Nobody’s sure exactly when the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait shifted in China’s favor, but in recent years it has become increasingly clear that in the unlikely event that the two countries decided to slug it out, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would have a definite, if not overwhelming, advantage.
That reality — China spends at least 10 times more on defense than Taiwan — has had a tangible impact on troop morale in Taiwan, leading many to conclude that the nation would surrender the moment the first Chinese combat aircraft screamed above their heads. This, in turn, has encouraged a small number of academics and government officials abroad to conclude that since it has already “lost,” Taipei ought to strike the best deal it can before Beijing loses patience on “reunification” and decides to use force to settle the matter once and for all.
Related to such perceptions is the argument, again made by some experts, that the US, Taiwan’s principal guarantor of security and the source of its modern weapons, should cease arms sales to Taipei, as their impact on Taiwan’s ability to change the outcome of a war would likely be marginal at best, while causing damage to relations between Washington and Beijing (some of the major forces behind efforts to end US arms sales to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act are members of the so-called “Sanya Initiative,” which serves as a platform for exchanges between retired US and Chinese military officers).
While Taiwan finds itself in an unenviable position in relation to China, its defense prospects are actually not that grim, at least if the necessary adjustments are made to how one defines victory.
In recent years, while the PLA was in the midst of its remarkable modernization drive, Taiwan gradually abandoned the old military doctrine that called for an overwhelming defeat of Chinese forces and instead shifted toward a defense posture that prioritizes survival and deterrence, implementing concepts such as the “porcupine strategy” (seen by some as an argument against future US arms sales) and the “hard ROC” (Republic of China) posture. Military planners have realized that Taiwan does not have to completely defeat the PLA to be successful — in fact, as the 2011 National Defense Report indicates, the government now defines victory as preventing landing forces from establishing a foothold on Taiwan, an objective that is more realistic — and achievable — than defeating the PLA.
Additionally, despite early opposition by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to an “offensive defense” strategy and his efforts to improve relations with China, Taiwan has accelerated the pace of development and production of counterforce capabilities, mainly land-attack cruise missiles (LACM). This latter development lends credibility to Taiwan’s deterrent by threatening a high, perhaps unbearable, cost should China launch military operations against Taiwan. Another benefit is that such a strategy does not require Taiwan to compete with China on a boat-versus-boat, plane-versus-plane model.
How Taiwan would fare under its revised rules of engagement remains to be seen, but there is every reason to believe that the best way ahead for Taiwan is to prepare to meet those limited, and by the same token more realistic, objectives.
Secrecy over Taipei’s means and strategy notwithstanding, it is possible to make informed speculation about how it may perform during conflict with China. Taiwan’s adjusted defense posture really hinges around two key principles: survivability and, as previously mentioned, “offensive defense.” (A third, which space limitations prevent full discussion of at present, is security cooperation with regional allies, which quietly has also accelerated in the past two years, as countries readjust to Beijing’s growing assertiveness.)