A consensus seems to have developed among a large number of defense analysts in recent years arguing that despite the balance of power having shifted in China’s favor, Beijing has no intention to use its military to invade Taiwan and thus resolve the Taiwan “question” once and for all. Doing so would be too costly, some argue, while others contend that Beijing can accomplish unification by creating enough economic dependence and incentives to convince Taiwanese over time of the “inevitability” of a “reunited” China.
Although these factors certainly militate against the desire to go to war over the island-nation, we cannot altogether discount the probability that the Chinese military would be called into action, especially if the rationale for launching an attack were framed in terms of a defensive war—China being “forced” to take action because of changing and “untenable” circumstances in its environment.
Therefore, despite the relatively low probability of war in the Taiwan Strait in the immediate future, Taipei cannot afford to be complacent and must actively pursue an effective defense strategy.
The first component of such a strategy is for Taipei to clearly define what the mission is, and just as importantly, what “victory” would look like. Given the quantitative and qualitative differences that exist between the two militaries, it is clear by now that victory for Taiwan can no longer be defined in maximalist terms: the total destruction of enemy forces.
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Moreover, Taiwan does not have the means, nor does the intent, to take the fight to China to annihilate People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces stationed on Chinese territory. Therefore, with a few—and important—exceptions that will be discussed below, the military area of operations in a war scenario would be the Taiwan Strait, and in a full invasion, the Taiwan side of the median line that divides the Strait.
Of course there are many different scenarios in which the PLA could be activated to pressure Taiwan, not all of them involving an all-out assault to invade the island. The PLA Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF), for example, can be used to blockade Taiwan, while the Second Artillery Corps could be called upon to launch decapitation missile attacks against the Taiwanese leadership and other key targets across Taiwan, such as radar sites, airstrips, naval bases, and its C4ISR architecture.
In all those scenarios, Taiwan would be forced to adopt a purely defensive posture. The hardening and dispersal of targets, as well as improved air defense capabilities, are part of that strategy and what the Taiwanese military has prepared for over the years. The key in such “limited” scenarios will be to lower the chances that China would achieve its objectives.
Under current conditions, Taiwan arguably has sufficient resources and the right strategies in place to address those limited contingencies. If true, this would mean that those options are off the table for China, therefore forcing it to either abandon the idea that force can be used to coerce Taipei, or to escalate. The logic behind ensuring that Fortress Taiwan has the wherewithal to defend itself against limited attacks is that the more Beijing has to escalate, the greater the dilemma it faces as pressures—domestic and international—against such use of force, and therefore the potential costs of unleashing it, would be much more severe.
Still, there are contexts in which the dynamics that militate against full invasion would lose momentum. Chinese military literature is replete with references to defensive war and variations on that theme. Such language would be critical if it became necessary for the Beijing leadership to rationalize a decision to use total force to achieve its objectives. In such scenarios, China would position itself not as the aggressor, but rather as the victim, “forced” by external circumstances to go on the offensive, however begrudgingly, to protect its “vital” or “core” interests.
In other words, a change in context would leave the leadership with only two choices: capitulation or battle to defend the integrity of the Chinese territory. A declaration of de jure independence by Taiwan would certainly prompt such a response, with laws—the Anti-Secession Law —“forcing” Beijing to respond. China could also feel “compelled” to act if it deemed that political instability on the island were such that it threatened the safety of “Chinese compatriots”—in other words, Beijing could use its own “Crimea model” to justify massive use of force (humanitarian in this case) to occupy Taiwan.
It would therefore be incautious to rule out any possibility that China would use maximum force (short of the nuclear option) to attack Taiwan, to believe that rational calculations of costs versus benefits will prevail under any and all circumstances. Even if the probability is remote, it still exists. And given the trends within Taiwanese society which make unification with China less and less appealing, it is not entirely infeasible that a decade from now the Chinese leadership could decide it has to take military action—again for purely “defensive” purposes—lest “splittists” (of course aided by the CIA and other agencies bent on subjugating China) threaten to tear apart “one China” and inspire other groups within its territory to move in a similar direction.