Find a Security Clearance Job!


Military Power of the People's Republic of China

Chapter Six
Force Modernization and Security in the Taiwan Strait

"The struggle to oppose and contain the separatist forces for 'Taiwan independence' and their activities remains a hard one. By pursuing a radical policy for 'Taiwan independence,' the Taiwan authorities aim at creating 'de jure independence' through 'constitutional reform,' thus still posing a grave threat to China's sovereignty and territorial integrity. "
- China's National Defense in 2006


The security situation in the Taiwan Strait is largely a function of dynamic interactions among policies and actions taken by the mainland, Taiwan, and the United States. China's emergence as a global economic force, increased diplomatic clout, and improved air, naval, and missile forces strengthen Beijing's position relative to Taipei by increasing the mainland's economic leverage over Taiwan, fostering Taiwan's diplomatic isolation, and shifting the cross-Strait military balance in the mainland's favor. Taiwan, meanwhile, has allowed its defense spending to decline in real terms over the past decade, creating an increased urgency for the Taiwan authorities to make the necessary investments to maintain the island's self-defense capabilities. The U.S. Government has made clear that it opposes unilateral changes to the status quo by either side of the Taiwan Strait, does not support Taiwan independence, and supports peaceful resolution of cross-Strait differences in a manner acceptable to the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

In accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act [Public Law 96-8, (1979)], the United States has taken steps to help maintain peace, security, and stability in the region. In addition to making available to Taiwan defense articles and services to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability, the U.S. Department of Defense, through the transformation of U.S. Armed Forces and global force posture realignments, is maintaining the capacity to resist any effort by Beijing to resort to force or coercion to dictate the terms of Taiwan's future status. For its part, Taiwan has taken important steps to improve its joint operations capability, strengthen its officer and non-commissioned officer corps, build its reserve stocks, and improve crisis response capabilities. Taiwan has bolstered its defensive capabilities by taking delivery of the final two of four KIDD-class DDGs in September 2006. These improvements have, on the whole, reinforced Taiwan's natural defensive advantages in the face of Beijing's continuing build-up.

However, Taiwan has yet to acquire other major end items offered for sale by the United States in 2001, namely, Patriot PAC-3 air defense systems, P-3C Orion anti-submarine aircraft, and diesel electric submarines. These systems would enable Taiwan to make necessary improvements to its air and missile defense and anti-submarine warfare capability. In the six years since the offer was made, China has continued to make significant advances, some unexpected, in the capability areas these systems are designed to protect against.

China's Strategy in the Taiwan Strait

Beijing appears prepared to defer unification as long

as it believes trends are advancing toward that goal and that the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits. In the near term, Beijing's focus is likely one of preventing Taiwan from moving toward de jure independence while continuing to hold out terms for peaceful resolution under a "one country, two systems" framework that would provide Taiwan a degree of autonomy in exchange for its unification with the mainland. Beijing is pursuing these goals through a coercive strategy - with elements of persuasion - that integrates political, economic, cultural, legal, diplomatic, and military instruments of power.

Although Beijing professes peaceful resolution as its preferred outcome, the PLA's ongoing deployment of short range ballistic missiles, enhanced amphibious warfare capabilities, and modern, long-range anti-air systems opposite Taiwan are reminders of Beijing's refusal to renounce the use of force.

Surface-to-Air Missile Coverage Over the Taiwan Strait

The sustained military threat to Taiwan serves as an important backdrop to the overall campaign of persuasion and coercion. Exercises, deployments, and media operations all contribute to an environment of intimidation. For example, in a March 2006 speech before military deputies to the National People's Congress plenary, China's Minister of National Defense, General Cao Gangchuan, noted that the Taiwan Strait situation was "still very grim and complicated," and proclaimed that, "all PLA officers and men must enhance their sense of imminent danger as well as their sense of mission and sense of responsibility, lose no time in making military preparations for military struggle, and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity!"

The circumstances in which the mainland has historically warned it would use force against the island are not fixed and have evolved over time in response to Taiwan's declarations and actions relating to its political status, changes in PLA capabilities, and Beijing's view of other countries' relations with Taiwan.

These circumstances, or "red lines," have included: a formal declaration of Taiwan independence; undefined moves "toward independence"; foreign intervention in Taiwan's internal affairs; indefinite delays in the resumption of cross-Strait dialogue on unification; Taiwan's acquisition of nuclear weapons; and, internal unrest on Taiwan. Article 8 of the March 2005 "Anti-Secession Law" states Beijing would resort to "non-peaceful means" if "secessionist forces . . . cause the fact of Taiwan's secession from China," if "major incidents entailing Taiwan's secession" occur, or if "possibilities for peaceful reunification" are exhausted.

The ambiguity of these "red-lines" appears deliberate, allowing Beijing the flexibility to determine the nature, timing, and form of its response. Added to this ambiguity are political factors internal to the regime in Beijing that are opaque to outsiders.

Beijing's Courses of Action Against Taiwan

The PLA's capabilities to pursue a variety of courses of action are improving. In the absence of direct insights into PLA contingency planning, some analysts hold that Beijing would signal its readiness to use force imminently in an attempt to menace Taiwan in accordance with Beijing's dictates. Others assess that the likely Chinese course of action would be designed to create military and political pressure toward a rapid resolution on Beijing's terms before the United States or other countries would have a chance to respond. If a quick resolution is not possible, Beijing would seek to deter U.S. intervention or, failing that, delay such intervention, defeat it in an asymmetric, limited, quick war; or, fight it to a standstill and pursue a protracted conflict. Rough outlines for these courses of action are presented below.

Limited Force Options. A limited military campaign could include computer network attacks against Taiwan's political, military, and economic infrastructure to undermine the Taiwan population's confidence in its leadership. PLA special operations forces infiltrated into Taiwan could conduct acts of economic, political, and military sabotage. Beijing might also employ SRBM, special operations forces, and air strikes against air fields, radars, and communications facilities on Taiwan as "nonwar" uses of force to push the Taiwan leadership toward accommodation. The apparent belief that significant kinetic attacks on Taiwan would pass below the threshold of war underscores the risk of Beijing making a catastrophic miscalculation leading to a major unintended military conflict.

Air and Missile Campaign. Surprise SRBM attacks and precision air strikes against Taiwan's air defense system, including air bases, radar sites, missiles, space assets, and communications facilities could support a campaign to degrade Taiwan defenses, neutralize its military and political leadership, and rapidly break its will to fight while attempting to preclude an effective international response.

Blockade. Beijing could threaten or deploy a naval blockade as a "non-war" pressure tactic in the prehostility phase or as a transition to active conflict. Beijing could declare that ships en route to Taiwan ports must stop in mainland ports for inspections prior to transiting on to Taiwan. It could also attempt the equivalent of a blockade by declaring exercise or missile closure areas in approaches and roadsteads to ports to divert merchant traffic, as occurred during the 1995-96 missile firings and live-fire exercises. Chinese doctrine also includes activities such as air blockades, missile attacks, and mining or otherwise obstructing harbors and approaches. More traditional blockades would have greater impact on Taiwan, but tax PLA Navy capabilities. Any attempt to limit maritime traffic to and from Taiwan would likely trigger countervailing international pressure, and risk military escalation. Such restrictions would have immediate economic effects, but would take time to realize decisive political results, diminishing the ultimate effectiveness and inviting international reaction.

Factors of Deterrence

China is deterred on multiple levels from taking military action against Taiwan. First, China does not yet possess the military capability to accomplish with confidence its political objectives on the island, particularly when confronted with the prospect of U.S. intervention. Moreover, an insurgency directed against the PRC presence could tie up PLA forces for years. A military conflict in the Taiwan Strait would also affect the interests of Japan and other nations in the region in ensuring a peaceful resolution of the cross-Strait dispute.

Beijing's calculus would also have to factor in the potential political and economic repercussions of military conflict with Taiwan. China's leaders recognize that a war could severely retard economic development. Taiwan is China's single largest source of foreign direct investment, and an extended campaign would wreck Taiwan's economic infrastructure, leading to high reconstruction costs. International sanctions could further damage Beijing's economic development. A conflict would also severely damage the image that Beijing has sought to project in the post-Tiananmen years and would taint Beijing's hosting of the 2008 Olympics, for which China's leaders would almost certainly face boycotts and possibly a loss of the games. A conflict could also trigger domestic unrest on the mainland, a contingency that Beijing appears to have factored into its planning. Finally, China's leaders recognize that a conflict over Taiwan involving the United States would give rise to a long-term hostile relationship between the two nations - a result that would not be in China's interests.

Amphibious Invasion. Publicly available Chinese writings offer different strategies for an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, the most prominent being the Joint Island Landing Campaign. The Joint Island Landing Campaign envisions a complex operation relying on supporting sub-campaigns for logistics, electronic warfare, and air and naval support, to break through or circumvent shore defenses, establish and build a beachhead, and then launch an attack to split, seize, and occupy the entire island or key targets.

Amphibious operations are logistics-intensive, and their success depends upon air and sea superiority in the vicinity of the operation, the rapid buildup of supplies and sustainment on shore, and an uninterrupted flow of support thereafter. An amphibious campaign of the scale outlined in the Joint Island Landing Campaign would tax the capabilities of China's armed forces and almost certainly invite international intervention. Add to these strains the combat attrition of China's forces, and the complex tasks of urban warfare and counterinsurgency - assuming a successful landing and breakout - and an amphibious invasion of Taiwan would be a significant political and military risk for China's leaders.

Join the mailing list

Unconventional Threat podcast - Threats Foreign and Domestic: 'In Episode One of Unconventional Threat, we identify and examine a range of threats, both foreign and domestic, that are endangering the integrity of our democracy'