- China has raised its pressure on Taiwan, using harsh rhetoric and flexing military muscle around what it sees as a breakaway province.
- Taiwan has no intent to rejoin mainland China, and it has its own extensive military capabilities to defend itself.
- Increasing tensions across the Taiwan Strait have raised fears that fighting could break out, potentially drawing the US into a clash with China.
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Taiwan’s future as an independent democratic state is uncertain. Chinese officials have repeatedly stated the island’s importance to what President Xi Jinping has called “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and have made no secret of their intent to absorb what they see as a wayward province.
Tensions across the Taiwan Strait are the highest they have been in decades. A resounding victory by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party in January made clear that the island nation has no intention of joining the mainland.
Beijing isn’t backing down. In May, for the first time in almost a decade, the Chinese government omitted the word “peaceful” before “reunification” in its annual policy-priorities report.
In addition, China has increased the size and frequency of its fighter and bomber incursions into what’s considered Taiwanese airspace and recently held massive live-fire military drills all around Taiwan. The increased activity and harder rhetoric lead some to believe a clash is coming.
Against massive odds
Historically, the gap between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and Taiwan’s military was one reason Taiwan was able to secure its independence. Taiwan’s close relationship with the US and other European countries meant it received some of the best weapons and equipment available.
But that gap has almost entirely closed. According to the Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Power Report, China’s massive military modernization effort “has eroded or negated many of the military advantages that Taiwan has historically enjoyed.”
The Chinese army’s meteoric rise coincides with a decrease in sales of high-end weaponry to Taiwan by almost every country from which it has bought arms. The US is now the only country willing to sell Taiwan complete weapon systems, but it has done so at a slower pace than in the past.
This has compounded the decreasing advantages of Taiwan’s military. Much of its armored force is outdated, and two of its four submarines are so old they can be used only for training. A lack of replacement parts also prevents Taiwan’s military as a whole from being fully operational.
In contrast, China now has modern weaponry including stealth fighters, hypersonic missiles, guided-missile warships, aircraft carriers, a new suite of tanks and armored fighting vehicles, and the largest, most diverse land-based missile arsenal in the world.
“On paper, the [People’s Republic of China] has a clear and growing advantage, which could tempt Xi Jinping to make the supreme strategic gamble,” Ian Easton, a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute who wrote “The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia,” told Insider in an email.
The numbers are also against Taiwan. According to the Pentagon, China has about 412,000 active-duty soldiers in its eastern and southern theaters, whereas Taiwan has just 88,000 active-duty soldiers. China has more than 950 aircraft in the region to Taiwan’s 430, and China’s 257 navy vessels outnumber Taiwan’s 86.
“In wartime, the PLA will mobilize everything China has in terms of shipping,” Easton said. “It could easily move an army of millions.”
A porcupine defense
But Taiwan is not hopeless. Preparing to defend the island has been the Taiwanese military’s sole focus for over 70 years, and it has been likened to an indigestible porcupine.
Despite the technology gap, Taiwan maintains numerous capable weapon systems, like F-16 fighters and AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships.
Taiwan has a sizable arsenal of missiles it can launch at mainland targets as well as at Chinese ships in the strait. The most recent addition, the Yun Feng, has a claimed range of over 1,000 kilometers, making it able to strike targets deep inside China.
Taiwan also has geographical advantages. The roughly 100-mile trip across the strait would take about seven hours by ship, leaving a transport fleet vulnerable to mines as well as missile and torpedo attacks.
Only about 10% of Taiwan’s coastline is suitable for large-scale amphibious landings, and its mountainous terrain makes finding optimal landing zones difficult.
But the most important thing for Taiwan’s defense is the support it would get from the US.
Though not bound by a formal mutual-defense treaty, the US is required by the Taiwan Relations Act “to maintain the capacity” to “resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
Conventional wisdom has long been that the US would intervene to aid Taiwan, possibly even bringing other allies to assist.
An uncertain future
No one can say definitively how an invasion of Taiwan would play out, much less who would win. The Pentagon has run numerous war games and simulations and has almost always been defeated.
But war games can be misleading, as it is impossible to predict every element of such a large operation. Moreover, neither China nor Taiwan has fought a war in decades, making any analysis of their capabilities reliant on guesswork.
But there is one certainty: A fight for Taiwan would be one of the costliest in military history. It would surely result in hundreds of thousands of casualties; the destruction of hundreds of ships, tanks, and aircraft; and massive damage to Taiwan’s cities.
“For Beijing, Taiwan is going to be a massive, bloody, and risky battle,” Easton said. “The Taiwanese are very tough, and they don’t want to see their country turned into a giant open-air prison like Xinjiang.”
A likely immediate scenario is that the People’s Liberation Army will begin to pick off Taiwan’s outlying islands — specifically Kinmen Matsu and Penghu — allowing it to gain valuable experience, take strategic land, and gauge the world’s reaction.
Given the relatively low costs China has faced for its adventurism in the South China Sea and its takeover of Hong Kong, it’s not hard to imagine a muted response to incremental action against Taiwan — further emboldening China.
“In general, the [Chinese Communist Party] has shown in the last year that it’s willing to accept tremendous international outcry to assert control over what it sees as ‘modern China,'” Dr. Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told Insider.
“If they had to accept international isolation for some time but they got Taiwan in exchange, I think they would take that deal,” Cooper added.
Chinese leadership ordered the military to have the capability to take Taiwan by force by 2020. It’s not known whether it has achieved this, but the army has made tremendous improvements and shows no signs of stopping.
“Xi Jinping has made it quite clear that he is not willing to wait forever,” Cooper said. “Every day that the Chinese military becomes more competent in its capabilities, the risk of a major confrontation increases. At some point, the CCP will feel confident enough that they might be willing to risk it.”