Is a Chinese military attack on Taiwan inevitable?
Analysis Conflict and Fragility

Is a Chinese military attack on Taiwan inevitable?

06 Oct 2021 - 15:38
Photo: Taiwanese soldiers stand guard as a Chinook Helicopter carrying a Taiwan flag flies over as part of a rehearsal for Taiwan's Double-Ten National Day Celebration in Taoyuan, Taiwan 28 September 2021. © Ceng Shou Yi - NurPhoto
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The odds of war between China and Taiwan seem to be growing by the day. In this first part of a trilogy on the China-Taiwan conflict, James Holmes (US Naval War College) examines the military options of both countries. Although “Beijing craves a short, sharp, decisive war should it decide to launch an assault”, Holmes argues that Taiwan can deny President Xi Jinping his short war, and manage to prosper amid turbulent times.

Even though some commentators are confident that the chance of war between China and Taiwan is remote1, the odds of military action are growing by the day. In large part because Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping has publicly vowed, again and again, to wrench control of the island from its inhabitants.

He also may have set a deadline, amplifying the pressure. It is less clear when that deadline falls. Party leaders routinely cite 2049, the centennial of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, as the date when the national rejuvenation project2  must be complete.3

Earlier this year, however, outgoing US Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Phil Davidson told Congress that Beijing might move against Taiwan far earlier than the centennial – perhaps within the next six years (closer to five now).4 China-watchers have taken to calling this interval the “Davidson window”, meaning China’s window of opportunity to seize this prime real estate.

Holmes - Commander U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), Adm. Phil Davidson, participates in an honors ceremony at the Brunei Ministry of Defence in 2019. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command
Commander U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), Adm. Phil Davidson, participates in an honors ceremony at the Brunei Ministry of Defence in 2019. © U.S. Indo-Pacific Command / Flickr

A leader who makes a promise in public had better keep it. Xi has deployed an extreme form of the ‘commitment tactic’ championed by the late Harvard economist Thomas Schelling.5 To oversimplify a trifle, the commitment tactic is often on display when parties to a negotiation engage in ‘hard bargaining’ over fixed demands.

Union bosses, for instance, sometimes state their positions in uncompromising fashion at the outset of talks. In doing so negotiators deliberately take away their freedom to compromise – and demonstrate to all parties that they will not flinch under stress. If they do, they lose face.

Similarly, Xi Jinping must act lest a wrathful Chinese populace hold him accountable for failing to keep his pledge to regain every inch of ground once ruled by dynastic China.

Xi Jinping’s options
Let us go through his options in broad terms. First, Beijing would doubtless prefer to win without fighting, true to Chinese strategic traditions.6 That is not because party magnates harbour scruples over using violence, or goodwill towards Taiwan. It is because aggressors love peace.7 A bloodless triumph lets them get their way while sparing them the dangers, hardships, and costs of war.

But it is increasingly doubtful that Taiwan will capitulate without warfare. Polls reveal that an overpowering majority of islanders now define themselves not as Chinese but as Taiwanese.8 As a corollary, they reject the legitimacy of the mainland’s claim to be their rightful sovereign.

Nor is Beijing helping its cause by meddling in the island’s domestic politics. Xi sometimes cosies up to leaders of Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), one of the island’s major parties. He recently sent newly elected KMT chairman Eric Chu a letter of congratulations in which he called on the KMT and CCP to work together on a “shared political basis” to achieve “the unification of the country.”9 In remarks following his election, Chu vowed to “rebuild cross-Taiwan Strait exchange platforms and communication channels”.10 That is a less-than-robust stand on behalf of Taiwan’s de facto independence.

Holmes - Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 2014. Yoshitaka Ando - Flickr
Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 2014. © Yoshitaka Ando / Flickr

One imagines the ruling, independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will remind the electorate of such cross-strait overtures again and again come election time – and, in all likelihood, prevail at the ballot box yet again.11 The Chinese Communist Party is an adversary that routinely threatens to extinguish Taiwan’s political existence and brandishes the sabre to accent its threats.12

Chu missed a good chance to distance the KMT from the dark future Beijing envisions imposing on Taiwan. And Xi missed a good opportunity to keep silent and trust to the island’s politics to work in China’s favour.

Although this appears less and less likely. Compounding Beijing’s self-defeating actions, Taiwanese closely monitor events in places like Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Over the past year Hong Kong has seen personal liberty crushed under the pretence of protecting Chinese national security.13 Xinjiang is the site of an ongoing cultural genocide.14

Beijing craves a short, sharp, decisive war should it decide to launch an assault

Taiwanese know a similar fate would befall them should they consent to mainland rule. As a result, cowing Taipei into submission is a long shot for Beijing and getting longer all the time. Xi stands little chance of winning without fighting before the Davidson window slams shut.

Second, should the mainland leadership opt to use force, it might resort to peripheral air or sea campaigns meant to impoverish and demoralise Taiwan’s populace into submission while enfeebling the island’s military. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy could mount a close or distant blockade of merchant shipping bound to or from the island, starving the island of natural-resource imports and the prosperity that comes with seaborne trade. The PLA Air Force and Rocket Force could bombard critical infrastructure to cripple the Taiwanese armed forces and government.

Taken alone, though, such a strategy probably would not subdue the island on Xi Jinping’s timetable. Beijing craves a short, sharp, decisive war should it decide to launch an assault. Otherwise friends of Taiwan, notably the United States and Japan, might have time to rally to reverse aggression.

Holmes -  The guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89) conducts routine operations in the Taiwan Strait in 2020. U.S. Pacific Fleet - Flickr
The guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89) conducts routine operations in the Taiwan Strait in 2020. © U.S. Pacific Fleet / Flickr

Naval blockades and air offensives are the diametric opposite of short wars. These are incremental, slow-moving strategies. They make valuable supplements to more direct campaigns, chiefly those on dry land, and PLA commanders would undoubtedly use them in conjunction with a cross-strait amphibious assault.

They are unlikely to prove decisive in themselves.

Sequential versus cumulative military strategies
The masters of strategy agree. US Navy admiral J. C. Wylie divides military strategies into two broad categories: “sequential” and “cumulative.”15 For him sequential strategies are straightforward: an armed force undertakes tactical actions in sequence, one after the other, until its final goal is in hand.

Each battle or engagement comes after the one before it in time and space. It is shaped by its predecessors and shapes the encounters that come after. Sequential strategies can typically be depicted on the map or nautical chart with a continuous line or curve pointing to the final objective.

The Allied drive across Western Europe into Germany in 1944-1945 was a quintessential sequential campaign,16 as were the Central and South Pacific offensives against Japan.17 They brought Allied forces to the Axis’ door, where they could compel unconditional surrender.

Cumulative strategies are scattershot by contrast. Small-scale tactical actions happen all over the place, and they are unconnected to one another in time or space. No action accomplishes much in itself; taken in aggregate, they can wear down an antagonist over time, depriving it of manpower and war-making implements.

Admiral Wylie maintains that cumulative strategies are not winning strategies. They are difference-makers in contests between evenly matched foes. Wylie classifies air campaigns and naval blockades as cumulative strategies.

The Second World War combined a bomber offensive against Germany18 and a submarine campaign against Japan19, both archetypal cumulative ventures. Neither defeated the Axis powers; both hastened their defeat.

Wars are won and lost on land
Nautical historian Sir Julian Corbett agrees with Wylie that naval operations are seldom decisive in their own right. For Corbett this is self-evident: “It scarcely needs saying that it is almost impossible that a war can be decided by naval action alone. Unaided, naval pressure can only work by a process of exhaustion. Its effects must always be slow, and so galling both to our own commercial community and to neutrals”, that they are inconclusive.20 Such measures might exhaust a seagoing foe over time, but marine blockades are as apt to affront friends as to overcome enemies.

Chinese leaders are strategically competent. In all likelihood they understand they cannot score the quick knockout punch they need by applying air and sea power alone. In the end, a sequential blow constitutes the only way to wrest contested ground from its occupants in a hurry.

How can Taiwan and its unofficial allies prepare for a sudden onslaught?

Wylie and Corbett concur that wars are won and lost on land, not at sea or aloft. Humanity lives on land; therefore great affairs of state are settled there. Air and sea power contribute to the war effort by moulding the terrestrial fight to one’s advantage and the opponent’s disadvantage.

The process of elimination, then, leaves a cross-strait amphibious assault as the PLA’s sole strategic option if it hopes to prevail without prolonged warfare. How can Taiwan and its unofficial allies prepare for a sudden onslaught? By designing strategy and forces that deny China the speedy victory it covets while invoking the spectre of defeat in CCP minds.

Holmes - The flag of the Republic of China, commonly referred to as the Flag of Taiwan. Uming Photography - Flickr
The flag of the Republic of China, commonly referred to as the Flag of Taiwan. ©  Uming Photography / Flickr

Xi Jinping may have put himself on a deadline to gain control of Taiwan, whether peacefully or through conquest. The logic of Schelling’s commitment tactic makes failing to try to uphold the commitment nigh on unthinkable. But an even worse outcome for Xi than inaction is conceivable. What if the PLA does act, and loses?

Taiwan cannot afford to run an arms race with its giant neighbour. The good news is that it does not need to

Postponing cherished aims until more promising times is bad enough. It makes an authoritarian leader look weak and feckless in the eyes of the populace. Fighting and losing is worse. It proves to the populace that their leader is weak and feckless. Patriotic fury might lash the Chinese Communist Party – perhaps, in the extreme case, bringing down CCP rule.

That is the spectre Taiwanese and allied martial preparations should conjure in the minds of Xi and his lieutenants. Doubt and dread are the island’s friends. They translate into deterrence. Deter Beijing day by day for enough days in a row, and good things may happen in East Asia.

Simple, right? But as martial grandmaster Carl von Clausewitz notes: everything in strategy is simple, “but the simplest thing is difficult”.7 That’s doubly true here. Taiwan cannot afford to run an arms race with its giant neighbour.

Taiwan’s strategy
The good news is that it does not need to. Taiwan’s armed forces need not and must not try to match the PLA ship for ship, plane for plane, and tank for tank to construct a force capable of stymieing an amphibious invasion. What they need to acquire are weapon systems capable of dodging the brunt of a Chinese aerial assault while striking back hard at shipping in the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere around the island’s perimeter.

Taiwan must make itself a porcupine to withstand coercion or attack.21

Happily, the porcupine’s quills are cheap and thus affordable in bulk. On shore, mobile anti-ship missile batteries can shift around to evade PLA strikes while lobbing firepower at lumbering transports ferrying troops and matériel across the strait. Taipei must procure them in the largest number possible.

Holmes - Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen reviews a Marine Corps battalion in 2020. Wikimediacommons
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen reviews a Marine Corps battalion in 2020. © Wikimediacommons

At sea, the Taiwan Navy must accept that it can no longer win command of the sea in a major battle against the PLA Navy.22 But it does not need to. The navy merely needs to deny China control of the sea to balk a cross-strait offensive.23 This is feasible and affordable even on Taipei’s modest budget.

Last year Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen instituted a program aimed at building an indigenous diesel submarine force for combat in the strait.24 This may prove to be a good move over the long haul, but it takes time to assemble the infrastructure and expertise to construct an entirely new ship type.

The pressure on Xi Jinping to act is mounting by the day

In the meantime Taipei should double down on acquisitions of sea mines, still among the most lethal armaments against shipping, especially in confined waters like the Taiwan Strait. Also invaluable are small, stealthy, fleet-of-foot surface patrol craft packed with anti-ship missiles.25

Military commanders, then, should gear their preparations to fending off a cross-strait attack. They should also ponder how to help allied forces reach the combat theatre without suffering debilitating damage. Keeping down the costs of intervention to the United States and other potential defenders will make it more palatable for Washington and other capitals to order their armed forces into action.

In short, the pressure on Xi Jinping to act is mounting by the day. He needs to deliver a quick triumph to avert potential catastrophe. By making wise strategy and preparing their forces, however, Taiwan and its benefactors can deny him that short war while dangling the prospect of defeat and disaster before him. And they can prosper amid turbulent times.

Authors

James Holmes
J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College