Beijing’s ability to gain complete control of Taiwan by unilateral military action is limited

The Dong-Feng 21 is a two-stage, solid-fuel rocket, single-warhead medium-range ballistic missile in the Dong Feng series developed by China Changfeng Mechanics and Electronics Technology Academy.

US report outlines potential military options Beijing may be considering to fulfill its unification ambitions but questions remain over Chinese amphibious landing capability which would be crucial to any operation.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Li Gang/Xinhua
Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing is gearing up its efforts to reunify the self-ruled island of Taiwan, but might lack the core assault landing capabilities to conquer the island, military experts said.

The types of ships which the Chinese Navy (PLAN) may use against Taiwan in the 2020s
A Chinese landing on Taiwan would involve many different assets, mostly built up in the last twenty years. The type 075 would be the backbone of PLA Navy and forefront of amphibious attack. Source HI Sutton.

The assessment follows an annual report to the US Congress saying China was likely to be preparing for a contingency to unify Taiwan by force, while simultaneously deterring, delaying, or denying any third-party intervention on the island’s behalf.

The 136-page report, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019”, was released last week and listed a number of options, including a blockade to cut off Taiwan’s imports accompanied by large-scale missile strikes and the occupation of offshore islands like Quemoy (also known as Kinmen) and Matsu.

An air and missile attack might aim to destroy important military and communications infrastructure, while a full-scale invasion might start at northern or southern points along the west coast, according to the Pentagon report.

Military Budget Increases

Turning to Taiwan’s defenses, the report noted the island’s advantages continue to decline as China’s military modernization proceeds, with significant problems in recruiting sufficient military personnel. Taiwan also faces “considerable equipment and readiness challenges”, the report said.

President Tsai Ing-wen’s cabinet signed off on an 8.3% increase in military spending for the year starting January to $13.11 billion, its largest yearly gain since 2008, according to Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics.

The United States is the main arms supplier to Taiwan and approved in July sales of weapons estimated to be worth $2.2 billion to the democratic island. Washington has no formal ties with Taipei, but it is bound by law to help provide it with the means to defend itself.

Military analyst Collin Koh, from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said an amphibious operation to take over the island, as outlined in the report, was unlikely due to China’s inadequate sea-lift capability and inability of its amphibious forces to work in concert with other services.

“Amphibious assault landing operations, are after all, highly complex operations that require so many moving parts across branches and services that it’ll take much effort and time to promote and inculcate that concept and spirit of fighting jointly and in an integrated manner,” he said.

NCSIST Jian Xiang drone and launch platform at Taipei Aerospace and Defense Exhibition, Aug. 15
Zian Ziang Drone

Koh’s view was echoed by Timothy Heath, a senior international defence research analyst at US think tank Rand, who said inadequate numbers of ships capable of transporting troops for an invasion remained an important shortfall for any Chinese military plan to invade Taiwan.

“Amphibious assault ships and other vessels for conveying combat troops onto the beaches of Taiwan are essential because invasion is the only way the PLA can guarantee conquest of Taiwan,” said Heath, adding that the PLA currently has a relatively modest inventory of such ships.

A Taiwan marine stands guard on Quemoy, which could be targeted in any effort by Beijing to reunify the self-ruled island. Photo: AFP
A Taiwan marine stands guard on Quemoy, which could be targeted in any effort by Beijing to reunify the self-ruled island. Photo: AFP

However, Beijing-based military expert Li Jie said China’s armed forces could accomplish goals as long as orders came from China’s top leaders, despite various weaknesses in the Chinese military.

Ties between Beijing and Taipei nosedived after Tsai Ing-wen from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party became the island’s president in May 2016 and repeatedly refused to endorse the “1992 consensus” which refers to an understanding that there is only one China, though each side may have its own interpretation of what constitutes “China”.

A Taiwanese P-3C 
Taiwanese P-3C.

Beijing responded by stepping up military and diplomatic pressure against the island, ramping up live-fire military exercises and luring away Taiwan’s diplomatic allies.

Taiwan is now one of a growing number of flashpoints in the China-US relationship – along with a trade war, Beijing’s growing influence in emerging economies, and its stronger military posture in the South China Sea.

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Support From Ally

Taiwan, or course, has its own set of reasons to pursue some of these priorities outside of any broader sense of alliance obligations. In relation to combat aircraft, Taiwan faces the immediate threat that the normalization of uncontested incursions over Taiwan’s airspace will strengthen China’s claims to suzerainty over Taiwan’s territory. On the issue of blue navy capabilities, China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea could gain it control over the sea routes that are pivotal to regional trade and the island’s economic survival.

The Lockheed Martin F-16V Block 70 is the most advanced variant of F-16 ever built. The US will supply 66 F-16V Block 70 to Taiwan.

Recently, two guided-missile destroyers, USS Preble and USS Chung-Hoon passed within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson reefs in the Spratly Islands, drawing immediate criticism from Beijing.

The lower chamber of the US Congress on Tuesday unanimously backed legislation supporting Taiwan, which faces military and diplomatic pressure from mainland China as Washington pushes for a harder-edged approach to relations with Beijing.

Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is bound by law to help defend the self-ruled island. Washington is Taipei’s main source of arms, selling the island more than US$15 billion in weaponry since 2010, according to the Pentagon.

The sale of Abrams tanks as well as 66 F-16s to Taiwan abruptly ended a roughly two decade-long period of delays on the sale of these weapons — delays in part prompted by China’s vehement opposition. The latter — expected to cost the equivalent of 70 percent of Taiwan’s 2019 military budget — stands alongside a plan to upgrade its other 141 units to Viper standard (i.e., that of the latest U.S. variant).

While Taiwan is purchasing missiles that are primarily defensive, it is developing weapons with offensive capabilities — including the Yun Feng Land Attack Cruise Missile (LACM), with a projected range of 2,000 kilometers and a payload of 225kg, and an extended range variant of its subsonic Hsiung Feng IIE, whose expected range of 1,250 kilometers takes it well beyond the Taiwan Strait.

Causalities of War

The only thing assured about a war between China and Taiwan, experts say, is heavy casualties.

“A Taiwan conflict would be horrendous,” said Drew Thompson, a former U.S. Defense Department official and a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. “It would not be quick and easy, but a disaster.”

Asymmetric War Against China

Taiwan, on the other hand, has adopted a so-called asymmetric strategy designed to inflict the maximum amount of pain on the PLA with its much smaller military. That centers on deploying defenses such as sea mines and anti-ship cruise missiles.

If China’s growing military might is meant to intimidate Taiwan into unification someday, its online nationalists have succeeded in doing the opposite, according to social media banter in the democratic enclave.

While the invasion images have gone viral in Taiwan, they’ve also been subjected to ridicule, including being widely described euphemistically as a Chinese form of “self-comfort.”

Taiwan is certainly succeeding is in portraying itself as a responsible, democratic actor in time of global crisis, a sharp contrast to authoritarian China’s sometimes opaque and often contradictory accounts of the coronavirus crisis and China’s role in its origin and spread.

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