Key point: China's military is better organized and armed than ever.
China has improved its capabilities to invade Taiwan, according to U.S. intelligence.
And while Taiwan is also boosting its military capacity, it’s not enough to compensate for growing Chinese strength, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) 2019 report to Congress on Chinese military power.
“The PLA continues to prepare for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait to deter, and if necessary, compel Taiwan to abandon moves toward independence,” DIA warned. “The PLA also is likely preparing for a contingency to unify Taiwan with the mainland by force, while simultaneously deterring, delaying, or denying any third-party intervention on Taiwan’s behalf.”
The Chinese army is reorganizing into more powerful and flexible combined arms brigades, as well as creating air assault brigades and expanded helicopter forces. The Chinese air force’s airborne troops have practiced long-range assaults and raids.
The Chinese navy’s marine corps has expanded from two to six brigades. And the Chinese fleet, which would be vital for a successful amphibious invasion, has boosted its abilities to blockade or strike Taiwan, and to battle any U.S. military intervention in support of Taipei.
Meanwhile, extensive organizational reforms of the Chinese military, or People’s Liberation Army (PLA), are enhancing China’s invasion capacity. The PLA’s military regions have abolished in favor of military theaters, which are joint commands that can integrate the air, land and sea forces needed for a successful invasion.
China has also added two new military commands: the Strategic Support Force (SSF), created in 2016 to centralize space, cyber, electronic warfare and psychological warfare operations, and the Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF), which streamlines logistical services.
“A significant addition to the overall structure of the PLA is the establishment of the SSF and the JLSF,” said U.S. analysts. “During a Taiwan contingency, the JLSF, in conjunction with subordinate joint logistics support centers, would coordinate joint logistics and the delivery of materiel as well as oversee various civil-military support systems to sustain the campaign. The creation of the SSF likely improves the PLA’s ability to execute and coordinate IO [information operations] (particularly cyber, electronic warfare, and counterspace) in a Taiwan contingency.”
DIA notes that China would prefer to achieve its objectives—reunification or at least preventing Taiwan from declaring independence—without resorting to force. Beijing has numerous options, from blockading Taiwan, to air and missiles strikes, to seizing offshore islands and ultimately a full-scale invasion of Taiwan itself. While the last option would be difficult and costly, “the PLA is capable of accomplishing various amphibious operations short of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. With few overt military preparations beyond routine training, China could launch an invasion of small Taiwan-held islands in the South China Sea such as Pratas or Itu Aba. A PLA invasion of a medium-sized, better-defended island such as Matsu or Jinmen is within China’s capabilities.”
DIA does suggest that the prerequisites for a full-scale invasion of Taiwan are not yet in place. The new Chinese marine brigades will need time to train and equip. Nor is China building the amphibious ships needed for a major invasion. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has been buying a small number of big amphibious transports, “indicating a near term focus on smaller scale expeditionary missions rather than a large number of LSTs [tank landing craft] and medium landing craft that would be necessary for a large-scale direct beach assault. There is also no indication China is significantly expanding its landing ship force at this time—suggesting a direct beach-assault operation requiring extensive lift is less likely in planning.”
Still, the situation does not appear promising for Taiwan, whose 2018 defense budget was 14.5 times less than China’s. “Taiwan has historically enjoyed military advantages in the context of a cross-Strait conflict, such as technological superiority and the inherent geographic advantages of island defense, but China’s multi-decade military modernization effort has eroded or negated many of these advantages,” said DIA. “Although Taiwan is taking important steps to compensate for the growing disparities—building its war reserve stocks, growing its defense-industrial base, improving joint operations and crisis response capabilities, and strengthening its officer and noncommissioned officer corps—these improvements only partially address Taiwan’s declining defensive advantages.”