Warships and fighter jets of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters
Warships and fighter jets of the PLA Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Facebook

Despite its overwhelming numbers and fast-improving capabilities, China’s military still apparently lacks the landing craft and logistical support needed to carry out a full-scale sea and air invasion of Taiwan.

At least that’s the conclusion drawn by Taiwan’s Defense Ministry in a research report released this week on the capabilities of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Since last week, Beijing has staged near-simultaneous drills in the Yellow, East and South China Seas, where some of its most fearsome missiles and sophisticated warships have been on prominent and provocative display.

Yet the PLA is still likely unable to overcome the “demanding geological environment” of the Taiwan Strait, a natural buffer for the self-governing island, according to Taiwanese military analysts. 

The China Military Power Report 2020, submitted to the Legislative Yuan for deliberation, claimed China’s landing vehicles and related logistical support required to launch an overnight incursion into Taiwan “were still lacking.” 

The report projected that these constraints meant Beijing would opt for military intimidation, including long-range missile strikes as well as sea and air blockades, to force Taiwan into submission in the absence of a full-blown war.

“China could cut off Taiwan’s vital sea lines of communication and block major ports to bring Taiwan to heel, and occupation of Taiwan’s outlying islands – like the Kinmen and Penghu islands off the province of Fujian and the Taiping Island in the South China Sea – may also happen during this stage,” said a redacted version of the report that has been made public.

The report also concluded a direct invasion scenario would still be highly unlikely unless the PLA could achieve sea and air supremacy and render most of Taiwan’s armed forces powerless through pre-emptive missile strikes and blockades. 

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to Asia Times’ emailed inquiries on how the island has or will overhaul its strategies to factor in new threats posed by the PLA’s 40,000-ton Type 075 amphibious assault ships commissioned earlier this year.

The colossal landing ships, dubbed “mini-aircraft carriers” and the largest of their kind across Asian navies, would enable the PLA to project power farther into the Western Pacific and South China Sea and was reputedly designed with Taiwan in mind. 

The Defense Ministry report also said that PLA fighters and bombers drifted across the tacit border in the middle of the Taiwan Strait into the island’s air defense identification zone “on more than a dozen occasions” in February and August this year.

The report surmised those incursions were made to gauge the island’s reaction. It claimed China’s planes were met by Taiwanese warplanes, including F-16s, which were airborne in “less than 10 minutes” to repel a potential invasion. 

A Taiwanese pilot aboard an F-16 waves a Taiwan flag. Photo: YouTube

Former United States Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver said last week during a webinar that it would be a “risky gamble” for China to think the US would not go to war over Taiwan.

“If you’re going to gamble everything on the US not being there, I think it’s a pretty risky gamble,” Schriver said in an online discussion with the National Security Institute. “Don’t characterize the US as reluctant warriors [who] would much prefer to avoid a fight,” he said.

He noted that the US has had some level of involvement in every previous Taiwan Strait crisis, citing when the Seventh Fleet sailed through the strait during the Korean War and in 1996 when Washington dispatched two aircraft carrier strike groups to the region during the run-up to Taiwan’s first presidential election.

“[Thinking the US will not go to war with Beijing is] a pretty big gamble and I think given the historic ties between the US and Taiwan, it’s not one that I think Beijing should take,” he added.

Meanwhile, the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de-facto embassy on the island, on Monday released two declassified cables on US security commitments from nearly four decades ago.

The two cables from 1982, declassified in July and made public and posted on the AIT’s website this week, focused on arms sales to the island to beef up its self-defense.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said both files showed clear pledges of US support and aimed to send a message to China amid rising regional tensions and questions over whether the US would help Taiwan if attacked by China.

The ministry said the US wanted to remind China of its promise to resolve the Taiwan issue peacefully by making public more details of how the US dealt with both sides of the Taiwan Strait at the time.

The two recently declassified cables on US arms sales and security commitments to Taiwan from 1982.

The first declassified cable, titled Taiwan Arms Sales, was sent from then-US Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to then-AIT Director James Lilley on July 10, 1982.

The AIT said in its summary of the lengthy cable that it showed “US willingness to reduce arms sales to Taiwan was conditioned upon China’s continued commitment to a peaceful solution of the Taiwan-China differences.”

“If China were to become belligerent or build up power projection capability that brought instability to the area, then the US would increase arms sales to Taiwan,” the AIT said, adding that the quantity and quality of arms provided would be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PLA.

Those same ideas were echoed in an internal presidential memo drafted by Ronald Reagan on August 17, 1982, which still serves as a guideline for the US interpretation of the 1982 US-China Communique on Taiwan.

The second cable, titled Assurances for Taiwan, was sent on that same day from then-US Secretary of State George Shultz to the AIT’s Lilley, offering six assurances to Taiwan.

Those include a US pledge not to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan, not to consult with China on such sales, not to be a mediator between the two sides, not to revise the Taiwan Relations Act, not to alter the US position regarding Taiwan’s sovereignty and not to exert pressure on the island to enter into negotiations with China. 

Read more: PLA’s new assault ships ‘most detrimental’ to Taiwan