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A look at how the Taiwan Strait became one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
The Taiwan Strait has become one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Known as “The Black Ditch,” the strait separates the People’s Republic of China from Taiwan (officially called the Republic of China). Although the names are nearly the same, the two couldn’t be more different: there is an authoritarian, communist country on one side of the strait, and a democracy on the other.
Warfare between the two Chinas could draw in regional powers, as well as the United States—and that could render it the most devastating war since World War II. Here’s what you need to know about the rising tensions between China and Taiwan.
In 1949, the Chinese Civil War came to a dramatic close. Chinese Communist forces under the direction of Mao Zedong completed their conquest of the mainland, and Republic of China forces under Chiang Kai-shek evacuated to the island of Formosa—also known as Taiwan—off the coast of China. There, the Republic of China’s government licked its wounds while maintaining it was still the legitimate Chinese government. The Chinese Communist Party, on the other hand, established the People’s Republic of China, occupied the mainland, and established its capital in the imperial city of Beijing.
The United States backed the Republic of China during the Chinese Civil War and offered military training and aid to protect it after the retreat to Taiwan. In 1979, the Carter Administration recognized the People’s Republic of China as the “only” China. But under the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. is bound to assist Taiwan in its self-defense. That means providing defensive arms to Taiwan in the case of a conflict, and an obligation to maintain the military capability to help defend the island.
The United States has major interests in Taiwan. It’s one of the most stable countries (and vibrant democracies) in the world. Taiwan is also a major economic force, manufacturing over 60 percent of semiconductors worldwide. Beyond that, it has major strategic value to the U.S.: For the Chinese air and naval forces to venture into the western Pacific today, they must pass Russian, Japanese, Philippine, and Taiwanese territory. If the People’s Republic of China gained Taiwan, it would have an unobstructed springboard into the Pacific Ocean.
Meanwhile, Communist China sees Taiwan as a “rogue province,” declaring it a top foreign policy objective (or domestic policy, depending on how you look at it) to bring the island under Beijing’s control. For decades, China did little about Taiwan; Unable to conduct a cross-strait invasion, there was nothing it could do, so the Communist Party bided its time and grew the economy instead.
As China’s economy expanded in the 1990s, its political clout also grew, and Taiwan became more politically isolated. Recently, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has pushed a more aggressive foreign policy and lavished spending on the People’s Liberation Army— especially forces that could one day be used to forcibly return Taiwan into the fold of greater China.
For decades, Taiwan was relatively well-protected from invasion. The Taiwan Strait, approximately 100 miles wide, was an insurmountable obstacle to the People’s Republic, which lacked the wealth to fund the Navy and sealift forces needed to make an invasion possible. Even if China could make it through the Taiwan Strait, the technologically superior Republic of China air and naval forces would make short work of an invasion force. As late as the early 2000s, such an invasion was derisively described as the “million-man swim,” and would have almost certainly ended in a turkey shoot—especially if U.S. forces intervened.
By the early 1990s, China had opened its doors to foreign manufacturing, kicking off a staggering economic transformation. Although China’s defense spending as a proportion of the national budget remained the same, the budget itself skyrocketed, resulting in more than two decades of double-digit defense spending increases. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s military spending remained more or less flat.
The Republic of China Armed Forces number 165,000 active duty troops backed up by 1.6 million reservists. Its navy and air force comprise the first line of defense. The air force flies the latest, most modern version of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the F-16V, as well as Mirage 2000 fighters and the locally produced IDF fighter. It also has the most experience versus mainland military forces, regularly intercepting People’s Liberation Army Air Force aircraft that fly near the island.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s navy is shifting away from a fleet centered around larger destroyer-sized ships to more sensible missile-armed catamarans, ships better suited to sinking amphibious ships attempting a cross-strait landing. The navy is also developing its own attack submarine to replace four aging subs—including two dating all the way back to World War II.
The Republic of China (ROC) Army, at 130,000, is charged with resisting an invasion on the ground. The ROC Army is fully mechanized and able to take advantage of Taiwan’s modern road network. A major weakness is a lack of modern tanks that could be used to counterattack and drive the invaders into the sea. The ROC recently purchased 108 new, American-made M1A2T Abrams tanks, with the first entering service in 2022.
Meanwhile, the 2.1 million-strong People’s Liberation Army lies across the strait and is more prepared than ever to strike. The People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces (PLAGF), People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), and People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC), have also benefitted from a complete overhaul and modernization campaign. Now, many of those forces are technologically equivalent with their western counterparts. Equipment dating to the 1960s, for instance, has been shelved and replaced with modern versions, often developed by China’s defense industry itself.
In the air, the PLAAF has a major edge. Taiwan’s nearly 300 fighters would be outnumbered by the mainland’s 1,500 modern fighters. This total includes 60-70 Chengdu J-20 fighters (China’s first fifth-generation stealth fighter), as well as other homemade J-11, J-16, and J-30 fighters, plus Russian-made Su-27 and Su-30 fighters. The People’s Republic of China could only send as many planes into combat as local airfields could handle, but it could replenish combat losses relatively quickly. Chinese air defenses such as the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system will also threaten Taiwanese fighters, with the range to intercept targets over Taiwan itself.
At sea, Beijing is even more powerful. The East and South Fleets of the People’s Liberation Army Navy are the two fleets that would carry out an amphibious invasion. Together, the two fleets include 34 attack submarines, 41 frigates, 23 destroyers, six major amphibious ships, and 45 medium and tank-landing ships. The invasion force would be augmented by commercial car ferries trained to launch amphibious assault craft close to shore.
The actual invasion force would be spearheaded by eight PLANMC amphibious brigades of approximately 40,000 personnel. Ground Forces armor, mechanized, and special operations forces would land to bolster the invasion force once beachheads and port facilities were secure. The air force would transport six parachute brigades and a special operations forces brigade by helicopter, and bring Y-20 transport aircraft behind ROC lines, seizing key objectives.
China maintains a large inventory of short, medium, and long-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. The missiles, controlled by the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Forces, would be fired from both mobile ground launchers and H-6 bombers. Hundreds of missiles—each delivering a conventional explosive warhead with a high degree of accuracy, weighing in at a half-ton or more—would batter military and economic targets in Taiwan from the outset of the invasion.
The decision to go to war would happen in Beijing, and will kick off a months-long period of preparation and deception.
Such a campaign would likely start off with large-scale People’s Liberation Army exercises. Marines and ground forces would practice moving to the coast, loading transport ships, and swimming to shore aboard ZBD-05 amphibious fighting vehicles. Naval forces would practice shelling targets on the ground, establishing a defensive cordon around landing ships, and preventing outside forces from interfering. Air forces would train in air-to-air combat, strike-and-interdiction missions, and in deploying parachutists.
“Taiwan is highly defensible terrain and the Taiwanese are likely to put up a stiff resistance and fight to the bitter end.”
The military exercises would be held monthly, honing the PLA’s ability to fight. Each time, a portion of the troops would remain forward ports and airfields after the exercise was finished. By the time D-Day rolls around, the invasion force would already be in place, and the enemy would be lulled into complacency by months of monotonous exercises.
Then, one day, China would strike. Chinese DF-11A and DF-12 short-range missiles, DF-21 medium-range missiles, and cruise missiles would fall on targets across Taiwan, slamming into military headquarters, missile batteries, army bases, military airfields, and supply and fuel dumps. PLAAF fighters would engage ROC fighters, rising up from smoking airfields to meet them, determined to gain air superiority. Xi’an Y-20 military transports laden with paratroopers and commandos would wing their way east.
As the air and missile war rages, the invasion force would begin its cross-strait assault. PLAN destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and submarines would escort landing ships bulging with troops and equipment, screening them from ROC surface warships and submarines. PRC marines would then land up and down the coast, seizing beachheads and port facilities intact. Airborne forces would land at major airports and military airfields up and down the island. PLA tanks and infantry fighting vehicles would land and drive farther inland, intent on seizing major population centers including Taiwan’s capital of Taipei.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s armed forces would be engaged in a furious fight for survival. “Taiwan is highly defensible terrain and the Taiwanese are likely to put up a stiff resistance and fight to the bitter end,” Ian Easton—senior director at the Project 2049 Institute, and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat—tells Popular Mechanics. “(Taiwanese generals) plan to conduct a layered defense, destroying as many high-value Chinese ships and aircraft as possible in the Taiwan Strait area.”
“For Taiwan, the key is to keep their president and war cabinet alive, along with as many military leaders as possible,” Easton continues. “It is believed that Chinese assassins might be everywhere. Another threat is the wave after wave of missiles, cyberattacks, and electronic jamming that would come before the invasion started.”
Taiwanese forces would fight a two-prong battle, one of interdiction and one of close combat. ROC air force fighters would seek to shoot down as many military cargo planes as possible, while Taiwan’s navy—led by the new, heavily armed Tuo River-class missile corvettes—would concentrate their attention on landing ships. Land-based missiles would target airfields and ports on the mainland. Meanwhile, defenders on the ground would attempt to bottle up and contain those PRC invasion forces that successfully land. Once an opportunity is detected, the ROC army would hurl its 100-plus M1A2T Abrams tanks at the beachheads, attempting to cut off the invasion force.
The wild card in a China-Taiwan conflict is the United States. American air and naval forces based in Japan, Guam, Hawaii, and as far away as the continental United States could quickly turn the tide of the war, disrupting an invasion and perhaps even halting it. U.S. ground forces could then counter-invade, link up with the Republic of China army, and push the People’s Republic of China back into the ocean. The “million-man swim” could still become a reality—only in the opposite direction.
“The United States still maintains sufficient military power to defend Taiwan. The politics of U.S.-Taiwan relations makes that an extraordinarily difficult challenge. How do you defend a country that you don’t recognize and keep at arm’s length?”
“The success of a Chinese attack will depend on the PLA’s ability to overwhelm Taiwanese defense before substantial American forces arrive,” Robert Farley, senior lecturer at the University of Kentucky Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, tells Popular Mechanics. “The U.S. military barely has a symbolic presence on the island, meaning that the initial Chinese attack will fall entirely upon Taiwanese defenders. If this assault can either carry Taiwan altogether or close off avenues of U.S. support (ports and air bases), then the U.S. military will be hard-pressed to recover the island.”
Would the U.S. intervene in a second Chinese civil war? Taiwan is a democracy, so it shares many of the same values as the U.S., especially with regard to human rights. If China’s military attacks cause widespread civilian casualties, that could increase calls for U.S. intervention. Furthermore, America standing by and doing nothing creates the risk of a stronger, emboldened China down the road. For what it’s worth, there is already considerable support for a military intervention: 52 percent of Americans would favor going to war with China over Taiwan, a figure that has almost doubled since 2016.
“It is generally assumed the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s defense, but the details of what that might look like are vague and unlikely to involve nuclear use unless China first uses nuclear weapons against the U.S. or a treaty ally like Japan,” Easton explains. “The United States still maintains sufficient military power to defend Taiwan. The politics of U.S.-Taiwan relations makes that an extraordinarily difficult challenge. How do you defend a country that you don’t recognize and keep at arm’s length?”
The strength of U.S. forces across the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the American commitment to Taiwan’s defense, makes the possibility of an American intervention too great to ignore. If China does attack Taiwan, it could very well mount a surprise attack on U.S. bases across the Pacific, including Kadena air base on the island of Okinawa and Yokota air base on the outskirts of Tokyo. This would set back any U.S. military intervention, buying time for the invasion force to succeed.
The downside, of course, is that such an attack would kill and injure thousands of American servicemen and servicewomen, infuriate U.S. public opinion, and guarantee an intervention. In fact, it would probably guarantee all-out war, though short of the immediate use of nuclear weapons.
The threat of U.S. intervention would force Chinese leaders to grapple with a couple of hard questions: If the U.S. does intervene, is Taiwan worth a wider war with the United States? Is this scenario, win or lose, something that could justify the use of nuclear weapons?
A war between China and Taiwan would be enormously destructive, and perhaps the first war in decades with highly urbanized, population-dense, technologically advanced countries on both sides. This would affect not only the fighting—which would involve stealth fighters, drones, missile boats, and cruise missiles—but also the glittering cities of Taiwan, including the skyscrapers in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung City. The war would endanger Taiwan’s population of 23 million mainland Chinese citizens living near coastal air and naval bases, and even Japanese civilians and American military dependents.
“Beijing knows exactly what it wants: to conquer Taiwan,” Easton says. “And so the Chinese Communist Party can concentrate everything on achieving that objective. This gives the PRC a distinct advantage.”
What does the U.S. really want? That’s the question for which everyone involved—particularly the Americans—will want an answer.