Taipei, Taiwan. Photo By: Getty Images
By: Diane Pinto, Columnist
A few weeks ago, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released a report titled, China’s Military Power.[i] The report gives an overview of the communist People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) current military power, changing threat perceptions, and describes the potential for armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait through aggressive action by the PRC. The DIA report brought to light many of the PRC’s military developments, and raised concerns[ii] of a renewed threat that the PRC is planning to conduct an invasion of the island of Taiwan, controlled by the Republic of China (ROC), in the near future.[iii] Controlling Taiwan has long had important geopolitical value to the PRC. It would officially end the civil conflict between the Communist Party of China and the ROC’s Kuomintang nationalists that dates back several decades. It would also enable the PRC to, per the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea,[iv] legitimize its claim to waters surrounding Taiwan as an Exclusive Economic Zone, strengthening its position in territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas.[v] However, even though the reclamation of Taiwan is one of the PRC’s top priorities, it is unlikely that it will attempt to do so in the near future, due to geopolitical, operational, and economic reasons.
First and foremost, any analysis of a PRC-ROC conflict scenario would be remiss without mentioning the role of the United States if the PRC attempted to invade Taiwan. Historically, each time the PRC was provocative towards Taiwan, the U.S. intervened in some way to deter further aggression.[vi] Though the U.S. scrapped its mutual defense treaty with the ROC when it recognized the PRC as the official governing body of China, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (TRA) still provides for a strategic partnership between the U.S. and the ROC.[vii] Since the implementation of the TRA, the U.S. has expressed its support through considerable arms sales to the ROC, much to the chagrin of the PRC.[viii] Therefore, it can be assumed that both due to the TRA and due to U.S. strategic interests in the region that any attack on Taiwan would be met with swift repercussions from the U.S. which maintains a sizeable presence in the area. An attack could then, in turn, involve U.S. regional partners like Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and others who would likely take actions either through military or economic means in response to PRC attempts to expand its control. For these reasons, as long as the U.S. continues to maintain its support and a presence in the region, risking engagement in a conflict among great powers would be a poor calculation for the PRC in the near future.
Operationally, the PRC’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) still has several challenges to overcome before being capable of invading Taiwan. Outside of the Korean War (referred to as the People’s Volunteer Army), Vietnam War, and subsequent Sino-Vietnam conflict, the PLA’s only practical combat experience has been limited to low-intensity conflicts. These engagements were mainly ground operations. Invading an island, like Taiwan, would require the PLA to coordinate joint operations among some or all of its services, something it is still in the process of both figuring out how to do effectively and also developing the appropriate technical capabilities to do so.[ix] Since about 70 percent of the PLA is composed of the PLA Army,[x] it does not at this time have sufficient naval, air, or amphibious operational capability or know-how to utilize one or two services in lieu of a fully joint force in a large island invasion.[xi]
Though the DIA report recognizes measures taken by past PRC presidents and current President Xi Jinping to improve the PLA’s organization and joint capabilities, the PLA still has a long way to go. It continues to undergo a massive reorganization that President Xi implemented in 2015.[xii] Also, it has not had the opportunity to test its joint readiness against a real opponent. Even testing its joint operability against either a less capable state or engaging a rival on a smaller scale would not likely go uncontested. Virtually any aggressive acts from the PRC against its neighbors would likely be met with a coalition force in opposition, and it would have almost no allies in support.
Finally, the ROC’s economic situation makes it unlikely for the PRC to attempt to invade Taiwan. The ROC’s liberalized and well-performing economy enables it to be taken seriously on the global stage. It acceded to the World Trade Organization in 2001 and is a member of a variety of other international trade organizations and bilateral trade agreements. Even the PRC has increased its trade relations with the ROC and economic cooperation.[xiii] Because the ROC is a significant enough contributor to the global economy and the PRC and ROC are increasingly intertwined, an invasion of Taiwan would probably cause significant economic downturn not just for both the PRC and ROC, but also for the region if not the world.[xiv]
In sum, concerns surrounding a PRC invasion of Taiwan in the near-term future are fairly overblown. Even though the reclamation of Taiwan is one of the top priorities of the PRC, it is unlikely that it will occur in the next few years. Each time there was a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, the crisis ended due to U.S. support and the unwillingness of the PRC to escalate force. As long as the U.S. continues to find ways to support Taiwan and maintain a military presence in the South and East China Seas, this threat potential is significantly diminished. These elements are compounded with the lack of operational capability by the PRC to conduct an invasion and the adverse economic effects such an invasion would have on the global economy, showing that the best-case scenario for the PRC in the short-term future is to refrain from invading Taiwan.
Bibliography & Notes
[i] U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. China’s Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win. January 15, 2019.
[ii] See for instance the following articles: Lara Seligman. “U.S. Increasingly Concerned About a Chinese Attack on Taiwan.” Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/16/u-s-increasingly-concerned-about-a-chinese-attack-on-taiwan/, January 16, 2019; Tara Copp and Aaron Mehta. “New defense intelligence assessment warns China nears critical military milestone.” Defense News, https://www.defensenews.com/news/your-military/2019/01/15/new-defense-intelligence-assessment-warns-china-nears-critical-military-milestone/, January 15, 2019; Lolita C. Baldor. “US assessment raises concerns over China attacking Taiwan.” Associated Press, https://www.apnews.com/68383e6c62ac4d188f9b845b59d41128, January 16, 2019
[iii] The terms “People’s Republic of China (PRC)” and “Republic of China (ROC)” refer to the communist and democratic state actors that govern mainland China and Taiwan respectively. In this piece, Taiwan refers to the physical island rather than a state actor. Because both the PRC and ROC claim to be the legitimate governing body of all of China, this piece refrains from using the terms China and Taiwan when referring to state actors. Most notably, the ROC is comprised of not just Taiwan, but also the islands of Matsu, Kinmen, Penghu, and several small other islands.
[iv] United Nations. “Part V: Exclusive Economic Zone,” in United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
[v] “Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea.” Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/interactives/global-conflict-tracker?marker-7#!/conflict/territorial-disputes-in-the-south-china-sea
[vi] U.S. Department of State. “The Taiwan Straits Crises: 1954-55 and 1958.” https://history.state.gov/milestones/1953-1960/taiwan-strait-crises
[vii] American Institute in Taiwan. “The Taiwan Relations Act (Public Law 96-2, 22 U.S.C. 3301 et seq.) https://www.ait.org.tw/our-relationship/policy-history/key-u-s-foreign-policy-documents-region/taiwan-relations-act/, January 1, 1979
[viii] Zhenhua Lu. “US$330 million arms sale to Taiwan will go ahead, says US Congress.” South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/2170262/us330-million-arms-sale-taiwan-clears-congressional-review-may, October 26, 2018.
[ix] Joel Wuthnow and Phillip C. Saunders. “From Green to Purple: Can the Chinese Military Become More Joint?” War on the Rocks. https://warontherocks.com/2017/03/from-green-to-purple-can-the-chinese-military-become-more-joint/, March 30, 2017.
[x] Phillip C. Saunders and John Chen. “Is the Chinese Army the Real Winner in PLA Reforms?” Joint Forces Quarterly. Vol. 83. 4th q. National Defense University, October 2016.
[xi] Rand Corporation. The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996-2017. 2017.
[xii] U.S. Department of Defense. Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018. Annual Report to Congress. 2018.
[xiii] Republic of China Mainland Affairs Council. The Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). June 29, 2010.
[xiv] Wang Mouzhou. “What Happens After China Invades Taiwan?” The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2017/03/what-happens-after-china-invades-taiwan/, March 24, 2017