A Wall Street Journal article published on Monday last week, titled “Does Taiwan’s military stand a chance against China? Few think so,” has caused a stir at home and abroad, stoking concerns that Taiwan’s military is unprepared to defend against the increasing threat of an attack or full-scale amphibious invasion by China.
The article focused on Taiwan’s reserve forces, identifying known deficiencies, including its diminished size, sub-standard training and “strawberry soldiers” — soft and easily bruised pampered youths.
The authors interviewed reservists who had recently finished their four-month initial training and said they spent most of their time carrying out menial chores.
While the article painted an unedifying picture of the nation’s reserve forces, former US Marines colonel Grant Newsham, who has studied Taiwan’s defense in detail, was quoted as saying that the nation has a solid core of well-trained troops and “superb officers that are ready to fight.”
This sentiment was echoed by Minister of National Defense Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正) when answering questions from reporters last week.
Critics assume that a large, well-trained reserve force would be needed, but is this still relevant on a modern battlefield and particularly when repelling an amphibious force from a geographically advantageous, mountainous island nation?
An invasion of Taiwan would not be a rerun of D-Day, which was in no small part successful due to a sophisticated deception operation by Allied forces that fooled the German High Command into believing that the Allies would not land where they did.
Taiwan’s rugged coastline makes a similar deception operation impossible. Defensive capabilities are also far more advanced today than during World War II. An invading force would have to contend with supersonic and hypersonic missiles, precision-guided artillery, smart mines and stealthy fast-attack boats, operated by a relatively small number of highly trained professional military personnel.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the largest standing army in the world: It currently fields about 2 million active-duty personnel and about 1 million reserve personnel, compared with about 165,000 Taiwanese active duty soldiers and about 1.65 million reservists. On paper, this looks like an uneven contest, but a basic numbers comparison is misleading.
China has land borders with 14 nations, including India, Russia, Mongolia (a Russian-armed buffer state) and cranky North Korea. At the disputed India-China Himalayan border alone, an unknown number of PLA troops are facing off against 200,000 Indian soldiers. Beijing also needs to permanently deploy a large number of troops in the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, and have enough spare capacity to put down potential mass social unrest in other areas of the country.
All of these permanent commitments mean that the PLA is stretched thin over a wide area, limiting the number of troops available for a major amphibious invasion. Taiwan, on the other hand, only has to think about defending against one enemy, China, and can therefore focus almost all of its military resources toward this single objective.
Ian Easton, senior director at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat, estimates that the PLA would need to match Taiwan’s defending forces threefold to mount a successful amphibious invasion: This could mean mobilizing up to 2 million troops. The PLA would have to rely heavily on its own reserve forces, whose quality and state of readiness is questionable.
The PLA could launch a highly destructive air campaign, and coordinated electronic and cyberattacks, but China cannot conquer Taiwan without putting boots on the ground, for which it simply does not have the numbers.
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