China Keeps Inching Closer to Taiwan

The United States needs to get serious about defending the island nation—here’s how.

A journalist looks at a map showing the route of a missile apparently mistakenly launched from Taiwan during a press conference in Taipei on July 1, 2016.
A journalist looks at a map showing the route of a missile apparently mistakenly launched from Taiwan during a press conference in Taipei on July 1, 2016. Taiwan's military authorities said a lethal anti-ship missile was "mistakenly" launched and fell into the Taiwan Strait as ties between the island and former bitter rival China deteriorate. / AFP / SAM YEH (Photo credit should read SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images) Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images

Since early September, China has been carrying out the most provocative and sustained show of force in the Taiwan Strait in nearly a quarter century. Chinese military patrols, some involving more than 30 combat aircraft and a half-dozen naval ships, have roamed the strait roughly every other day. Many of them have breached the median line between Taiwan and China, a boundary that—until last year—both sides had respected for decades.

With cross-strait tensions rising, a growing number of American policymakers and pundits, mostly on the political right and center, are calling on the United States to guarantee Taiwan’s security—a firm commitment that the United States has avoided making for more than four decades. These calls build on a series of bipartisan laws passed over the past two years that strengthen America’s moral and diplomatic support for Taiwan in the face of Chinese pressure. But can Taiwan actually be defended?

On paper, the task looks impossible. China’s military is 10 times as large as Taiwan’s and includes Asia’s biggest air force and the world’s largest army, conventional missile force, coast guard, and navy by number of ships. China’s long-range air-defense systems can shoot down aircraft over Taiwan, and China’s land-based missiles and combat aircraft could potentially wipe out Taiwan’s air force and navy and destroy U.S. bases in East Asia in a preemptive strike. China has built several times more naval ships than the United States since 2015, and it now outspends Taiwan 25-to-1 annually on defense. The cross-strait military balance is clearly shifting in China’s favor.

Yet Taiwan retains enduring advantages that could make the island virtually unconquerable—provided that Taipei and Washington capitalize on them. Armadas of the kind China would need to invade or blockade Taiwan are extremely vulnerable to modern missiles and mines. Meanwhile, the Taiwan Strait is perilous—typhoons and 20-foot waves are common most of the year—and Taiwan itself is a natural fortress. Its east coast consists of steep cliffs, and its west coast is dominated by mud flats that extend miles out to sea and are buffeted by severe tides. As a result, there are only a dozen beaches on Taiwan where an invading force could even land.

Taiwan’s defenders also have history on their side. No blockade in the past 200 years has coerced a country into surrendering its sovereignty, and there has been only one successful amphibious invasion of a developed nation in modern history (the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943). All other successful amphibious assaults were against overstretched forces defending hastily dug positions on foreign or contested territory with small arms. If China invaded Taiwan today, it would be attacking massed forces defending fortified positions on home soil with precision-guided munitions.

Given these advantages, a consensus has emerged among many defense experts about how Taiwan should defend itself—and what the United States needs to do to be ready to help. According to this consensus, Taiwan should devote its limited defense budget to acquiring huge arsenals of mobile missile launchers, armed drones, and mines; developing an army that can surge tens of thousands of troops to any beach in an hour backed by a million-strong reserve force trained to fight guerrilla-style in Taiwan’s cities and jungles; and maintaining shelters and massive stockpiles of fuel, medical supplies, food, and water for a population psychologically prepared to ride out a bloody conflict for months. Meanwhile, the United States should disperse and harden its base infrastructure in East Asia and pre-position networks of missile launchers and armed drones near Taiwan. These forces would act as high-tech minefields, capable of decimating a Chinese invasion or blockade force early in a war.

Both governments have already taken important steps to implement these recommendations. For example, Taiwan has pledged to increase defense spending by 10 percent next year and prioritize asymmetric capabilities; the United States has developed plans to string missile launchers and austere airfields along islands opposite China’s coast; and Taiwan and the United States are bringing online sophisticated drones, mines, and missiles.

It could take a decade to retool the Taiwanese and U.S. militaries to mount an effective defense of the island.

But these measures could end up being too little too late. The Taiwanese and U.S. militaries still consist predominantly of small numbers of advanced aircraft, ships, and tanks operating from large bases—precisely the kind of forces that China can now destroy with a surprise air and missile barrage. Given present trends, it could take a decade to retool the Taiwanese and U.S. militaries to mount an effective defense of the island. With China’s rapid military buildup, that may be time that Taiwan does not have.

The list of Taiwan’s military shortcomings is long. More than a quarter of Taiwan’s annual defense budget is earmarked for domestically made ships and submarines that will not be deployed for years, fighter aircraft that may not make it off the ground in a war, and tanks that cannot easily maneuver on beaches or in jungles or cities. As part of its ongoing transition to an all-volunteer military, Taiwan has cut its active-duty force from 275,000 to 175,000 troops and reduced the length of conscription from one year to four months. Recruits receive only a few weeks of basic training, and reservists are called up for just a few days every two years.

Taiwan also has gutted its logistics force and may employ only one civilian maintenance or management worker per 20 troops. By comparison, the U.S. military has one civilian worker supporting every two troops. Taiwan’s depleted logistics teams routinely fail to resupply combat units or perform basic maintenance. Consequently, soldiers avoid training with their weapons for fear of accidents or of wasting precious ammunition. Some estimates suggest that Taiwan’s pilots fly for less than 10 hours per month and that more than half of Taiwan’s tanks and attack helicopters are dysfunctional. Many Taiwanese soldiers lack basic tactical knowledge, have rarely practiced firing their weapons, and suffer low morale. Despite these manpower deficiencies, however, Taiwan’s spending on soldiers’ salaries and benefits has risen steadily and now consumes nearly half the defense budget.

The problems have been apparent for years, but political constraints have stymied major reform. Taiwanese politicians are naturally incentivized to overinvest in battleships and fighter jets and underinvest in well-trained and fully equipped soldiers. Infantry and logistics are boring. But submarines and F-16s are exciting. Meanwhile, reinstating conscription and raising taxes to fund a bigger army would likely spark public outrage. Given these electoral realities, Taiwan’s leaders have gravitated toward military showpieces—while hoping that the United States will save the day if China ever attacks.

At present, however, the United States may not be up to the task. The U.S. military has only two bases within 500 miles of Taiwan—which is also the maximum unrefueled combat radius of U.S. fighter aircraft—and both are easy targets for China’s land-based missiles. If China disables those bases, U.S. air forces would have to operate from vulnerable aircraft carriers and from Guam, located 1,800 miles from Taiwan. The extra distance and midair refueling would cut the number of U.S. air sorties in half, giving China an opportunity to dominate the skies over Taiwan and inflict heavy losses on U.S. forces that try to fight their way into the combat theater.

The overall result is tragic: Taiwan has enormous geographic advantages over China, and the United States has the most powerful military in the world, but their combined legacy forces are routinely routed in war games by a Chinese assault.

The good news is that Taiwan and the United States have developed sound strategies to shore up their defenses, and these strategies have been endorsed by top policymakers in both governments. In war games where Taiwan and the United States follow these plans and use weapons currently under development, the island wins. The question, therefore, is not whether Taiwan can be defended—it definitely can—but whether Taiwan and the United States can revamp their militaries in time to deter a Chinese attack.

Rapid reform requires the Taiwanese and U.S. governments to instill a sense of urgency in their publics. Last year, only 20 percent of Taiwan’s citizens said they were worried that a war with China was imminent, nearly 60 percent of Americans wanted to reduce U.S. forces in East Asia, and only 35 percent of Americans were in favor of defending Taiwan. China’s recent belligerence is unnerving, but it offers an opportunity for Taiwan and the United States to have national conversations about the growing Chinese threat and the sacrifices both societies will have to make to contain it. If they do not seize this opportunity, they may not get another.

Michael Beckley is an associate professor of political science at Tufts University, a Jeane Kirkpatrick visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower.

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