Shadow-Boxing on Taiwan

War will inflict huge cost on Taipei, US, but China won’t have it easy either

Girish LingannaGirish Linganna

China’s largest-ever military drills near Taiwan have not only heightened regional tensions but also given observers a glimpse of how Chinese forces may operate around the self-ruled island in the event of a confrontation.

As per a group of US defence specialists and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in the event of a Chinese invasion, Taiwan will be able to repel it in most circumstances but at a high cost to US forces in the Pacific.

Bloomberg quoting a senior official at a think-tank participating in an ongoing simulation exercise, writes that the CSIS played out a scenario in which China invaded Taiwan. Experts believe Taiwan will be able to withstand the invasion, but China will sink most of the surface fleets of the US and Japan.

CSIS senior adviser Mark Cancian told the publication that the results demonstrate that Taiwan can repel an invasion in most, but not all, situations. According to Cancian, the experts completed 22 rounds of simulation and in 18 of them, Chinese missiles were able to sink a substantial portion of US and Japanese surface ships and destroy hundreds of planes.

According to the expert, the US ‘lost’ 900 fighters and attack aircraft in a four-week combat during the previous simulation game, which is about half the navy and air force assets. In the early stages of a hypothetical invasion, China could also ‘destroy’ the navy and half of Taiwan’s air force.

The simulation covers the option of Tokyo granting Washington wider access to US facilities on its territory while excluding the use of nuclear weapons. The experts pointed out that the simulations performed thus far do not even represent the most complicated possibility. Cancian stated they had not considered the gloomiest possibilities in which China may take the entire island. The simulation games will run through September, with the outcomes made public in December.


Regional Dynamics

The breakdown in relations between Washington and Beijing has been one of the most significant political events in recent days. The US believes this is the result of Chinese coercion. The Chinese believe this is a shift from the one China policy by the US.

Both Washington and Beijing regard the new events as part of wider trends in each other’s perceived policies, with each side emphasising the need to maintain the status quo concerning Taiwan while accusing the other of attempting to disrupt the status quo.

According to the United States Institute of Peace, China believes US President Joe Biden’s administration has made a substantial shift in its Taiwan policy, culminating in a deliberate attempt to strengthen US relations with the democratic island. Beijing’s reaction to the US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit has shown the political and economic consequences China is willing to inflict on Taipei.

According to the CSIS China Power Team, part of the strategy is making it apparent that Taiwan would suffer the brunt of Chinese retaliation for stronger ties with the US. Beijing thinks the move would sever ties between Taiwan and the US. The military manoeuvres can be interpreted as a message to the US and its regional allies that Beijing is capable and determined to exert control over Taiwan and enforce its interpretation of the one China principle, which states that Beijing has sovereignty over the island.

For example, the exercises incurred direct expenses for Japan and, to a lesser degree, the Philippines because of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) actions within the waters claimed by these nations, including the launch of five ballistic missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

According to the CSIS specialists, Beijing has demonstrated its willingness to escalate tensions to prevent other nations from becoming involved. They also claimed the PLA drills caused commercial aviation and sea traffic to be rerouted around Taiwan, which Beijing is using to demonstrate China’s ability to manage activity near and surrounding Taiwan.


Ukraine Redux

There are also suspicions that the recent drills, especially their magnitude and ferocity, may become the new norm in China’s relations with Taiwan. Beijing intends the drills will create a new status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

According to the CSIS specialists, China is explicitly attempting to remove the concept of the median line that separates the strait and seeks to confine PLA activities west of the line. Repeating such drills would allow the PLA to practise a range of military actions that may be part of a blockade or invasion of the island. This involves not only measures aimed against Taiwan but also operations to avoid a potential third-country intervention in a China-Taiwan confrontation, according to the CSIS specialists.

Although islands usually provide the defence an advantage by requiring the attacker to make an amphibious landing, they can sometimes have drawbacks. Unlike Ukraine, which can get weapons and supplies directly from neighbouring European countries, Taiwan lacks a land border with a friendly country.

Furthermore, with a little more than 36,000 sq kms, Taiwan is a fraction of the size of Ukraine, which has over 6,00,000 sq kms, making techniques like exchanging space to buy time less effective.

Taiwan is also further away from many of its friends, which means that assistance, including relief for prospective refugees, would take longer to reach and almost certainly have to go via the hotly disputed airspace and sea lanes.


Tough for China

At the same time, China will find it difficult to impose a blockade or invade the island. Even though Taiwan has a smaller military, the Chinese would still need to deploy their forces hundreds of kilometres away from home ports and airfields and then sustain these operations over time, even before any landing operations are carried out.

It is unclear if the PLA can move the hundreds of thousands of troops required for any invasion. The Taiwan Strait is up to 200 kilometres wide. This is a huge barrier for the Chinese and crossing the strait would almost certainly result in many body bags.


What’s the plan?

The Chinese picked six training zones for drills and analysts believe these places might serve as indicators for future PLA activities surrounding the island and Beijing’s blockade and invasion preparations.

Three of these zones intrude into Taiwan’s territorial seas, dangerously near the country’s capital and important cities, while the others are far from the Chinese mainland and beyond the Taiwan Strait, extending into EEZs that are also claimed by Japan and the Philippines. According to the CSIS analysts, one of the zones (Zone 1) is located off the shore of mainland China’s Pingtan Island at the narrowest portion of the Taiwan Strait.

PLA strategists may believe that operations via this short neck may allow China to cut off the northern entry to the Taiwan Strait. According to the CSIS, this zone was also chosen to purposely violate and weaken the validity of the median line running through the Taiwan Strait, where PLA soldiers generally operate to the west of the line.

Zones 2 and 3 were positioned not only near vital ports and coastal locations that military strategists feel are suited for a hypothetical PLA amphibious landing. At the same time, it is also a short distance away from the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which China also claims and refers to as the Diaoyu. According to the analysts, the PLA would be in an ideal position to launch operations against both Taiwan and Japan from there.

The control of both zones may make it impossible for the US or Japan to send forces into Taipei from the northeast side and allow the PLA to blockade Keelung Harbour, the CSIS said. Furthermore, operating from Zones 1, 2, and 3 might allow the PLA to overrun Taipei rapidly from three separate angles, which could be critical if the PLA plans a decapitation assault against Taiwan’s leadership, the authors noted.

Zone 4 is next to two significant air force sites and overlaps with Japan’s EEZ near Yonaguni Island. Zone 5, located southeast of Taiwan’s southern tip, intrudes into the Philippines EEZ and is a critical choke point separating the waters within the so-called first island chain. These Pacific archipelagos stretch from the Kuril Islands to Borneo from the Philippines Sea and the larger Pacific Ocean, according to the CSIS.

Zone 6 was close to the cities of Kaohsiung and Zuoying, both of which have significant commercial ports and military stations as well as beaches and coastal areas appropriate for an amphibious attack.


PLA Equipment

The drills also provided insights into the sort of weapons China might utilise in the event of a Taiwan conflict, including a huge number of planes, battleships, submarines and ground-launched missiles.

The PLA concentrated on testing the troops’ land attack and sea assault capabilities through combined air and naval operations in Taiwan’s waters and airspace to the north, east, and southwest. These flights, according to the CSIS, practised clearing channels for amphibious landing forces to undertake beach assaults against Taiwan.

Finally, the drills demonstrated how far the PLA has come, not just technologically but also in terms of combat preparation and doctrine since the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-96. The PLA has acquired more modern air, naval and missile capabilities, which have been aided by a more efficient and competitive Chinese military industrial base. The doctrine is centred on combat in the air, sea, electromagnetic and space domains. Also, the PLA has been ordered to fight integrated joint operations involving all services and theatre commanders.


Call us