ability to conduct hit-and-run operations, not holding ground awaiting relief. Arguably, Beijing could simultaneously land its airborne forces in some of the regular cross-strait flights and perhaps sneak-in military transport planes carrying armored personnel vehicles or light tanks for greater mobility and firepower, but further resupply would become difficult once Taiwan’s armed forces are alerted. Nevertheless, Beijing may opt for Special Forces reinforced by airborne troops to maximize the element of surprise, destroy key infrastructure, seize key government buildings, and quickly install a puppet government. If successful, it would undoubtedly become the greatest operation of its kind in history.
One last option that has not been mentioned so far is cyber warfare. For example, large-scale cyber-attacks could damage the electric power grid, resulting in considerable economic losses for Taiwan. However, as an asymmetrical method, cyber war does not give Beijing the qualitative and quantitative advantages found in the previous options. Taiwan could retaliate with its own offensive cyber campaign, since the advantage that China enjoys in traditional military power would be irrelevant. In any case, cyber attacks would be part of each of the above outlined options, differing only in scale, adding a new element to the traditional three domains (land, air, sea) of war.
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What else is missing in the equation? Discussing strategic, tactical, and operational aspects, comparing capabilities and outlining scenarios of their use notwithstanding, the will to resist is a crucial aspect of armed conflict, essential part for weaker actors to prevail over stronger. It is also one that is inherently difficult to assess prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Taiwan’s conscript-based armed forces have not received much credit in that respect. Young Taiwanese are often criticized for being too soft and comfortable, and unwilling to face hardship. As if this were not enough, the loyalty of their commanders has been called into question by the seemingly endless string of arrests for espionage for the China. However, everything would change after the first shot is fired. Recall that the famous “this house will not fight for King and Country” resolution at the Oxford Union in 1933. Six years later, when war broke out, undergrads at Oxford flocked to volunteer.
Thus, along with military options, non-military scenarios should be considered. Numerous observers often echo a sentiment that is recurrently shared by general public: Beijing would not need to fire a single shot to take over Taiwan. Economic interdependence would tie hands of even the most determined government in Taiwan. Furthermore, the prospect of economic breakdown should Taiwan refuse to follow Beijing’s dictates would be enough for a majority of Taiwanese to do Beijing’s bidding. That could happen despite the fact that nations have historically resisted rather than surrender.
Some people have argued that Taiwanese do not consider themselves a nation, are confused about their identity, and therefore would not stand for something that they (presumably) do not feel very strongly about, though polls suggest otherwise. This is a question that has yet to be put to the test.
Michal Thim is a Ph.D. candidate in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute (CPI), University of Nottingham, a CPI blog Emerging Scholar, and a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. Michal tweets @michalthim.