Although the military conflict is unlikely, China’s view of the “near-sea” and its gray zone tactic integrate with military coercion in the region implies that the area of the PLA’s military operation for Taiwan might be much broader than Russia’s is in Ukraine.
Security risks in the Taiwan Strait have become a heated issue since Russia invaded Ukraine in February of last year and China conducted military drills near Taiwan last August. Even before that, there were discussions regarding regional security in the Indo-Pacific and more attention was paid to China’s military development and its implication. However, the Russian-Ukrainian war reminded all of the real possibility of military conflict. Discussions then shifted to Taiwan’s defense strategy and military capabilities, the latter of which is another key factor in determining how long a potential military conflict in the Taiwan Strait would last and how the international society would respond.
China’s A2/AD strategy: First war is the last war
There are two main takeaways from China’s capability and decisiveness, implying that military conflict in the Taiwan Strait might happen in the future. First and the most well-known argument is that due to the People Liberation Army’s (PLA) rapid weapon production, system development, and joint military drills merged since China’s military reform in 2016, the cross-strait military balance of power has grown increasingly in China’s favor. Therefore, based on net assessment from different sources, China will have the capability to invade Taiwan in 2025, 2027, 2030, or 2035. The second opinion argues that since Lai Ching-te (賴清德), the current Vice-president of Taiwan has publicly stated that he was a “Taiwan independence worker”, if he wins the presidential election in 2024, the odds of China taking military action against Taiwan will grow. As Lai won the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) chairmanship election on 15 January 2023, the likelihood of him becoming the party’s nominee for the presidential election increases. Such a trend might push China toward military action for “re-unification”.
However, it is important to understand both China’s and Taiwan’s military strategy before assessing the scenario in the future. Carl von Clausewitz defined war as “a continuation of politics by other means”, and a country’s defense strategy is an element under the framework of its national strategy. At the national strategy level, Beijing views the policies of peaceful reunification and One Country, Two Systems as the best way to realize reunification across the Taiwan Strait. This guideline remains the same in the report of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October 2022. Pragmatically understood, unifying Taiwan by force is the worst decision because it is costly even if the PLA was able to successfully invade and occupy Taiwan. A scorched island with disobedient residents would be a heavy burden for China, with no mention of the uncertainty of limiting the timeframe of war. Lessons from the Russian-Ukrainian war are the best reference for Beijing.
Hence, China’s military strategy toward Taiwan lies in the “first war is the last war” (首戰即終戰) belief. Once its military is involved, the PLA must quickly and overwhelmingly crush Taiwan, leaving no room for the country to breathe or for other powers to intervene. The expansion of the PLA Navy (PLAN) and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) presence obviously focuses on strengthening its Anti-Access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy, which attempts to deny US military’s freedom of movement into the Taiwan Strait. The PLAN aircraft carrier fleet activities with joint air-sea drills, plus the development of ballistic missiles submarines, pose a threat of a nuclear power attack to the US. Those military build-ups significantly increase the risk and cost for the US military to assist Taiwan.
Taiwan’s asymmetric strategy: Prepare for war but not seek it
On the other hand, regarding to Taiwan’s national strategy, President Tsai Ing-wen emphasized the “status quo” policy for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait when she took the president’s office in 2016. Not a single word of this policy has ever changed, despite China’s attempts to “normalize” its military activities close to Taiwan over the last few years. Vice-President Lai has also echoed Tsai’s status quo policy, emphasizing that he would take every effort to prevent the status quo from being unilaterally changed. In the political platform presentation of the DPP chairmanship campaign last December, he proposed “peacefully protect Taiwan (和平保台)” instead of “resist China, protect Taiwan (抗中保台)”, a slogan that emerged during the Hong Kong protests in 2019. Lai chose not to keep the phrase “resist China” to reduce hostility with China, highlighting that Taiwan will not unilaterally provocative China. Such a principle is also consistent with the status quo policy.
Based on that policy, even if DPP takes the president’s office in 2024, the mission of Taiwan’s military is “prepare for war but not seek it, to respond to war and not retreat from it (備戰不求戰，應戰不避戰)” – Taiwan would not take any unilateral action to change the status quo, but Taiwan’s military will resolutely defend its sovereignty. In addition, because Taiwan is a small country facing a rising power, it is not realistic to compete with China on naval spending and build-up. Most of the Western coast of the Taiwan Island is in the attack area of the PLA missiles, and so warships would have difficulty surviving in that region because the PLA missiles would attack Taiwan’s naval base at the first strike of its military operation to Taiwan. Therefore , Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense strategically views asymmetric warfare as the best option due to its cost and effectiveness. In the past years, Taiwan strengthened its missile defense system, deployed torpedoes, reformed the reserve force system, and joined military exercises between Taiwan’s Navy and Coast Guard.
Gray zone tactic, near sea and the risk of Sea Lines of Communications
The cross-strait military strategies impact both sides, the regional and also international community in several aspects.
Firstly, Beijing views “gray zone (灰色地帶)” conflicts in the Taiwan Strait as the major means to gradually implement the idea of “internalization of the Taiwan Strait” (台海內海化). Gray zone refers to achieving that goal with non-military, para-military, or military activities, but without a military conflict. Unifying Taiwan by force will come into play only once. Chinese leaders believe that there is no other (peaceful) means to solve the Taiwan issue and once Beijing is confident it would govern the island successfully after a military operation. Only then will the PLA implement the “first war is the last war”.
Secondly, Beijing is moving to not only to make the Taiwan Strait but also the South China Sea and East China Sea inland sea. China views those disputed waters as a whole, which belong to so-called “near-sea” (近海) and also the “jurisdictional waters” (管轄海域) of the China Coast Guard. If China decided to conduct military operations against Taiwan, it is necessary to ensure it has full control of the South China Sea, as well as East China Sea. For example, we should not disregard the PLA’s activities in northeast Asia in order to deny US intervention from its military base in Japan. In other words, military strategy toward the Taiwan Strait is not only about Taiwan but also a near-sea strategy.
Thirdly, Taiwan’s current defense and deterrence strategy poses the risk of securing Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) near Taiwan. PLAN capability build-up will also be strong shoring up for China Coast Guard on so-called “responding to emergencies and handing emergencies” (應急處突), including sovereignty protection. Such development will further increase the pressure on Taiwan on the “Gray Zone” tactic. Not to mention the lack of new warships in the ROC Navy under asymmetric warfare.
Maintaining the legal status of the Taiwan Strait
Based on the cost of the military operation and the DPP’s potential nominee for the 2024 presidential election, along with Lai Ching-te’s reiteration of “peacefully protecting Taiwan”, it should be noted that China’s military development aims to support the “Gray Zone” tactic in peacetime and to deny other powers intervention during a potential military conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan’s military build-up aims to commit to self-defense and enhance deterrence. However, since Beijing views the near-sea as a whole, the regional countries and international community should be aware that the area of the military conflict in Taiwan Strait might be much broader than Russia’s is in Ukraine, not to mention foreign industries and investment in Japan, Philippines, or South Korea. Therefore, facing the possibility of the next crisis raised by China’s military coercion due to US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s plan to visit Taiwan this spring, for the regional and international community, protecting the SLOC near Taiwan and maintaining the legal status of the Taiwan Strait as international waters is not only a way to support Taiwan’s status quo policy but also a way of avoiding military conflict.
Eli Y. Huang is a Ph.D. Student at Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies, National Cheng-Chi University. She is associate fellow of the Taiwan Industry Economy Association and the special assistant of Dr. Chong-Pin Lin, former defense minister of Taiwan.