In the old old question of why the weak occasionally beat the strong, my favourite metaphor is the Ham Omelette. In a Ham Omelette, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.
In a clash over the Taiwan Strait, who would be the pig, who the chicken? This matters, because in the end predicting the outcome of a China-Taiwan clash would not be about the absolutes of military victory narrowly conceived, but about the issue of cost tolerance and the fear of a Pyrrhic result.
Relations between Taiwan and Beijing have eased in the latest ‘detente.’ But some worry that their mutual aims regarding Taiwan’s ultimate sovereignty are still irreconcilable and that they could still deteriorate. One thing driving this anxiety is the shifting military balance between the two, moving in China’s favour. But assessments of the clash are still predominantly quantitative. The debate should focus primarily not just on China’s superior mass and technology, but on whether it would be willing to absorb the costs of an invasion compared to the Taiwanese’ willingness to tough it out.
Some of the most prominent studies of the cross-strait military balance pay little heed to the question of relative will. Which side would be more cost-tolerant? Would the prospect of a Pyrrhic victory deter China? Conversely, would the Taiwanese have the stomach for an all-out clash after a saturation bombing and massed invasion?
The annual ‘Military Balance‘ produced by the International Institute of Strategic Studies is an example. At a mere £300 or so ($467) it is surely a bargain at twice the price (!). But its assessment is overshadowed by the issue of who has the biggest and strongest battalions.
In 2012, it had this to say about Taiwan’s defences:
the ability of such a small military to withstand a concerted invasion from across the Taiwan Strait is doubtful. Moreover, a growing reluctance on the part of the US to furnish Taiwan with advanced military equipment means that China is closing the technology gap with Taiwan. Taipei is currently emphasising the procurement of early warning systems and missile defence to enable the island to withstand an assault for as long as possible, with the goal of buying time for US intervention.
In 2013, here was the verdict, revised only semantically:
the capacity of such a small armed forces [sic] to withstand a concerted Chinese offensive from across the Taiwan Strait is doubtful. Moreover, a growing reluctance on the part of the US to furnish Taiwan with the most advanced military equipment means that China is rapidly closing the technology gap. Taipei is currently emphasising the procurement of early-warning and missile-defence systems to enable the island to withstand an assault for as long as possible, with the goal of buying time for US intervention.
Its not surprising that the MB focuses on weapons and defence budgets, rather than second-guessing the calculus of regimes and speculating on mass psychology. And it does have a point on the narrow ‘capabilities’ question. Measured pound for pound for combat power in any straight two-sided fight, China probably could seize back control of the island if both sides went to the matt. It seemingly, increasingly, has the ‘physical’ capability edge, particularly in the air and missile competition. It has strengthened its arsenal of short range ballistic missiles, for example, and though both sides are modernising their forces, observers fear that Taiwan will suffer in the ‘fighter gap’ with its failure so far to acquire F-16C/Ds.
This is not just a dyadic issue given America’s interests in the question. With its strengthening access and area denial capabilities that might seriously raise the costs of any US intervention, Beijing could plausibly threaten to fight a localised war against an isolated and overmatched Taipei.
Realistically, China’s exploitation of the military gap could take several forms short of outright war. Beijing might hope to deter Taiwan from unilaterally declaring independence and/or to coerce Taiwan to settle on its terms. But in the remote but severe worse case scenario, China might be emboldened by its military strength and doubts about the credibility of America’s commitment to strike.
Equally, as some incisive commentaries argue, it is probable that even a Taiwan being defeated in the air and on the ground would inflict some serious stings that make the question of political will vital. When it had the greater qualitative military edge, Taiwan defined victory in offensive terms – to win in a direct clash for control of seas and skies, overpowering China’s larger but less advanced forces. It designed its defences accordingly, around capital ships and advanced planes and matching its adversaries’ investments. Judging by its own published doctrine, the National Defence Report of 2011, Taiwan recognises that victory in these terms is no longer realistic and it is switching accordingly. Taiwan now defines victory as ensuring the survival of enough forces and preventing land forces establishing a foothold on Taiwan. The same logic that enables China with today’s tools to raise the costs of US intervention into its maritime space to unpalatable levels, also enables Taiwan to do the same at a price more suited to its limited GDP expenditure on defence.
Taiwan could carry out a range of active defence measures to make any invasion attempt a bloody proposition. To turn the nautical approaches to the island into contested zones, it could exploit ‘swarming’ methods by using small-attack craft armed with anti-ship cruise missiles as light guerrillas at sea. To turn the point of amphibious landing into a shooting gallery, it could use entrenched anti-ship and anti-air missile sites. To make both the approach and the beachhead more perilous, it could use sea and land mines. All of these would need to be coordinated by surviving command-and-control and C4ISTAR network. To resist further incursions by Chinese forces, Taiwan could stress small-unit tactics and prepare for urban combat by civilian militias as well as professionals. And through passive defensive measures, Taiwan would aim to keep its forces survivable: through mobility, redundancy, and the hardening and camouflage of its assets, as well as the stockpiling of food and fuel. These would not prevent large-scale damage to Taiwan’s military and civilian property but could preserve enough combat power to keep material costs on following-on invading force high. Once it takes delivery of and stands up its expanded Anti-Ballistic missile system, this could also shield it further, though there seems to be a wide array of opinion about how effective this would be against a saturation missile attack. Anyway, this doctrine properly applied would help it raise costs on amphibious force as it approached and as it reached the shore in the following phases.
Now that Taiwan shows signs of adopting a more achievable doctrine of raising costs on the invader by giving its forces greater survivability (through hardened underground shelters, for example) and dispersing them to hit back after the initial onslaught, China might have to reckon, amongst other things, with grievous losses of transport ships packed with troops and equipment. It would probably seize some kind of air superiority, but not enough to prevent mobile artillery and infantry turning the landing beaches into a deadly zone, or to prevent even a few air assets like Apache helicopters and planes being shifted from air bases and being able to land some heavy blows.
And then there is the preparation/surprise dilemma. For China to hit Taiwan with a surprising knockout blow from the air, it would not be able to conduct a large-scale preparation of invading forces beforehand to give the game away. The interval between the first strike and the follow-on invasion attempt would give Taiwan time to recover and prepare to defend its ground. On the other hand, were China to prepare an invasion force for days before, this would give Taiwan time to prepare, disperse its forces, and hunker down. No amount of technological advancement can eliminate this tradeoff, and if anything, advances in surveillance technology give defenders a wider and deeper ‘gaze’ if they are paying attention. Taiwan also has the geographic advantage of knowing roughly where troops would have to land, given the small amount of shoreline hospitable to invasion, and could prepare to concentrate its forces there.
But even given optimum diplomatic circumstances for China – having enough strategic ‘sealift’ to transport troops, a localised war, a growing technological edge, a devastating first strike giving it command of the skies, and everything going ‘right’ militarily on the night, there are good reasons to expect that Taiwan could make it expensive. What costs would the assailant willingly bear? What about the Taiwanese population, even after the PLA marched on Taipei? Curiously, in the sophisticated treatments of the issue, the prospect of an insurgency after the end of the conventional war hardly comes up. As Michael Cole argues, there are good reasons to suppose that Taiwanese nationalism would prove robust in a war. If so, there would be an excellent chance of resistance and some heavy urban fighting around one of the questions that Taiwanese national life and politics revolves around:
While the Iran-Iraq War is an imperfect analogy for the situation in Taiwan, it nevertheless forces us to revisit the assumption that Taiwanese — especially those who identify as Nationalists or “mainlanders” — would not fight Chinese invaders. With few exceptions, almost every member of the armed forces today was born in Taiwan. The effect of one’s identification with land and nation cannot be ignored, even among those who are direct descendants of Chinese who fled across the Taiwan Strait in 1949. All, regardless of their “ethnic” identification, are the result of, and were shaped by, the idiosyncratic social forces that prevail in Taiwan, such as its culture and democratic way of life. Consequently, few are those who, when the abstracts of hostility are replaced by the harsh realities of war, would willingly abandon Taiwan, let alone refuse to fight for what makes it their home. In the end, there is little doubt that once bombs and missiles, however precise, began raining down on Taiwan, killing family members, friends, and neighbors, most Taiwanese would rally round the flag. And that flag bears one white sun, not five yellow stars.
Its understandable that debate in Washington is largely about how much material assistance and commitment Washington should provide. Hence the focus on measurable physical capabilities (though there are some very good treatments of the ‘skill’ gap between PLAAF and ROCAF pilots) and on the cause-and-effect questions of alliances, deterrence and security dilemmas. Unlike the in-depth and sophisticated debate about US casualty tolerance and aversion, there is little in the way of recent data to draw on about the populations’ political will in a China-Taiwan clash, because both sides have hardly fought any wars for some time, let alone fighting each other.
But for obvious recent historical reasons, it is worth considering the possibility of ‘post-conflict’ resistance and the greater cost tolerance of local insurgents versus foreign fighters. The prospect of combating a bloody uprising, on top of taking the steep costs of an amphibious invasion, should play against China’s hope that if it did strike, it could be quick and cheap.
This also should reassure US policymakers: that Taiwan can present an ominous defence to an invader without America going to the trouble of ramping up its security assistance and arms trade with Taiwan, and the escalation and deterioration of relations with China that this would probably create. If America is to persist in its dubious ‘Asian pivot’, trying to contain and deter a rising China and getting it to peacefully accept Washington’s hegemony without things kicking off, it would be wise not to exaggerate Taiwan’s vulnerability.