The Buzz

How China Would Invade Taiwan (And How to Stop It)

As Lauren Dickey of Kings College London points out, Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense (MND) is constantly honing its ability to repulse Chinese invasion. Every year, MND conducts intensive national and local-level military exercises, testing and sharpening plans to defend the island in the event of enemy landings.

It is estimated that Taiwan will have approximately four weeks advanced warning of a Chinese invasion. Given China's skill in the dark arts of strategic deception, this cannot be taken for granted. Yet the vast scale of the PLA's envisioned amphibious operations necessarily means its offensive intentions would be foreshadowed.

Warning signs would include troop movements, reserve mobilization, industrial stockpiling, military drills, media signaling, diplomatic messaging, and sabotage against Taiwan. The most obvious and worrisome sign would be the gathering of massive fleets of civilian and naval vessels at known amphibious staging areas in southeast China.      

As all this was playing out, Taiwan's president, her cabinet advisors, and parliamentary leaders would debate their response options. They would weigh intelligence pouring in from radars, satellites, listening posts, and agents in China. Their most obvious option would be to increase readiness levels and mobilize the island to gun-down an enemy attack.

It would not take long to mine the maritime lines of approach across the Taiwan Strait, nor to fortify invasion beaches, ports, and airstrips. It would take only slightly longer to man all inland key points like bridges and power stations, and to evacuate non-essential personnel from potential battle zones. But accomplishing this would require a colossal workforce in the form of mobilized army reservists and contractors. For this reason, Taiwan maintains the ability to mobilize up to two and a half million men and nearly one million civil defense workers in just a few days time.

Tests of the emergency mobilization system are carried out on a yearly basis at sites across Taiwan, Penghu, and the outer islands (Kimen and Matsu). Their results are impressive. They indicate that citizen-soldiers will muster at marshalling posts in extraordinary numbers and at rapid speeds.

Taiwan’s all-out defense mobilization plan entails more than just bringing latent military capabilities into action. The Cabinet Office (Executive Yuan) and its subordinate ministries such as the Ministry of Transportation, Ministry of the Interior, and Ministry of Economic Affairs (among others) all play a role in the integration of civil defense units for homeland defense.

The Way Forward:  

Taiwan's government and military (like the rest of Taiwanese society) are far tougher than they get credit for. But they can only do so much by themselves. The Pentagon has a critical role to play in assisting Taiwan maximize its war fighting capabilities. With America's help, Taiwan can make sure its defense investments factor into Beijing's calculations and, hopefully, prevent a future invasion from occurring in the first place.

The RAND report suggests the establishment of a joint working group, led on the U.S. side by an assistant secretary of defense. Indeed, Taiwanese forces would benefit from new types of professional military education and technical training in the United States. American mentors could support Taiwan’s continued transit to a potent all-volunteer force and help create a more strategically focused reserve force.         

Taiwanese troops also need regular and dependable arms sales, something that unfortunately was denied them by the Bush and Obama administrations. For Taiwan, the positive operational and tactical effects of American weapons systems are indisputable. The Trump administration should offer Taiwan the same capabilities it is offering Japan and South Korea, including new stealth fighter jets, missile defense batteries, and destroyers.

In addition, American companies should be unchained by Washington, allowing them to compete for access to Taiwan's Indigenous Defense Submarine program. Even more important than firepower would be the huge morale boosting effects such material support would have on recruitment and retention on the island―and the powerful signal of purpose and resolve it would send to China.           

Taiwan's military has developed a solid defense plan and is cultivating a force of professional warriors. But the grave invasion threat facing the island is growing over time. Keeping pace with China's offensive power will be extremely difficult unless big changes are made to the way America does business in Asia.

Going forward, the Trump White House would do well to develop a new strategy for advancing U.S.-Taiwan relations. Making sure Taiwan has the strong self-defense capabilities it needs will help keep the globe's greatest powder keg from ever igniting. Ignoring the China problem would only make it worse.   

Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 (where this first appeared) Institute and author of the forthcoming book, The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia.

Image Credit: Creative Commons.