The priority task of PLA is capturing Taiwan and reunification with China. Xi Jinping keeps vowing to pursue “reunification” with Taiwan by peaceful means. However China keeps carrying out massive air violations into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone. It also carries out amphibious exercises to capture Island territories. It is a typical two faced Chinese mutt(yin) and jeff (yang)strategy. Analyses indicate that by around 2025, China will have full spectrum capability to capture Taiwan. The current revisionism and the internal power struggle in China might force it to externalise the situation and attempt to conquer Taiwan earlier. The mere mention of Taiwan gets China goat. What are the implications of Taiwan being taken over by China? Will China succeed ? What are the options? These are some questions which need understanding. At the outset, remember that everything in China is political. Besides the political, there are also strategic and economic reasons to annexe Taiwan.
Taiwan is a wealthy, prosperous, democratic, and strategically located country about 160 km from the Chinese coast. It is a standing example and a constant reminder to the CCP that democracy thrives in Chinese culture. It has been governed separately for seven decades. Very importantly, the Chinese Communists have never set foot or governed Taiwan. Despite this, they strangely, consider it as an inseparable part of China. Taiwan has changed hands in the past. It has been under Chinese imperialists, Japanese and Western colonialists including Spanish and Dutch from time to time. Hence there is no history to say that it is Chinese. Chiang Kai Shek and his Nationalist Kuo Min Tang, defeated by the Maoists, fled to Taiwan in 1949. They established the Republic of China(ROC). They had all intent to return and eject the Maoists . That never happened. Taiwan was recognised as the official China till the Peoples Republic of China was admitted into the international system. From the 50s onwards , Maoists feel that Taiwan is the incomplete agenda in reunification of the Chinese people. The Nationalists felt that they were the inheritors of real China and they would eventually push the Maoists out to rule an united China. However the entire issue has calcified with each nation developing into the current state. In the past decade, democracy in Taiwan, has flowered. The Taiwanese now seek an opportunity to declare independence and do not want to come under communism. The Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen cocks a snook at China to say “Taiwan will also do whatever it takes to defend its freedom and democratic way of life.” An independent or quasi-independent Taiwan is anathema to China. It might just stir forces which could cause the CCP structure to collapse. Taiwan has to be reunified with China one way or the other under the communist structure. As long as Taiwan remains in the current form it is, it remains a grave political threat to the PRC structure.
Taiwan is vital to contain China and safeguard maritime routes. It is the pivot in the first island chain outside Chinese mainland. The chain begins with Japan to follow an archipelago of islands through Okinawa to Taiwan (see figure). Further, south of Taiwan, another set of Islands connect it to the Philippine archipelago. The narrow and shallow passages between Islands hinder large scale naval/mercantile movements. Beyond Taiwan, the Philippines Sea opens out till the second chain of islands. Taiwan enables full deployment of Chinese naval power. It is the gateway to open ocean domination. Taiwan is also the hinge which separates the South and East China Seas. Presently PLAN operates in a compartmentalised mode on either side of Taiwan. Fall of Taiwan also means that Chinese maritime borders extend to Japan, Australia, USA, Indonesia, and Pacific Ocean Island nations in addition to the other nations with which it already has maritime disputes. The dispute envelope enlarges. Most importantly, PLAN is now fully anchored in the artificial islands it created in South China Sea. Hong Kong has been usurped into the Chinese system. If Taiwan falls to China and Senkaku’s are also wrested from Japan, the mainland gets tremendous defensive depth and becomes unassailable. China will have a defensive island screen running along the Spratly’s, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Senkaku’s which will need to be breached to even have a look at mainland China. Conversely, Taiwan is a threat at the door step to mainland China’s prosperous East Coast. The threat vanishes when Taiwan falls. In any strategic calculation Taiwan is too important to fall to China if the latter is to be contained. If Taiwan is assimilated into China, it will then surely be a superpower.
Taiwan is a fully developed country with a high GDP. It is a leader in semiconductor technology for which China hankers. Semiconductors are the missing jigsaw pieces in China’s dream to dominate international AI, cyber, space and other disruptive technologies. Annexing Taiwan completes an otherwise incomplete hi-technology portfolio. Moreover, Taiwan’s thriving and innovative economy can kickstart the Chinese economy which is slowing down perceptibly due to multiple reasons. China’s economic revival and gaining pre-eminence hinges to a large extent on Taiwan being integral to it. When viewed from any angle, Taiwan’s integration into China fulfils the Chinese rejuvenation dream. It will do everything it can to usurp Taiwan.
There are two options to usurp Taiwan. Militarily or politically. We will consider the military option first. Taiwan is approximately a 350 km long and 100 – 140 km broad island, 120-180 km away from mainland China. It is heavily populated, urbanized and developed to the West. The East is mountainous, consisting mostly of five rugged mountain ranges parallel to the east coast with several peaks over 3,500 m. Chinese military operations must develop from the East only. These will be amphibious / airborne operations in some combination. Operations of such scale and combination were last carried out by UK during the Falkland’s War. In scale, the operations would fall somewhere between the ‘Dieppe Raid’ and ‘Operation Overlord’ with some elements of ‘Market Garden’ thrown in. Complicated is an understatement.
The Military Option
The military operation has to be carried out in six broad Phases as per my assessment (The actual plan will vary).
Phase 1. Preparation and mobilization. China is constantly preparing for a cross channel operation through massive air violations, night time flying, amphibious exercises, improving air fields and mobilisation exercises.
Phase 2. Isolation of Taiwan. China will have to deploy a naval screen beyond Taiwan to block reactions from USA, South Korea and Japan and control airspace beyond that. That means intrusion into territorial waters of Philippines and Japan to bring them into the conflict. Air Defense assets on mainland will be fully deployed. PLAN will be fully at sea including its submarines and aircraft carriers.
Phase 3. China will degrade Taiwan Armed Forces with Missiles, Air Force and Navy. It will also carry out deception activities to hide intended landing sites. There will be massive cyber and EW attacks to breakdown Taiwan’s communications. A major propaganda and IWcampaign will also be put in place.
Phase 4. Carry out an amphibious and/or an airborne assault to secure multiple beach / air heads.
Phase 5. Break out from successful beach /air heads to capture areas in depth.
Phase 6. Reinforce additional troops through captured beach/air heads. Consolidate and eliminate pockets of resistance. Open a logistics route by capture of a major seaport / airport.
It will be a deliberate plan devoid of any great surprise. All these actions and phases need dedicated assets which cannot be double tasked. Further China will have to deploy adequate forces on its other borders. They cannot be wished away. The Chinese will aim to capture Taiwan before US or any other intervention. The Taiwanese aim will be to delay China long enough for the U.S. and its allies to show up in force.
Assume the issue will not go into nuclear realms. USA, Japan and Philippines will react. South Korea and Australia might react. Hence, all these nations must be confronted and kept at bay. So an escalated set of naval and aerial encounters over the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, Philippines Sea and South China Sea is on the cards. Full scale escalation is inevitable. Whether all the nations get involved or not, engagements will extend aerially to the mainland. China would have to employ considerable firepower to degrade Taiwan’s Armed Forces. There will be retaliation from Taiwan. It will not be one sided affair. Pre-emptive attacks by Taiwan to dislocate PLA would occur. The Chinese will have to launch their assaults (amphibious or airborne) from 2-3 mounting bases and converge on to the chosen beaches/ airheads. After all, it will be based on weather, slope, tide, exit areas etc. There will be no surprise whatsoever. All assaults will be unidirectional from the West only. The Taiwanese will be waiting at the available beach heads for the Chinese assault troops. Many such plans are available even on the internet also. Disruption of assault echelons and landing craft will commence at sea by the Taiwanese simultaneously. All break outs will be fighting break outs through urban areas. Operations in depth will be in fully urban terrain and built up areas. All fancy things like AI, Cyber etc will go out of the equation once the shooting starts and blood starts flowing.
If the Taiwanese put up even a semblance of a fight, the Chinese will have their hands full. This will happen since Taiwan will be fighting for survival. Besides, the Taiwanese are well equipped, armed and trained. They spend around 11 billion dollars annually on defense. They have a substantial reserve element (much like Israelis) which will be mobilized. The Chinese might have force preponderance. However deployability is restricted to the bridge heads/ air heads. Hence there will be force parity when the shooting starts. My guess is that close quarter firepower advantage will be with Taiwan initially. They will have dedicated tube Artillery at their beck and call which the Chinese amphibious forces will not have. That might just stop the Chinese spear heads. Once hand to hand / street to street combat starts, all the missiles, air forces and naval forces will mean for nothing. It will be true grit and nothing more. Reports also indicate that the Taiwanese are preparing for hybrid asymmetric options. Overall, the Chinese will have to ultimately physically capture Taiwan. Otherwise air power and making faces at each other will have equal value.
From what one has seen of PLA capabilities and leadership in Eastern Ladakh and my experience of seeing PLA across the fence for over three decades, I have grave doubts if China can succeed in the way it is being projected. The one child nation with a one child Army sorely lacks experience and fighting spirit. Their leaders are more political in nature. They might not be mentally and physically fit to take the right decisions under combat stress. Have we not just heard of two Western Theatre commanders who had to be removed due to ill health? Imagine someone with a terminal illness being appointed to lead an active theatre command! I also suspect their training. In PLA , training ( or lack of it) , fudging, and corruption have gone hand in hand. Weeding out corruption at lower levels is part of their internationally stated agenda as per their White Paper on Defense of 2019. Further, PLA recruitment and training has been severely disrupted in 2020. I doubt if the Chinese have the training, expertise, and capability to carry out the most complicated form of conventional operations. The English Channel with a width varying from 35-150 km could not be crossed by Hitler’s well trained, battle hardened and superbly led Wehrmacht. Generals of the calibre of Von Rundstedt, Manstein, Rommel and Model demurred at such a crossing. PLA? Ha ha.
Roll it forward. China will eventually subdue Taiwan and conquer the Island due to sheer numbers. What will be the fall out? Taiwan in a rubble. A fair part of Chinese mainland will also be in rubble from Shanghai to Hong Kong. That is core and thickly populated Han area which China showcases as developed with industry, power plants, nuclear reactors, infrastructure et al. In effect we are looking at a lot of economic junk. If I were a Taiwanese military commander I will know deep down that it will be up to my Armed Forces to defend the nation when the chips are down. I would have a conventional counter value plan and let the Chinese know what they are in for. I will also put a price tag on it. Money speaks mandarin well and the Chinese understand it well. I would target those hi-tech economic and industrial complexes which will ensure that all those debt bubbles keep bursting from middle kingdom to heaven. Besides this, China will suffer battle field attrition to get weakened as the battle progresses and is joined by others. There are other collaterals. For the entire duration of this operation and beyond, there will be no mercantile activity in and out of China. Beyond that, USA, Japan, South Korea, Australia and India in some combination will keep mercantile activity out of China. Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia will not keep quiet. They will nip and cut. At some point China will run out of gas. There will be almost zero economic activity in China. Put a time frame on this entire sequence of events and assess for yourself where it will leave China. I might have missed out on some finer factors. What of issues beyond? A depleted PLA implies that Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang will find it the right moment to put up their flags of revolt / independence. The isolated base in Djibouti becomes fair game and vulnerable. In the ensuing international situation some of the countries which are in a Chinese debt trap could well nationalize the BRI assets just like Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal.
In my opinion China might not have enough eggs in the first place to put in the Taiwanese basket. In all this, we should also not forget that the Chinese Virus is still on, economy is slowing, revisionism is taking its toll, and the population is declining. Even if Chinese forces are victorious the war would badly harm China’s long term economy and international relations, beside extracting a significant human toll. The Communist Party might win the battle of Taiwan and lose the battle of China for good.
The Non-Military Option
The non-military option is to keep up the military threat and pressure as also impose an economic and human blockade on Taiwan. Simultaneously, engineer a political collapse from within. Strictly speaking, the CCP is good at this. However in this case, it seems the people of Taiwan are more than a match. The overwhelming majority of Taiwanese (1/3rd) do not want to be part of a communist China and favour independence. Less than 10% favour unification with the mainland. They have also seen how Xi Jinping throttled political freedoms and betrayed Hong Kong. They will never trust the Chinese. It is not without reason that the Taiwan has started upping and modernising its armed forces in a big way.
The decision to attack and conquer Taiwan will be guided by political factors combined with capability and confidence of PLA to do the task. It will also be based on Taiwanese build-up of its defense capability and US intent to come to Taiwan’s aid. It will be a high risk affair where outcomes are not as easy or one sided as they are being made out in the press – international or local. Xi has, linked his political legacy to reunification of Taiwan with China. If Xi feels that usurping Taiwan is necessary for his being reanointed as China’s top honcho in 2022, then the attack is imminent after the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. However all this will be linked with the revisionism and the direction of Chinese economy. Currently the prospects are bleak. If he reappoints himself by just hyping nationalism , then he will look to capture Taiwan as his enduring life time legacy. In that case, the window will open in 2023. Optimally as per estimates, PLA will be ready by 2025. So the jump might take place any time between 2023-2025. Beyond 2025, the ageing factor of China will start showing.
Relevance to India
Why am I dissecting this scenario? Why is Taiwan relevant to India? As stated by Tsai Ing- wen “A failure to defend Taiwan would not only be catastrophic for the Taiwanese, but it would overturn a security architecture that has allowed for peace and extraordinary economic development in the region for seven decades”. To that extent, the world will change forever. When China usurps Taiwan it will become a military superpower without doubt. More ominously, its number one military priority would have disappeared. Its number two priority would have been upgraded. That is India. Samjhe? Let us start helping Taiwan in any way we can. It is in our interest.
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