Turning the Tide in Taipei: Assessing Taiwan’s Preparation for a PLA Attack

President Tsai travels to Pingtung County to inspect the 32nd Han Kuang military exercises. (2016/08/25)
Image: 總統府/Flickr

By Alison O’Neil, Austin Hillebrandt, and Sofia Valle

In recent months, a spike in cross-strait tensions has accompanied growing calls for American support for Taiwan. The United States’ most recent move on the cross-strait chessboard—the approval of a $1.1 billion arms package—can only aggravate the increasingly strained relationship between Taipei and Beijing. 

On August 4, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) shot eleven ballistic missiles over Taiwan in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei. Although the eleven DF-15B missiles were halfway to orbit when they crossed over the Island, the drill is cause for concern. 

In light of Beijing’s response, a familiar debate has resurfaced: should America come to Taipei’s aid if China attacks Taiwan? This issue divides Americans, with 52 percent favoring “using US troops to defend Taiwan.” However, all of this fanfare has obscured the far more fundamental question: is the U.S. military capable of ensuring that Taiwan can successfully fend off a Chinese invasion?

It is true that Taiwan’s geography, which would force the PLA to mount a logistically daunting amphibious invasion, protects it to an extent. However, in terms of materiel, Taiwan lacks the means to repel a Chinese invasion. 

According to the Department of Defense, China has 952,000 more troops, 5,900 more pieces of artillery, 28 more naval destroyers, and 26 more frigates than Taiwan. Additionally, Taiwan’s military has major tactical flaws. As some experts have pointed out, Taipei should adopt an asymmetrical defense structure: a strategy that incorporates cheap weaponry—such as sea mines, drones, and mobile air defenses—to stall out amphibious invasions. 

Taiwan has long rejected this asymmetrical doctrine, instead investing in F-16 aircrafts, MIA2 tanks, and long-range missiles. Even if Taiwan completes these projects before an invasion, the harsh reality is that this security strategy requires Taiwan to match the PLA. Beijing already has similar weapons and many more of them. By building F-16s, MIA2s, and long-range missiles, Taiwan is not increasing the chance of its survival; instead, it risks raising the expected number of casualties associated with an invasion.

Moreover, the ideal that Pelosi outlined in her Taipei address—that the United States will “not abandon Taiwan”—remains at best vague and at worst fiction. The United States has never formally guaranteed military involvement on behalf of Taiwan in the event of an invasion; America’s longstanding approach of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan still holds. In short, even if America decides to commit troops to Taiwan, despite a lack of obligations, Taipei’s chance of stalling the PLA until American forces arrive remains slim.

Conventional weaponry is not Taiwan’s only vulnerability, as there is no guarantee that Taipei will be able to defend its digital infrastructure. Taiwan has tried to rectify this by incentivizing domestic companies to prioritize cyber-security through the 2018 Information and Communication Security Management Act.

Yet, Taiwan has done little to incentivize students or qualified individuals to work in their domestic cybersecurity sector. As of July 2022, Taiwan still experienced “an acute labor shortage in the information security sector.” 

However, the more pressing cyber threat is associated with the F-16 aircraft that Taipei invested in. American GPS signals to Taiwan’s F-16s “where they are, provides targeting info for [their] smart weapons, and supports [their] communication and navigation systems.” In other words, the most lethal components of the F-16 are dependent on the information broadcast from American GPS satellites, which cyber attacks can compromise. Regarding GPS vulnerabilities, it’s not a question of “if” but “when.” If America has a solution to this problem, it has done little to address it publicly.

Ominously, China also refuses to answer the Biden Administration’s request to “establish international norms for cyberspace and space” and has amassed an “arsenal of anti-satellite weapons.” In short, the F-16, because of its GPS dependence, may prove to be more of a liability than an asset during an invasion.

Of course, Taiwan does not have to destroy the entirety of the PLA to survive. Taipei only has to convince the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership that the costs of invasion outweigh the benefits—a move that some experts have termed a “porcupine strategy.” 

Unfortunately, Taiwan lacks the means to alter the CCP’s resolve; President Xi Jinping’s “national rejuvenation” motif indicates that Taiwan is of paramount interest to the CCP. The concept of national rejuvenation claims that the CCP is the protectorate of the Chinese people, who include the Taiwanese. 

From 1683 to 1895, the Qing, the last dynasty of imperial China, ruled Taiwan. Consequently, like the rest of China, Taiwan was ravaged by western imperial powers when the Qing dynasty imploded. Under the framework of national rejuvenation, it was the CCP’s leadership that was responsible for the expulsion of “imperialist and hegemonic powers [and the] raising [of] living standards in China.” In other words, as Xi Jinping argues, “only socialism could save China.” 

However, an independent Taiwan discredits Xi’s narrative and threatens the CCP’s sovereignty. Taiwan’s rejuvenation shunned socialism in favor of capitalism. Policies such as waiving import taxes for potential investors and adopting a floating exchange rate system—the same currency system that the United States uses—sparked Taiwan’s economic growth. This economic growth is tangible evidence that socialism with Chinese characteristics was not the only method that could rescue the Qing territories’ colonialism-ravaged economies. 

Moreover, the CCP has indicated that it is willing to endure severe costs to achieve party goals. Xi told the PLA that “they should fear ‘neither hardship or death’ as they [implement CCP] orders.” This chauvinistic language is significant because it demonstrates that the CCP is willing to take grave risks to secure reunification through force. Thus, Taiwan’s newly-manufactured long range missiles—even if they are lobbed at the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—are unlikely to alter the CCP’s priorities. In fact, such attacks could reinforce the PRC’s resolve since China’s state-controlled media would likely use those attacks to perpetuate a cult of martyrdom

Not only is China’s military strong enough to decimate Taiwanese defense, but the CCP’s institutions are resilient enough to maintain popular support for the war. Furthermore, China is one of the few nations that can exploit the American military’s reliance on GPS. Now, these factors do not guarantee victory for the PRC, but they do dispel any notion that Taiwan’s survival is assured if America intervenes. 

Taipei must take concrete steps now, including conscription reform, investing in digital infrastructure, and continuing to augment asymmetric capabilities, among others, if it is to challenge an increasingly aggressive China.

Alison O’Neil is a regular contributor for the Realist Review and a freelance writer on international affairs. She is an M.A. candidate in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program, concentrating on intelligence. Follow her on Twitter: @Alison_Does_IR

Austin Hillebrandt studies Aerospace Security, China’s Space Program, and Space Economy at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. He is a guest contributor to the Realist Review.

Sofia Valle is an undergraduate student at the College of William and Mary, majoring in International Relations and Chinese Studies. She is interested in Chinese maritime gray-zone activities and maritime transparency in the Indo-Pacific. She is the Treasurer and Secretary at the College of William and Mary’s chapter of the John Quincy Adams Society. 

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