A pilot assigned to an aviation brigade of the air force under the PLA Northern Theater Command navigates his fighter jet while searching for mock attackers during the Golden Helmet competition. Photo: eng.chinamil.com.cn

Months after a crushing challenge to its rule in Hong Kong, China’s “Wolf Warriors” are turning to an even higher-stakes target: the democratic, self-governing island of Taiwan.

The island has been bracing for conflict with mainland China for decades, and in some respects, that battle has now begun, The National Post reported.

It’s not the final, titanic clash that Taiwan has long feared, with Chinese troops storming the beaches. Instead, the People’s Liberation Army, China’s 2-million-strong military, has launched a form of “gray zone” warfare.

In this irregular type of conflict, which stops short of an actual shooting war, the aim is to subdue the foe through exhaustion, The National Post reported.

Beijing is conducting waves of threatening forays from the air while ratcheting up existing pressure tactics to erode Taiwan’s will to resist, say current and former senior Taiwanese and US military officers.

The flights, they say, complement amphibious landing exercises, naval patrols, cyberattacks and diplomatic isolation, The National Post reported.

This past week has seen eight Chinese military aircraft entering Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), bringing the number of such incidents so far this month to 15. As always, Taiwanese aircraft had to be deployed to escort them out, Taiwan News reported.

On the sea, a Chinese aircraft carrier, the Shandong, traversed the Taiwan Strait, which forced the Taiwanese navy and air force to send six warships and eight military aircraft to “stand guard” and monitor its movements.

Minister of National Defense Yen Teh-fa said in October that the air force had scrambled fighters against Chinese aircraft 2,972 times in the first nine months of the year. The cost of this was a cool NT$25.5 billion (US$903 million).

Reuters estimated that this was an increase of 129% compared with the whole of 2019. And it is a similar story at sea.

Taiwanese naval vessels have conducted more than 1,220 missions to intercept PLA Navy ships so far this year, according to data published in early November. This is about 400 more than were conducted last year.

Last year, Taiwan spent more than US$2 billion on 108 M1AT Abrams main battle tanks. Photo: AFP

The relentless nature of these gray-zone tactics wears down the limited capabilities of Taiwan’s military as well as uses up valuable resources. Over time, the cost of fuel, pilot and sailor fatigue, and the wear and tear on aircraft and ships will threaten readiness.

These encroachment tactics are “super effective,” Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, who until last year was the commander of the Taiwanese military, told Reuters.

“You say it’s your garden, but it turns out that it is your neighbor who’s hanging out in the garden all the time. With that action, they are making a statement that it’s their garden – and that garden is one step away from your house.”

Under President Xi Jinping, China has accelerated the development of forces the PLA would need one day to conquer the island of 23 million – a mission that is the country’s top military priority, according to Chinese and Western analysts, The National Post reported.

With Hong Kong and the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang under ever-tighter control, Taiwan is the last remaining obstacle to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.

In a major speech early last year, Xi said that Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a Chinese province, “must be, will be” unified with China. He set no deadline but would not rule out the use of force.

Meanwhile, US military officials have advised Taiwan not to respond every time its ADIZ or territorial waters are breached. After all, much of this activity is taking place far from the main island and poses no significant threat to national security, Taiwan News reported.

Taiwan respectfully disagrees.

The authorities believe China’s aim is to gather data about Taiwan’s military and security capabilities and would no doubt ask how the American military would react if the Communist Party of China did the same thing to the US.

But the fact remains that gray-zone tactics are likely to be here to stay, and while that is the case, Taiwan’s military is under severe strain.

J-10 fighter jets attached to an aviation brigade of the air force under the PLA Northern Theater Command taxi on to the runway in formation before takeoff. Photo: eng.chinamil.com.cn

So, what is the solution?

According to Defense One military analysts, there are three major things that could be game-changing:

First, Taiwan must stop spending its scarce defense dollars on expensive conventional weapons. Last year, Taiwan spent more than US$2 billion on 108 M1AT Abrams main battle tanks.

It maintains a fleet of amphibious assault ships and is trying to acquire even more. Meanwhile, it is still trying to build eight so-called indigenous diesel submarines (IDSs). 

These sorts of high-profile capabilities might look good on paper, but they are prohibitively expensive. IDSs, for example, could wind up costing at least US$5 billion, an amount that represents roughly half of its annual defense budget. 

Worse yet, Taiwan can only afford to buy and maintain small inventories of such weapons. As a result, its entire defensive posture is vulnerable in a prolonged, high-intensity war.

Nor are these sorts of weapons well suited for Taiwan’s defensive needs. Consider Abrams main battle tanks, which are too big for many of Taiwan’s roads and are hard to hide from enemy drones and aircraft. It is telling that the US Marine Corps is getting rid of tanks even as Taiwan is buying more of them.

Second, Taiwan needs to devote serious resources and political capital into making the innovative Overall Defense Concept a reality. The brainchild of former Admiral Lee, the ODC seeks to reorient the island’s defenses toward a genuinely asymmetric air- and sea-denial posture.

Although the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen unveiled ODC to great fanfare in 2018, support for the force structure and doctrinal reforms needed actually to implement the concept have recently stalled. 

Third, Taiwan must overhaul its massive, but increasingly hollow, reserve force. In theory, it can call upon 2.5 million part-time soldiers.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen oversees a military drill. Critics say the Taiwan government has not spend wisely, or enough, to counter the Chinese threat. Photo: AFP / Sam Yeh

Taking that into account, Admiral Lee – who appears to be a realist – firmly believes the only thing holding back the PLA from a full assault is that it hasn’t yet achieved the overwhelming firepower needed to overrun the island, The Guardian reported.

Even so, China’s military buildup over the past 20 years means it is now “far ahead” of Taiwan, he said.

“Time is definitely not on Taiwan’s side,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time for them to gather enough strength.”

The wild card, of course, is the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden.

According to the East Asia Forum, Biden has a long history of support for Taiwan.

He was already a member of the US Senate in 1979 when the Taiwan Relations Act was approved.

When he became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2001, his first overseas visit was to Taiwan.

And in January 2020, then-candidate Biden congratulated Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on her re-election, stating, “You are stronger because of your free and open society. The United States should continue strengthening our ties with Taiwan and other like-minded democracies.”

Sources: The National Post, The Taiwan News, Reuters, Defense One, East Asia Forum, The Guardian