A top military official said that the military balance in the Taiwan Strait would tip in Beijing's favour as early as next year, but added that China would not have the confidence to attack for another five years.
Amid simmering tension over President Chen Shui-bian's (
China sees the referendum as a provocative move by Taiwan toward independence and has threatened war, but Lin said the island could deal a bloody blow to invading Chinese troops.
He vowed Taiwan's 400,000-strong armed forces would fight back and Taiwan was preparing for a swift attack by the ever-modernizing People's Liberation Army (PLA), the world's largest standing army at 2.5 million troops.
"The PLA may start to surpass what we have in 2005 or between 2005 and 2008," Lin, 61, said in an interview late on Friday at the defense ministry in Taipei.
But Lin said the military balance tipping in China's favour -- what he called a "crossover" -- was unlikely to embolden Chinese commanders completely.
"The simple fact of a crossover is insufficient to make the leaders in Beijing feel 100 percent confident in winning a war," said the former Taiwanese policymaker on China.
The years "2010 to 2015 [will be] when the PLA will have such a supremacy in both qualitative and quantitative comparison of forces that it may feel confident to move", said Lin, whose late father was the nation's first air force commander-in-chief.
While conceding that the PLA may be speaking in a "louder voice" in the wake of the planned referendum, Lin said China's civilian leadership was unlikely to unleash the military.
For China, Lin said, economic development was more important than unification. Alternatives to war included diplomatic isolation, increasing Taiwan's economic dependence on China, and winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Taiwanese.
"The highest ideal of Beijing leaders is to achieve unification without fighting," he said. "Beijing's leaders consider it unwise to resort to the military option right now."
But Lin said Taiwan was not dismissing the possibility of war. "We cannot afford to be so complacent," he said.
China has a quantitative military edge over Taiwan with China's jet fighters outnumbering the island's 10-1. China has up to 70 submarines compared with four for the island.
But Taiwan is armed with advanced US and French jet fighters and frigates, giving the island an advantage in any conventional conflict, military analysts say.
"We do have a lot of capability to cause a lot of damage to the invading enemy and we are also improving our capability," Lin said.
"We are preparing for a scenario ... a PLA with advanced weapons invading Taiwan in a very rapid manner," he said. "Something like decapitation, as we saw in the war in Iraq."
China menaced Taiwan with war games and missile tests from 1995 to 1996. If China rattled sabres again after the March 20 polls, Lin said the island "will fight back right away".
"We will not fire the first shot," he said. But "if there is bloodshed in our population, it is our duty to protect our people, to defend our territories."
Though he said war was not imminent, the civilian deputy minister said China increasingly saw taking back Taiwan as "more a strategic necessity than a historical mission".