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

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