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Eyeing Taiwan: China’s military strategy and trajectory

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Eyeing Taiwan: China’s military strategy and trajectory

Eyeing Taiwan: China’s military strategy and trajectory

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

China’s growing assertiveness is increasingly backed up by a modern and capable military force that is being developed with Taiwan and the US in mind.

KEY INSIGHTS

– China’s military assertiveness toward Taiwan has increased significantly in recent years.
– The People’s Liberation Army is undergoing a major transformation into a world class military force, with a focus on a potential future confrontation with the US.
– Military tensions are likely going to increase further, as China’s military continues to grow rapidly.

INCREASING TENSIONS IN THE TAIWAN STRAIT

Chinese assertiveness toward Taiwan has increased substantially over the past two years. Beijing recently rejected the Taiwan Strait as the historical line of separation between both territories. In doing so, China’s military, particularly its navy and air force, have conducted increasing demonstrations of force into the Taiwan Strait and within Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). The situation was further exacerbated after the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan set off a chain of angry reactions from Beijing, including large-scale naval exercises near Taiwan’s shores and sanctions against many Taiwanese exports to China.

Taiwan has been claimed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a breakaway province that must be reunited with the mainland. To this end, Beijing has consistently opposed Taiwan being treated as a sovereign country by the international community. This can be seen in the recent diplomatic spat involving China and the EU after Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy within its borders, leading to China’s imposition of economic sanctions on Lithuania. 

China has similarly expressed opposition to international organizations that have attempted to include Taiwan in their membership bodies or within their event calendars. The most recent example of this reaction is China’s opposition to Taipei’s participation in the World Health Organization during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Beijing has also increased military-backed pressure against Taiwan. At this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue — Asia’s largest defense forum — Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe stated that China would fight to the endto prevent Taiwanese independence. Such rhetoric is increasingly backed up by massive military force. This was not always the case.

CHINA’S RAPIDLY GROWING MILITARY FORCE

Prior to the 1990s, China’s military strength was comparatively small relative to the country’s size. Despite employing up to 3 million soldiers, its defense spending was only around $10 billion annually until the mid-1990s. Defense expenditure only started increasing following the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, during which China threatened war against Taiwan, if Taipei were to declare formal independence. However, the deployment of two US aircraft carrier groups forestalled any Chinese attempts at further escalation. 

While Taiwan did not declare independence, China was not in a position to go to war with the US in the event of an intervention. Beginning in 1996, China’s military budget substantially increased to an estimated $230 billion by 2022, second only to the US. But China’s military — the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — is not just growing in size: reforms over the past five years have significantly changed the PLA’s structure and makeup.

Because of China’s history of civil war and its Marxist-Leninist system of governance, its military was traditionally very large and permeated many parts of society. Reforms started in the 1990s, following China’s experience with the Taiwan Strait Crisis and its observations as the US destroyed the Iraqi army in Operation Desert Storm. Like Iraq’s military force at the time, the PLA had a large military that was plagued by corruption, an antiquated command structure and outdated military hardware. 

Reforms began gradually with the biggest push being initiated by President Xi Jinping in 2015. Xi’s reform was set to two major milestones — 2027 and 2049. By 2027, China’s military was to be fully modernized and by 2049 it would become a world-class military.” The latter goal coincides with the PRC’s 100th anniversary and Xi’s goal of achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” signifying China’s ascension to statuses as both the world’s primary power and a fully-developed nation.

As part of the reforms, Xi spearheaded a major anti-corruption campaign that saw thousands of PLA officers arrested, alongside a complete structural reform of the PLA’s makeup. This included restructuring its rigid top-down chain of command and introducing two new military service branches: the Rocket Force and the Strategic Support Force. 

Furthermore, the traditional warfighting domains of sea and air have been significantly expanded and modernized, while the Army — traditionally the PLA’s backbone — has been reduced in size. The PLA Navy (PLAN) is already the world’s largest navy by number of ships. While it still lags behind the US in terms of total firepower, it is rapidly churning out new battleships. Most recently, the PLAN launched its third aircraft carrier and expects to commission four more by 2025. China has a significant edge in ship building, as around half of the world’s ship building occurs in China, compared to less than 1% in the US. As for its fast-growing Air Force (PLAAF), it is already the region’s largest with well over 2,000 combat aircraft, including many fifth-generation fighter jets. 

However, much of China’s hopes on effective deterrence rest on the PLA’s fourth branch — the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF). The PLARF focuses on missile technology and application, including strategic nuclear weapons. China is currently in the process of quadrupling its nuclear arsenal by 2030, to a total of 1,000 warheads. 

China is also currently leading the world in hypersonic missile technology, which is set to change many aspects of warfare. Hypersonic technology could make intercontinental ballistic missiles significantly more dangerous due to increased speed and difficulty in interception, while at the same time also fundamentally changing the strategic calculus of its adversaries. For example, anti-ship hypersonic missiles, which China is already testing, could dramatically alter naval warfare. 

Then there is the PLA’s fifth and newest branch — the Strategic Support Force (PLASSF). It is responsible for the development and application of emerging technologies, in particular cyber, space and information warfare capabilities. The PLASSF operates China’s massive cyber operations, which are known to have carried out large-scale and sophisticated cyber attacks and espionage over the years, including industrial trade theft. Current developments in artificial intelligence (AI) further augment the PLA’s increasingly powerful cyber force. AI also plays a major part in modernizing its fighting force. China just launched its first unmanned autonomous drone carrier ship and it is actively developing AI-based technology for operating combat drone swarms

The PLASSF is also responsible for the space domain. Through bolstering its capabilities in satellite navigation, communication and earth observation, the PLA can become active far from China’s shores and significantly bolster its efforts in global intelligence gathering. The PLASSF is also strengthening its offensive space capabilities, including anti-satellite weapons aimed at disrupting foreign satellite services.

In order to develop its modern war fighting capabilities, the PLA relies heavily on its military-civil fusion (MFC) strategy. MCF aims at giving the PLA access to cutting edge research and development in emerging technologies, including semiconductors, aerospace technology, quantum computing and AI. This is achieved by both cooperative means, such as active investments in homegrown industries and operating collaborative research labs, as well as by forced technology transfer and intelligence gathering.

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Photo: The Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/Wikimedia Commons

China’s military spending is still only one-third to that of the US, but this may not be a fair comparison. For one, Beijing can generally achieve more with each dollar allocated than Washington, due to differences in wages and supply chain capabilities. Additionally, China may never have to match the expenditure of the US, which is maintaining a global military force with hundreds of overseas bases, compared to China’s single base in Djibouti. Still, China’s defense spending is catching up. Recent annual growth rates of around 7% have been three times that of the US. China has both the financing and capacity to eventually create a military force rivaling that of the US, which the Pentagon has already admitted. The question is, what will China do with its mighty military force.

ALL EYES ON TAIWAN

President Xi has repeatedly stated that Taiwan must return to China. The old idea of a peaceful absorption of Taiwan through economic integration and democratic choice is no longer a viable option. Only a tiny minority of Taiwanese see themselves as Chinese and the overwhelming majority have no interest in being ruled by Beijing. This trend will most likely continue going forward. 

Meanwhile, China’s aggressive stance across the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea will likely further intensify, especially as American and European relations with Taiwan are continuously improving. The US-congressional delegation under Pelosi and the delegation of the EU parliament both visited within less than a year of each other. Beyond such diplomatic challenges to Beijing, China’s persistent zero-tolerance policy against COVID-19 is another reason to shore up nationalist sentiments to distract from the economic downturn. The combination of internal economic pressure and external security challenges makes the prospect of de-escalation by Beijing increasingly distant.

China’s ongoing shipbuilding efforts will outstrip that of any other navy in the years to come, making China’s fleet the most powerful in the world. Unlike the US Navy, which is spread across the world, the PLAN will continue to be concentrated within East Asia. If China was to invade, it would have massive military superiority with which it could stage a blockade while preparing its invasion.

The US policy of strategic ambiguity leaves the option of going to war for Taiwan open, without explicitly committing to it. However, should the US decide not to intervene in the event of a war, Washington is highly likely to strongly support Taiwan, perhaps at least to the extent it is currently supporting Ukraine’s fight against Russia. US weapons, munition, intelligence and military training were a significant factor that helped stave off Russian attempts of an early victory in Ukraine. Taiwan has much more sophisticated military hardware at its disposal than did Ukraine at the beginning of the war. The one key difference in such a scenario is that Taiwan is an island and would therefore rely on supplies coming in via sea or air, which might become impossible in case of a successful Chinese blockade.

In the future, China will likely stage more naval drills of increasing frequency and scale, including large-scale exercises that surround the island of Taiwan, similar to those staged in the aftermath of Pelosi’s visit to Taipei. Incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ will also certainly continue at high frequency. However, China is unlikely to launch an invasion in the short-term, as it is in the midst of building up its military forces. China has already developed its own landing crafts and has conducted drills with them, but the quantity available falls far short of what a full-scale invasion would require. 

In economic terms, Beijing would have to expect to be isolated from much of the world’s markets, similar to Russia’s situation now. Much of China’s military hardware still relies on foreign components, especially Taiwanese semiconductors. China might want to seize Taiwanese semiconductor production facilities, as was suggested by a Chinese senior economist recently, but in reality, there might not be any factories left standing in case of a war. Nonetheless, the PLA’s expansion and reforms are clearly directed at Taiwan, as signaled by the recently launched aircraft carrier — named Fujian, after the Chinese Province across from Taiwan. 

The ongoing war in Ukraine boasts many lessons, including the dangers of operating a large army with outdated command structures and military hardware, the threat of severe economic sanctions by the West and the ability of smaller states in fighting for their survival. China’s leaders are certainly taking notes, as they oversee military reforms and the rapid expansion of the PLA’s increasingly modern armed forces. If the PLA were to declare war against Taiwan, and perhaps the US, Beijing would certainly heed the lessons from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to prevent repeating Moscow’s mistakes. Whatever the long-term outcome of China’s massive military expansion, its current trajectory is aimed at Taiwan, and by extension the US. 

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