How Likely is an Invasion?

With all the buzz going on lately about China's National People's Congress' passage of the "anti-secession" law, there have been requests to look into some of the war-gaming results, going beyond the standard bluster that military buffs tend to take. ("China won't invade because it would not be wise"; "China can't invade because it doesn't have the resources"; "oh my God China's going to invade, please America sell some Aegis destroyers to Taiwan"). In my search, I wasn't able to find Pentagon reports from war gaming sessions. I did find some other information, some of which was more editorial in nature, but I'll share what I did find.

Typical of the "there's no way China could invade Taiwan" style of thinking is this editorial from G2Mil:

One of the biggest lies heard in the American media is that China may invade Taiwan. China has 1300 million people, so how can Taiwan with only 22 million people possibly defend itself. The simple answer is 100 miles of water, known as the Taiwan straits. A Chinese invasion would require an amphibious force larger than the Anglo-American force which landed at Normandy in 1944. China has only 10% of the naval power needed just to attempt a difficult invasion against Taiwan, which has only three practical landing sites, all heavily fortified.


Despite the image of a growing China superpower portrayed in the American media, China's military remains second class. Estimates of Chinese military spending range from the CIA's $12.6 billion a year, to $37.5 billion by the respected Institute of Strategic Studies, whose latest "1999" data will be cited throughout this article. Interestingly, both China and Taiwan (which spends $10.7 billion annually) devote a smaller percentage of their GDP to their military than the USA, which spent a whopping $305.4 billion in 1999. President Bush has also proposed a two-year increase in military spending that will exceed China's entire military budget. In contrast, news reports of China's "big military build-up" over the past two years fail to note that it just matches its economic growth, and amounts only $4 billion more each year. China does have nuclear weapons, but the USA has many times more and would use them to retaliate if Taiwan were nuked.

The most ignored aspect of the China-Taiwan conflict is China's other national security concerns. It has a long disputed border with unstable Russia (which spends $55.0 billion each year on its military). China also has a disputed border with India ($10.7 billion) which resulted in a short war in 1962 and a 1986 border clash. India's population will surpass China's by 2020, and Indians are irritated by Chinese military sales to their archrival Pakistan. Tensions with Vietnam ($0.9 billion) remain since 1979 when China invaded to teach them a lesson about invading Cambodia, resulting in a stalemate which killed 55,000 Chinese. Finally, China is wary of the Japanese, who killed millions of its citizens during World War II. Japan spends more on its military than China ($41.1 billion in 1999) and possesses the most powerful air and naval force in the Western Pacific. Japan may seem docile today, but politicians change quickly, and all Asian nations worry since Japan has begun building amphibious ships.

While the article offers data, the writing is unconvincing. The author condescends, and does not take into account certain factors. For example, the author tries to divert attention to Japan by noting that Japan spent US$41.1 billion in 1999, while China "only" spent US$37.5 billion. However, this data is as of 1999 (the article was published in 2001), and major changes have occurred since then. Both Taiwan and China have been acquiring armaments. The European Union is debating lifting the arms sales ban imposed on China after the brutal 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Consider, too, that US$37.5 billion goes a lot farther in China than $41.1 billion does in Japan, especially when one pauses to consider wage differentials. Moreover, as Japan purchases weapons from Western manufacturers, China has many factories making cheap Kalashnikov clones. But most importantly, the United States, which is the guarantor of Taiwanese security (if not independence), is currently heavily involved in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another group points to precisely the re-alignment of world events as indications, particularly given the passage of the "anti-secession" law, that China may be getting ready to invade. Ed Offley, Editor of DefenseWatch, opines:

In recent years, Beijing has deployed nearly 500 medium-range ballistic missiles targeted on Taiwan, largely in Fujian Province. Of equal concern, the People's Liberation Army and its naval arm have embarked on the creation of an amphibious assault capability involving both ship construction and development of modern amphibious tanks.

With little fanfare, Pentagon officials over the past year, have helped Taiwan strengthen its passive defenses. Steps have included hardening bunkers, reinforcing air bases and practicing fast runway repair. Elsewhere, efforts have included improving the "interoperability" of Taiwan air force and army units to increase their combat effectiveness.

Still, one Pentagon official earlier this month warned that Taiwan is slipping behind mainland China in overall military capability. "With this rapid a pace of buildup and with this buildup directed so forcefully and frontally against Taiwan, it's clearly an attempt to change the [military] dynamic," Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless told a Washington roundtable meeting.

Other Pentagon officials have reportedly warned their counterparts in Taiwan that at its current rate of modernization, mainland China will attain the capability to invade and defeat Taiwan by 2006.

So the capability may, in a worst-case scenario, be available in 2006. Based on other current events of about a year ago, Offley warns that the Pentagon may not be ready. This is borne out by an article by Piers M. Wood and Charles D. Ferguson in the Autumn 2001 issue of the Naval War College Review: "How China Might Invade Taiwan".
Likelihood of an Invasion

No prudent military planner can dismiss the possibility of a successful invasion of Taiwan. The numerical advantages of the Chinese in almost every relevant military category are unambiguous and overwhelming. Although it might be years before any Chinese soldier sets foot on Taiwan itself, the early stages of a phased offensive could begin earlier than expected—that is, long before the year 2005, widely described as the soonest that China could project force beyond its borders.

There are, of course, a number of big “ifs.” If the Chinese air force failed to gain air superiority, or if the navy could not get millions of troops afloat, an attack would halt even before embarkation. Well before any attempt, if China did not expand its airfield capacity near the coast facing Taiwan, it could not even contemplate air superiority; similarly, if China had not significantly expanded its port capacity in the same region, it could not use effectively the sea lift to be requisitioned from the merchant marine. Sea control would be contingent on the submarine force’s ability to sweep and hold a security corridor from shore to shore; if that corridor were breached, the assault forces would most likely be destroyed en route. If, having crossed, the assault waves could not maintain coherence among the great mass of men and materiel, the defenders would prevail.

However, a determined government in Beijing may be able to overcome these obstacles; it would need neither technological magic, super-weapons, spectacular leaps in weapons production, nor even a foreign benefactor. It would need a wrenching reallocation of resources. A nation’s willingness to make great sacrifices cannot be assumed, but a sound military analysis cannot ignore the possibility. Underestimating the determination of seemingly overmatched Asian powers has been a common American failing since 1950.

Another if is the delicate cross-strait military balance. Any dramatic tilt toward Taiwan’s favor in the rough military equivalence—all factors considered—that currently exists could limit Chinese offensives to Quemoy and other small islands near the mainland. The new arms sales requisite for such a shift would hardly dismay the Pentagon. However, Sino-American relations would surely suffer, and as some analysts have pointed out, such an increase in arms shipments could backfire, precipitating a preemptive strike before Taiwan had time to assimilate the new equipment. The authorities in Taipei, in any case, might choose to produce indigenously, or procure from other nations, whatever arms could protect them from a cross-strait invasion.

The negative “ifs,” however, are balanced by a number of important “coulds.” The People’s Liberation Army could commandeer an enormous range of civilian assets that would contribute directly to its capabilities. China could transport millions of personnel across the strait, choked with fifteen hundred ships and tens of thousands of small vessels. Its air force could deliver ordnance with over three thousand jet aircraft (though not in a single wave). A landing force could overwhelm or outlast the Taiwanese army once it was firmly ashore.

Most significantly, the Chinese could phase an invasion over time to gain operational advantages, maneuvering successively against Taiwan’s untenable offshore islands. Such a multistaged campaign would maximize China’s inherent capacity to sustain a war of attrition, and it might well produce in effect a defeat in detail, should Taiwan defend each position. Even if Taiwan chose not to fight for every foot of ground, the advantages of an extended time frame would seem to accrue to China.

The world will not know which camp of contending analysts will win this debate unless China actually attacks Taiwan. We are confident that those who continue to ignore the significance of airfields, submarines, commercial sea lift, and sequential campaigning will not have prepared the nation for the worst-case contingency.

Generally, however, the cautious voices of moderation have been the most plentiful. Paul Lin, a commentator in New York, remarks:
The Chinese military wants a war, but the politicians don't. The central government wants a war, but the provinces don't. The generals want a war, but the soldiers don't. In the face of such internal contradictions, it will be difficult to launch an invasion.

There is also the cumulative popular anger over the gulf between the rich and the poor, heavy taxes and the scandals caused by loopholes in the financial system, which could also topple the government. This is a price the Chinese Communist Party is not willing to pay. And this does not take into account Taiwan's ability to counterattack and possible international involvement.

But fundamentally, China won't invade because the US still supports Taiwan.

David A. Shlapak, David T. Orletsky, and Barry A. Wilson of RAND note, in their book Dire Strait? (page 56):
A war between Taiwan and China is an unpleasant and tragic prospect, rife with the potential for escalation and guaranteed to result in massive destruction both in the immediate military sense and in longer-term damage to the political evolution of East Asia and the Pacific Rim.

This study suggests that Beijing would be imprudent to resort to massive air and missile attacks or an invasion of Taiwan as a means of compelling unification. Our results show an incredibly costly war that the PLA should have serious doubts about winning. The odds against the mainland appear to increase still further if the United States gets actively involved -- even minimally -- in Taiwan's defense.

Maintaining peace on the Taiwan Straits is in the interests of the Chinese people on both sides of the narrow waters and of the American people, too. To the extent that China continues to threaten military action against Taiwan, deterrence will remain an important component of any strategy aimed at avoiding conflict. Sustaining and enhancing that deterrent -- which boils down to sustaining and enhancing Taiwan's defensive capabilities -- is a crucial goal of U.S.-ROC security cooperation.

Dr. Yuan Peng of The Brookings Institution Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies proposes a perspective for viewing the tensions in a Summer 2004 paper, "The Taiwan Issue in the Context of New Sino-U.S. Strategic Cooperation":
The Taiwan issue relates directly to a more substantial problem: how does the United States, the world's only superpower, view China's emergence? And how will the U.S. live with China? The joint management of the Taiwan issue will be a touchstone for the future of the Sino-U.S. relationship.

This is, of course, quite true. But one wonders how this latest round of sabre-rattling, which doesn't seem to anyone to be "joint management" of anything, came about. John J. Tkacik, Jr., of The Heritage Foundation suggests in January commentary that this was a PR snafu that would be comical if so many lives weren't at stake:
Sadly, the kind of nonsense that Prof. Yu touts via the Internet passes for rational legislative discourse in China, and last May, during a tea party for visiting Premier Wen Jiabao with Chinese expatriates in London, an elderly Chinese demanded the premier pass such a law soon. The flustered premier humored the old man, "Your view on unification of the motherland is very important, very important. We will seriously consider it." But before the thoughtful premier had finished his session, his traveling propaganda entourage had it on all the Chinese newswires, and "unification law" became official policy.

Since then, Chinese propaganda departments have changed the name from "unification law" to "anti-secession law" — not (as some in the Western press have speculated) as a gesture of moderation, but to avoid any misunderstanding that China might not already be "unified." Perish the thought! No, Taiwan is an integral part of China illegally struggling to be "independent." Therefore, Taiwan is already unified with China, so "anti-secession" it is.

This sort of thing happens to everyone, even in democracies. But the need to save face in a Stalinist regime, especially one in a civilization that invented the very term "saving face", will trump all else. As I opined at Simon World: "With all due respect ... Chinese people get worked up over the smallest symbols, so don't completely rule out the anti-secssion as a point of major contention."

Hopefully tension is all we'll get out of this, but from this corner of the world (San Francisco Bay Area), it looks like yet another straw on the camel's back.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds and Naruwan Formosa]

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