CHINA’S STRATEGY IN THE TAIWAN STRAIT
China appears prepared to defer the use of force as long as it believes that unification over the long term remains possible and that the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits. China argues that the credible threat to use force is essential to maintain the conditions for political progress and to prevent Taiwan from making moves toward de jure independence. China has refused for decades to renounce the use of force to resolve the Taiwan issue, despite simultaneously professing its desire for peaceful unification under the principle of “one country, two systems.”
The circumstances under which the mainland has historically warned it would use force have evolved over time in response to the island’s declarations of its political status, changes in PLA capabilities, and China’s view of Taiwan’s relations with other countries. These circumstances have included:
> formal declaration of Taiwan independence;
> undefined moves toward Taiwan independence;
> internal unrest on Taiwan;
> Taiwan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons;
> indefinite delays in the resumption of cross-Strait dialogue on unification;
> foreign intervention in Taiwan’s internal affairs;
> and foreign forces stationed on Taiwan.
Article 8 of the March 2005 Anti-Secession Law states that China may use “non-peaceful means” if “secessionist forces… cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China,” if “major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession” occur, or if “possibilities for peaceful reunification” are exhausted. The ambiguity of these “redlines” preserves China’s flexibility.
CHINA’S COURSES OF ACTION AGAINST TAIWAN
The PLA is capable of increasingly sophisticated military actions against Taiwan. It is possible China would first pursue a measured approach characterized by signaling its readiness to use force, followed by a deliberate buildup of force to optimize the speed of engagement rather than strategic deception. Another option is that China would sacrifice overt, large-scale preparations in favor of surprise to force a rapid military or political resolution before other countries could respond. If a quick resolution is not possible, China would seek to:
> deter potential U.S. intervention;
> failing that, delay intervention and seek victory in an asymmetric, limited, quick war;
> or fight to a standstill and pursue a political settlement after a protracted conflict.
Maritime Quarantine or Blockade.
In addition to direct military engagement, PLA writings describe potential alternative solutions—air blockades, missile attacks, and mining to force capitulation. China could declare that ships en route to Taiwan must stop in mainland ports for inspection and/or transshipment prior to transiting to Taiwan ports. China could also attempt the equivalent of a blockade by declaring exercise or missile closure areas in approaches to ports, in effect closing port access and diverting merchant traffic. The PLA employed this method during the 1995-96 missile firings and live-fire exercises. There is a risk, however, that any attempt to limit maritime traffic to and from Taiwan would trigger countervailing international pressure and military escalation.
Limited Force or Coercive Options.
China might use a variety of disruptive, punitive, or lethal military actions in a limited campaign against Taiwan, probably in conjunction with overt and clandestine economic and political activities. Such a campaign could include computer network or limited kinetic attacks against Taiwan’s political, military, and economic infrastructure to induce fear in Taiwan and to degrade the populace’s confidence in Taiwan’s leaders. Similarly, PLA special operations forces could infiltrate Taiwan and conduct attacks against infrastructure or leadership targets.
Air and Missile Campaign.
China could use missile attacks and precision strikes against air defense systems, including air bases, radar sites, missiles, space assets, and communications facilities to degrade Taiwan’s defenses, neutralize Taiwan’s leadership, or break the Taiwan people’s resolve.
Publicly available Chinese writings describe different operational concepts for amphibious invasion. The most prominent of these, the Joint Island Landing Campaign, envisions a complex operation relying on coordinated, interlocking campaigns for logistics, air, and naval support, and EW. The objective would be to break through or circumvent shore defenses, establish and build a beachhead, transport personnel and materiel to designated landing sites in the north or south of Taiwan’s western coastline, and launch attacks to seize and to occupy key targets or the entire island.
Large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated and difficult military operations. Success depends upon air and sea superiority, the rapid buildup and sustainment of supplies onshore, and uninterrupted support. An attempt to invade Taiwan would strain China’s armed forces and invite international intervention. These stresses, combined with China’s combat force attrition and the complexity of urban warfare and counterinsurgency (assuming a successful landing and breakout), make an amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk. Taiwan’s investments to harden infrastructure and strengthen defensive capabilities could also decrease China’s ability to achieve its objectives.
The PLA is capable of accomplishing various amphibious operations short of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. With few overt military preparations beyond routine training, China could launch an invasion of small Taiwan-held islands in the South China Sea such as Pratas or Itu Aba. A PLA invasion of a mediumsized, better-defended island such as Matsu or Jinmen is within China’s capabilities. Such an invasion would demonstrate military capability and political resolve while achieving tangible territorial gain and simultaneously showing some measure of restraint. However, this kind of operation includes significant, and possibly prohibitive, political risk because it could galvanize pro-independence sentiment on Taiwan and generate international opposition.