The ongoing, frequent encirclement of Taiwan by Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft and ships has turned up the heat in the Taiwan Strait. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has embarked on several inspection tours of the military, delivering speeches to boost the confidence of frontline soldiers. As an additional measure, she has significantly increased the number of generals to further lift morale.
On every front, increased confrontation with China has created a febrile atmosphere, which shows no signs of cooling down any time soon.
At the end of last month, a video posted online revealed that an unconfirmed number of PLA Air Force J-20 stealth fighters have been covertly stationed in Quzhou, Zhejiang Province, where they have been carrying out exercises. The forward base’s proximity to Taiwan — about 500km — means that the J-20s can easily reach Taiwanese airspace in about 20 minutes.
Since conventional radar is limited in its ability to detect stealth aircraft, to prepare for a conflict with China, the military must develop tactics to deal with the increased threat posed by the J-20s.
With PLA aircraft frequently crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait in the past few months, Taiwan has no body of international law to fall back on, and until this year relied on nothing more than a tacit agreement with China to respect the line.
China has upended the “status quo” in the skies above Taiwan, which are no longer stable or safe.
To respond to the threat, the air force must rapidly increase its overall fighting strength and re-examine its tactical deployments.
China has adopted a new military strategy for Taiwan: Each time the US military squeezes the PLA in some way, China simply transfers that pressure onto the Taiwan Strait by ignoring Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and the median line, normalizing the transformation of the Strait into a PLA training ground.
Furthermore, by making the median line exist in name only, the PLA would be able to gradually encroach further toward Taiwan’s coastline and, in doing so, squeeze Taiwan’s 12 nautical mile (22.2km) territorial waters and airspace like a boa constrictor. This is Beijing’s modus operandi in its psychological warfare campaign against Taiwan.
China threw down the gauntlet of a “military unification” of Taiwan decades earlier and holds annual, large-scale military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing deliberately concocts and then “leaks” details relating to the exercises, which are used to manipulate the political narrative on Taiwan and re-enforce China’s political stance on the nation.
Beijing also uses domestic and international media to send signals threatening of military unification and increased hostility. Taiwanese must be cautious in the way they respond to such manipulated reports.
If the military could reorganize to bring itself to a heightened state of readiness, it would be able to make the most of its air defense capabilities and achieve a more effective outcome against China.
However, from a strictly professional perspective, since its inception, the general direction of the military’s war preparations, its thinking on command structures and troop utilization, its logistics and replenishment capabilities, and its overall preparedness for war do not provide much cause for optimism.
A significant number of European and US military experts agree that the Taiwan Strait is the No. 1 hot spot for a military conflict. For this reason, Taiwan must show the world that it possesses the will to resist China and ability to defend itself against an attack.
It must build asymmetric warfare capabilities, strengthen its guided-missile defenses, and, while working within the constraints of the national defense budget, reconstitute its air and naval armed strength, strive for military superiority in the Taiwan Strait and augment its defense capabilities to achieve an effective deterrence by increasing the cost for China of attacking Taiwan.
If politicians in Beijing believe that the PLA would be unable to win a quick and decisive victory against Taiwan and that the military option presents too great a risk, caught between a rock and a hard place, they would likely abandon their plan to take Taiwan by force.
Faced with China’s threats, the military has too many areas in need of reform. It must quickly get the ball rolling or face being unable to deploy its assets in time to meet the enemy’s increasingly brazen maneuvers.
If this happens, having ceded ground, the military would be left with only hollow words to mollify a dismayed public and would have handed the enemy carte blanche to gradually deepen its encroachment into Taiwan’s airspace.
Research shows that, due to the current heightened threat from China, the public is unwilling to strongly criticize the military so as not to affect morale — and they are even worried that to do so would expose Taiwan’s weakness to the enemy.
However, shielded by the protective umbrella of public goodwill, the military’s reforms, already carrying on at a snail’s pace, have even begun to go into reverse. The pursuit of personal interest is a serious problem and “administration according to the law” in the military is often little more than empty talk.
If the military carries on in this way, it will find it impossible to keep pace with the increasingly stringent structural demands required to defend Taiwan proper and Penghu.
As the tempestuous situation in the Taiwan Strait becomes increasingly dire, there are reports that the nation’s high-ranking generals are competing for power.
How can rank-and-file soldiers be expected to pull together and defeat the enemy when their commanding officers are busy squabbling and stabbing each other in the back?
As a Chinese saying goes: “When a ruler’s personal conduct is correct, his government is effective without giving orders. If his personal conduct is not correct, he might issue orders, but they will not be followed.”
High-ranking generals must show strict self-discipline and set a good example for the lower ranks. Generals are vying for power and profit while middle-ranking officers are exhausted and the lower ranks are left to clean up the mess. This damaging and unedifying state of affairs must not be allowed to continue.
Chang Yan-ting is a retired air force lieutenant general, university professor and researcher at US think tank the Stimson Center.
Translated by Edward Jones
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