Sunday, June 16, 2024
 
 

Why China cannot invade Taiwan

Taiwanese sailors standing guard on a naval warship during a military Naval drill in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

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China’s recent aerial incursion in Taiwan air defense zone and President Xi Jinping’s confrontational remarks re-prompted a debate on whether or not Beijing is capable of conquering Taipei.  The nature of this sensitive dichotomy still resonates throughout the international community, especially in the Indo-Pacific region.  Furthermore, the Taiwan defense scenario is crucial as the structural relationship between China and Taiwan is extremely unstable and potentially explosive. 

Notwithstanding China’s aggressive rhetoric and military advancement, does Beijing really want to invade Taipei?  If so, is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) capable of accomplishing such an overwhelming task?  I posit China cannot invade Taiwan based on several strategic and operational limitations of the PLA.

First, Beijing has no experience launching rapid build-up and sustaining onshore supply operations.  Many of the PLA’s logistical limitations cannot maintain the necessary force-to-force ratio for each day of an amphibious invasion.  Logistics should be heavily involved in the Taiwan invasion scenario, but often overlooked as an important aspect of modern warfare.  Despite significant modernization to its military doctrine and upgrades in combat support structures, the PLA remains limited in its ability to project its force beyond its national borders.  Can China really invade Taiwan?  Or is it an empty threat similar to North Korea’s continual nuclear bluff against the U.S.?

Second, a large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated military operations.  In order to conduct an effective amphibious assault, there are three conditions necessary for expediting the invasion process.  The first of these conditions requires the attacker to achieve air superiority, which is obtained by controlling airspace over the operational area.  The second condition focuses on the attacker’s ability to place overwhelming troops at the landing site.  This is achieved by seizing critical territory and infrastructure at the site in order to set the conditions for the ground force invasion.  The final condition addresses the attacker’s ability to conduct support and logistics operations to combat units moving into the operational area.  This is obtained by controlling this critical terrain and infrastructure for extended periods of time. 

While each of these conditions requires complex coordination, it is not necessary for the attacker to meet every single state for the invasion.  The Chinese military is only beginning to train in combined arms or joint operations and is severely limited in each of these areas and subsequently cannot successfully invade Taiwan.

Third, it is not likely that airborne forces could easily secure Taiwanese airfields.  Therefore, the burden would fall on the ground forces from the amphibious assault.  Many scholars explore the geography and topography of the coasts and the Taiwan Strait to further highlight the complications of an amphibious assault.  Given the strait’s depth, currents, and weather conditions it would be virtually impossible to execute an amphibious invasion.  In conjunction with geographical limitations, pundits also address the strategic coordination required to execute this type of operation by comparing and contrasting historical amphibious invasions.

When comparing the invasion of Normandy to the planned invasion of Taiwan, one can clearly see why a comprehensive amphibious assault like D-Day is impossible to achieve in the modern era.  Normandy required 176,000 ground forces and 50,000 airborne forces transported by 3,000 landing ships and over 10,000 aircraft respectively.  These numerical requirements exceed the capabilities of the PLA today.  Similarly, Operation Causeway, which was America’s planned 1943-1944 invasion of Taiwan during World War II, called for a ground force of 400,000 soldiers and marines against 30,000 Japanese troops, a force double the Normandy landings. 

While China has this number of soldiers, as stated earlier Beijing cannot logistically support such a big number.  These examples highlight the great disparity in China’s current ability to conduct a single amphibious invasion, let alone a combined amphibious-airborne invasion.

Last, despite new training focuses, the PLA forces have no modern combat experience, particularly in combined arms and joint service operations.  This could prove extremely problematic, especially in the face of a formidable Taiwanese air defense system.  To date, Taiwan defense forces maintain an array of surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery.  The latter of these systems is extremely dangerous to airborne forces that must insert at a height of 500-1,000 feet.  These problems are compounded by the fact that China is limited in its ability to transport paratroopers into a combat environment.  Moreover, Taiwan will boost its defense spending over the next five years, including on new missiles and weapons upgrades.

The PLA currently maintains three airborne divisions, which is approximately 40,000 paratroopers.  Consequently, the PLA Air Force’s Il-76 can only insert 5,000-7,000 paratroopers in a single combat lift.  If the airborne forces could not simultaneously link up with ground forces from a combined amphibious invasion, the paratroopers would fall very quickly to Taiwanese defense forces.  This operation would require precise synchronization, preparation, and contingency planning, which are concepts Chinese military planners still struggle with.  More importantly, China hasn’t fought any wars since 1979, meaning that none of their current leaders and troops has combat experience.

Given the strategic, operational and tactical constraints, it is unlikely that China could effectively invade Taiwan.  China possesses the transport capacity to physically move large quantities of soldiers; however, a variety of constraints and limitations preclude the PLA from deploying these soldiers efficiently.  Moreover, an invasion would certainly instigate international intervention and severely damage Beijing.  These barriers, combined with Taiwan’s large ground forces would make the invasion a significant political-military risk for Xi and counterinsurgency (a modern metropolis of 2.6 million people) will likely strain the PLA for a long period of time.

As history shows, amphibious invasions and combined-arms airborne operations are extremely complicated even with an attacker’s numerical superiority.  China would not have the initial numerical advantage, let alone the ability to conduct complex combined-arms operations.  To reiterate, while China does possess the logistical capacity to move a large number of forces, it does not have the ability to do so effectively in the contemporary operating environment.  Pundits recognize the inherent limitations of China’s force projection, particularly in the Taiwan Strait area.  Coupled with the logistics hurdle aforementioned support the claim: China cannot invade Taiwan.

The future of China’s military, as well as the security structure of the Indo-Pacific, is anything but clear.  Therefore, it is important to continue to observe and study Beijing’s intentions in order to deliver insight and provide recommendations to policymakers so that they may continue to perpetuate peace and stability in international affairs.

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