by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
Since the election of Tsai Ing-wen as the new President of Taiwan (or the Republic of China) in May 2016, there have been some rumblings in cross-Strait relations. For example, the December 2016 phone call between President Tsai and then United States President-elect Donald Trump prompted a rebuke from the People’s Republic of China, as this was the first time since 1979 that a US President or President-elect directly spoke with their Taiwanese counterpart. This was exacerbated when Trump and several members of his transition team subsequently made statements suggesting that the US might no longer honour the One-China policy, which insists that both Taiwan and mainland China remain inalienable parts of a single “China” but leaves unresolved the question as to whether the legitimate government of that territory is the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China.
Although Trump subsequently backed down from this position and reaffirmed the US’ commitment to the One-China policy, President Xi Jinping used his opening remarks at the 19th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China in October 2017 to threaten that mainland China can and will “defeat any intention of ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form”. This statement reflects both Xi’s vision of an increasingly assertive China on the international stage, as well as the suspicion many mainland Chinese policymakers harbour toward the strategic intentions of President Tsai and the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has generally supported a break from the One-China policy in favour of Taiwan’s independence. Since August 2017, China has also considerably stepped up its military exercises near Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, including flights over the Miyako Strait by People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Xian H-6 strategic bombers (see image below).
Under such strain in cross-Strait relations, it is worth noting that Taiwan’s Ministry of Defence published in March 2017 its first National Security Strategy since the election of President Tsai. This was completed as part of the country’s Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) and will guide Taiwan’s foreign and security policy until at least 2021, a period of substantial importance for cross-Strait relations and the security of the broader Asia-Pacific region. Considerable focus is placed in the document on the role of expanded command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities, as well as the development of reservist forces from among retired volunteer soldiers. There is very little or no mention of developing offensive, expeditionary, or even retaliatory capabilities for any branch of the Republic of China Armed Forces (ROCAF). Although the focus on C4ISR capabilities modestly distinguishes the 2017 QDR from the results of the 2013 QDR, the election of Taiwan’s DPP government has clearly not resulted in a major defence policy rethink.
This is particularly interesting, given that the 2017 QDR itself notes substantial changes in Taiwan’s strategic environment that would prompt such a rethink: the potential withdrawal of American power from the Asia-Pacific, mainland China’s growing assertiveness, and the rapid modernization of defence capabilities by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). To some degree, there was such a rethink in 2014 when Taiwanese defence planners launched a program to modernize and expand the Republic of China Navy (ROCN). As a result of that program, the ROCN took delivery in March 2017 of two decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates from the US, on which the ROCN based its design of its current complement of eight Cheng Kung-class frigates. Taiwan is also working to develop a fleet of eight indigenously designed and built diesel-electric attack submarines, with the first to become operational by 2028, in order to replace its aging Hai Lung-class and Hai Shih-class submarines. Illustrative of the growing technological gap between the ROCN and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarine fleets, Taiwan’s two Hai Lung-class submarines have been operating since the 1980’s and are based on the Zwaardvis-class, which the Royal Netherlands Navy has long since retired, while Taiwan’s two Hai Shih-class submarines are based on the US Navy’s 70-year old Trench-class design and are used only for training exercises.Such efforts to bolster Taiwan’s maritime forces may help to deter PLAN from violating the “middle line” of the Taiwan Strait, while the development of Yun Feng surface-to-surface missiles, which have an anticipated range of 1,200 kilometres, would allow Taiwan impressive retaliatory precision strike capabilities. But the ROCAF still finds itself hopelessly outnumbered: taking the two countries’ submarine fleets as an example, PLAN boasts five nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, six nuclear-powered fleet submarines, and 56 conventional-powered fleet submarines to Taiwan’s two conventional-powered fleet submarines capable of actually undertaking operations. PLAN’s East Sea Fleet – which is based out of Ningbo, Zhejiang province – would be responsible for providing support to an amphibious invasion of Taiwan and has at its disposal 60 vessels: 9 destroyers, 18 frigates, 10 corvettes, 7 diesel-electric submarines, 12 landing ships, and 4 replenishment ships. Meanwhile, the entire ROCN fleet is comprised of 81 vessels: 4 destroyers, 20 frigates, and 2 diesel-electric submarines, along with 12 patrol boats, 30 missile boats, 3 landing ships, 6 mine hunters, and 4 mine sweepers.
Given how badly outnumbered the ROCN is regarding ships capable of participating in a fleet battle, the extensive complement of missile boats sheds some light on the underlying logic of Taiwan’s military reforms. Namely, the ROCAF accepts that, without support from the United States and other allies, it would be impossible to repel an amphibious invasion by mainland China. Rather, the intention is to make the invasion as costly an endeavour for mainland China as possible, particularly through an ongoing insurgency. The aforementioned missile boats could continue to harass PLAN vessels as mainland Chinese control is exerted over the island, while the reserve force envisioned in Taiwan’s 2017 National Security Strategy would ensure a ready supply of trained and committed soldiers to wage such an insurgency in an occupied Taiwan.
This may be the most realistic approach to Taiwanese defence policy at a time when mainland China’s military capabilities have so far out-stripped those of its neighbours. As other analysts have pointed out previously, the occupation of Taiwan by mainland China would be an immensely costly pursuit, both in terms of human lives and financial resources. The economic impact on China of such an invasion also cannot be understated: Ningbo is one of the world’s largest ports by cargo volume, but it would also play an important role in the logistics of an amphibious invasion. As such, Ningbo would almost certainly be a target for retaliation for Taiwan, most obviously via Yun Feng missile strikes on critical infrastructure. Given this, it will likely be recognized by both sides that maintaining the status quo in cross-Strait relations is of mutual interest, as either an attempt by Taiwan to declare full independence or an invasion from mainland China to exert full control over the island would trigger a conflict that would fail to satisfy the political aims of either side and would have severe economic implications in the region for years to come.
For Taiwan, perhaps the most realistic security challenge in the coming years, therefore, would be mainland China’s repeated violations of Taiwanese airspace, such as the aforementioned bomber flights over the Miyako Strait. On this point, Taiwan is wise to invest in improvements to its air and missile defence capabilities, as PLAAF also vastly outnumbers Taiwan in terms of combat aircraft. It is unclear which PLAAF aircraft have been assigned to China’s Eastern Theatre Command, which is also responsible for PLAN’s East Sea Fleet, but PLAAF has a total of 1,382 combat aircraft to distribute among its five military theatres, while Taiwan has a total of 286 combat aircraft for the defence of the island. As China tests the ranges of its new, indigenously-developed combat aircraft and trains its pilots on longer-range operations, it is likely confrontations will continue in or near Taiwanese airspace. The challenge, in a time of tense political rhetoric, will be for both sides to avoid escalation when such confrontations occur.