A fleet of US-made F-16 fighters from the Taiwanese air force. Photo: AFP/Patrick Lin

As a flashpoint for conflict, Taiwan has been on the back burner for decades. Once perhaps the pre-eminent security concern in East Asia – as well as the source of most of the tensions between Washington and Beijing – the idea of a war between China and Taiwan now seems almost quaint.

However, while cross-Strait tensions have certainly diminished over the past 20 years, they have not totally dissipated, either. Indeed, the potential for a war between Taiwan and China remains as likely as it ever was. How likely, of course, is the $64,000 question.

‘Taiwan problem’ making a comeback?

A few years back, Ian Easton, a researcher at the Project 2049 Institute (a think-tank in Washington, DC), argued in his book The Chinese Invasion Threat that China had never abandoned its plans for taking back Taiwan by force, should it feel the need. Relying on sensitive and restricted (neibu) Chinese documents, Easton was able to piece together a probable scenario for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Beijing would likely start with a naval and air blockade of Taiwan, with coordinated massive missile strikes on key island infrastructures, including airfields, ports, and command and control centers (China has upwards to 1,500 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles based in Fujian province, directly across the strait from Taiwan).

At the same time, China would launch cyber-strikes on Taiwan’s computer, early warning, and communications networks, as well as conduct psychological warfare against the Taiwanese people. It might also decide to occupy the Kinmen and Matsu islands, which lie only kilometers from the mainland. Last, China might attempt a full-scale amphibious and air invasion of the island of Taiwan itself.

How much risk will Taiwan accept?

Such an invasion, Easton admits, would be extremely risky, and the consequences of failure would be devastating should China be unable to achieve its goals. Nevertheless, Easton’s book and other analyses show that a cross-Strait war is not a shelved option.

And here is where Wendell Minnick, in a recent article in The National Interest, makes an invaluable contribution to the debate. Minnick, a former journalist for Defense News, has written on Asian defense and militaries for more than 20 years. He lives in Taiwan and, as such, he can provide a worm’s-eye view of politics and security policymaking on the island.

What he finds is not hopeful; in fact, it’s downright depressing. The Taiwanese military, he argues, is woefully under-manned, unable to supply a bare minimum of soldiers to defend the island; conscription is only four months long – hardly enough time to consider a new recruit “battle-ready.” And yet, at one time, the politicians’ solution to the manpower shortage was simply to cut the number of soldiers needed.

Minnick argues that annual exercises have become just “dog-and-pony shows for the media,” and individual infantry companies “must borrow heavily from other companies to fill [manpower] gaps.”

Although Taiwan says it can count on 1.5 million reservists, Minnick notes that they train only five days every two years (if they are called up at all), “during which time they typically perform simple chores and not weapons training.” In fact, the reserves would be more than useless in wartime, Minnick argues; they would simply be “cannon-fodder.”

Short of nearly everything

Finally, Taiwan is drastically short of all kinds of weaponry and armaments needed to defend itself against China. Over the past 20 years or so, the cross-Strait military balance has shifted significantly in China’s favor. Of course, China has always had the numerical advantage over Taiwan, but now it possesses a qualitative edge as well. Since turn of the century, the Chinese military has added more than 30 modern attack submarines (both diesel-electric and nuclear-powered), 20-plus destroyers and more than two dozen frigates,  seven large amphibious assaults ships, and at least one aircraft carrier to its fleet; in addition, it operates around 1,000 4th+, 4th++, and even fifth-generation fighter jets.

In comparison, Taiwan has not acquired a new submarine in more than 30 years or a new fighter jet since the late 1990s. It operates only 26 destroyers and frigates, and perhaps 260 combat aircraft. According to Minnick, the Taiwanese air force has perhaps one day’s worth of airborne munitions (missiles and the like).

Taipei plans to buy 66 additional F-16 fighters and it also wants 100 M-1 tanks, but these purchases would be a drop in the bucket compared with the military power that China could conceivably bring to a scrap with Taiwan. Moreover, China outspends Taiwan on defense by better than 18 to one.

Minnick places the blame for this mess largely on the Taiwanese themselves. He notes that when Taipei bought 150 F-16s back in the 1990s, “it badgered, ranted and whined about Washington’s refusal to release the AIM-120 AMRAAMs for its F-16s.” Yet when the US finally did release the AMRAAM (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile) for sale, the Taiwanese initially bought only 200 missiles, then cut the order down to 120. Minnick notes that Taiwan was the only military “on the planet that would procure 120 bullets for 150 guns.”

The solution for Minnick is for the US government, particularly the administration of President Donald Trump, to practice some “tough love” on the Taiwanese and get them to take their defense seriously. One might easily fear, however, that it could be a case of too little, too late.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Join the Conversation

9 Comments

  1. You actually make it seem so easy together with your presentation but I to find this topic to be actually something which I feel I might never understand. It sort of feels too complex and extremely huge for me. I am having a look forward on your next publish, I will try to get the hold of it!

  2. Magnificent items from you, man. I have consider your stuff prior to and you’re simply extremely excellent. I really like what you’ve obtained here, certainly like what you’re stating and the way by which you assert it. You make it entertaining and you still take care of to stay it sensible. I cant wait to learn far more from you. That is really a terrific website.

  3. Thanks for any other magnificent post. The place else could anybody get that kind of information in such a perfect means of writing? I’ve a presentation subsequent week, and I am on the look for such information.

  4. Hi there very nice web site!! Man .. Beautiful .. Wonderful .. I’ll bookmark your site and take the feeds also…I’m happy to seek out so many useful information here in the submit, we’d like work out more techniques in this regard, thank you for sharing. . . . . .

  5. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own weblog and was curious what all is needed to get set up? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very internet savvy so I’m not 100 sure. Any recommendations or advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

  6. Hi! This is kind of off topic but I need some guidance from an established blog. Is it very hard to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast. I’m thinking about creating my own but I’m not sure where to begin. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Cheers

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *