Center for Naval Analyses senior researcher Roger Cliff. Photo: Central News Agency Taiwan
Center for Naval Analyses senior researcher Roger Cliff. Photo: Central News Agency Taiwan

A senior researcher in the United States said China is not capable of taking Taiwan by force if its military can hold off the People’s Liberation Army until US forces arrive.

The PLA would struggle to take over Taiwan should the US step in when hostilities break out between Beijing and Taipei, a US expert on naval and East Asian security affairs said last week.

Roger Cliff, a senior researcher at the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research and development center for the US Navy and Marine Corps based in Arlington, Virginia, told a forum in Washington last Friday that the military balance in the Taiwan Strait was “heavily tilting toward China,” but “China does not currently have the capability to take Taiwan by force or will any time soon” if the US steps in to defend Taiwan.

Cliff, an expert in China’s military modernization, Chinese foreign policy and US strategy toward Asia, stressed that despite the obvious mismatch in personnel numbers and defense expenditure between the two militaries on both sides of the strait, the balance between the US and China still favored the US and would not change in the near future.

However, he told the Taipei Times that “just because the military balance favors the US does not mean a war with China is something that the US would enter into lightly, nor does it mean that it would not be potentially devastating to Taiwan.”

In his address to a symposium called “Taiwan Strait 2018” hosted by the non-profit policy incubator, Cliff outlined four scenarios in which Beijing might consider using force against the self-ruling

  • When Chinese decision makers feel that they could keep the US out of the conflict or at least delay its entry long enough for Taiwanese resistance to collapse, it might choose to attack;
  • When Chinese officials are convinced that Taiwan lacks the will to resist or that capitulation would come quickly, it might act;
  • Alternatively, when Beijing concludes that Washington would not defend Taiwan;
  • And when Beijing faces mounting pressure from within that requires it to resort to belligerence or start a full-blown invasion, even if it expects failure.

He urged Taiwan to hold up its defense and win time in the event of the PLA employing “anti-access” or tactic deferral strategies to keep the US out of the conflict zone, to delay the advance of Chinese troops so Washington could marshal forces from Guam and Japan and when crossing the strait from bases along coastal Fujian province is only a 150-kilometer hop, but Guam is more than 2,700km away.

When answering questions from Taiwanese reporters about whether F-35 stealth multirole fighters were a necessary boost to Taiwan’s defense capabilities, Cliff said that any such purchase came with a trade-off in terms of outlay on other equipment and the possession of such equipment “must be weighed against the ability to make optimal use of and proper maintenance” for these advanced fighters.

In a book on US-China relations after the resolution of Taiwan’s status that Cliff co-authored, he noted that the impact of peaceful outcomes, including continued peaceful irresolution, was both more predictable and generally better for relations between Washington and Beijing.

“Both how the Taiwan issue is resolved and the nature of subsequent US-China relations will largely be determined by the nature of China’s government: a democratic or, at least, highly pragmatic Chinese government is more likely to achieve a peaceful resolution…. As China’s military capabilities grow, it will become increasingly difficult, but also increasingly more important to prevent Beijing from using force to bring about unification,” he wrote.

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