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China's Options in the Taiwan Confrontation

With a belief that the US will come to Taiwan's aid should China initiate action to curb any independence-like moves, Chen continued a campaign toward independence, betting on sympathetic voters to side with his positions. By 2005, however, the independence card had been trumped by the mainland's policy of reconciliation, and overshadowed by other domestic issues. While China has long avowed to prevent Taiwan's declaration of independence by force, if required, their response to current trends in Taiwan thus far has been significantly tempered.

China does not want to repeat the results of the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait missile crisis in which PRC military actions adversely influenced (in Beijing eyes) Taiwanese opinions and resulted in President Lee Teng-hui's re-election. Beijing recognizes that the economic and diplomatic costs of even measured military responses to the situation in Taiwan would be enormously high, and as such they will reserve such activity as an absolute last resort.

Should Chen begin openly promoting an independence platform, Beijing could undertake an escalating series of actions to bring Taiwan back into line. China's leaders will choose their courses of action (COA) based on the COA's perceived impact on internal stability and government authority. They can neither afford to risk growing unemployment during a period of fantastic economic growth nor risk appearing weak in dealing with one of their three primary separatist movements (Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet).

It is generally assumed that China would likely attack Taiwan under certain previously defined circumstances [China's "Five Noes"]:

  1. a formal declaration of independence by Taipei
  2. a military alliance by Taiwan with a foreign power, or foreign intervention in Taiwan's internal affairs
  3. indefinite delays in resumption of cross-Strait dialogue, and an unwillingness to negotiate on the basis of 'one China'
  4. Taiwan's acquisition of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction
  5. internal unrest or turmoil on Taiwan

As of mid-2004 President Hu Jintao's government was emphasizing formal independence, US-ROC cooperation on technology to defeat a PRC attack, and the lack of progress in negotiations.

Conversely, China's precise definition of "reunification" is somewhat opaque. In November 2004 Tang Jiaxuan, who was foreign minister until 2003, and serves as a vice minister in the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, said that after reunification, Taiwan would enjoy broader autonomy than Hong Kong and Macao. He suggested that Taiwan could preserve its social system; freely choose its leaders; keep the first right of legal jurisdiction; not pay taxes to the central government; preserve its own armed forces and police; have external foreign commercial, economic, trade and cultural relations; and purchase some offensive weapons. Furthermore, the central government in Beijing would not send officials to Taiwan but island officials could be part of the central government.

A walk down the escalation ladder may illustrate the range of possible actions that may be expected. Those rungs on the escalation ladder of greatest interest are those that may not provoke direct American response, but that would demonstrate the dispositive influence of Beijing over the status of the territory presently controlled by the Taipei regime, and Beijing's ultimate control over the relationship between that territory and the rest of the world.

Diplomatic Initiatives

Although a climb at least mid-way up the escalation ladder has some surface appeal and plausibility, there is surely a case to be made that the costs to Beijing will outweigh the benefits, and that in any event such a provocative course of action would merely play into Taiwan's gameplan for reducing the ambiguity of American commitments in its favor. Taiwan's declaratory shift has not been followed by overt acts, such as President Lee's 1996 visit to the United States, and indeed its declaratory initiative has been rebuffed by the US Government and by others. The counsel of patience would suggest that time is on Beijing's side, and that at some point the post-Lee leadership in Taipei will recognize the futility of his "state to state" formulation and return to some more constructive approach.

Military Exercises

At a minimum, the PLA may repeat the military posturing of March 1996, and indeed it is difficult to imagine how a response of at least this intensity can be avoided under some circumstances. It is predictable, however, that the United States will respond by the deployment of military forces to some carefully calibrated locale, and that these manuevers alone will do little to resolve the present political crisis. To the extent that Taiwan's political challenge is viewed as being more substantial than that of 1995-96, a simple repetition of the firepower displays of that crisis could demonstrate a lack of credibility and resolve on the part of Beijing, and could be readily characterized as inadequate.

Unconventional Warfare

Chinese attacks on critical infrastructure could unsettle Taiwan's economy without provoking American military involvement, and perhaps without even being directly attributable to the Chinese government. Although apparently coincidental, the island-wide blackout of late July 1999 is illustrative of such possibilities, and subsequently reported attacks on government computer systems may forshadow more ambitious attacks.

On 04 October 2004 Richard Lawless, Deputy Undersecretary of Defence, warned the US-Taiwan Business Council China is developing the means to electronically blockade Taiwan with attacks to the island's vital utilities, the Internet and other communications networks. He warned that China might first target things that keep Taiwan's high-tech society running if a war broke out between China and Taiwan. "China is actively developing options to create chaos on the island, to compromise components of Taiwan's critical infrastructure - telecommunications, utilities, broadcast media, cellular, Internet and computer networks," he saidl. Such a strategy could be called an "acupuncture" attack aimed at "the destruction of a national will" with "the insertion of a hundred needles."

It is rather difficult to envision effective modalities for American enhancements to Taiwan's physical or technical security to counter such infrastructure attacks beyond modest technical assistance efforts. Although the potentially unattributable character of infrastructure attacks would deny Beijing the pleasure of explicit mastery over Taiwan, the absence of attribution would not diminish the impact on Taiwan's economy nor would it diminish from the depiction of Taipei as lacking effective control over its nominal territory.

Peripheral Assaults

Taiwan occupies one island in the disputed Spratly chain, and the handful of small islands occupied by Taiwan near the mainland coast are far less heavily fortified than Quemoy and Matsu. Chinese seizure of these otherwise insiginificant specks of real estate could be accomplished with relative ease, and as with a partial naval blockade would concrete demonstrate Beijing's dispositive influence over territory claimed by Taipei. The United States is extremely unlikely to assist Taiwan in the recovery of the legally disputed Spratly, and would be only somewhat less unlikely to directly participate in the recovery by Taiwan of minor specks of territory in the Taiwan Strait.

Naval Blockade

The PLA Navy would face serious difficulties in coordinating an effective naval blockade enforced through the combined efforts of air, surface, and submarine forces. But the reaction by Taiwan and the international community to the PLA's March 1996 exercises and missile tests suggests that less comprehensive measures could substantially disrupt Taiwan's economic life, potentially creating pressure over time for a political settlement. Depending on the modalities of such an embargo, the United States might have difficulty in identifying politically appropriate or militarily effective means of countering Beijing's interdiction of international commerce with Taiwan. Mine-sweeping operations might not be sufficiently effective to restore the confidence of commercial shippers, and the US Navy might be loath to proactively sink Chinese submarines that were not immediately attacking friendly shipping. Consequently, a partially effective Chinese blockade of Taiwan would appear to be an attactive option for concretely demonstrating China's ultimate authority over Taiwan without prokoking an American military challenge to this assertion.

Air Operations

Air operations could be conducted in concert with a naval blockade, amphibious operations, missile strikes against Taiwan-held islands, or missile strikes against Taiwan. Taipei's qualitative advantages would help offset the PLA's numerical superiority. But air operations could cause great damage that might eventually enable China to achieve air superiority, and could force Taipei into a political settlement on China's terms unless Taiwan were to receive external assistance. The United States would almost certainly be prepared to provide aircraft and ordnance to replace combat losses, though it is rather difficult to imagine modern counterparts to the "Flying Tigers." It is unclear how or whether American carrier-based aviation would be used to enforce a no-fly zone in the Taiwan Strait. Such enforcement would probably come towards the end of a military crisis to either administer a cease fire or revser the declining fortunes of Taiwan. American carrier aviation combat operations at the outset of a Chinese air campaign against Taiwan would appear unlikely under current US declaratory policy, although there could be substantial Congressional pressure for such a committment.

Full-scale Invasion

A main force attack to "Liberate Taiwan" would be an extremely high risk undertaking with uncertain prospects for success. Invasion is unlikely, since the PLA cannot yet transport a credible invasion force to Taiwan. Amphibious forces are capable of transporting no more than a single division [15,000 troops], and military air transports could add possibly an additional divisions worth of troops. Taipei would have significant warning time if Beijing were to prepare for an invasion, and could mobilize significant reserves that would outnumber the invading force by a wide margin. Taiwan retains significant qualitative advantages against the numerically superior PLA in fighter aircraft, surface warships, air defenses, and many ground force capabilities.

Although it is unlikely that China would initiate the use of weapons of mass destruction in the context of a conventional invasion of Taiwan, it is possible that Taiwan would initiate the use of chemical weapons in respose to such an invasion in the event that a purely conventional military response appeared inadequate. In any event, if Beijing's amphibious assault did not spontaneously collapse, such an invasion would almost certainly provoke an American intervention sufficient to terminate hostilities on terms unfavorable to Beijing, unless Taiwan collapses before America can intervene.

Nuclear Attack on Taiwan

China would almost certainly not contemplate a nuclear strike against Taiwan, nor would Beijing embark on a course of action that posed significant risks of the use of nuclear weapons. The mainland's long term goal is to liberate Taiwan, not to obliterate it, and any use of nuclear weapons by China would run a substantial risk of the use of nuclear weapons by the United States. An inability to control escalation beyond "demonstrative" detonations would cause utterly disproportionate destruction.

Publicly available PRC writings describe different operational concepts for amphibious invasion. The most prominent of these, the Joint Island Landing Campaign, envisions a complex operation relying on coordinated, interlocking campaigns for logistics, air and naval support, and electronic warfare. The objective would be to break through or circumvent shore defenses, establish and build a beachhead, transport personnel and materiel to designated landing sites.

Amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated and difficult military maneuvers. Success depends upon air and sea superiority, rapid buildup and sustainment of supplies on shore, and uninterrupted support. To achieve the final objective of the Joint Island Landing Campaign, a series of sub-campaigns, such as electronic warfare, naval, and air campaigns including the underlying logistics and mobilization must be executed.

An amphibious campaign of the scale outlined in the Joint Island Landing Campaign could tax the capabilities of Chinas armed forces and almost certainly invite international intervention. Add to these strains the combat attrition of Chinas 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 Chinas leaders.


The absence of overt actions on the part of either China or Taiwan does not indicate a resolution of the problem. The crisis in 1995-96 unfolded from July of 1995 through March of 1996, and a similar timeframe may be expected for a future crisis. Both capitals, however, face strong incentives to modulate events and American attitudes in their favor, and both capitals could probably withstand a considerable escalation of the confrontation before natural risk aversion came to dominate decision-making.

China's military posturing during 1995 and 1996 indicates that any use of force by China, whether demonstrative or in combat, will provoke domestic and regional demands for an appropriate American response. The United States "One-China" policy is based on dialogue between the two sides and a peaceful resolution of any differences between China and Taiwan. The long-standing position of the United States is that any effort to resolve the issue of Taiwan by other than peaceful means would be considered "of grave concern" to the United States. The American deployment of two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Strait area in March 1996 set a precedent that is impossible to ignore. The United States faces extremely difficult choices in becoming more directly involved in a Taiwan-China conflict, and must carefully select the appropriate mix of military and political means. Although a direct force-on-force confrontation is unlikely, a reinforced American military presence directly adjacent to an escalating conflict in the Taiwan Strait would provide uncomfortable opportunities for accident or miscalculation to widen the confrontation.

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Page last modified: 27-05-2019 18:58:56 ZULU