Clock’s Ticking—Taiwan Could Resist a Chinese Invasion for Just One Month
China grows more powerful by the day as Taiwan withers
In early March, Taiwan’s defense minister Yen Ming estimated the island nation could resist a Chinese onslaught “at least one month”—and that’s assuming other countries aid in Taipei’s defense.
The one month figure is chilling but not surprising, considering Taiwan’s declining military spending and China’s steadily increasing arms budget.
Meanwhile, a new Ministry of National Defense report predicts China could finally have all the right forces and skills its needs to invade Taiwan in just six years’ time.
The report highlights China’s build-up of amphibious ships, Type 99G tanks and WZ-series attack helicopters—all vital equipment for an assault across the Taiwan Strait and over the island’s defended beaches.
Besieging the island fortress
Taiwan, formerly a part of China, became a bastion of anti-Communist forces during the Chinese civil war in the 1940s. The island split from the rest of the country in the aftermath of the conflict. But China has never recognized Taiwan’s independence and has vowed to reclaim the island.
That said, China doesn’t really want to actually invade Taiwan. In attacking Taipei, Beijing risks major economic and political blow-back. The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, for example, resulted in a Western arms embargo that continues to this day.
But a Chinese invasion is not beyond the realm of possibility, especially considering Beijing’s growing power and Taipei’s declining power. Every year, China is more able to invade … and the political cost of doing so arguably declines as the world relies more and more on Chinese investment.
To be clear, China has always had the manpower to invade Taiwan. Leaving aside politics, the major obstacle is the 110-mile-wide Taiwan Strait.
It’s one thing to possess an army of millions. It’s another to get even a small fraction of that force across a heavily-defended body of water.
Only recently has Beijing begun building modern amphibious ships such as the new Type 071-class vessels. Similar to the American San Antonio amphibious transport docks, the Type 071s can carry between up to 800 troops apiece—and land them by way of hovercraft and Z-9 medium helicopters.
The Chinese navy has three Type 071s, with possibly three more under construction. Beijing reportedly is also getting ready to build as many as six large amphibious assault ships with full-size flight decks, rather like the American Wasp-class.
This “six-plus-six” fleet configuration, buttressed by many smaller navy vessels plus commandeered civilian ships, could land up to 10,000 ground troops in one haul. Taiwan’s proximity to the Chinese mainland means such a force could make multiple troop runs during the course of an invasion.
China’s air force has hundreds of Su-27, J-11 and J-10 fighters—and might also acquire J-20 stealth models in coming years. These planes, plus Beijing’s S-400 long-range ground-based air-defense systems, could blanket all of Taiwan with lethal missiles.
Against this rapid Chinese military modernization, Taiwan’s defense budget has remained flat or even declined. At $10.5 billion in 2013, Taiwan’s military spending represents just 2.1 percent of GDP, down from 2.6 percent in 2007. Pres. Ma Ying-jeou has repeatedly promised to spend 3 percent of GDP on defense, but the global economic crisis in 2007 seriously damaged Taiwan’s economy and ended that aspiration.
Taiwan has had a long time to prepare for invasion—and its shows. Taipei’s fortified command center, concealed inside a hollowed-out mountain, compares favorably to America’s NORAD headquarters at Cheyenne Mountain. The Taiwanese air force has at least two underground air bases, including one inside Jiashan Mountain.
Taipei has, however, had problems upgrading and replacing its most important weapons. As China’s political and economic influence rises, most of the rest of the world has grown reluctant to sell military hardware to Taiwan. The island nation produces only a few weapons domestically, including Hsiung Feng II anti-ship missiles and Kuang Hua VI missile boats.
Submarines are one of Taiwan’s biggest dilemmas.
Taipei possesses two World War II-vintage Tench-class submarines and another two Dutch-built Zwaardvis-class boats from 1980s. Taiwan needs new subs, but can’t convince any of the world’s shipyards to produce them.
The U.S. promised to build eight diesel submarines for Taiwan, but in reality American shipbuilders make only nuclear subs and have neither the experience nor the technology to build the conventional boats Taiwan needs. Taipei is mulling building its own subs, but needs outside help.
Likewise, Taiwan wants to upgrade its fleet of 146 U.S.-built F-16 fighters to a more modern standard with new radars and weapons, but Washington has been slow to authorize the upgrades. In the latest blow, the U.S. Air Force recently cancelled its own domestic F-16 upgrade program, which would have covered much of Taiwan’s research-and-development costs.
And then there’s Taiwan’s imminent transition from a draftee military to an all-volunteer force. Volunteer troops are much more expensive, as armies must compete with civilian employers. If Taiwan cannot offset the new personnel costs, it might have to further shrink a military already bottoming out at just 219,000 people.
Now, the United States would likely move to block a Chinese attack on Taiwan. But China is preparing to counter American deployments with carrier-killing ballistic missiles and submarines—aiming to turn the waters around Taiwan into a no-go zone for U.S. forces.
Every year China grows stronger and Taiwan grows weaker. Taiwan’s decline is, in part, relative. China’s steady double-digit military expansion would shift the balance of power even if Taiwan were adding troops and weapons, which it isn’t. An unofficial arms embargo on Taiwan by every country except the United States certainly doesn’t help.
This is mostly Taipei’s fault. The Taiwanese government has slashed military spending by a fifth in the past decade alone. Money is debatably the strongest indicator of how seriously a country takes its own defense. In that respect, it’s getting harder and harder to take Taiwan seriously.
And even the looming prospect of a Chinese invasion hasn’t budged Taipei’s recalcitrance. If Beijing’s new, high-tech forces ever steam across the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan could have just 30 days to lament its own weakness.