Taiwan Trends and Scenarios: Challenge for the Next U.S. Administration


By Richard Weitz

One of the major issues confronting the next U.S. administration is to fortify Taiwan’s defense and deterrent capabilities against the growing threat from the People’s Republic of China.

The last few years have seen increasing PRC pressure on Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China.

There have been growing naval and air activity in the island’s vicinity, including repeated deep incursions across the Taiwan Strait Median Line and PLA Air Force circumnavigation flights around the island. The intent has been to both intimidate the Taiwanese and wear down the defender’s air fleet. The rhetoric emanating from Beijing regarding Taiwan has also become increasing bellicose.

A no-warning PLA assault on Taiwan is presently unlikely but possible. We have recently seen how the Chinese-Indian confrontation abruptly escalated earlier this year.

If an invasion were imminent, warning indicators could include Beijing-inspired riots, sabotage, and assassinations in Taiwan. The PLA would also probably mobilize its reservists and concentrate a flotilla of vessels on the PRC coast opposite the island.

Following the Russian example, the PLA might also try to lure Taiwanese defenders off guard by launching an invasion during one of its increasingly frequent military exercises around the island.

Although PRC policy making is opaque, certain “red lines’ as well as opportune circumstances may induce Beijing to attack.

Commonly cited red lines include major moves toward Taiwan independence, the island’s impending acquisition of nuclear weapons, or the stationing of large U.S. military forces permanently on the island.

Of course, PRC decision makers might change their red lines over time and might not fully know what would prompt military intervention. Chinese scholars sometimes site the Korean War as an example of how Beijing (and Washington) became entangled into a major regional conflict without much premeditation.

Regarding targets of opportunity, the PRC might see widespread internal unrest on the island as an invitation to attack.

A regional crisis, such as one involving North Korea, could provide the necessary distraction to encourage a PLA move against Taiwan.

A related tactic might be to exploit one of the joint Russian-Chinese military exercise to imply Moscow’s support for Beijing’s assault.

Conversely, Beijing might be restrained if its confrontations with its other neighbors—especially India and Japan—remain elevated to avoid the strains of managing concurrent multi-front campaigns.

But major PRC domestic problems could induce either caution or risk-taking, as seen in the classic example of the Argentinian junta launching the Falklands/Malvinas War to preempt (actually just delay) its impending overthrow.

In the interim, which may last as long as October 1, 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, PRC policy makers are preparing the legal, political, diplomatic, intelligence and military battlefield for long term reunification.

Major steps include the PRC’s Anti-Secession Law, its renewed campaign to exclude Taiwan from international institutions like the World Health Organization, and its comprehensive intelligence gathering operations aimed at influential Taiwanese as well as their organizations, defenses, and networks.

In the military domain, the PLA is augmenting its network of ground sensor and reconnaissance satellites covering Taiwan and the surrounding sea and airspace.

Though the PRC has not (yet) aggressively building a large amphibious fleet, it has been militarizing its commercial fishing and maritime transport fleet to supplement its Navy and Coast Guard.

In a Taiwan scenario, the PRC’s maritime militia could function like Russia’s little green men, occupying Taiwan’s outlying islands with little notice. The PRC would likely describe the seizure as a police action or other non-military operation short of a state of war, which would make it harder for the Taiwanese and their American allies to respond militarily.

If Beijing encounters a weak response, as has been the case in the South China Sea, then the PLA could take a more direct role in seizing additional territories. Such a staged island-hoping operation would be easier to undertake than abrupt full-scale amphibious assault, which no country has undertaken since General MacArthur’s seizure of Inchon port in September 1950.

It is even possible that Beijing may change its future course and renounce military options. The current PRC leadership is substantially more confrontational and risk-acceptant than its predecessors. The next team might return to a more cautious, bide-your-time strategy.

A comprehensive regime change that engendered a liberal democratic China, an improbable if hoped-for development, might even make unification a popular option for the Taiwanese as well as reconcile Hong Kong and other occupied territories to a mutually beneficial partnership.

Barring a radical change at home, the PRC timeline for reunification might depend on decision makers’ expectation of future trends. They would consider the evolving military balance, economic trajectories, changes in Taiwanese popular opinion, and other variables to determine if time is on Beijing’s side.

Despite refining its disinformation assaults on Taiwanese politicians and other targets, PRC information managers have utterly failed to win over Taiwanese public opinion to unification. Polls show that support for unification is hovering in single digits, with young people especially seeking a future independent of Beijing.

Indeed, Beijing’s policies have done little to make one-China mergers attractive to the island’s voters. The PRC’s repressive policies toward Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang leave little to the imagination.

The PRC also has failed to exploit cross-strait economic ties to either attract substantial support in Taiwan or to pursue an Anaconda strategy to strangle the widespread opposition. Military threats and economic coercion have failed to enervate the resistance.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Unified Front strategy can no longer attract strong local allies into its PRC-controlled networks.

So if current trends continue, the PRC leadership, given the lack of viable alternatives will have to choose either to accept Taiwan’s de facto autonomy or use military force to end it.

If the PLA were to successfully seize Taiwan, the PLA could use the new territory to more effectively threaten Japan.

Furthermore, freed from preparing for a Taiwan contingency, the PLA could redeploy military forces to other theaters, such as against India to the west and against ASEAN states and Australia to the south.

Taiwan’s conquest would also embarrass and weaken the United States, which has offered Taiwan security guarantees and is seen internationally as the island’s most important military partner. The result would be to encourage U.S. allies and partners to appease the PRC or pursue alternative military paths, such as acquiring nuclear weapons.

So what to do?

Taiwan should continue its striving to be a net global security provider in areas such as global health. It should also spend more on defense to reverse years of decline.

The additional funds could help increase ground-force training to protect Taiwan’s approximately fifteen beaches suitable for invasion and exploit the island’s mountainous terrain to preclude easy PLA airborne assaults.

Reforming the system for mobilizing reserves should be another priority to compensate for Taiwan’s diminishing active duty personnel.

In terms of future weapons procurement, Taiwan needs to replace its aging fighters with F-35s as well as F-16s.

Investing more in both autonomous aerial and maritime drones would help compensate for the PLA’s more numerous warships and warplanes.

Additional naval enhancements could include acquiring more (anti-ship missiles, mines, and missile boats.

In essence, Taiwan should pursue a porcupine strategy to make Beijing understand that the costs of any aggression would exceed the benefits.

The United States can aide the Taiwanese by continuing to pursue a robust defense partnership with its military.

Although the focus of popular attention has naturally been on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the military partnership appropriately extends well beyond that to include military training, joint threat assessments, tabletop exercises, and helping Taiwan improve its indigenous defense industrial and technological capabilities.

In the information domain, U.S. messaging should make clear to the PRC that unprovoked aggression against Taiwan would reinforce the narrative that China’s ascent is presenting the same problems to the international system as the rise of Japan and China before World War II.

Conversely, to dampen Chinese overconfidence in military options, U.S. communications should emphasize that the PLA lacks any recent combat experience and could easily suffer defeat if it attempted an extremely difficult amphibious assault on Taiwan.

Featured Photo: A Chinese military training complex in Inner Mongolia, shown in this satellite image taken on Sept. 29, includes full-scale replicas of targets such as Taiwan’s Presidential Office Building.

Source: Satellite image 2020 Maxar Technologies

See, also the following:

Airpower When Directly Faced with the Authoritarian Powers: The International Fighter Conference 2019

Taiwan in Pacific Defense: Turning a New Page

The Next Phase of Australian National Security Strategy: Noise Before Defeat 2