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How Taiwan Could Stop a Chinese Invasion

Taiwan
Image: Creative Commons.

This week the Japan Times reported that Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has issued its latest biennial military strategy document. (The Times evidently laid hands on an advance copy. At any rate, nothing appears on the Defense Ministry website as of yet.) Declare the strategy’s framers: “The first and foremost defense undertaking is to prevent war and deter any external military threats, and our overall defense power shall be employed to defend our homeland, [and] magnify the costs and risks” associated with a cross-strait amphibious assault.

The document further observes that Chinese forces’ “weakness is in the phase of sea transit.” That being the case, the island’s defenders “must take full advantage of the natural barrier of the Taiwan Strait and fight in a resilient manner.” They must not wait “for the enemy’s landing groups to sail through the Strait, but should also use measures to force the enemy to assemble forces at airfields or ports further away from areas opposite Taiwan.”

This is a sound strategy. Passive defense is a prelude to defeat, and defeat spells doom for Taiwan.

In a sense, the island’s protectors should imitate their foe. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) prides itself on its strategy of “active defense,” a bequest from founding Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chairman Mao Zedong. A weaker combatant that pursues an active defense is patient. It accepts the fact of its weakness relative to the foe, and rejects a premature offensive. Rather than seek out a decisive battle it cannot win, it harries and enfeebles the strong through small-scale ambushes and tactical engagements while building up its own strength. By weakening the strong and strengthening the weak, active defense empowers the lesser contender to triumph through patient effort.

Taiwan’s armed forces should make active defense their own north star—but they should look to the saltwater variant championed by a long-dead Englishman, Sir Julian Corbett. In his masterwork Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Corbett wrote that an oceangoing hegemon like Great Britain in its heyday could wage limited war overseas provided it could isolate the geographic objective—assuming the war was over territory—and provided it could prevent the enemy from landing an “unlimited counterstroke” against the homeland. In other words, the power waging limited war needed to confine the fighting to the ground it was trying to take, and to keep the enemy from unseating the government back home and settling matters by striking an asymmetric blow.

Taiwan is China’s geographic objective. From Corbett’s limited-war commentary it seems the Taiwan military must prevent the island from being isolated by PLA military action, launch a mortal counterattack against the CCP regime, or both. The latter lies beyond Taipei’s means, so it must apply itself to the former with the utmost urgency. If the armed forces can ward off an amphibious invasion at sea, they will grant themselves time while sparing themselves the need to fight on home ground. Furthermore, keeping the seas and skies adjoining the island clear, making the Taiwan Strait a rampart, will make it easier for rescuers such as U.S. and Japanese naval and air forces to reach the battle zone without paying a prohibitive price.

Fighting forward, then, is crucial—as Taiwan’s new military strategy notes. Taiwan enjoys one marked advantage to go with all of its manpower and materiél disadvantages, namely this: it need not win a war outright, defeating the PLA and imposing Taipei’s will on Beijing. It need not meet the exacting Maoist standard for complete victory. All it needs to do is deny the PLA Navy command of the Taiwan Strait. Without maritime command, the PLA would find it hard to impossible to land enough troops and heavy equipment on the island to overcome stubborn defenders. Its bid for conquest would fail in all likelihood.

In other words, a successful Taiwanese “sea denial” strategy might suffice to win a cross-strait war.

Corbett agrees, pointing out that a seagoing contender “too weak to win command by offensive operations may yet succeed in holding the command in dispute by assuming a general defensive attitude.” Sea denial would not bring Taiwan command of the sea, with all the blessings it entails. It would not stop PLA air or missile attacks or break a naval blockade. But, says Corbett, balking an enemy’s quest for command “over prolonged periods . . . can prevent an enemy securing positive results, and so give time for the other belligerent to dominate the situation by securing his ends ashore.” The battle for Taiwan will be settled on Taiwanese ground. If the Taiwan military can keep the PLA from ever bestriding that ground, the island’s democracy will survive.

So Taiwan need not rule the sea or go on the counteroffensive to prevail. It merely needs to hold off the PLA for long enough. And as Taipei’s military strategy asserts, Taiwan’s armed forces should start pummeling the Chinese invasion force as far from Taiwan’s coasts as possible—essaying offensive operations in the service of strategically defensive ends. Shore-based anti-ship and anti-air missiles, missile-armed patrol craft, and sea mines could give the PLA a very bad day in the strait—protracting the war until U.S. and allied forces can lend succor.

As the legendary boxing champ Jack Dempsey might say: Taiwan’s best strategic defense is a good operational offense.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Lloyd Daub

    November 12, 2021 at 11:47 pm

    China can win via the reverse of this suggested strategy. They attack Quemoy and Matsu, while using missiles and aircraft to devastate Taiwan and its military. There is no need to fight for the strait if the defenders of it are already destroyed.

    US strategy to oppose the attack should be based on a first principle that our job is to punish China, not do Taiwan’s fighting for it. With the second principle that this punishment comes via the same reverse strategy– delete the threat of those artificial islands and attrit the Chinese military while demonstrating an effective threat against mainland targets. Blowing the Three Gorges dams would make an effective demonstration.

  2. Chhelo

    November 14, 2021 at 10:10 am

    Blowing the Three Gorges Dam would destroy Chinas agricultural and manufacturing capabilities for several years alone.

    A longer term strategy would be moving our manufacturing back to to the USA by using favorable tax policies. Instead of a tax system with severe cost of compliance, shut down the IRS and replace it with a national sales tax at the retail level only with a prebate to lower income families. The present system was designed solely to buy votes.

  3. Chuckiechan

    November 14, 2021 at 11:15 am

    China won’t seriously consider invading Taiwan until the new US computer chip plants are up and running in three to four years.At the present time, we rely heavily on Taiwan and have a national security interest in them. When the USA based chip plants are on line, China will feel our national security argument will be weakened.

  4. TheObsoleteMan

    November 15, 2021 at 2:33 pm

    When the invasion comes, it will not be by sea, but by air. And there will be no rescuers from the US or Japan {especially Japan}. I also expect North Korea to simultaneously invade the South. The US would then be forced to chose defending one or the other, and we know how that would go.

  5. Michael

    November 15, 2021 at 3:25 pm

    I agree with the comment that breaching a couple of large Chinese dams would be enough deterrent. I had heard (but cannot say for sure) that destroying the Three Gorges dam would take out every dam between it and the Yellow Sea. That would pretty much destroy China’s economy and infrastructure for years.

  6. Frank Blangeard

    November 15, 2021 at 4:13 pm

    Taiwan’s strategy is simply to hold off the invasion force until the cavalry arrives from the United States and allies. But if the U.S. doesn’t come to the rescue then the result is obvious.

  7. mrmusterstone

    November 15, 2021 at 9:18 pm

    May I posit that the game is cat and mouse. For Taiwan to “win” its physical defenses and political will must appear so fail-safe* that no military move would be attempted by China. For China to “win”, any invasion must appear to be nearly effortless thus enhancing their fabricated Big Dragon sobriquet.

    Positing that Taiwan does arm somewhere along the lines I outlined previously*. The cat’s response might very well to assemble an invasion force and under the pretext of a training exercise (and Chinese forces need all the training they can get to make an amphibious landing over 100 miles of open sea) , deploy but stop just outside Taiwan’s home waters, then withdraw forcing a mobilization and stand-down upon Taiwan.

    The costs to the players? Each Chinese aborted deployment would disrupt international shipping in the SCS, having a negative effect on global trade as well as China’s GDP not to mention international political consternation.

    Taiwan’s economy would suffer the disruption of its work force manning defenses rather than productive economic activity not to mention incredible stress on the population.

    But if at some point China made the decision, calculated the costs and found them acceptable, one training exercise will keep going and will do so from a close enough jump-off point so that anti-ship defenses will have minimal effects and in the bag Taiwan goes.

    I’m sorry to say that this appears to be the most likely scenario sooner or later. Allies? China has created a kill-zone extending many miles east of Taiwan, no one is going to want to run that gauntlet for Taiwan.

    *I wrote about such a fail-safe defense a few days ago.

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