Today, Wu Qian, spokesperson for the Communist Chinese Ministry of National Defense stated, ‘Those who play with fire will burn themselves, and ‘Taiwan independence’ means war.” This message was delivered in response to the Biden Administration inviting a representative of Taiwan to the Inauguration.
This is just the latest in a decades-long series of threats China has made against Taiwan.
China has considered the island of Taiwan to be a part of its territory since the Communists overthrew the Nationalist Government of China in 1949. That National Government then evacuated to Taiwan. President Chiang established the new Kuomintang government in Taiwan while claiming he was still the president of all of China. Meanwhile, Mao Ze Dung, leading the Communists, declared that Taiwan belonged to the People’s Republic of China. And since that time, a kind of diplomatic stalemate has existed. Thus, there are two governments in China, neither of which acknowledges the legitimacy or rule of the other.
Taiwan is not a member of the UN and the United States has not recognized it as a country. To do so would be to recognize the Communist government in Beijing as legitimately in place on the mainland.
It’s a diplomatic mess. Any move by the United States towards normalizing relations with Taiwan as a free and independent nation is met by the Communists with the threat of war and invasion. The question is, are these threats credible? Or are they bluff and bluster? I come down on the side of bluff and bluster. Consider the following:
China considers Taiwan to be a part of its territory, yet it still respects its airspace and territorial waters that extend 12 miles from the island. The Communists fly aircraft close to Taiwan, but not inside the 12 miles limit where Taiwan would shoot them down. If China was capable of invading Taiwan, one would think the Communist Chinese would assert their territorial ownership of the island and send ships and planes into its waters and airspace with justifiable impunity.
If a ship or plane were fired upon, the Chinese could call the incident an “insurrection” and land forces on the island to kill or capture the insurrectionists. The fact that the Communists do not act in this manner displays not only the weakness of their territorial claims but also a weakness in their actual military power.
The clues are right there in front of you if you look close enough. China will make quite a show of its latest ship, plane, or tank, but its military power is probably more a matter of public perception than hard reality. Its defense budget as stated by the Communist Chinese is about $12 billion, which is roughly five percent of what the United States spends.
The Chinese Military Is More Like a Militia
China has an enormous army: nearly three million troops. Yet, these massive numbers are deceptive here. Having three million troops you cannot feed, equip, or move around isn’t really an army. It’s a huge militia in uniform. A militia with little military training, equipment, or professional leadership. As much as half the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) draftees are employed in factories as cheap labor making consumer goods.
China can make a couple of squadrons of their new J-31 Fighter (similar in appearance to the F-35 Lightning), but about one-third of its air force is comprised of Mig 21s, relics of the Korean and Vietnam era. The PLA air force and its naval air arm operate about 15 different kinds of fighter planes. This is significant because, while China can afford to make a couple of squadrons of what it calls a fifth- or sixth-generation fighter, it cannot afford to retire the old aircraft and replace it with the new. This also creates a supply chain nightmare whereby its military has to produce spare parts for all its various planes. In contrast, the United States Air force has four different types of fighter planes currently in active service, each with specialty roles.
No Fuel, No Fighters
Only recently have the PLA air forces obtained even a limited aerial refueling capability. This reveals that like the Soviet Union and other communist block countries of the past, communist Chinese pilots are not trusted with enough fuel to fly long distances for fear they might defect to Japan or S. Korea with their aircraft. This was pretty standard in the USSR. (This ruined the movie Firefox for me by the way, “No way the Russians would let anybody take off in a new aircraft with that much gas” I chuckled to myself when the movie came out).
This reluctance to trust their own pilots with enough fuel to fly long distances has the second-order effect of severely limiting the pilots’ experience and skill. In all likelihood, these aircraft would also lack navigation equipment more sophisticated than a basic compass and likely get their navigation instructions from ground-controlled radar stations. In an over-water attack on Taiwan, their strike aircraft would probably need bomber escorts to do the navigation to the target for them.
An Outdated Navy
At sea, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) shows that it’s not a true Blue Water navy with first-world capabilities. With limited exceptions, the PLAN does not venture far from its home ports. Even its submarines stay very close to home. Five hundred nautical miles out to sea is a very long way out for any ship of the Chinese navy.
When Beijing wanted to build its first aircraft carrier it was wholly incapable of achieving the task on its own. Therefore, it was forced to buy a derelict Russian Kuznetsov-class carrier of a 1970s design and then refurbish it for sea duty.
China now intends to make copies of this terrible design to equip its fleet. Meanwhile, lacking any substantial carrier-based air cover, the ships of the PLA Navy must either stay close to shore, and in range of land-based aircraft, or go out into the blue water without any air support. And that would be fatal in facing the United States Navy.
The Chinese navy has built a fairly large number of small frigates with an AEGIS type radar array system. Nevertheless, there are indications that, in trying to decrease the cost and increase the quantity, China markedly compromised in quality and capability. These ships, the Type 054A and 052C carry half the missiles and fuel of a U.S. Aegis-equipped ship. The implications of that should be obvious.
The Chinese navy also lacks a substantial ability to refuel and resupply while at sea, which is vital for any fleet carrying out combat operations. While China has established commercial ports in foreign countries, which its warships could visit in peacetime, during a war their ships would be banned from entry because they would still be legitimate targets for the U.S. even if in the port of a neutral country. Additionally, these neutral countries would be very reluctant to allow reloads of missiles, shells, and torpedoes to be stockpiled in their ports for the same reason previously stated.
Mobilize the Merchants!
The Communist Chinese have a sizable merchant fleet, but that does not make it suitable for an invasion fleet to land an army in Taiwan. Troop transports used for landings are pretty specialized in design. The general rule of thumb is that your invasion force needs to be at least three times the size of the enemy forces you expect to fight on the beach. Taiwan has an army of 175,000 men, which can be rapidly mobilized and moved to repel a landing. Taiwan is also benefited by its own topography which offers few suitable beaches for a large-scale amphibious landing. The Chinese Communists would probably have to make landings at several locations at once. The PLA would need nearly 600,000 troops to mount a successful invasion of Taiwan. The buildup for such an invasion would be impossible to conceal from the U.S. or Taiwan, as there would be hundreds of ships in ports loading troops, the PLAN ships would gather, and aircraft would be moved to coastal airfields.
It is important to remember that amphibious invasions are immensely complicated compared to moving a large formation on land. In 1944, the Normandy landings almost went sideways on the Allies even with all the amassed experience from about a dozen other beach invasions in the Pacific, North African, and Italy. China has zero experience with this art of war. It would have to practice for it with ships, troops, and planes for months to even hope to attempt a landing an army on Taiwan. And, again, this would be easily detectable.
What Would Happen if China Invaded Taiwan?
Let’s pretend for a moment that the U.S., Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan were all asleep and didn’t notice the Chinese Communists building up for a 600,000 man army to cross the Taiwan Straits and make a forced landing. What would happen in that case?
Well, the first act would be a series of massive airstrikes by the communist air force and the missile batteries of the PLA. These would be round the clock strikes lasting several days, hitting airfields, ports, roads, installations, and defensive positions on the landing beaches. The PLAN would be very busy laying sea mines along both sides of a lane leading from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan hoping to keep U.S. attack submarines from getting at their troop transports and supply ships.
The invasion fleets would sail under cover of darkness, hoping to arrive before dawn and begin landing troops. The day and month of the invasion would be likely timed for the best weather in terms of temperature and sea state. The climate in Taiwan is tropical. It has mild winters but hot, rainy summers. The May-September period is the summer monsoon, while in the other seasons, rainfall depends on latitude and slope exposure, but generally, the least rain occurs from October through January. Wet and cold troops do not fight very well and that weather favors the defender, who is entrenched in place, over the attacker who is on the move.
Just before dawn, the landing barges full of troops would begin landing on beaches under intense artillery fire from guns the Taiwanese Army would have emplaced in caves in the hills. Knowing where the landings are taking place the Taiwanese Army will be pouring everything it has into the area, using every mode of transport available, including private cars. These Taiwanese Army troops would enjoy the advantage of fighting with the “Courage of Despair.” Their country is an island, there’s nowhere to go if they lose the war, nowhere to retreat to: If the PLA breaks out of the beachhead and moves inland it will be among the Taiwaneses’ homes and families. Furthermore, the Taiwanese know they have to give the American Navy time to respond and come to their aid.
How Would the United States Respond to an Invasion of Taiwan?
The likely strategy of the United States would not entail going to war with Communist China by striking at the Chinese mainland. Instead, the U.S. Navy and Air Force would only need to stop the invasion itself and hand the Communists a galling defeat. Positioning themselves southeast of Taiwan, U.S. Carriers could support Taiwanese troops on the ground by flying air cover over the island and striking at the follow-on waves of transports and supply vessels coming from the mainland. The Communist army ashore will consume enormous amounts of war material. Thus, if the U.S. can cut off their supplies and reinforcements the invading troops will run out of food, ammunition, and medicine in a couple of days. The United States would also be able to send armaments by air and sea to Taiwan to replace its stocks.
The Power of Perception
This is the important factor. Beijing knows that its actual power lies in the perception of it, not the reality. Landing successfully in Taiwan only to see the invasion fleet wrecked and its army cut off, starving, and defeated would be a fatal blow to China’s prestige and internal security. The fear of losing probably outweighs the perceived gains of defeating and subjugating Taiwan. And to restate, if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) actually thought it could win this short war of limited objectives it would surely have tried it by now.
The Biden administration has departed from the more confrontational and containing approach of former President Trump in favor of the “Strategic Patience” of the Obama administration. This strategy is rather difficult to define because it really isn’t defined. Basically, it seems to mean that the United States can afford to wait and see what the Communist Chinese do. It essentially recognizes a status quo in the region, as defined by Beijing, with the hope that the Communists will decide to change their behavior on their own.
I think this misses the clear fact that China has wanted the same thing regarding Taiwan since the 1940s. China wants Taiwan back intact with all its people living under the rule of the CCP. And the communists are taking a very long view of this, incrementally moving closer to a forced reunification of Taiwan with the mainland while the U.S. allows that to inch closer, year after year. This is why, at any overture of ours to get closer to Taiwan, China reacts with threats of war against Taiwan (and by extension the U.S. as well). And this strategy (which has been someone successful) of inching towards reunification is also partly why the Chinese threats of invasion are bluff and bluster.
How the Trump Administration Kept China in Check
As the Trump administration was departing, Secretary of State Pompeo fired several diplomatic shots across the bows of the CCP. Not the least of which was this following official statement: “I have determined that the PRC [People’s Republic of China], under the direction and control of the CCP, has committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.”
“I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state,” Pompeo added.
This was accompanied by visa restrictions on CCP officials or any individual taking part in publicity or campaigns linked to the United Front Work Department of the CPC Central Committee. The U.S. also ended five cultural exchange programs with China, claiming that these were paid for and operated by the Chinese government as fronts.
Additionally, the Trump administration approved the sale of $1.8 billion in arms to Taiwan.
These parting actions put the new administration in something of a bind.
How does one practice “Strategic Patience” with a country accused of the genocidal slaughter of an ethnic minority? The claim made by the U.S. ought to trigger action by the UN and its Commission on Human Rights, which China sits on as a member.
It will be a test of this administration’s resolve whether it will support, before the UN, Pompeo’s aforementioned declaration.