You can read the original article in Spanish by clicking here.
Taiwan is not Ukraine (in case you didn’t know it)
The present analysis swims against the widespread morbid thinking and well established opinion, namely that China will undoubtedly end up invading Taiwan by force and that it will manage to do so without any kind of impediment, defeating both the Taiwanese and the Americans or anyone else who dares to navigate through the Strait of Taiwan/Formosa that new D-Day.
Despite not being an issue disregarded by the mass media, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought back to the news an upcoming —imminent, we are assured without embarrassment— Chinese military invasion of Taiwan. Analysts believe that China is closely monitoring how the US responds to Putin’s challenge in Ukraine and that will take careful note of Washington’s and NATO’s reaction against Russia. To be honest, they are not completely wrong, but they do are mistaken in thinking that the war in Ukraine will determine whether or not Beijing decides to launch a full-scale amphibious invasion of Taiwan. The reason is that, despite all appearances, China still lacks the required military capability to do so in the short and medium term.
Two completely different military operations (in case you didn’t notice)
Firstly, it should be pointed out that although China can carpet bomb Taiwan with ballistic and cruise missiles and employ hybrid warfare tactics to weaken the island before setting a foot on it, the heavily armed Taiwanese military is not the Ukrainian army and, secondly, Taiwan and China do not share a land border like Russia and Ukraine, but rather a strip of sea, the Strait of Taiwan or Formosa, which would be immediately mined by Taiwan as soon as war begins. Therefore, as powerful as China is, and nobody denies that fact, if it intends to occupy the island it can only be done by carrying out a large-scale amphibious landing, which means a completely different military operation than the one the Russian army ―or Putin, according to media’s narrative― develops on Ukrainian territory.
However, Western’s obsession about a war breaking out between the two shores of the Taiwan Strait has been fueled since many years by the United States Indo-Pacific Command, which warns us about the gradual formation of the required forces by China to invade and subdue Taiwan, pointing out that it could be as soon as 2030. Meeting such a tight deadline could sound pretty difficult at first glance, but it is not impossible in light of China’s unwavering determination to reunify Taiwan with the mainland and realize the long-awaited dream of ‘One China’ (oh yes, there are two, sorry). Still, such analysis is based on a fundamental misperception about the ability of Chinese Navy (PLAN) to launch a large-scale amphibious attack.
If China were to launch such an operation against Taiwan, the following questions should be asked: what would China need in terms of fighting forces and force levels? Does it have the numerical superiority and the necessary military and logistical capabilities? If not, when could China have already organized those forces, which would add up to hundreds of thousands of troops and thousands of ships and landing crafts? To date no one has successfully addressed the study of these issues. Existing studies have focused on how (by sea, yes, we already know that), but not on the specific requirements in terms of both human and material resources required for the invasion.
Military background against Beijing (letting you know it)
As a matter of fact, there are two examples of failed invasion attempts on territory under control of the Republic of China (ROC), rather than Taiwan island itself. In 1949, just after the civil war on continental soil between Mao Zedong’s communists and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist side, the by then undefeated People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched its first amphibious assault in its short history to take the small archipelago of Kinmen (Quemoy), just 2 km away from Xiamen (Amoy), the latter already in the hands of the communists. The Battle of Kinmen/Quemoy, known in Taiwan as the Battle of Guningtou Beach, took place from October 25th to the 27th, 1949, just a few weeks after Chairman Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from the balcony at the Forbidden City in front of Tiananmen Square.
The operation ended in complete disaster for the red hordes. Of the 20,000 troops deployed during the assault, only 9,000 managed to land aboard 200 boats previously confiscated to the nationalist army. The result was the humiliating defeat of three PLA regiments at the hands of a nationalist contingent that, it should be noted, had withdrawn to that tiny archipelago after suffering successive defeats on mainland. The failure at the Battle of Kinmen was a serious blow to PLA’s morale since it uncovered its inability to carry out an amphibious landing.
The second landing, also unsuccessful, took place in the Battle of Dengbu Island, in the Zhoushan (Chusan) archipelago in front of Ningbo. The attack ran from the 3rd-5th of November, 1949, and resulted in another ROC’s victory. Again, some 20,000 attackers succumbed to an unknown number of KMT defenders who inflicted a loss of 3,600 men to PLA forces, almost the same number as in the Battle of Kinmen (3,800). However, nationalist troops were later forced to withdraw when the PLA gained air superiority over the archipelago, ultimately leaving Dengbu Island under PRC’s control.
Successful invasions of Taiwan (none of them by commies, so sorry)
As a matter of fact, Taiwan has been successfully invaded by two different Chinese armies from the mainland and —you won’t believe this— even by the Imperial Japanese Army (oh yeah baby, spare it to the commies). Red China failures could have made a case for the impregnability of Taiwan, but the truth is that not everybody is an invincible superpower as the PRC… Therefore we can guess why Taiwan hasn’t been subdued by China yet, surely because the challenge is not big enough.
We also can imagine that Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan was made through holographic manipulation on TV, otherwise we cannot figure it out. Joking aside, Pelosi’s visit shows that in Taiwan anyone can spend a night without being disturbed. Her visit could even serve as slogan for encouraging tourism to the island: ‘Visit Taiwan, it’s safe!’, ‘She did it, what are you waiting for?’ And as far as we are concerned, it is safe and you shouldn’t wait for anything. Just remember to put on the earplugs to avoid hearing the barking of the Pekingese dog, but don’t worry because there is no real danger of being bitten. It has been proven by Pelosi.
If we don’t count the Spanish and Dutch invasions, since they were more a process of colonization (very short in the Spanish case) than military operations through amphibious landings, then we are left with three successful invasions of Taiwan, each leaving a hero or a villain for history books: Koxinga, Shi Lang and the Japanese Empire (needless to say who’s the villain, right?).
Operation Causeway (this, you didn’t know it)
Obviously, at that time the PLA was unaware of the existence of the only modern study devoted to the invasion of Taiwan. Indeed, to date, the only publicly known plan studying the military force required to conquer Taiwan through an amphibious landing assault was drawn up by US Army towards the end of World War II in the Pacific.
In 1944, Operation Causeway was the American plan to retake Formosa from 30,000 Japanese soldiers who, by the way, were left to fend for themselves. Still, the planned invasion force doubled the total of Allied troops that landed in Normandy during Operation Overlord’s D-Day —400,000 troops who would have been deployed via more than 4,000 ships and landing crafts. However, at a meeting in July, 1944, between President Roosevelt, General MacArthur and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, the two military men expressed their opposition to Operation Causeway and advised Roosevelt to change it for the invasion of Luzon island in the Philippines.
To be fair with the Asian Panda (sorry, Asian Giant), we must to admit that not all were defeats in its attempts to «liberate» (as Chinese themselves put it) the island of Taiwan. In April 1950, as part of the campaign to free all Chinese coastal islands still in the hands of the Kuomintang, Beijing carried out an amphibious landing operation to occupy Hainan island, located in southern China in front of the Gulf of Tonkin. This time the PLA prepared the assault meticulously since the end of 1949 and carried it out with 120,000 troops delivered in 2,135 wooden junks, suffering only 4,500 fatalities compared to the shocking figure of 33,000 dead from the nationalist side.
However, we should not be tempted to compare the successful invasion of Hainan, carried out more than 70 years ago, against an island of smaller size, with a different orography and at a very short distance from mainland, with the operation required to land on the western coast of Taiwan.
After landing comes pacification (you should know it)
Back to the current situation, with a potential defense force of 450,000 Taiwanese soldiers, using the classic ratio of three attackers for each defender taught in war schools, China would need to deploy roughly 1.2 million troops (of a total active force of 2 million) to invade Taiwan. Thousands of ships and boats would be needed to land them, and doing so would take weeks even if the final figure happened to be some how shorter. But the worst would come later: with the Taiwanese military resistance hypothetically defeated, how many occupation forces would be necessary to ‘pacify’ the Taiwanese people? Surely Beijing knows what happened to others in Afghanistan and Iraq, not least in Vietnam.
Currently, China has only a small fraction of the ships needed to carry out such a large landing and lacks the capability to do so in the near future. But the reality is that there are no current plans suggesting that China intends to acquire such a force, although it is true that this could change at any moment in the future. However, we should not confuse the frantic construction of aircraft carriers and the modernization of the PLAN in general as ironclad proof that Beijing is building that fighting force required for the invasion, for the simple reason that the numbers, impressive as they are, are still insufficient.
In spite of this, we need to be fair and reckon that China is making significant progress with the commissioning of Type 075 Yushen-class Landing Helicopter Dock amphibious assault ships (LHD), of which three have been built so far, two already in service and the third one right now in sea trials. China plans to build a total of eight Type 075 ships. Eight units, too, are what China has already built of Type 071 Yuzhao class Landing Platform Dock amphibious assault ships (LPD). In fact, based on its classification -amphibious assault ships- we can ensure that China will never assault Taiwan by force before having a sufficient fleet of this kind of ships.
However, taking into account that before a hypothetical invasion of Taiwan, Chinese PLAN must seal off the Strait of Formosa in order to prevent the US and other members of the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) committed to the security of Taiwan, such as Japan and Australia, to come in rescue of Taipei, it is clear that most of these LHD and LPD ships and their helicopters would be required for anti-submarine warfare operations from the beginning or shortly after the assault on Taiwanese coast began. Much of the same would happen to the brand new fleet of aircraft carriers that Beijing is frantically building. Therefore, as much as impressive they are, numbers still do not match Chinese dreams on Taiwan’s conquest.
Moreover, the orography of Taiwan does not welcome any type of amphibious assault. The few points on Taiwan’s western coastline ideal for landing are hemmed in by nearby mountainous areas that stretch the 400 km length of the island, with some elevations reaching 3,000 meters, ideal terrain for Taiwanese defenders to wage a guerrilla warfare (see the map of Operation Causeway). Another insignificant detail, as they all are when contemporary morbidity and obsession with the rise of China replace rational judgement: Taiwan lacks the required infrastructure to sustain more than a million invaders and their logistical needs, most of which would have to be supplied from mainland.
Hedgehog/porcupine defense strategy (forget it…)
Taiwan is a heavily armed country. In recent years, Taipei has signed new contracts with Washington for the supply of equipment and weapons systems, including the purchase of 66 new F-16 Block 70/72, 4 MQ-9B Sea Guardian armed UAVs, 100 launchers of coastal defense for Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles, 11 HIMARS multiple rocket launchers for ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles (with 64 missiles) and 135 SLAM-ER air-to-surface missiles for the F-16s. But buying «systems» alone does not guarantee deterrence against China because the mainland is still more heavily armed than Taiwan. That is why the strategy based on the acquisition and deployment of both offensive and defensive systems is insufficient.
Taiwan will hardly be able to deter China if its defense is based solely on launching ballistic and cruise missiles against coastal or inland targets on the mainland. Taiwan won’t also be able to reject a gigantic amphibious landing against its home soil just by having a few more submarines or anti-ship missiles in its inventory. Same for Taiwan’s Air Force. However, for a lower cost than the acquisition of conventional systems, Taiwan could put in place a hedgehog defense capability ―metaphorically alluding the way this animal defends itself― the purpose of which is to counter the enemy’s strategy and disrupt any attack by deploying defensive measures of massive proportions causing serious damage to the aggressor and thus deter him from an attack.
In the case of Taiwan, this defensive strategy would involve the combination of a large number of drones and other unmanned vehicles along with anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles such as Stingers and Javelins, as well as sea mines to prevent or severely penalize any amphibious landing in the first place. It would also require the use of anti-command and anti-control cyberwarfare and influence operations, along with the widespread use of deception and disorientation to disrupt and confuse the enemy.
Taiwan should focus its limited resources on reaching the optimum degree of deterrence and, should this be still insufficient, being able to survive PLA’s first attack while remaining in a position to launch a decisive counterstrike using electronic countermeasures, decentralized communication systems and a well equipped and trained army with great mobility and stealth capabilities. Such a defensive approach would take advantage of the island’s orography, increasing the asymmetric defense capabilities in order to discourage and reject Chinese landing for as long as possible, effectively resisting it while waiting for an intervention of America or Japan, both, or a multinational coalition as QUAD or AUKUS. Such a strategy would greatly complicate any attempt by China to take over the island manu militari.
High political risk for Beijing (commies must know it)
Unlike his predecessors, Chinese President Xi Jinping has shown greater determination in his desire for reunification. The report of the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2017 reflected such a will and enthusiasm, announcing that the «great rejuvenation» of the Chinese nation must be achieved by 2049 (PRC’s centenary), and that reunification with Taiwan is an essential condition. However, it is unlikely that the continent will have any intention of seeking reunification by force in the short and medium term.
The main reason is that internal political risks are very high if the use of military force is not successful. And, in fact, it can’t be successful. Having prepared for a conflict against the communists for decades, Taiwan has strengthened its defensive capabilities. Taiwan’s democratic will is stronger than China’s totalitarian determination. Polls show that 80 percent of Taiwanese are willing to defend their island by force. The invasion could never be successful because it is not just an amphibious landing assault that, perhaps, could end in a victory, but after that operation, which is already extremely complex, would come the occupation of the territory and the pacification of Taiwanese people. No matter what they think in Beijing, it is impossible not to get bogged down in such a deep quagmire.
In the context of the 20th Party Congress in 2022, Xi Jinping needs a stable domestic political environment to ensure the extension of his term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A brinkmanship towards a military incursion into Taiwan could jeopardize China’s internal stability, causing public discontent and a backlash that could topple his leadership and hasten the downfall of the CCP. Chinese politburo would promptly behead any leader who endangered the very existence of the Party.
There are still other options for reunification. In China there are those who suggest that the possibility of a peaceful reunification has not yet been completely lost and that Taiwan can be compelled to reunify through the so-called «Beiping model». This model is based on the agreement reached in 1949 between the PLA and the Kuomintang garrison meant to defend Beiping —now Beijing—, thanks to which the nationalists troops laid down their arms without resistance, thus avoiding bloodshed.
Such a model could be an option to be considered by Taipei in the event that Beijing, aware of the practical impossibility of achieving success in the invasion and subsequent occupation of Taiwan, came up with a partial attack on Taiwanese sovereign territory, staging the only invasion of Kinmen and Matsu islands, which the PLA and PLAN should now be capable of subduing by force. But the use of military force even in those islands would be unnecessary if Taiwan was to accept a Beiping-type solution, which in return, as a compensation to Taipei, included Beijing’s unspoken acceptance of not to invade Taiwan island.
After a peaceful and bloodless invasion of Matsu and Kinmen islands, a very beneficial ceasefire could be reached for both parties, since China would have shown to its people and the rest of the world that was not kidding when it claimed one day would invade Taiwan, and the Republic of China would keep its main territory and continue to exist as a de facto independent nation for who knows how many more decades to come. If someone thinks that this option does not make any sense, then he is completely ignorant about the mindset of Chinese people and the obsession of Chinese leaders for preserving their prestige, reputation and appearances.
Prestige, reputation and all the achievements gained by the PRC since 1979 -the year Deng Xiaoping introduced the ‘Reform and Opening’ policy that made China the world’s factory by attracting the largest foreign direct investment in history- would also be the scapegoats of a large-scale military aggression against Taiwan.
The damage to the Chinese economy would be irreparable, not only because of the harsh economic sanctions that would be applied against Beijing ―the only right parallelism with the Russian invasion of Ukraine―, but also because the first and greatest affected by the closure of navigation through the strait of Taiwan would be China itself and its economy. Even if Taipei decided to cross the Rubicon, that is, if it proclaimed its independence from China (from the Republic of China, not from the People’s Republic to which does not belong and has never belonged) it would be much better for Beijing to remain calm or just stage a tragicomic theater invasion like the one explained above.
Three Taiwan Strait Crisis (until now, just let you know it)
After all, China has made attempts to invade Taiwan on several occasions, always starting with an attack on Matsu or Kinmen islands, or both at the same time, but almost without any success. They are the so-called Taiwan Strait crisis. The first one, called the Formosa Crisis or the 54-55 Crisis, currently simply known as the First Taiwan Strait Crisis, unfolded on Kinmen and Matsu Islands, relentlessly bombarded by PLA field artillery despite warnings of Washington. On that occasion United States came to think seriously of using atomic weapons against Mao’s China. Finally, the crisis ended with Red China taking over (‘liberating’, as they put it) most of the little islands of Chinese coast still in nationalist hands, with the exception of the aforementioned Kinmen and Matsu archipelagos. As a result of this crisis, Washington and Taipei signed the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, in force until January 1, 1980.
The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis (1958) took place, again, in the Kinmen archipelago. Again, Beijing bombarded nationalist army positions in Kinmen and partially in Matsu with heavy artillery. It also attempted an amphibious landing operation on Dongding Island, but was rejected by nationalist forces. However, on that occasion, knowing that Taipei was under the protective umbrella of Washington, China’s objective was not so much to liberate those territories but to test the scope of United States’ defense commitment with Taiwan after the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty.
In theory, the treaty did not include the defense of Mainland’s coastal islands. However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States decided that it was necessary to defend the islands even if the use of nuclear weapons was required (third such threat to China if we count the Korean War). After the US supplied Taiwanese Air Force with brand new AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, thanks to what they obtained air superiority over Kinmen and Matsu islands, and after the communist guns had exhausted all its shells, Beijing announced a unilateral ceasefire on October 6, 1958.
Finally, between 1995-96, China caused the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, the last one to date. On that occasion, Beijing did not intend to invade Taiwan, not even Matsu or Kinmen islands, but rather launched two rounds of ballistic missiles against the waters surrounding Taiwan. The first round was launched in 1995, with the aim of reminding then Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui that his foreign policy was moving dangerously away from the ‘One China’ political principle. The second round was launched to intimidate and blackmail Taiwanese people on the eve of 1996 presidential election. However, the blackmail backfired and Taiwan people re-elected Mr Lee by a margin wider than the polls predicted.
The United States became involved again in defense of Taiwan by mobilizing the US Navy in the Pacific at a level not seen since Vietnam War. However, while the massive deployment of US Navy had the expected effect of deterring the Red Dragon, it resulted in the Chinese leadership making the decision to develop its navy, hitherto little more than a obsolete green-water navy with many limitations, into a blue-water full mission capable maritime force. Sometimes it’s better not to wake the dragon…
The PLAN has evolved enormously since then, remaining firm in its desire to build a blue-water navy that allow China to break down the siege to which it is subjected in the First Island Chain (going from the Kurils to Borneo), with Taiwan island —et voilà— as its epicenter. However, as we have tried to expose in this lengthy, well-documented and sometimes funny article, total war against Taiwan is not a viable option now or in the near future if the stated goal is the complete conquest and subjugation of Taiwan and its people. In the meantime, China will continue to employ hybrid tactics, which are the best alternative to a military attack, and explore ways to reunify Taiwan with the People’s Republic without shedding the blood of its brothers across the strait.
You can read the original article in Spanish by clicking here.