Since the beginning of September, China has carried out the most provocative and sustained show of force on the Taiwan Strait in almost a quarter of a century. Chinese military patrols, some of which include more than 30 fighter jets and half a dozen naval vessels, roamed the strait roughly every other day. Many of them have crossed the center line between Taiwan and China, a border that both sides – up until last year – had respected for decades.
With cross-strait tensions mounting, more American policymakers and experts, mainly right-wing and center-right, are calling on the United States to safeguard Taiwan’s security – a firm commitment the United States has avoided for more than four decades. These calls build on a series of bipartisan laws passed over the past two years that strengthen America's moral and diplomatic support for Taiwan in the face of Chinese pressure. But can Taiwan really be defended?
The task looks impossible on paper. China's military is ten times the size of Taiwan's and includes Asia's largest air force and the world's largest army, conventional missile force, coast guard and navy by number of ships. China's long-range air defense systems can shoot down planes over Taiwan, and China's land missiles and fighter jets could potentially wipe out Taiwan's air force and navy and destroy US bases in East Asia in a preemptive strike. China has built several times more naval ships than the United States since 2015, and now Taiwan spends 25 to 1 on defense annually. The cross-strait military balance is clearly shifting in China's favor.
Still, Taiwan retains permanent advantages that could make the island virtually invincible – provided Taipei and Washington take advantage of them. Armadas that China would need to conquer or block Taiwan are extremely vulnerable to modern missiles and mines. Meanwhile, the Taiwan Strait is dangerous – typhoons and 20-foot waves are common for most of the year – and Taiwan itself is a natural fortress. The east coast is made up of sheer cliffs, and the west coast is dominated by mud flats that stretch for miles to the sea and are plagued by violent tides. As a result, there are only a dozen beaches in Taiwan that an invading force could even land on.
Taiwan's defenders also have history on their side. No blockade in the past 200 years has forced a country to give up its sovereignty, and there has been only one successful amphibious invasion of a developed nation in modern history (the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943). All other successful amphibious assaults were directed against overloaded forces who were hastily defending positions in foreign or contested areas with small arms. If China invaded Taiwan today, it would attack mass forces defending fortified positions on home soil with precision-guided ammunition.
Given these advantages, a consensus has developed among many defense professionals on how Taiwan should defend itself – and what the United States must do to be ready to help. According to this consensus, Taiwan should use its limited defense budget to purchase huge arsenals of mobile missile launchers, armed drones and mines. Develop an army that can bring tens of thousands of troops to any beach in an hour, supported by a multi-million dollar reserve force trained to fight guerrillas in Taiwan's cities and jungles; and to maintain shelters and huge supplies of fuel, medical supplies, food and water for a population psychologically prepared to weather months of bloody conflict. In the meantime, the United States should disperse and harden its basic infrastructure in East Asia and preposition networks of rocket launchers and armed drones near Taiwan. These forces would function as high-tech minefields and would be able to decimate a Chinese invasion or blockade at the start of a war.
Both governments have already taken important steps to implement these recommendations. For example, Taiwan has pledged to increase defense spending by 10 percent over the next year and prioritize asymmetric capabilities. The United States has developed plans to occupy rocket launchers and strict airfields along the islands opposite the Chinese coast. Taiwan and the United States are bringing sophisticated drones, mines, and missiles online.
However, these measures may be too late. The Taiwanese and US armed forces continue to consist largely of a small number of advanced aircraft, ships and tanks operating from large bases – the very kind of forces that China can now destroy with surprise air and missile fire. Given current trends, it could take the Taiwanese and U.S. forces a decade to retool to effectively defend the island. Given China's rapid military build-up, this may be a time Taiwan doesn't have.
Taiwan's list of military shortcomings is long. More than a quarter of Taiwan's annual defense budget is earmarked for domestically-made ships and submarines that have not been used for years, warplanes that may not make it off the ground in a war, and tanks that hit beaches or the jungle are not easy to maneuver or cities. As part of the ongoing transition to a voluntary military, Taiwan has reduced its force from 275,000 to 175,000 and cut compulsory military service from one year to four months. The recruits only receive a few weeks of basic training, and the reservists are called up for a few days every two years.
Taiwan has also gutted its logistics forces and is only allowed to employ one civil maintenance or management worker for every 20 troops. For comparison: the US military has one civilian worker who supports all two troops. Taiwan's exhausted logistics teams routinely fail to resupply combat units or perform basic maintenance. As a result, soldiers avoid training with their weapons for fear of accidents or wasting valuable ammunition. Some estimates suggest that Taiwan's pilots fly less than 10 hours a month and that more than half of Taiwanese tanks and attack helicopters are inoperable. Many Taiwanese soldiers lack basic tactical knowledge, have rarely practiced firing their weapons, and suffer from low morale. Despite these labor shortages, Taiwan's spending on soldiers' salaries and services has risen steadily, consuming nearly half of the defense budget.
The problems have been evident for years, but political pressures have hampered major reforms. Taiwanese politicians are naturally motivated to invest too much in battleships and fighter jets and too little to invest in well-trained and fully equipped soldiers. Infantry and logistics are boring. But submarines and F-16s are exciting. In the meantime, the reinstatement of conscription and the increase in taxes to fund a larger army would likely spark public outrage. Given these electoral realities, Taiwan's leaders have focused on military showpieces in hopes that the United States will save the day if China ever attacks.
At this point, however, the United States may not be up to the task. The U.S. military has only two bases within 500 miles of Taiwan – which is also the maximum unfueled combat radius of U.S. fighter jets – and both are easy targets for China's land missile. If China deactivates these bases, US air forces would have to operate from vulnerable aircraft carriers and from Guam, which is 1,800 miles from Taiwan. The extra distance and air refueling would cut the number of US air failures in half, giving China the ability to dominate the skies over Taiwan and inflict heavy casualties on US forces trying to make their way into combat theater.
The overall result is tragic: Taiwan has tremendous geographic advantages over China, and the United States has the most powerful military in the world, but its combined forces are routinely driven away by a Chinese attack in war games.
The good news is that Taiwan and the United States have developed solid strategies to strengthen their defenses, and these strategies have been endorsed by senior policy makers in both governments. The island wins in war games in which Taiwan and the US follow these plans and use weapons currently under development. The question, then, is not whether Taiwan can be defended – it definitely can – but whether Taiwan and the United States can renew their military in time to repel a Chinese attack.
Rapid reform requires that the Taiwanese and US governments instill a sense of urgency in their public. Last year, only 20 percent of Taiwanese citizens said they were concerned that war with China was imminent, nearly 60 percent of Americans wanted to reduce U.S. forces in East Asia, and only 35 percent of Americans were in favor of defending Taiwan. China's recent confrontation is worrying, but it does offer Taiwan and the United States an opportunity to hold national talks on the growing Chinese threat and the sacrifices both societies must make to contain it. If they don't take this opportunity, they may not get another one.