Just as Adolph Hitler characterized Czechoslovakia as a “dagger pointed at the heart of Germany,” so the Chinese Communist Party regards Taiwan. Geographically, Taiwan is the tip of a salient—a bulge in a military line—with the Philippines forming the southern base and Japan the northern. Politically, Taiwan represents the last bastion of Nationalist opposition to CCP rule of China. The resistance of Taiwan must be broken if the People’s Republic of China is to fully exercise unrivaled control of a unified China, a reported goal of President Xi Jinping.
Can the PRC capture its “renegade province?” Technically, yes. Can the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army invade Taiwan successfully? The short answer is, no. An amphibious assault would be a disaster for the CCP, and the party knows it. The longer answer is, possibly, but the political permutations required to bring about the needed conditions for a viable attempt are nearly beyond calculation. It is not that the PRC doesn’t have the troops necessary to take Taiwan; it’s that the cost is deemed too great.
Saving Private Zhang
An amphibious landing against a well-armed opponent is an artifact from history, like the cavalry charge, kept alive in popular imagination long past its freshness date by stories of past glory. Yet élan nearly always fails in the face of firepower and is too slim a margin to hang your entire regime on. And if the PRC fails to take Taiwan in a direct assault, it would be a mortal failure.
This is not to say that amphibious operations have no role in modern warfare. Quite the opposite. Well-trained and well-equipped forces arriving from the sea at unguarded points can make all the difference in the overall success of a military campaign.
Since World War II, several nations have conducted high-profile and successful amphibious assaults against prepared enemy positions ashore. The largest of these were essentially under WW2-like conditions, such as General Douglas MacArthur’s descent on Inchon during the Korean War in 1950 and, most instructively, the PLA’s seizure of the large island of Hainan under the control of Nationalist forces in 1949. Both of these operations were successful, but they also were the last of their kind. For our purposes, the latter is more important because it informs PLA notions about seizing the island of Taiwan.
While the PLA has an overwhelming advantage over Nationalist forces on Taiwan in all material categories, the one thing it lacks is position. Taiwan has what could be called a front facing the Taiwan Strait and a rear backed by the Philippine Sea, which is really a wide lobe of the open Pacific. The PLA would need to control both of these if it wants even a chance at achieving a successful amphibious landing. Chinese forces would have to concentrate in ports and airfields opposite Taiwan in an age when satellites see everything. There would be no element of surprise. The invasion forces would have to cross over 120 miles of open ocean to get at the nearest usable beaches. They would want to range even farther to hit multiple landing beaches or gain a modicum of advantage through misdirection.
A significant number of invading troops would be deposited via helicopter, bypassing beaches. These troops would be used to secure strategic points inland—at least those that get through the blizzard of air-defense missiles and artillery. But the PLA would need the beaches and eventually the port cities near Taipei in the north and Tainan City in the south to bring ashore heavy forces to secure the coastal region and fight the land battle inland. This isn’t going to happen, even with China’s vast naval expansion.
Rules of the Game
War operates at two levels. There is the public-relations campaign declaring this or that inviolate, immutable or otherwise non-negotiable position based on sovereignty or divine right. And there is the reality of how far a country’s power actually extends. China spends a lot of effort on the former. Loudly. It also spends a lot of money to try to prepare the field diplomatically (and commercially) and to develop actual power.
True, China is committing a huge amount of effort and treasure to build a modern navy. The sorts of ships it is building are intended in part to control the South China Sea and deter U.S. intervention in the area, but also to protect its interests abroad by projecting power out of its region. A lot of attention is being lavished on the sorts of landing-ship-dock class and small carrier ships China is building for the PLA navy. These are too few and insignificant to be of much consequence in a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan, except after a beachhead has already been secured. They are too vulnerable.
China gets to project its power only as much as the U.S. allows it to. This no doubt drives Beijing a little crazy, but there it is. China has never fought a carrier battle. It has never waged a submarine campaign. It has never launched an amphibious invasion in the modern sense of the word; Hainan was more than 70 years ago. For that matter, neither has the U.S., even though it has a huge amount of operational knowledge in all of those areas.
China has no operational knowledge of naval war in any capacity except skirmishing against patrol cutters and harassing fishing boats. The idea that it could secure the approaches to a hostile and resisting Taiwan and land the hundreds of thousands of troops needed to overpower the island’s defenses is laughable. This has nothing to do with the capability and grit of the PLA soldier; China might have pulled it off 50 years ago. It has everything to do with the stark realities of war in the missile age.
Modern surface warships are one-touch vessels. The WW2 notion of armored vessels slugging it out with shells and torpedoes in Iron Bottom Sound off Guadalcanal is long past. A frigate or a destroyer hit with a modern anti-ship missile would be put out of action, if not actually lost.
The 1982 Falklands War between Britain and Argentina is perhaps the most important conflict of the modern era for anyone interested in air-sea operations. Setting aside the political and diplomatic aspects of the war, the engagements between the U.K.’s Royal Navy task force and Argentine forces was an eye opener for naval strategists and naval architects alike. Using iron bombs and a handful of French-made Exocet anti-ship missiles, Argentina sank or critically damaged over a dozen vessels in the armada and came within a hair’s breadth of forcing Britain to call off its effort to retake the islands by force.
It is worth noting that the British took great pains to land their soldiers and marines far away from fortified Argentine defenders ashore, which caused a number of logistical problems, particularly after all the heavy-lift helicopters were lost when two Argentine Exocet missiles sank the transport Atlantic Conveyor that was carrying them.
Also instructive in this context is the frigate USS Stark, struck during the Iran-Iraq War in 1987 by two Exocets launched by an Iraqi aircraft, apparently in a case of misidentification. The attack claimed the lives of 37 Americans and left the ship helpless. Only prompt and effective damage control work kept her from sinking.
Taiwan is festooned with missiles. Yet its military concluded after a 2020 computer simulation that it didn’t have enough and that it would only sink or disable about half of the PLA invasion flotilla. Taiwan does have its own anti-ship cruise missiles deployed, and it recently closed a deal to buy 400 new Harpoon anti-ship missiles from the U.S. Produced by Boeing, the Harpoon is roughly analogous to the Exocet and is the primary anti-ship missile deployed by U.S. forces and allies that don’t prefer their own missiles. Taiwan also has a large number of short-range Hellfire missiles that are typically anti-tank weapons but are perfectly effective against landing craft and similar inshore targets.
Any PRC invasion fleet approaching Taiwan would find itself showered with anti-ship missiles. All it takes is one hit to put a vessel out of action. If Taiwan could take out half of the invading armada that quickly, it would be in pretty good shape. There has been a lot of posturing here from both sides. But the PRC could not survive as a regime if it suffered such losses. Great Britain might have been able to back away from the Falklands crisis after a military repulse and make a political deal with Argentina. But the Tory government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would have collapsed.
If the PRC tries and fails to take Taiwan, the CCP is done for. Why? Because Beijing has staked a tremendous amount of its reputation on its absolute right to assert control over Taiwan at a time of its choosing. It has also raised expectations among its population of China’s inevitable victory. All of which means that the people would not stand for an ignominious defeat, which makes the attempt all that riskier.
To complicate matters for the PRC, which, to remind everybody, has no experience in this area, Taiwan has a number of outlying islands large enough to host missile launchers and even fighter aircraft. Thus, a PLA thrust at Taiwan would encounter a gauntlet of defensive fire from multiple approaches. Of course, China is well aware of this, and such a thrust would not be attempted until these flanking positions had been eliminated or suppressed.
In the event, Taiwan would be subjected to a bombardment from the PLA’s ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and air force prior to any invasion attempt, the likes of which has not been unleashed since the “shock and awe” stage of the 2003 Iraq War. Taiwan’s airfields, naval ports, coastal artillery positions, missile installations, radar stations, command and control facilities and troop concentrations would be targeted. Taiwan could expect to have all of its significant bases suppressed by the PLA’s air force and its ballistic and cruise missiles.
Taiwan has its own formidable air force and arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles capable of hitting the Chinese mainland. However, the PLA would probably avoid concentrating its invasion flotilla and supporting aircraft in staging bases within striking range of Taiwan until its ability to hit them had been eliminated.
Of course, Taiwan’s military planners know this. They have spent 70 years facing this threat and digging in. Much of the interior of the nearly 14,000 square mile island—about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined—is mountainous and jungle-covered. You can hide a lot of Harpoon launchers and Hellfire-equipped Apache helicopters there. Also, Taiwan practices dispersing its fighter planes to operate from rural highways, much as Sweden does, and could prolong the preliminary stages of an invasion campaign, making it more painful for the attacker.
Finally, even if the PLA achieved a useful lodgment on Taiwan’s western coastal plain, it would face a difficult, uphill battle to take control of the island. Again, decades of building and hiding fortified positions combined with modern missile technology would make this campaign a nightmare for the PLA. In this instance, the experience of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in its 2006 push into Lebanon against Iran-backed Hezbollah militias offers a small-scale example of what the PLA can expect. The battle-hardened and experienced IDF pronounced itself surprised at the effectiveness of Hezbollah defenders lashing out from hidden positions with anti-tank missiles and then disappearing.
All of the above is predicated on the U.S. and other regional powers such as Japan not intervening to counter a PRC effort to take Taiwan by force. If Taiwan’s allies do intervene, then an operation that is already unacceptably risky becomes impossible. Despite widely publicized efforts to develop its “anti-access/area-denial” capabilities to keep U.S. forces out of the region, the fact is China cannot possibly do this and invade Taiwan at the same time. Moreover, the area-denial strategy is by no means guaranteed to work. If that happens, the war is broadened to the point where China’s mainland assets would then be at risk.
Earlier this month, U.S. defense officials were on Capitol Hill with deep concerns about America’s ability to successfully engage the PLA’s naval and air forces in the Indo-Pacific. The solution, as always, is more funding. Assuming the extra money is coming, the U.S. is quite capable of bolstering the air and missile defenses of Guam and basing more ships and aircraft in the region.
The only way the CCP has a chance of establishing its rule over Taiwan is if it enters in a semi-permissive environment, at the invitation—or at least acquiescence—of some significant Taiwanese faction. This would come after a campaign of isolating Taiwan from its supporters in the international community, perhaps combined with the PLA ratcheting up military pressure as it has done in the past. China could also conceivably seize some of Taiwan’s vulnerable outlying islands, attempt a blockade or strike select targets on the main island. Yet such actions invite a military response from Taipei and give the U.S. and other nations time to prepare an effective intervention.
The best way for Taiwan to remain autonomous (and de facto independent) is for the U.S. to sell the Nationalists all the weapons they want—more F-16s, more Harpoons, more warships—however much CCP officials storm and bluster. The new Biden administration, perceived as China-friendly, will be under intense pressure to hold back on new weapons for Taiwan. The harder Taiwan is to crack, the longer it will remain free. Likewise, the clearer the U.S. makes its support for an autonomous Taiwan, the greater the chance for peace in the Taiwan Strait.
This is the second article in a series titled “The Future of Taiwan.” The first article focuses on steps the U.S. can take at home and abroad to prevent a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The third article discusses Taiwan’s vital role in the production of semiconductors. In the fourth article, a Taipei journalist recounts the years of living with cross-Strait tensions.