The NBC television website recently published a report titled “China’s Invasion of Taiwan Becomes More Likely Every Day. What the U.S. Should Do”. At the same time, many international observers believe that the situation in the Taiwan Strait is at its most tense in decades as China’s Communist authorities intensify their internal crackdown and external provocations. How much of Beijing’s increasing threat of force against Taiwan is for show, how much is for real, and what are the chances of success if it is real, are questions that are now the focus of attention of many observers and analysts.
On July 1, at a conference held in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee and China’s president, delivered a speech in which he declared that “resolving the Taiwan issue and achieving the complete reunification of the motherland is a historical task to which the CPC is committed and which is the common aspiration of all Chinese sons and daughters.” He added: “The Chinese people will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress or enslave us, and anyone who tries to do so will be bruised in front of the great wall of steel built with flesh and blood by more than 1.4 billion Chinese people!”
Previously, Chinese military aircraft have frequently flown over the center line of the Taiwan Strait in the past year, and even intruded into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone 28 times in one day in mid-June, setting a record for a Communist Party military aircraft violation of Taiwan.
On July 1, the Financial Times reported that Japan and the United States had begun military exercises in response to a clash between China and Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait.
Japanese Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso later stated publicly that “it is not unusual to consider Taiwan as an existential threat [to Japan] if a major incident were to occur;” “In such a case, Japan and the United States must work together to defend Taiwan.” He warned that if China invades Taiwan, Okinawa could be the next target of an invasion.
Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the National Security Council, said July 6 that the U.S. supports a robust U.S.-Taiwan unofficial relationship, but not Taiwan’s independence. He said maintaining peace and stability on Taiwan is a “dangerous” balance.
Campbell said China should recognize the U.S. and international response to the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, “We do believe that Taiwan is entitled to a peaceful life, and we have worked hard to send a clear message of deterrence across the Taiwan Strait; an offensive action by Beijing against Taiwan would be ‘catastrophic. “
What are Beijing’s chances of winning an attack on Taiwan? Two schools of thought
Just how dangerous is the situation in the Taiwan Strait to the countries involved, including the United States? How much deterrence does the United States have against the Chinese Communist regime’s intention to attack Taiwan? What are Beijing’s chances of winning an attack on Taiwan? These questions are currently the subject of serious discussion among observers and analysts in many countries.
The debate can be roughly divided into two schools of thought. According to one school of thought, after decades of economic development and arms expansion, China’s national and military strength has been greatly enhanced, and the days when the United States sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Strait in the mid-1990s to deter Beijing from threatening Taiwan with force are over. But the United States is not willing to do so. The view that China’s military development has become overwhelming enough to make the United States wary of defending or assisting in the defense of Taiwan is shared by many in the Chinese and American civil, press, government, and military communities.
In the United States, analysts who hold this view believe that the reason Xi has not yet decided to make an immediate move against Taiwan is that China’s joint warfighting capabilities across the military services have yet to be developed and improved. In addition, he is now uncertain whether the senior military generals he has promoted since coming to power are merely skilled at taking political sides rather than commanding troops, and whether China’s military, known for years for its corruption, will be able to follow command in the event of a war, rather than appearing to be highly capable and formidable in its internal suppression of the population, as former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s elite forces were, but actually going into battle, they would collapse at the first touch or even without touching. The actual battle was a quick or even unproductive one.
In the debate over Beijing’s chances of winning an attack on Taiwan, another school of thought is that although the PLA’s military strength has increased dramatically from what it was in the mid-1990s, the Chinese military is simply not as strong and as sure as many in the U.S. political and military establishment fear when it comes to attacking and occupying Taiwan, as the official Chinese media have been touting.
There are a number of analysts who hold this view. These analysts include Michael Beckley, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University.
Beckley, who has studied the issue of China’s national and military power and the comparison of China’s national and military power with that of the United States for many years, believes that even if the U.S. military’s absolute advantage over the Chinese military has been significantly reduced from the 1990s, even if China has home-field advantage in the event of a war in the Taiwan Strait, and even if the Chinese military is a genuine, well-functioning, modern military, the Chinese military will face many unavoidable difficulties in attacking and taking Taiwan The U.S. can prevent Beijing from achieving its goals in a variety of inexpensive ways and make it pay an unpredictable and unaffordable price for attacking Taiwan.
In a recent interview with the Voice of America, Beckley explained in detail why Beijing frequently threatens force against Taiwan and the specific obstacles Beijing faces in attacking Taiwan. Such obstacles include the fact that Taiwan is a naturally vulnerable fortress, that the Taiwan Strait is wide and often windy, that Taiwan is capable and prepared to defend itself, that an attack on Taiwan would provoke an unpredictable international response, and that the United States and other countries could take countermeasures against China to make a military attack from China unsustainable.
At the same time, Beckley was outspoken about the issues that the United States and Taiwan must address and deal with in the face of Beijing’s continuing and increasing threats, including the political will of the Taiwanese people to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty and freedom as the object of Beijing’s threats. He said the political will of the United States to defend or assist in the defense of Taiwan depends in large part on the will demonstrated by the Taiwanese, “because the United States is certainly not going to fight for an ally that is not prepared to fight to the last man for its own sovereignty.”
In this regard, the Taipei government is clearly aware of the importance of this issue. Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Wu Chiu-sup declared Taiwan’s determination to defend itself to the international community and Taiwan’s allies at a press conference in Taipei in early April this year. We are willing to defend ourselves, there is no doubt about that,” he said. If we need to fight a war, we will fight a war; if we need to defend ourselves until the last day, we will defend ourselves until the last day.”
The following is a transcript of a question and answer interview with Professor Beckley with Voice of America. Beckley is expressing his personal views.
Why Beijing is stepping up the threat of force against Taiwan
Jin Zhe asks: Since you last wrote about Chinese military aircraft invading Taiwan’s airspace, there have been larger and more frequent invasions by Chinese military aircraft. In your opinion, what’s going on here? Or more specifically, do you think Beijing is making a fool of itself, is getting crazier, or is testing the waters in the Taiwan Strait in preparation for a seriously planned invasion and takeover of Taiwan, or is it something else?
Beckley A: I don’t think Beijing has decided that now is a good time to launch an invasion, but the reason Beijing is indeed considering military options is that it has lost all hope of peaceful reunification with Taiwan. The authorities in Beijing are seeing public opinion polls in Taiwan that show an increase in Taiwanese self-identification and an increase in Taiwan’s diplomatic and military ties with the United States.
Moreover, the Beijing authorities also see in a broader context the encirclement that is forming around China by many different countries. Many of the countries bordering China are at odds with China. With China’s economic growth slowing down after the new crown epidemic pandemic, there’s a lot of pressure on various fronts, so I think Beijing then feels there’s a window to take a formative action (to seize the moment) against Taiwan.
The U.S. and Taiwan are still relatively unprepared for an attack, and they are still relying on large, exposed military bases and a small number of advanced military platforms, such as aircraft carriers and large warships. Beijing may think that a pre-emptive strike is possible because China now holds such a military advantage. If in another decade, by 2030, Taiwan and the United States implement ambitious plans to overhaul and overhaul their military capabilities and become more powerful, it will be difficult for China to launch an invasion then.
By that time the United States and Taiwan will have deployed more missiles, more drones, more mines, and mines. If the Chinese military were to invade Taiwan, as Xi Jinping says they are, because he says that unification of Taiwan cannot be pushed to the next generation, perhaps the time to invade Taiwan is in the next few years. If you believe the polls in the Chinese state-run media, most Chinese agree with this because it is an important issue and they don’t want to continue to wait indefinitely.
Meanwhile, China has cracked down on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, which is an ominous sign. This shows that China is no longer afraid of alarming the people of Taiwan and pushing them into the arms of those who advocate Taiwan’s independence. Before that, China thought that taking Hong Kong lightly would be good for Taiwan; now China apparently doesn’t care about that.
All in all, there are some unsettling signs right now. But I don’t think Beijing has settled on attacking Taiwan. The provocations Beijing is now making in the Taiwan Strait are 1. to send a signal to show that they really want to attack Taiwan, and 2. to make Taiwan and the U.S. less sensitive to a large number of Chinese warships crossing the center line of the Taiwan Strait. This way Beijing can use it to gain a tactical advantage that can be used to launch a surprise attack.
I think they would start the future invasion by pretending to conduct military exercises and then suddenly turn into a forcible attack on Taiwan landing operations. The regular cruising of Chinese ships in the Taiwan Strait would give the Chinese military some extra time to conduct a surprise attack on Taiwan across the Strait, catching Taiwan and the United States off guard.
The reason why an attack on Taiwan would almost certainly fail
Q: Frankly, how confident do you really feel that the U.S. military is capable of preventing the Chinese military from attacking and capturing Taiwan, even though a significant number of military analysts, including some in the United States, now believe that there is nothing more the United States can do?
A: I don’t think the U.S. military can stop the Chinese military from attacking Taiwan. China has so many missiles aimed at Taiwan, so much military equipment aimed at Taiwan. But I still think that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would almost certainly fail because such a military operation would be very difficult.
The island of Taiwan itself is a natural fortress. The eastern coast of Taiwan is a muddy shoal, and there are few places in the west that could be used for military landings, and Taiwan has fortified those few beaches where landings are possible. The Taiwan Strait itself is dangerous, with big waves and bad weather conditions for much of the year.
Invading and landing on Taiwan would be the most difficult and complex military operation in history. It would be unlike landing on the European mainland on the day of the Great Allied Counterattack during World War II to move an oversized military force across such a wide stretch of ocean. The German armies the Allies faced then had only light weapons, whereas Taiwan had precision-guided bombs that could have decimated the Chinese invasion military forces.
Therefore, I don’t think China has much chance of winning. But that doesn’t mean they won’t make such an attempt, especially if Beijing becomes more desperate in the future. And as far as I can tell, Xi Jinping is surrounded by wishy-washy people who tell him, nice, our military can do this. So I think they may not succeed, but they will try.
What the U.S. can do to block China from capturing Taiwan
Q: In an article published in the June 10 issue of Foreign Policy magazine, you said, “Many military experts believe that the problem facing U.S. leaders should be a simple choice. They can quickly change the military balance in East Asia by deploying large numbers of low-cost shooters and sensors there (to deter or discourage China from making rash moves there).” What do you mean by shooters and sensors? Under what circumstances do you think those devices are going to be put into service?
A: I think you can deploy an anti-ship cruise missile on anything that can float on water and can fly in the air. That’s a low-cost shooter. It’s also possible to deploy a receptor on anything that can float on water and can fly in the air.
Some experts on military issues say that instead of spending a lot of money on building big warships that take a decade or so to build, why not deploy missile launchers on tugboats, or deploy cheap drones, those drones are actually high tech bombs that can float around Taiwan. Or, there could be inexpensive long-endurance drones flying around Taiwan as permanent feelers. Then, launch some cheap satellites so that there are multiple networks of firepower and receptors and China has no chance of wiping out our defenses in one fell swoop, just as Japan did when it attacked Pearl Harbor.
In short, the idea is to turn the area around Taiwan into a high-tech minefield. Having a large number of cruise missiles deployed on something that can float just requires creativity. Deploying such a missile launcher would not be difficult and would be relatively inexpensive. There are new drones on the market now that can also be used as cheap missile launchers. In short it’s all about turning the Taiwan Strait into a high tech no man’s land, much like the Western Front during World War I. While you wouldn’t necessarily have complete control of the Taiwan Strait as you did 20 years ago, you could at least prevent China from transporting large numbers of troops across the Taiwan Strait, causing them great damage in the process.
Q: In that article in Foreign Policy magazine, you also said, “While China has the home-field advantage in a war in East Asia, it also faces a number of serious tasks. Imagine a conflict over Taiwan. China needs to seize and control that territory in order to win, while the United States simply needs to deny China that control, a task that is relatively much easier.” Can you elaborate on that?
A: In order to conquer Taiwan, China would have to accomplish a number of things. First, China would need to launch a surprise attack to eliminate much of Taiwan’s offensive capability. Taiwan has thousands of missiles that could be used against an invading army. Then, China would need to transport thousands of troops across the Taiwan Strait and land them in Taiwan. And, incidentally, transport their weapons and equipment and everything else they would need.
Such a military operation would be the most complex ever, and would require a lot of time to organize and mobilize troops to cross the Taiwan Strait. And in the process of crossing the Taiwan Strait, they could easily be damaged. Even if they managed to land on Taiwan’s beaches, they would need to overwhelm the huge forces defending Taiwan on their home turf. And, they would also have to deal with the rebel forces in the mountains in the dense forests. There’s no telling how long that would take.
Meanwhile, under the leadership of the only superpower, the United States, the international community would at least impose sanctions on China sufficient to cripple it, or an embargo on oil and other materials. Even without a direct attack on China’s military, this would be a likely scenario. That said, the United States or Taiwan do not need to conquer anything, they just need to block China’s ability to do the things mentioned above.
They can do this by a range of interdiction means. For example, through cyber power, and of course military strikes against Chinese ships and aircraft. Overall, it is much easier to deny a military the space to operate than it is to actually take control of a territory and consolidate that control. The United States has experience in this area over the past two decades and knows how difficult it is to take and occupy a country. And taking and occupying Taiwan would be even tougher for China.
U.S. strengths and problems in dealing with the Taiwan situation
Q: You seem to present a promising strategy for the U.S. military to deal with China’s offensive posture. I think a number of other strategic planners and analysts have proposed similar strategies. How well have your ideas, arguments, or recommendations been received by the U.S. government or the military?
A: There are many experts who study defense who now endorse this strategy and advocate a (thorny) porcupine strategy for Taiwan that would make it difficult for China to annex. I am just one of them. The U.S. just needs to spread its military bases around East Asia so that China can’t wipe out U.S. military forces there in one fell swoop.
Right now the U.S. just has two bases in Okinawa within 500 miles of Taiwan. This is the equivalent of putting all your eggs in one basket. The U.S. needs to spread out its military forces, to deploy more shooters and feelers in a readiness posture, ready to attack the invading force. This is not an amazing strategy but a very simple one. In such a scenario, if the Chinese military were to cross the Taiwan Strait, we could credibly damage it in a significant way.
A lot of strategic planners agree with this strategy. People have been talking about this strategy for a decade or so. But getting that strategy implemented is a different matter. The United States is deploying all kinds of military forces around the world, doing a lot of things that have nothing to do with great power competition. Many people say that now the U.S. Department of Defense has become the Department of Everything, and U.S. military officials are in every country doing anything you can imagine. So they’re distracted.
They have a high degree of willingness to acquire big-ticket equipment, like aircraft carriers, cruisers. And that equipment can be used for peacetime missions. But the U.S. should moreover invest in deploying cruise missiles and drones in the Taiwan Strait to put them in a state of readiness to deal with what China might do. The U.S. military lacks focus and has bureaucratic institutional inertia.
Frankly, the U.S. is in a situation where there is a lack of leadership vision at the top. From the president all the way down, officials at all levels are saying that our overriding imperative is to stop China from invading Taiwan. In a broader sense, Taiwan is one of the most important assets in the game between the United States and China. Therefore, the U.S. military needs to work to overcome this bureaucratic inertia. This is now widely recognized, but getting the largest U.S. bureaucracy, the military, to act to move ships and manning to key areas is much more difficult.
The Question of Political Will to Defend Taiwan
Q: When it comes to the United States defending or assisting in the defense of Taiwan, the political will to do such a thing is critical. But a significant number of analysts in the United States and elsewhere say that Americans are more concerned about the Middle East than they are about East Asia, where China is located. In your view, how strong is the U.S. political will to defend Taiwan? Let me ask it in another way. How much does the American public really understand the importance of Taiwan to America’s allies and to American national interests?
A: I think there are reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic.
In terms of pessimism, in the wake of the new coronavirus epidemic and the financial crisis, Americans have become more domestically focused because the United States has so many problems to deal with. And Iraq and Afghanistan have caused the United States a lot of pain, making Americans less inclined to get involved in military conflicts overseas. If you look at the priorities that Americans are focused on, in terms of foreign policy, in terms of security, they’re focused on stopping terrorism, stopping illegal immigration. They’re primarily focused on those rather than great power competition.
However, that attitude is changing. Because China seems to be doing everything it can to stir up anti-China sentiment. Not just in the United States, but globally, China’s war-wolf diplomacy and its spreading of the new coronavirus outbreak and trying to cover it up have created antipathy around the world. China has become more repressive and aggressive in the last decade, causing many to change their minds about it.
In the United States today, dealing with China is one of the few things that both Democrats and Republicans agree on. At least as far as the U.S. government is concerned, the focus on competing with China is clear. It remains to be seen whether the American people are willing to fight and give their lives for Taiwan. I think this is something that needs to be looked at. One is to prepare the American people and the people of Taiwan psychologically for a large-scale conflict with China, and then there is the need for the U.S. side to develop a military strategy that does not commit so much U.S. military power that the U.S. president is afraid to get actively involved, because the president is not willing to put too many American lives at risk.
This is another reason why I advocate dispersing U.S. military forces and deploying unmanned minefields in the waters around the Taiwan Strait. Because doing so would give the United States the ability to immediately strike back at China without exposing a large number of U.S. military forces to danger and thus losing the support of the American people.
Q: And then there is the question of political will for a possible war involving Taiwan. Some analysts in China and the United States say that China has an advantage over the United States because Xi Jinping can mobilize thousands of troops to risk death in a war fairly easily, while the U.S. president cannot, and the U.S. political will to defend Taiwan would quickly disappear once war casualties begin to appear. What would you say to that argument?
A: I think it’s exactly right to say that. If this were a battle of wills, China would absolutely win because China definitely cares more about Taiwan than the United States does. So it would require, 1. the strongest possible political will on the part of Taiwan. Because the United States is certainly not going to fight for an ally that is not prepared to fight to the last man for its sovereignty; 2. The United States needs to be realistic, the United States cannot beat China in a contest of wills, which requires the United States to have an overwhelming and relatively low cost ability to defeat China and make it unbearable.
I think this strategy is important to take these factors into account. The Americans may not be willing to commit their entire military to World War III to stop China from attacking and capturing Taiwan, but the Americans may be willing to grant the president permission to authorize the military to launch cruise missiles that cruise around to attack China’s amphibious landing force.