War in the Taiwan Strait: Would China Invade Taiwan?

Carrier-killer missiles, anti-ship weapons, amphibious assaults. Asia's greatest fear—and the possibility of a great power war over Taiwan's future—is all still very possible.

Beyond doubt, relations across the Taiwan Strait have improved substantially since 2008—so much so that some analysts have concluded that the course of the Taiwan “issue” will continue unimpeded and inexorably towards even greater stability, if not “reunification.” But this is all wishful thinking.

Rapprochement has probably gone as far as it can, and whatever comes next will likely be hounded by complications, slow progress and growing opposition in Taiwan. Unable or unwilling to make any proposal for unification that has any chance of appealing to democratic Taiwan’s 23 million people, wrong footed by the rise of Taiwan’s combative civil society, and haunted by recent developments in Hong Kong, where “one country, two systems” is all but dead, China will have two options: give up on Taiwan, or use force to complete the job. Under the decisive President Xi Jinping, in the context of rising ultranationalism across China, and given the cost of “losing” Taiwan to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) credibility (at least according to Beijing’s rhetoric), it is difficult to imagine that Beijing would choose the former option. Use of force, therefore, would be the likely response, and hubristic China might well be tempted to try its luck.

The widening power imbalance in the Taiwan Strait, added to (mistaken) perceptions that Taiwanese have no will to fight, has led some Chinese officials and many members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to conclude that the military option, which Beijing never abandoned even as relations improved, is not only a viable one, but one that could quickly resolve the issue. Granted, the ratio of annual defense expenditures reached about 12:1 in China’s favor this year (and that is only using China’s declared budget).

Moreover, while the United States, Taiwan’s principal security partner, has been reluctant to provide offensive military technology to Taiwan (the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 emphasizes the defensive nature of arms transfers to the island) and has abided by multilateral bodies, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), to regulate arms sales to Taipei, Beijing has relied on Russia to procure some of the most modern weapons in service, from air defense systems to advanced fighter-aircraft. When Moscow hesitated or dragged its feet in delivering the systems sought by Beijing, the PLA simply turned to Ukraine to obtain what it needed. As a result, the PLA today is a much more formidable opponent than it was just a decade ago, when facing a much less amenable partner in Taipei, the use of force must have been a more inviting, if not likely, alternative.

Despite the imbalance, invading Taiwan would not be a walk in the park. Relative weakness notwithstanding, the Taiwanese military fields a relatively modern force—F-16s, AH-64E attack helicopters, Kidd-class destroyers and so on—that could inflict a fair degree of damage to invading PLA forces. Furthermore, the fielding of offensive-defense platforms, such as the Hsiung Feng IIE land-attack cruise missile (LACM), the Hsiung Feng III supersonic antiship cruise missile and the Wan Chien—an air-to-ground, standoff, cruise missile-type missile mounted on aircraft that can be used to disable airbases and radar sites in China—would increase the potential cost of Chinese military adventurism in the Taiwan Strait.

Besides technology, Taiwan’s geography also poses a challenge to invading PLA forces. As Richard Bush and Michael O’Hanlon argue in their book A War Like No Other, the soil composition and inclination of Taiwan’s west coast facing China, where the Taiwanese military deploys most of its antiarmor capabilities, is even less conducive to a successful amphibious assault than were the beaches of Normandy, where Allied forces changed the course of World War II, at the cost of an estimated 10,000 casualties, including 2,500 dead.

Regardless of the impressive advances made by the PLA in recent years, the fact remains that no occupation of Taiwan will ever be possible without a major amphibious assault and putting enough boots on the ground. Anything short of that would fail to ensure Beijing’s control of Taiwan, and falls in the category of “limited strikes” for coercive or punitive purposes—not invasion. If the 1995-96 Taiwan Missile Crisis is any indication, coercive displays would accomplish very little besides encouraging Taiwanese to rally around the flag and thus undermine China’s efforts to annex Taiwan. Moreover, though damaging, Taiwan is resilient enough that it would weather such operations.