China military watch

There’s rising concern about the prospect of a major military crisis erupting across the Taiwan Strait as a result of China’s intention to force Taiwan to unify with the mainland. President Xi Jinping suggested in early 2019 that China must be and will be reunified, and noted, ‘It is a historical conclusion drawn over the 70 years of the development of cross-Strait relations, and a must for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era.’ He went on to say, ‘We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.’

So it’s no surprise that China has been steadily expanding aggressive aerial patrols in Taiwan’s air defence identification zone and undertaking highly visible naval deployments encircling Taiwan. In a previous edition of ‘China military watch’, we considered China’s military options to force Taiwan to accept unification on Beijing’s terms—what would amount to annexation of Taiwan initially through the use of coercive grey-zone actions, but via a cross-strait invasion if those measures failed.

There’s a general consensus that the People’s Liberation Army doesn’t have the means to forcibly take Taiwan now, given its capability gaps in key areas such as conducting complex naval operations and holding training exercises against realistic opposition forces, even as its naval capabilities rapidly close qualitative gaps against the US Navy and already overmatch it in quantitative terms.

Our assessment focuses instead on a series of escalating coercive actions to pressure Taipei to bend to Beijing’s will over the next six years. It’s in that timeframe that the threat of a cross-strait invasion increases, according to the head of the US Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson.

So, how will Taiwan respond to escalating grey-zone actions by China designed to coerce it into unification on Beijing’s terms over the next six years, and to what extent can Taiwan resist an invasion that might occur at the end of that period? Some idea can be gleaned from Taiwan’s 2021 quadrennial defense review (QDR).

The QDR outlines the concept of ‘resolute defence and multi-domain deterrence’ ( 防衛固守,重層嚇阻), which is the key military strategy for Taiwan’s national defense. It emphasises responding to the growing threat posed by China, including by acquiring long-range strike capabilities and new asymmetric capabilities, and exploiting tactics to deal with ‘cognitive warfare’ undertaken through grey-zone operations. The document sets out Taiwan’s ‘overall defence concept’ as follows:

If the enemy launched [an] attack to invade Taiwan, our guiding principles [would be] to ‘resist the enemy on the opposite shore, attack it at sea, destroy it in the littoral area, and annihilate it on the beachhead,’ and impose multiple interdictions and joint fire strikes to degrade its capabilities, disrupt its offensive and prevent it from landing, so as to ultimately defeat its aggression.

The requirement for long-range precision fires is key. Taiwan is acquiring 135 of Boeing’s AGM-84H standoff land attack missile–expanded response, known as the SLAM–ER, which can be air-launched from its F-16 fighters, as well as 11 Lockheed Martin M142 high-mobility artillery rocket systems, or  HIMARS, that will be equipped with 64 army tactical missile systems (ATACMS). The SLAM-ER has a range of 270 kilometres and the ATACMS has a range of 300 kilometres, meaning they can strike PLA ports, airbases and facilities in Fujian province.

These acquisitions give a distinct boost to Taiwan’s ability to strike fast at any Chinese invasion fleet, though the small size of the capability won’t allow for sustained operations against China’s forces.

Such capabilities also don’t provide an effective response option in the face of air and naval blockades, cyber operations or the seizing of Taiwan’s offshore territories such as Pratas Island, for example.

The 2021 QDR suggests that asymmetric warfare would be conducted by ‘small, numerous, smart, stealthy, mobile’ systems, but these are not clearly defined. The emphasis in Taiwanese capability development is on mobile long-range firepower through coastal defence missile systems, mine-laying operations, and information- and electronic-warfare capabilities. Yet the review is vague on how the Taiwanese armed forces will actually respond to asymmetric threats below the level of a full-scale invasion of the island.

It’s this asymmetric challenge of a graduated escalation of grey-zone actions by China that seems to be the most immediate threat to Taiwan. The QDR acknowledges Chinese hybrid warfare tactics and incorporates it into the Ministry of National Defense’s counter deterrence strategy as Chinese grey zone actions have increased substantially in the past few years. It’s notable that the previous QDR, released in 2017, didn’t address the threat posed by Chinese grey-zone tactics.

Beijing has employed its so-called ‘three warfares’ strategy—encompassing psychological, public opinion and legal warfare—using both soft power and sharp power to meet its political interests. It has not only attempted to entice Taiwanese individuals and businesses to move to and invest in the mainland, in an effort to gradually shift Taiwanese self-identity, but also used media campaigns to spread disinformation and try to sow distrust and friction between the Taiwanese people and the government.

China’s propaganda campaign, according to the QDR, is designed to ‘go into the island, every household, everyone’s head and ultimately [every] individual’s mind’. Beijing’s grand strategy to coerce Taiwan isn’t simply a military one and understanding its non-military aspects is key.

While the six-year timeline is the central challenge for Taiwan, as well as the US and its allies, to tackle, cognitive warfare should also be dealt with tactically. The 2021 QDR recognises that Taipei needs to address Beijing’s grey-zone tactics, which is perhaps a more urgent requirement than even long-range missile systems.