Taiwan is no walk-over and China knows it very well


Despite the great advantage of military numbers and modern equipment, the PLA would still struggle to take the island

US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s courageous visit to Taiwan has been applauded by the free world. The visit went through amongst frightening threats from China, what Beijing termed as an “extremely dangerous” move. The fact that the Speaker’s aircraft had to be escorted by fighter aircraft and had to make tactical routing to reach Taipei indicates the level of coercion and concerns. Of late, China had started claiming Taiwan Strait as an internal waterway. To deter and intimidate, China had put its armed forces on alert. It simultaneously declared major live firing exercises at different points in the East China Sea surrounding Taiwan. With the West occupied in Ukraine, for some time, the strategic circles around the world have been debating “will China invade Taiwan for reunification”.

Any invasion would mean crossing the Taiwan Strait which is 128 km wide at the narrowest point. The invasion would involve a major amphibious task force, landing and transporting of soldiers, armoured vehicles, artillery, ammunition, fuel, food, and medical supplies. Before all this can be done, China would have to run an air and surface campaign to suppress enemy air defences (SEAD). The Island would have to be pulverised through a missile attack. After securing some parts of the island, airlifts would follow. The invasion would require a significant amount of preparation and training. The most important activity for Taiwan would have to be air defence against such an invasion.

China has unilaterally declared an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) that overlaps with the internationally accepted ADIZ of Taiwan and Japan. Twenty-seven Chinese military jets, including six J-11 fighters, five J-16 and 16 SU-30 multirole fighters entered the Taiwanese ADIZ immediately after Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taipei on 3 August. Earlier, China had sent 30 planes into Taiwan ADIZ on 31 May, the biggest since January, when Beijing sent 39 aircraft.

Notwithstanding the fact that China claims Taiwan as its territory under its ‘One China’ claim, Taiwan does exercise airspace sovereignty over its territory. For its defence, Taiwan requires early warning using ground/ship-based and airborne sensors. Taiwan has some of the highest elevations in the Indo-Pacific region, with more than 200 peaks topping 3,000m, and the highest “Yushan” being 3,952m. Taiwanese radars can see hundreds of miles into Chinese territory. Taiwan also has the US PAVE PAWS radar since 2013 that can detect PLA ballistic missile launches thousands of kilometres away. The Taiwanese air force has over 400 fighter aircraft, of which nearly half are 4th generation plus upgraded F-16s and French Mirage 2000 fighter jets.

The US Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) states that “the United States shall provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character and shall maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardise the security, or social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan”. The US military has a sizeable presence in the region, including two aircraft carrier groups, and provides air defence alerts to its allies, including Taiwan. The US, Japan and South Korea, all operate their AEW&C aircraft in the region. On an average 100 US officials, including military personnel, visit Taiwan each week. How much physical support the US will give to Taiwan in case of attack by China will have to be seen.

China’s aggressive air and maritime forays into Taiwanese territory over the years have been creating conditions and preparing grounds for a smooth transition from peace to war. It will make it difficult to assess the intentions and timing of actual assault, thus keeping Taiwan under fear of uncertainty. It is also being feared that China could indulge in air and/or maritime blockade. Currently all Chinese actions can be termed as below the threshold coercion. Maritime blockade could physically cut off Taiwan from the world. An air blockade could mean establishing air supremacy and no-fly zone over Taiwan. It would require a multi-domain attack through electro-magnetic spectrum control and cyberspace to cripple Taiwan’s command and control system. With heavy US presence in the region, the same may not be easy or without serious incident.

Taiwan’s main military strength is in its air defences. The fighter aircraft are well protected in hardened shelters and mountain caves. They have the most modern networked American AD weapons. Any pre-emptive surface missile attack would tantamount to full-scale conflict and would face military response. Defence of military and civil networks from cyber-attacks will be critical. Taiwan already faces and successfully defends many Chinese cyber-attacks daily. Taiwan has a small but credible cyber force managed by the newly created Cyber Security Agency. China’s military still has limitations in range and reach to take-on a possible US and Japanese intervention. So currently they would continue to follow Sun Tzu’s dictum, subdue the enemy without fighting.

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Though the West, including the US, has committed to the “One China” policy, there are more voices in America’s security establishment that call for defending Taiwan for America’s economic interests, democracy and international standing. G7 Foreign Ministers’ statement seeks to preserve peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwanese MoD has stated its resolve to uphold sovereignty and liberty. We are not eager for a fight, nor will we shy away from one.

Till date, China has insisted and prevented foreign military bases in Taiwan and the deployment of nuclear weapons. The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) could be a major threat to Taiwan. The PLARF operates both nuclear and conventional ballistic and cruise missiles. China has qualitatively and quantitatively upgraded its conventional and nuclear forces. China also has anti-shipping missiles. Numbers are significant and going up. Hypersonic weapons have been tested and are being operationalised.

China today has the world’s largest naval fleet by numbers, albeit they are much behind the US in tonnage. The assault and transport ships capacities are going up. The fusion of civil and military assets will bring in inter-island ferries as troop transports. They have also erected a mock-up of a US aircraft carrier at a field firing range for practice attacks.

Airpower would be very important for the invasion. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has inducted the indigenous J-20 stealth fighters. Satellites and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are engaged in sea surveillance and reconnaissance and also act as communication relays. The PLAAF has many air bases closer to Taiwan giving it significant strike capability. Achieving air superiority will be important for both the maritime blockade and any amphibious invasion. China would carry out simultaneous cyber and electromagnetic attacks on Taiwanese sensors and command and control networks. PLAAF and PLA Naval Aviation can field over 2,000 aircraft. Both the Chinese aircraft carriers are currently deployed in the sea. Meanwhile, the PLA is working to enlarge amphibious capability from 20,000 to 100,000 troops. All this complicates the defence of Taiwan.

Conscious of Chinese incursions, Taiwan regularly exercises its early warning system. Taiwan also closely monitors and tries to enforce control in its ADIZ. The western boundary of the ADIZ is the centre line of the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan is also a beneficiary of the US Space Command shared Early Warning. The US must support Taiwanese war-planning and build tacit linkages with US Indo-Pacific forces. Taiwanese people must know that they are not alone. They must have the capability and military strength to absorb the initial missile barrage.

Unlike Japan and South Korea, there are no US military personnel stationed in Taiwan. But, the Taiwan Relations Act makes it incumbent on the United States to maintain the military capacity to defend the island. Some are suggesting that the US must have a Taiwan Defence Command headquartered elsewhere, but with some forward elements in Taiwan. Also, of late, the US Congress has been pushing for more support to Taiwan’s defence preparedness. The newly introduced Taiwan Deterrence Act and Arm Taiwan Act would authorise $2 billion and $3 billion a year respectively in foreign military aid to procure defensive systems. Taiwan is also increasing indigenous defence production.

As China continues to intrude into the Japanese and Taiwan ADIZ, Japan has also beefed up its military presence and is coordinating with Taiwan. It is trying to fortify its southernmost islands. Japan pledges to defend Taiwan if China attacks. Japanese military planners have been factoring that any military action against Taiwan would draw in Japan because if Taiwan goes, some Japanese islands will be the next targets. Japan has significant armed forces and their defence budgets are going up and so are investments in more offensive weapons.

Any invasion of this scale will require a lot of training and pre-invasion rehearsals. Some are suggesting that nearly 400,000 troops may have to be transported. A huge sea fleet would have to be assembled. This cannot go unnoticed. Such a fleet would be vulnerable to artillery fire, air strikes and submarines. Also during both embarkation, and disembarkation. China would have to seize Taiwanese airfields to land forces. Before that, the air defences would need to be suppressed. A highly urbanised country will pose operational hurdles. If China decides to take over some of the many smaller islands before the actual assault it will expose its plans and will invoke global wrath. In any case, some of the larger islands have strong defences. Taiwan would have to defend ports and air bases. Taiwan has good runway repair capability and can recover one in less than three hours. Taiwanese command and control centres are also underground and well protected with backup centres. The military carries out regular training exercises, including take-offs and landings from highways.

The US has significant assets nearby on the Japanese island of Okinawa, and in other parts of the region, including the Korean peninsula. The US Air Force fighters are less than an hour away. The US Seventh Fleet is based in Japan. The US already has two aircraft carrier groups in the region. Two additional carriers could move closer if a conflict is imminent. There are also many cruise missile-carrying ships.

Ukraine has shown that any invading force would still have huge challenges to overcome. China’s security establishment has been watching this closely. Taiwan will not be a walk-over. Despite the great advantage of military numbers and modern equipment, the PLA would still struggle to take the island. Yet, fast modernising and growing PLA must not be taken lightly. Standalone military asymmetry between the two sides is huge.

Clearly, Xi Jinping and China’s military have Taiwan’s reunification as priority number one. China poses an existential threat to Taiwan. A full-scale invasion is very much a possibility. Timing is an issue. The PLA’s show of force will continue till then. Aerospace and maritime power will be the main coercive instruments. The world must support Taiwan in building credible deterrence so that China knows that there is no “winning without a costly fight”.

The writer is Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies. Views expressed are personal.

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