China Military Thumps Chest At More Agile, Potent Taiwan
IN his seminal treatise on military strategy, ''The Art of War,'' ancient Chinese scholar Sun Tzu wrote that the best commander is one who achieves victory without actually fighting a battle.Skip to next paragraph
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More than 1,600 years later, China's Communist leaders are trying to adhere to their forebears dictum in a mounting confrontation with Taiwan.
By firing missiles near the island and making other provocative gestures, Beijing apparently seeks to halt what it regards as a drive by Taiwan toward declaring official independence and to bully it into reunification.
But, Beijing also vows to use force if necessary and, in recent days, has been massing ships, aircraft, and an estimated 150,000 troops in coastal Fujian Province near Taiwan. US officials don't believe the forces are for an assault, but for major war games aimed at scaring off votes for Taiwan's assertive president, Lee Teng-hui, the favorite in its first democratic presidential election on March 23.
Still, US military and independent analysts are concerned and almost daily weigh the odds that the war games could be a cover for an invasion of Taiwan.
The overwhelming conclusion so far: Not only is an assault unlikely, but China's chance of success without unacceptably huge losses and uncertain political and economic consequences is dim at best.
''We do not believe they [the Chinese] have the capability to conduct amphibious operations of the nature that would be necessary to invade Taiwan,'' asserts Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A report published this week by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent Washington think tank, says it is doubtful China will acquire the capability to assault Taiwan for at least a decade. The report examined Chinese and Taiwanese military strengths, budgets, hardware, and strategies. It found that ''neither the focus of Chinese [weapons] acquisition priorities nor its resource base suggests that China will have the capability to conduct such an operation, at an acceptable cost, now or by 2005.''
Head-to-head comparisons of the rival militaries make such assessments seem absurd. With 2.9 million personnel, almost 5,000 combat planes, 12,300 tanks and armored vehicles, 14,500 pieces of artillery and 1,150 warships, the Chinese People's Liberation Army is the world's largest armed force. By comparison, Taiwan has some 440,000 personnel, 400 combat aircraft, 140 warships, 1,100 tanks and armored vehicles, and 990 heavy guns.
But experts say such comparisons are misleading. Beijing, they say, has only just begun developing naval and air forces capable of projecting power beyond China's shores. That effort is underscored by its recent purchases from Russia of four Kilo Class diesel submarines and 26 Su-27 combat jets, and a reported Israel-aided effort to develop an indigenous jet fighter.
For now, though, China remains a long way from having the forces needed for such an enormous undertaking as crossing the 130-mile Strait of Taiwan and subduing the capitalist island that it has regarded as a renegade province since nationalist leaders fled there at the end of the civil war in 1949.
The bulk of China's Navy comprises coastal craft. It has only about 50 major warships, and most lack effective air defenses. Therefore, the Navy could not provide the massive firepower and anti-aircraft cover required by a major invasion force.
Furthermore, says John Downing of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, China has only 54 landing ships. ''Even in the unlikely event they enjoy 100 percent serviceability, they could land only 6,100 troops and 350 tanks,'' he says. Mr. Downing adds that China's equivalent of the US Marines numbers just one brigade of 5,000 men.