U.S., China, Taiwan: Why the tense status quo may stick – for now

Why We Wrote This

For the last few years, headlines about rising tensions over Taiwan have been a steady drumbeat, making it hard to parse which developments are most important. Here’s a reality check on the island’s defense.

Ann Wang/Reuters
Soldiers drive M60 tanks on a street as part of a military drill in Taichung, Taiwan, Nov. 3, 2020. Taiwan placed its military on high alert during the U.S. elections, Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa told lawmakers in Taipei on Wednesday.

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As the world watched the U.S. presidential election unfold last week, the risks of a distracted Washington were felt in a hot spot halfway around the globe: Taiwan.

The self-ruling, democratic island had its military on high alert during the U.S. vote, its defense minister told lawmakers in Taipei. Beijing frequently vows to reunite Taiwan with mainland China, and concerns over the potential for a military clash have grown as relations between China and the U.S. deteriorate to a low not seen for half a century. Taiwan’s defense deterrent relies, in part, on the expectation that the U.S. would quickly help counter an attack on the island, which Beijing claims as part of its territory. 

China’s People’s Liberation Army has stepped up incursions into Taiwan’s defense zone, while Washington accelerates arms sales to Taipei. But despite the elevated tensions, and the risk of conflict sparked by accident, both sides say larger strategic calculations lessen the likelihood of all-out war. For example, China’s military has grown dramatically, but it still lacks the ability to wage its ideal military campaign: a swift, overwhelming attack and successful amphibious landing invasion that would present the world with a fait accompli.

As the world watched the U.S. presidential election unfold last week, the risks of a distracted Washington were felt perhaps most acutely in a hot spot halfway around the globe: Taiwan.

Taiwan placed its military on high alert during the elections, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa told lawmakers in Taipei last Wednesday, saying the island faces a threat from escalating incursions by Chinese warplanes and naval ships into the defensive zone around the island, just 80 miles off mainland China’s coast. The People’s Liberation Army has conducted more than 2,700 air and sea incursions so far this year, Mr. Yen said. PLA aircraft crossed the “median line” – an unofficial line that both sides have traditionally observed in the airspace between Taiwan and mainland China – nearly 50 times, he said, the most since 1990.

Taiwan’s defense deterrent relies in part on the expectation that the U.S. military would quickly help counter an attack by China on the island, a self-ruling democracy that Beijing claims as part of its territory. Washington is also accelerating arms sales aimed at shoring up Taiwan’s defenses, and on Election Day the U.S. State Department approved a $600 million sale to Taiwan of four MQ-9B armed drones and related equipment, which drew a swift rebuke from Beijing. The sale brings the total of U.S. weapon sales to Taiwan approved this year to more than $5 billion.

Concerns have heightened over the potential for a military clash over Taiwan – a strategic flashpoint between the United States and China – especially as relations between the two superpowers deteriorate to a low not seen for half a century. Beijing bristles at the tightening of U.S.-Taiwan ties under the Trump administration, viewing it as part of a broader containment strategy. China’s military pressure on Taiwan, meanwhile, coupled with its crackdown on Hong Kong’s autonomy and its aggressive staking out of claims in the South China Sea and along its disputed border with India, amplifies the risk of a conflict, especially one sparked by accident, military analysts say.

Barring a military mishap, however, and despite the elevated tensions, experts on both sides say larger strategic calculations lessen the likelihood of an all-out war over Taiwan that would trigger conflict between China and the U.S., both nuclear powers. Beijing’s military capabilities – which do not yet guarantee success in an armed takeover – Taiwan’s growing asymmetric defenses, and the prospect of allied intervention all leave Beijing unlikely to use force anytime soon, despite its often-repeated vows to unify, military analysts say. “China is still deterred from using force to reunify because they have no assurance of success,” says Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official overseeing China policy.

Yet the decidedly tense status quo is growing more so. PLA pilots now cross the median line “with impunity, so that sets up a much more dangerous arrangement where the Taiwanese jets always have to intercept,” says Kharis Templeman, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and a lecturer in East Asian studies at Stanford University. “The Taiwanese are pretty well trained, but … you can imagine them crashing into one another, and the two sides do not have good communications to de-escalate,” he says. For its part, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokesman stated in September that the median line is “nonexistent.”

Chinese military analysts agree the risk is high, if for different reasons. “In my opinion, most of the military tensions today are the result of enhanced relations between Taiwan and the United States,” says Lyu Jinghua, a retired PLA colonel and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The Taiwan Strait is currently “very dangerous,” Colonel Lyu says, because “the Chinese government has no room to maneuver if the Taiwan crisis escalates. … [It] will have to fight to defend the territory and sovereignty of China.”

New deterrent

China’s military capabilities have grown dramatically over the past 20 years. With “staggering amounts of new military hardware” and improvements in joint operations and combat readiness, Beijing is on track to meet its goals of modernizing the PLA by 2035 and building a “world class” military by 2049, according to the Pentagon’s 2020 China military power report released in September.

Yet China still lacks the ability to wage its ideal military campaign on Taiwan: a swift, overwhelming attack and successful amphibious landing invasion that would present the world with a fait accompli. “Even though it’s a short distance from mainland China to Taiwan, [the PLA] would still have to deal with Taiwan’s defensive capabilities,” such as sea mines, anti-ship cruise missiles, and booby traps, as well as weather and geography that limit China’s options, says Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corp. who focuses on Indo-Pacific security issues.

“If they failed, it could be the end of Chinese Communist Party rule. It would be seen as so incompetent and embarrassing,” he says.

Another important deterrent is Taiwan’s embrace of a new, asymmetric defense strategy. Faced with the reality of China’s massive military spending – an estimated $250 billion last year compared with Taiwan’s $11 billion – and a stark force imbalance that will only grow, Taiwan is adopting a more nimble, David vs. Goliath approach.

The goal of the new strategy is to take advantage of Taiwan’s geography to fortify the island. “‘Fortress Taiwan’ is really the mantra now at the Pentagon – trying to make Taiwan an impenetrable fortress to Chinese attack is now the key objective,” says Mr. Grossman.

Known as the “Overall Defense Concept,” the strategy “redefines winning the war as foiling the PLA’s mission of successfully invading and exerting political control over Taiwan,” retired Adm. Lee Hsi-min, who developed the concept as chief of staff of Taiwan’s armed forces from 2017 to 2019, explained last week in The Diplomat

No longer planning for a war of attrition with high-profile, expensive conventional weapons platforms such as fighter jets, tanks, and submarines, the strategy instead relies upon low-cost weapons systems meant to stymie a Chinese invasion, such as minelaying ships and stealthy fast-attack crafts dispersed among fishing boats in the island’s 200 ports, Admiral Lee wrote. It uses camouflage and deception to preserve Taiwan’s forces, combined with large numbers of small, mobile, lethal, and hard-to-target weapons designed for guerrilla warfare, such as precision-guided munitions and cruise missiles, man-portable air-defense systems, and anti-armor weapons.

A wider puzzle

The U.S. is backing the strategy with advanced sales of asymmetric weaponry such as armed drones, and shore-based cruise missiles that can target ships on the fringes of China’s littoral. “That is where China is the weakest,” says Mr. Thompson, who is now visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

“Taiwan has tremendous advantages and is figuring out now how to maximize them,” says Mr. Thompson. “If you are China and looking at what Taiwan has done in the last decade, there is a reason China is deterred,” he says. “The PLA knows it will not be a cake walk, so they are taking a tremendous risk in initiating an invasion.”

China, for its part, has focused much of its effort on trying to counter the anticipated U.S. military intervention in a Taiwan contingency, using area denial weapons such as bombers and a new ship-to-ship, supersonic missile. “The PLA has spent the last 25 years trying to make it as difficult as possible for the U.S. military to move into that air space and sea space without suffering a lot of casualties up front,” says Mr. Templeman. The new ship-to-ship missile expands China’s anti-access area, raising concerns at the Pentagon, he says.

“This is a rare weapon that has a longer range and is more effective than what we have in our own stocks, so it has gotten a lot of attention from our military,” he says. “They don’t like to be outgunned on anything.”

But experts on both sides of the strait point to encouraging signs that all parties can avoid confrontation in the first place – such as the existence of functioning military communications mechanisms at multiple levels between Washington and Beijing. 

Despite increasing tensions, “the two militaries are very conscious of their communications and so they are still holding consultations” as planned, says Colonel Lyu. “The number of dangerous incidents between the planes and ships are actually decreasing” since 2014, when the PLA and Pentagon signed agreements to create confidence-building measures, she says. Those memorandums “are playing a very positive role in preventing a crisis.”

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