Sun, Jan 13, 2008 - Page 18 News List

[BOOK REVIEW] Taiwan's military prowess laid bare

'Taiwan's Security: History and Prospects' looks at how Taiwanese land, air and sea defenses and offensive strategies stack up against the competition

By J. Michael Cole  /  STAFF REPORTER

Taiwan's Security: History and Prospects
By Bernard Cole
254 pages

In Taiwan's Security: History and Prospects, US Navy veteran Bernard Cole (unrelated to this reviewer) offers an unusually in-depth assessment of the many facets of Taiwan's defense establishment. While many publications have approached the subject from a quantitative perspective - how many tanks, aircraft, missiles and men Beijing would be capable of deploying against Taiwan in a symmetrical warfare scenario - Cole's book bores deep into Taiwanese society and highlights a series of social and institutional factors that would influence the outcome of a war with China.

Laying out the foundations to his argument, Cole contends that Taiwan's strategic positioning can be broken down into four phases - civil war; the 1949 to 1972 period of focusing on retaking China; the 1973 to 1990 transition from an offensive strategy to a defensive one; and the post-1991 emphasis on all-out defense. Parallel to these has been tutelage by the US, which while fearing that Chiang Kai-shek's (蔣介石) military adventurism in the 1950s risked sucking Washington into a war with China, nevertheless made great contributions to the modernization of the Taiwanese military.

Following his brief though sufficient historical overview, Cole then turns to the Chinese threat to Taiwan, one that has exploded in recent years with a leap in Beijing's modernization of its forces and renewed confidence in the place it occupies on the geopolitical map. Although, in Cole's view, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) continues to be dominated by army officers, a recent shift toward the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), accompanied by the acquisition and indigenous development of fourth-generation aircraft, increases the possibility of a military attack against Taiwan. The introduction of Russian-made Su-27s and Su-30s in the PLAAF also means that for the first time in years China could pose a serious challenge to Taiwan's F-16s and Mirage 2000s over the control of airspace across the Strait, although the proficiency of Chinese pilots remains in doubt.

The modernization of the PLA Navy also means that the balance of naval power in the Taiwan Strait is now in Beijing's favor. Cole argues that given Taiwan's geographical situation, mine warfare represents an especially serious threat to its economy and one it is ill-prepared and ill-equipped to deal with. China is also actively seeking aircraft carriers and mid-air refueling platforms, which would provide the PLAAF with the ability to attack Taiwan in an enveloping fashion rather than from a single direction.

In the past decade, Beijing has also markedly increased the number of DF-11 and DF-15 missiles it has deployed against Taiwan, which in his New Year speech President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) said now amounted to more than 1,300. Formidable though this threat may be, Cole argues, Taiwan's ballistic-missile defense systems, complemented by the ongoing relocation and hardening of high-value targets, could make it likelier that a missile attack against Taiwan would not be devastating. However, he notes that China has actively pursued the development of cruise missiles, which are much more difficult to intercept.

Cole follows his exposition of the PLA threat with a thorough, cubicle-by-cubicle look at the Taiwanese military establishment, dissecting one organization after another and explaining their roles and challenges, all the while emphasizing the need for greater cooperation and integration between the services. While this section is unlikely to appeal to the general reader, it nevertheless symbolizes Taiwan's openness to discuss these matters with researchers like Cole - something that would be unimaginable on the PRC side - and willingness to learn and improve.

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