Recent reforms within the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are — in the short term — good news for Taiwan, a Washington conference was told on Tuesday.
The reforms are to be “very disruptive” for the Chinese military, as they try to work out the kinks, said Phillip Saunders, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the US’ National Defense University.
“They can say this is how it will work on paper, but how will it work in practice?” he asked a National Bureau of Asian Research conference on “The Implications of PLA Reforms for Taiwan.”
“The good news for Taiwan in the near term is that the PLA will be less likely to undertake a major operation,” he said.
However, he stressed that, if the reforms eventually do work, the Chinese military will emerge with more robust capabilities.
“They will have a more capable joint force and thus a much more threatening one if you are sitting on Taiwan,” he said.
He said that, despite the current high priority of maritime issues for Beijing, Taiwan remained a major spur for military planning, force building and the development of advanced weapons systems.
Saunders said that advanced equipment would continue to go to the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, which holds primary responsibility for Taiwan.
He said that long-range systems — some with area-denial and anti-access capabilities — could be a “great threat” to Taiwan.
Asked what advice he would give to Taiwan and how the nation should respond to changes in the PLA, Saunders said that Taiwan should spend more on defense.
“That would be the single most important thing,” he said.
Saunders said Taipei should continue to work on asymmetrical capabilities that could really raise the costs of a successful invasion.
“To me, that’s the right approach, but in practice, it is challenging,” he said.
Saunders praised President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for focusing more on the domestic development of weapons and on domestic procurement.
He said Taiwan could design, build and field many weapons systems that might not be “top-of-the-line,” but that could make a big difference in “complicating the ways China could execute an invasion.”
Saunders and center research fellow Joel Wuthnow recently published a paper on China’s military reforms. Late last year and early this year, China announced a sweeping set of reforms to the organizational structure of the PLA.
The two men said the PLA was now working to produce new and better-trained leaders responsible for developing doctrine, and conducting training and operations relevant to a Taiwan contingency.
“The PLA will probably continue a tradition of sending its best and brightest officers to the theater responsible for Taiwan,” they said.
“The PLA’s organizational reforms are clearly intended to allow China to field a stronger joint force capable of effectively conducting operations across the range of possible contingencies, including those related to Taiwan,” they said.
“If all goes according to plan, Taipei could face an adversary that is not only better organized, trained and equipped, but also more confident in its ability to fight and win wars,” they added.