Saturday, September 18, 1999

Despite threats,
China isn’t prepared
to invade Taiwan

By Richard Halloran
Special to the Star-Bulletin


THE commanding political and military leader who brought the Communists to power in China, Mao Zedong, once wrote: "Fight no battle you are not sure of winning."

If Mao's successors in Beijing abide by that admonition, they are unlikely to use force in an attempt to conquer Taiwan, the island off China's coast they claim is a separated province, because they would have almost no chance of prevailing.

Even with desperate measures, including nuclear weapons, the outcome would be in doubt. Analyses by U.S. specialists on China, military officers and government officials with access to intelligence assessments, and scholars who study the armed forces of China and Taiwan point to that conclusion.

China has openly threatened to use force against Taiwan since July 9, when President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan announced that, henceforth, negotiations between his government and that in Beijing should be conducted as "special state-to-state" relations.

Leaders of China's People's Liberation Army have even asserted that Taiwan could be defeated in no more than five days. PLA forces practiced amphibious operations on the coast opposite Taiwan last week.

In contrast, a Pentagon report in February, which officers say is still valid, said China's People's Liberation Army is "decades away from possessing a comprehensive ability to engage and defeat a modern adversary beyond China's boundaries."


'A war to take Taiwan is
likely to be a war with the
United States as well.'

June Teufel Dreyer


Specifically, Harlan Jencks of the University of California at Berkeley has written, "For the foreseeable future, China will remain unable to invade Taiwan." Similarly, Tai Ming Cheung, a respected Hong Kong analyst, says the PLA "is presently ill-prepared to storm Taiwan."

Even so, China could make life miserable for Taiwan with missile attacks, a maritime blockade, subversion, sabotage, and information warfare. Many of those actions, however, would constitute acts of war that could draw retaliation and possibly U.S. intervention.

The great unknown is whether U.S. military power would be needed if China attacked Taiwan and, if so, what President Clinton might do. Some Chinese argue that Americans will not fight for Taiwan. But Susan Shirk, a deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, last week reminded an audience, including Chinese officials posted in Washington, that China "is prepared to use force in the event that Taiwan declares independence."

"We believe that even in such an eventuality the use of force would be catastrophic for China as well as for Taiwan, and of course disastrous for U.S.-China relations, and would, no doubt, pit us in an actual war," Shirk said.

Moreover, a China scholar, June Teufel Dreyer of the University of Miami, has written, "It is clear that the PLA anticipates that a war to take Taiwan is likely to be a war with the United States as well."

Shirk's statement was perhaps the most forthright statement on Taiwan policy from an administration that has prized "strategic ambiguity." The president is bound by the Taiwan Relations Act, which implies that the United States would help to defend Taiwan but does not commit it to do so. Military officers would not discuss contingency plans other than to say "we plan for lots of things."

Political considerations would bear on a Clinton decision. A statement from 23 security experts, including President Reagan's secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, and President Clinton's first director of the Central intelligence Agency, James Woolsey, urged Clinton to "declare unambiguously" that the U.S. would come to Taiwan's defense.

In Asia, the question would be U.S. credibility. A failure to aid Taiwan would damage U.S. standing with allies in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand, perhaps irretrievably. In turn, that would cause a marked shift in the balance of power in East Asia, with China in the ascent.

In this confrontation, China would appear to have seven options:

Invading Taiwan

The only way to crush Taiwan decisively would be an invasion, but the risks of failure would be high. A military rule of thumb holds that an offensive operation must have three times the firepower of a dug-in defense to win. China does not have enough well-trained soldiers to top Taiwan's forces.

Moreover, cross-water attacks are the most difficult of surface operations because the landing force is exposed to hostile fire long before it gets ashore. For the Chinese to invade Taiwan means going across 120 miles of open sea that is often turbulent in bad weather.

Suitable landing sites in Taiwan are few. Much of the western, or Taiwan Strait, coast has marshes in which invaders would get bogged down in killing fields. The eastern, or Pacific, coast is largely lined with cliffs and is no more inviting.

China lacks sufficient landing craft. Chinese say they could load up junks, fishing boats, and cargo vessels but they would be unarmed, slow-moving ducks for Taiwan's defensive fire. China also lacks sufficient air transport to carry the PLA's three divisions of 10,000 paratroopers each.

China could not provide adequate air cover. While the Chinese air force outnumbers that of Taiwan, it has fewer first line fighters despite recent additions of new Russian aircraft. Taiwan has plotted a layered defense:

French Mirage 2000s at high level, American F-16's at mid-level, and Taiwan's own IDF fighters at low level.

Taiwanese pilots are considered somewhat better trained than the Chinese, both of whom get 100 flying hours a year. In comparison, well-trained U.S. pilots get 200 hours a year. Chinese pilots rarely fly at night or in bad weather and have had little experience operating with the navy below.

At sea, China's navy would outnumber that of Taiwan but the Taiwanese would acquit themselves well because their ships have better technology and weapons. Under the sea, China's submarines far outnumber those of Taiwan and would win most battles.

Attack offshore islands

China could try an invasion of the Matsu or Kinmen islands just a few miles off the coast of Fujian province. Even that would be hard, given China's shortage of landing craft.

But Taiwan would have difficulty in providing air cover on that side of the strait and in reinforcing the islands. Much would depend on how hard the Taiwanese would fight for rocky islands of no strategic value.

The same would be true if China tried to drive the Taiwanese off a few small islands in the South China Sea that they occupy. Both China and Taiwan would have problems in reinforcing their garrisons.

Missile barrage

China has an estimated 200 M-9 missiles with relatively small 1,100-pound warheads deployed opposite Taiwan today. If they were all fired at Taiwan, casualties would be high and the wreckage severe.

Officials noted, however, that Taiwan could ride out a barrage, then retaliate with air power. Moreover, once the Chinese have fired their missiles, it would take 20 months at current production rates to replace them.

Maritime blockade

Taiwan's surging economy relies on imports and exports. China has the ships and submarines to impose a blockade and would have an ally in Lloyd's of London, whose shipping insurance rates would soar. A blockade, however, is an act of war that could trigger U.S. intervention.

A Chinese blockade, moreover, would be difficult to sustain. Taiwan would control the air over China's warships while Taiwan's 90 destroyers, frigates and fast attack missile boats would be operating in home waters.

Unconventional warfare

The PLA has emphasized training guerrillas, saboteurs, propagandists and other subversives to undermine Taiwan's will to resist. A new book by two Chinese colonels entitled "Unrestricted War," although aimed more at the United States, envisions terror and biological warfare against Taiwan.

Critical to those operations, however, would be Taiwanese dissatisfaction with their political and economic lives. In Taiwan's last two elections, more than 75 percent of the eligible voters turned out and Taiwan, with per capita income of $14,700, is well ahead of the mainland's $2,800. Taiwan does not seem to be fertile ground for treason.

Information warfare

China has given much attention to inserting computer viruses and other means of disruption into an adversary's military communications, plus civilian data banks, financial operations, and the myriad of electronic elements of modern economies.

Taiwan may be vulnerable to such disruptions until it installs defensive measures because, in a nation of 21 million people, it has 4 million subscribers to the Internet and 75 percent of its enterprises use computers, more than half connected to the Internet.

Nuclear war

Most, but not all, analysts say the Chinese would not use nuclear arms in what they see as a civil conflict. But Harlan Jencks says China could detonate a nuclear warhead high over Taiwan to knock out its electronic systems with electro-magnetic pulse or EMP. In a desperate gamble, China could also attack Taiwan directly, having recently brandished a neutron bomb that kills people but does less damage to buildings.

In sum, Taiwan would appear safe today, especially with U.S. power behind it. But that's today and the Chinese are striving to overtake Taiwan. Five years from now, the balance of power could shift in China's favor.

Richard Halloran , a former Asia correspondent for the
New York Times, lives in Honolulu.

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