As a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) cadet, I frequently get asked how quickly the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) might overrun Taiwan if it invaded before 2040.
My answer is that the PLA will not be able to take over Taiwan within that time frame, because the more eager the PLA is to complete the task in a short period, the more likely it would fail — and fail big. Having a slim chance of winning is what keeps the PLA from taking action.
From time to time, some PLA leaders or keyboard fighters make threats — one of the more extreme of which has been: “We will wipe out all humans on the island.”
However, a real war requires more sophisticated calculations than hate speech.
If all diplomatic and political means are exhausted and military action imminent, using nuclear weapons against Taiwan would surely be the fastest way, with the lowest number of casualties for the PLA, and a true massacre on Taiwan, but having a barren island without people does not fit with the meaning of “unification.”
Even unification by force requires total occupation, governance and global recognition — and a complete occupation would first require a successful military landing operation.
The PLA has to guard more than 22,000km of frontier land that borders 14 not-so-friendly neighbors, including Russia, North Korea and India, as well as some Southeast and Central Asian countries, such as Vietnam and Afghanistan. Across bodies of water, China also faces Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and the US.
The PLA is the world’s largest military, with 2 million active-duty soldiers. If it decided to disproportionately allocate 10 percent of them to take over Taiwan, the nation’s forces would only face 200,000 troops, not 2 million.
At a time when human life was more expendable for political goals, the PLA lost 10,000 soldiers in a failed attempt to conquer Kinmen in 1949, while Allied troops had about 100,000 casualties in the landing operation for the Battle of Normandy in 1944.
Half a century has passed and there are much more destructive weapons. Many more soldiers would likely be sacrificed in a battle to land on an iron-clad island like Taiwan proper. The eradication of at least 200,000 elite PLA soldiers, and all of their resources and equipment, in an operation to cross the Taiwan Strait would leave a huge vacuum in China’s defenses and finances.
China’s military spending has reached a new high at 38.7 percent of its annual budget, but this trend is unsustainable in the long term, unless it wants to follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the average PLA soldier’s paycheck is still too low to persuade them to give up their lives for a bunch of politicians. They get paid well enough to look fearful on parade, as they goose-step across Tiananmen Square — but getting killed crossing the Strait is a different story.
In my opinion, the US did not lose the war in Afghanistan. On the contrary, it stopped a war and left a huge cache of weapons behind. With this arms supply and years of battle experience, Taliban fighters will pose a great threat to the stability of China’s western border as there is no other rich country that money can be squeezed from.
As an ROTC cadet at National Tsing Hua University, I believe it is a shame to expect Taiwan’s friends in the US to fight its war if it tragically happens. In the best interest of Taiwan and the US, Washington should send its navy to take control of some disputed islands in the South China Sea, instead of rushing to the nation’s rescue.
In turning the South China Sea into another Korean War, troops assisting with Taiwan’s defense would gain certain strategic and diplomatic advantages. By doing so, troops allied with the nation could make coordinated moves without getting approval from lawmakers in their countries or the UN Security Council. It would be the fastest way.
The PLA considers the South China Sea its most strategic waterway. Instead of coming to Taiwan’s rescue from a PLA invasion, US-led allied troops could make pre-emptive strikes on the disputed islands in the area, before the PLA tries to make a move on Taiwan. The PLA is so afraid of this that it has let its usual poker face slip in front of the US military.
It is of vital importance that Taiwan prepares itself for any military aggression. As Sun Tzu (孫子) advised: “Your readiness is the best deterrence to your enemy.”
Peter Chen is a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet at National Tsing Hua University.
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