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The Taiwan Problem

July 29th, 2015

By Dr Rowan Allport – Senior Fellow

The spring of 2015 saw the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) lead a series of exercises designed to test the Chinese military’s ability to project force into the region surrounding the Republic of China, a nation better known to the wider world as Taiwan. Whilst small in scale, the operation demonstrated the type of joint effort that would be required between the key branches of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Armed Forces were the political decision ever made to use force to bring to heel a country that Beijing has, since 1949, considered to be a rogue province of greater China.

As with many such manoeuvres, the exercises also had a substantial political dimension. The last eighteen months has seen recently cordial relations between Taiwan and mainland China take a turn for the worse. In part, this has been the result of the stalling of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) China-Taiwan free trade deal in the wake of student protests, which briefly occupied the Taiwanese parliament. Taiwan’s reaction to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong has also provoked irritation in Beijing: President Ma Ying-jeou expressed his support for the demonstrators, despite the generally non-antagonistic line his Kuomintang (KMT) party presently takes towards China. The Hong Kong movement has also compounded existing domestic issues facing the current Taiwanese government to further reduce the prospects of the KMT’s candidate winning the 2016 presidential election. Many Taiwanese have seen the situation in Hong Kong – in which Beijing is attempting to block the ability of the population to freely elect its own officials – as a preview of what could befall them should they continue down the KMT’s path of reconciliation with China. At present, it would seem likely that in the contest between the two 2016 presidential candidates – the KMT’s Hung Hsiu-chu and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen – it will be the notionally pro-Taiwanese independence DPP that will triumph.

China has previous form in reacting badly to prospective Taiwanese election results of which it disapproves. In 1995 and 1996, it fired a series of missiles into the waters surrounding Taiwan in a crude attempt at intimidating the population into not re-electing its president, Lee Teng-hui, who had made attempts to raise Taiwan’s independent global profile. The crisis culminated in the deployment by the US of two carrier groups to the region and helped lead (entirely predictably for anyone with even a vague acquaintance with human nature) to a victory for Lee. Since then, Beijing has tended to take a less aggressive stance on such issues, lest it inadvertently cause the problem it is trying to avoid. But even given that, it is difficult to envisage how already strained relations between the two countries will somehow improve with the replacement of a notionally PRC-sympathetic leader in Taipei with one with a more sceptical approach. This fact is compounded by the recent wider attempts by Beijing to assert its presence in the region and the reality that it is militarily in a far better position to force its will upon Taiwan that it was two decades ago.

Nevertheless, the immediate threat to Taiwan should not be overstated. China is unlikely to commit itself to military action against Taiwan proper unless it were confident that it could force a successful outcome to such a conflict. Ultimately, this could only be guaranteed if Beijing could identify a viable path to deposing the Taipei government, and this would realistically entail having to invade and occupy the country. A resort to measures short of this – a blockade, an air and missile strike campaign, or even a grab for one or more of the outlying Taiwanese islands – would almost certainly fail to accomplish China’s political aims, whilst still inviting the same type of international condemnation, isolation and intervention as an all-out war of conquest.

Chief amongst China’s problems is that of US intervention in any conflict with Taiwan. During the latter stages of the Chinese Civil War, the US supported (albeit half-heartedly) the Nationalist faction against Mao’s Communists. When the latter succeeded in forcing the Nationalists to abandon the mainland and take refuge in Taiwan, a combination of recriminations in Washington over the ‘loss’ of China, and Mao’s intervention in the Korean War, led to the US providing a huge amount of aid and military support to the island and the signing of the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty. Although 1979 saw the US make a strategic decision to recognise the Communist government in Beijing as the legitimate rulers of China – an act which led to the termination of the mutual defence agreement – the passing by the US Congress of the Taiwan Relations Act in the same year ensured that the US was to remain a key ally to Taipei. Whilst the Act fails to reach the stature of a mutual defence pact, it does require the US to “…make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability”, and affirms that it is US policy to “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan”. Although these are not air-tight commitments to provide Taiwan with any weapons it wishes or to go to war on its behalf, the broad duties these pledges imply – together with the wider question of how the US could possibly maintain strategic credibility if it stood by and let the PLA steamroller the country into submission – means they do not lack significance. As a result, one of China’s principle goals in invading Taiwan would be to do it at a speed sufficient to head-off any countermeasures from US forces and to present a fait accompli to Washington.

The circumstances under which China would invade are at once both clear and opaque. The most obvious paths to war – a Taiwanese declaration of independence, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Taiwan or the stationing of foreign troops on Taiwanese soil – would require pro-active measures by the island’s government that it is unlikely to take except in retaliation for an attack. But China has also made provisions to allow it to take control of events should it wish: for example, an ‘Anti-Secession Law’ passed by Beijing in 2005 allows the Chinese government to use “non-peaceful means” to enforce reunification if “secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or …[in the event] that possibilities for a peaceful re-unification should be completely exhausted”. Such wording essentially allows China to take the military initiative at its own discretion.

However, whatever the diplomatic and legal niceties, an invasion of Taiwan by China would be a monumental undertaking. At the centre of China’s problem is the fact that amphibious warfare is hardreally, really hard. Firstly, it is pretty much a prerequisite to a successful operation that control of the air and sea surrounding the landing site is secure, and that the ground forces defending the beaches are weak. Impressive as D-Day was, those troops landing faced negligible opposition from a decimated German Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe, and most of the personnel defending the beaches were from the wreckage of a German Army that had already been largely burnt out on the Eastern Front. China would be unlikely to have time to sufficiently prepare the battlefield in a similar way if it wished to rush an invasion before outside intervention were possible.

Secondly, amphibious warfare is incredibly resource intensive. Even the much vaunted US Navy lacks the capacity to put the ground force elements of more than two Marine Expeditionary Brigades ashore at once. The British managed to land two light infantry brigades during the Falklands War, but this endeavour took two months and a great deal of civilian shipping, including the QE2, to execute. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the recent Chinese exercises around Taiwan was that they also apparently sought to test provisions to employ civilian transport ships to compensate for the PLAN’s shortfall in the type of vessels that would be required for a large-scale cross-water operation: in recent years, the Chinese military has put increasing emphasis on the role of such ships as ‘amphibious augmentation’ platforms in wartime. But the mobilisation of civilian vessels would be virtually impossible to keep a secret, destroying any prospect of a surprise attack. Paratroopers and other forms of air landing could compensate to some degree for a lack of sea lift, and it must be highlighted that the distance over which PLA personnel would have to be ferried – the Taiwan Strait is only 81 miles wide at its narrowest – represents far less of a challenge than the 8,000 mile transit the Falklands conflict necessitated. But even given these caveats, there would currently seem to be no plausible path for China to take Taiwan quickly enough to avoid having to face US intervention.

The ‘Taiwan Problem’, therefore, is not so much an imminent prospect of PLA troops splashing ashore along the Taiwanese coast. Contemporary military analysis supports this view. The most recent and detailed analysis of the PRC’s military capabilities by the US Department of Defence suggests that for all of its advancements “…China does not appear to be building the conventional amphibious lift required to support such a campaign”. From the Taiwanese perspective, it is the Ministry of National Defense’s view that it will likely be around 2020 before Beijing acquires the capability to invade outright. Nevertheless, the recent publication by China’s State Council Information Office of a white paper on Chinese military strategy makes prominent reference to the notion that “reunification is an inevitable trend in the course of national rejuvenation”. Therefore, even if the military capability is not yet in place, it would seem inevitable that – barring a huge shift in the Taiwanese or Chinese political landscape – it will have to be developed if China is to realise its goals.

From the Taiwanese side, a major military problem is that the qualitative advantage their armed forces have historically enjoyed over the PLA is rapidly eroding. From being in a position twenty years ago of having a navy and air force that could directly challenge those of China, Taiwan is now struggling to maintain any form of conventional edge. In part, this erosion can be blamed on US reluctance to supply some of its most modern equipment – most notably the ship-based AEGIS missile system and the latest model of F-16C/D aircraft. There have also been domestic Taiwanese political and demographic issues to contend with. But the wider truth is more basic. Fundamentally, any attempt to match China directly is a battle Taiwan can never win, principally as a result of the vastly greater resources available to the mainland. Indeed, Taiwan has only been able to stay ahead for as long as it has done due to the decades of self-induced convulsions the PRC put itself through following the Civil War. However, an inability to meet the problem head-on does not mean that all is necessarily lost.

Increasingly, Taiwan has realised that managing its ‘China problem’ means the adoption of a symmetric/asymmetric hybrid response to the threat it faces. The recent 2013 Quadrennial Defence Review outlines a strategy of “maintaining fundamental warfighting capabilities while focusing on the development of asymmetric capabilities”. The symmetrical component of this strategy is broadly a continuation of what has gone before: the procurement and deployment of equipment such as fighters, large surface ships and patrol aircraft in order to provide an ‘outer shell’ to prevent China from using coercion in peacetime or conflict-less-than-war (for example through the imposition of a partial blockade); and to provide heavyweight (if potentially short-lived) opposition to the PLA in war.

In contrast, the asymmetric element seeks to stage hit-and-run attacks from small but mobile platforms in the hope of preventing the PLA from overrunning Taiwan until either Chinese losses become prohibitive, or the US is able to come to the rescue. At sea, recent years have seen Taiwan invest in the fielding of Kuang Hua VI-class fast-attack craft and Tuo Chiang-class corvettes designed to give the Taiwanese Navy the ability to target major PLAN surface ships without the expense of building and risk of deploying a large fleet of conventional warships that would be vulnerable to PLAAF and PLAN assets. These smaller vessels are supported by truck-launched HF-3 supersonic anti-ship missiles that would operate from along the Taiwanese coast. Ambitions are also in place to acquire a new class of submarine, but these remained stalled for technical and political reasons. In the air, whilst the many conventional airfields in Taiwan are heavily exposed to the up to two thousand ballistic missiles China could use against the country, newly procured AH-64E Apache attack helicopters present the Taiwanese military with the ability to target landing Chinese troops without having to rely on aircraft that are dependent on easily cratered runways. Air-defence efforts are also increasingly focusing on mobile and easily concealed surface-to-air missile batteries as opposed to fighters, with US-sourced PAC-3 Patriot and domestically produced Sky Bow III missiles being deployed. Most controversially, Taiwan is also fielding air and ground-launched cruise missiles capable of striking targets in mainland China.

There are, of course, multiple issues deterring Beijing from forcing a solution to its conflict with Taiwan. Even a successful operation would reduce China to pariah nation status in much of the world, and commit the country to both a prolonged counter-insurgency campaign in Taiwan and the cost of post-war reconstruction. Failure would invite an even worse fate that could see China’s economic development set back many years, and would potentially provoke a level of anger amongst the Chinese population that could lead to the type of internal regime change that would see the members of the Politburo finishing their careers at the end of a rope. But the visceral way in which many in Beijing view the Taiwan issue could mean that this risk may eventually come to be seen as worthwhile.

Even putting aside the moral imperative, the US and its allies need Taiwan – both as a strongpoint in efforts to contain any broader attempt by China to dominate the region and as an example of an alternative political system to that in Beijing. As such, the Western states allied to Taipei should take a path with respect to Taiwan that ensures that all aspects of its defences are adequately provided for. This of course goes far beyond the military dimension: there is also a need for Taiwan to seek out paths that allow it to continue to develop its economy and society without being subsumed into China by default. The notion that China can simply ‘buy’ Taiwan through economic integration has taken a huge blow in recent months, but this does not mean that the country should (or could) exist in splendid isolation. One obvious path forward would be Taiwan’s inclusion in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, currently being negotiated between twelve countries including the US, Japan, Australia and Vietnam. This would not mean that Taiwan need pretend that the mainland did not exist, but it would at least allow for alternative economic options.

For Taiwan, its allies and most of the wider world, there are two possible desirable outcomes to the current impasse: peaceful reunification of some form between Taiwan and mainland China under a mutually acceptable political system, or consensual formal separation in the form of Taiwanese independence. Unfortunately, neither of these outcomes is viable with the current regime in Beijing. As a result, the key to solving the Taiwan problem is to identify a path that allows for the preservation of the status quo until such a time as the political situation in mainland China has evolved to the point where a settlement is possible.

About Rowan Allport

Dr Rowan Allport is a Deputy Director who leads the HSC's Security and Defence team. Rowan holds a PhD in Politics and a MA in Conflict, Governance and Development from the University of York, as well as a BA (Hons) in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Hull. Specialising in strategic analysis and international security, Rowan's primary areas of interest lie in the defence issues in and around the NATO region, interstate conflict and US foreign policy discourse. He is also the lead author of HSC's recent ‘Fire and Ice: A New Maritime Strategy for NATO’s Northern Flank’ report. Rowan's publication credits include articles and commentary in Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, The Hill, DefenseOne, RealClearDefense, The Strategist, UK Defence Journal, Politics.co.uk and The National Interest. He has previously worked as a lobbyist for the Whitehouse Consultancy in Westminster, and as a Senior Analyst for RAND Europe's Security, Defence and Infrastructure team.