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Military Power of the People's Republic of China

Chapter Six
Force Modernization and Security in the Taiwan Strait

"In recent years, the situation of the Taiwan Strait has become increasingly complicated and severe . our army . has stepped up its efforts to prepare for military struggles to safeguard the security and unity of the state."
- General Cao Gangchuan, Minister of Defense


The security situation in the Taiwan Strait is largely a function of dynamic interaction between the United States, the mainland, and Taiwan. The U.S. Government has made clear that it opposes unilateral changes to the status quo by either side of the Taiwan Strait and supports peaceful resolution of cross-Strait differences in a manner acceptable to the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. China’s emergence as a global economic force has given it increased diplomatic clout and economic tools to coerce Taiwan without resorting to military force. At the same time, China has utilized some of its growing economy to fund enhanced military capabilities that can be brought to bear directly upon Taiwan. These new capabilities might be coupled with concepts China is developing to coerce Taiwan short of invasion, or to mount an invasion, if necessary. 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 capability for self-defense. These trends pose challenges to Taiwan’s security, which has historically been based upon the inability of the PLA to project power across the 100-nm Taiwan Strait, the natural geographic advantages of island defense, the technological superiority of its own armed forces, and the possibility that the United States might intervene.

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 Taiwan Strait. In addition to making available defense articles and services to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability, the U.S. Department of Defense, through the transformation of the U.S. Armed Forces and global force posture realignments, is maintaining the capacity to resist any effort by Beijing to use 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 (NCO) corps, build its war reserve stocks, and improve crisis response capabilities. In June 2007, the Taiwan legislature passed a defense budget of $8.9 billion, which included funding for 12 P-3C maritime patrol aircraft, six Patriot missile system upgrades, three TP-3A airframes for spares, 144 SM-2 naval SAMs and to initiate a feasibility study for the purchase of eight diesel-electric submarines. Additionally, Taiwan approved funding for precision weapons over the next three years to include: 218 AMRAAM airto- air missiles, 235 Maverick air-to-surface missiles, and 60 Harpoon Block II ASCMs. For 2008, the legislature in December 2007 passed a $10.5 billion budget, a twelve percent increase, including funding for a study that would produce a diesel submarine design to support follow-on production contract bidding. These improvements have, on the whole, reinforced Taiwan’s natural defensive advantages in the face of Beijing’s continuing military build-up.

Operationalizing PLA Concepts

The PLA's use of military force during a Taiwan contingency, regardless of the specific military course of action engaged, would be shaped by the doctrine and conceptual framework first detailed in Chapters Three and Four of this report. In any such contingency, China faces the dual planning problems of rapidly degrading Taiwan's will to resist while deterring or countering intervention by third parties. Numerous PRC statements describe the United States as the most likely outside power to intervene in a Taiwan Strait crisis, as well as the most difficult military to counter. It therefore is likely that China requires its military planners to assume and address U.S. military intervention in any future Taiwan Strait contingency.

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 aims to prevent Taiwan from moving toward de jure independence while continuing to hold out for a peaceful resolution under a framework that would purportedly provide Taiwan a high degree of autonomy in exchange for its unification with the mainland. China’s leaders are pursuing this policy through a coercive strategy that integrates political, economic, cultural, legal, diplomatic, and military instruments of power.

Although Beijing professes a desire for 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 unwillingness to renounce the use of force.

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 that 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 atmosphere of ambiguity are political factors internal to the regime in Beijing that might affect its decision-making but are opaque to outsiders.

Beijing’s Courses of Action Against Taiwan

The PLA is capable of pursuing increasingly sophisticated military courses of action against Taiwan. Some analysts hold that Beijing first would pursue a measured, judicious, and deliberate approach characterized by signaling its readiness to use force in an attempt to coerce Taiwan, followed by a deliberate buildup of force, which would optimize speed of engagement over strategic deception. Others assess that the more likely course of action would be for China to sacrifice deliberate preparations in favor of strategic surprise to force a rapid military and/or political resolution before the United States or other countries could respond. If a quick resolution is not possible, Beijing would seek to deter potential U.S. intervention; or, failing that, delay such intervention, seek to defeat it in an asymmetric, limited, or quick war, or fight to a standstill and pursue a political settlement after a protracted conflict.

Limited Force or “No War” Options. China might use a variety of lethal, punitive, or disruptive military actions in a limited campaign against Taiwan, likely in conjunction with overt and clandestine economic and political activities. Such a campaign could include CNA against Taiwan’s political, military, and economic infrastructure to target the Taiwan people’s confidence in their leadership. Similarly, PLA special operations forces infiltrated into Taiwan could conduct economic, political, or military sabotage or attacks against leadership targets.

Air and Missile Campaign. Limited SRBM attacks and precision strikes against air defense systems, including air bases, radar sites, missiles, space assets, and communications facilities could support a campaign to degrade Taiwan’s defenses, neutralize Taiwan’s military and political leadership, and possibly break the Taiwan people’s will to fight.

Maritime Quarantine or Blockade. Beijing could declare that ships en route to Taiwan ports must stop in mainland ports for safety 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 to ports with the effect of closing port access and diverting merchant traffic – as occurred during the 1995-96 missile firings and live-fire exercises.

Although a traditional maritime quarantine or blockade would have greater impact on Taiwan, it would also tax PLA Navy capabilities. PLA doctrinal writings describe potential lower cost solutions: air blockades, missile attacks, and mining or otherwise obstructing harbors and approaches to achieve the desired outcome at lower cost. Chinese elites could underestimate the degree to which any attempt to limit maritime traffic to and from Taiwan would trigger countervailing international pressure and risk military escalation.

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. 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. China’s Joint Island Landing Campaign envisions a complex operation relying on interlocking, supporting, subordinate campaigns for logistics, electronic warfare, and air and naval support – all coordinated in space and time – to break through or circumvent shore defenses, establish and build a beachhead, transport personnel and materiel to designated landing sites, and then launch an attack to split, seize, and occupy key targets and/or the entire island.

The PLA currently is capable of accomplishing various amphibious operations short of a fullscale invasion of Taiwan. With few overt military preparations beyond seasonally routine amphibious training, China could launch an invasion of a small Taiwan-held island such as Pratas or Itu Aba. Such a limited invasion of a lightly defended island could demonstrate military capability and political resolve, would achieve tangible territorial gain, and could be portrayed as showing some measure of restraint. However, such an operation includes significant – if not prohibitive – political risk as it could galvanize the Taiwan populace and generate international opposition.

A PLA invasion of a medium-sized defended offshore island such as Mazu or Jinmen, while within China’s capabilities, would involve logistic and military preparation well beyond routine training.

Large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated and logistics-intensive, and therefore difficult, military maneuvers. Success depends upon air and sea supremacy in the vicinity of the operation, rapid buildup of supplies and sustainment on shore, and an uninterrupted flow of support thereafter. An invasion of Taiwan would strain the capabilities of China’s untested armed forces and would almost certainly invite international intervention. These stresses, combined with the combat attrition of China’s forces, the complex tasks of urban warfare and counterinsurgency – assuming a successful landing and breakout – make an amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk for China’s leaders. Modest targeted investments by Taiwan to harden infrastructure and strengthen defensive capabilities could have measurable effects on decreasing Beijing’s ability to achieve its objectives.


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