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Reality Check

February 18, 2022

Reality Check #10: China will not invade Taiwan

By Harlan Ullman

Key points

  • Despite Beijing’s longstanding desire to invade and conquer Taiwan and achieve “one China,” China simply lacks the military capability and capacity to launch a full-scale amphibious invasion of Taiwan for the foreseeable future.
  • With a potential defending force of 450,000 Taiwanese today, using the traditional three-to-one ratio of attackers to defenders taught at war colleges, to undertake an invasion, China would need over 1.2 million soldiers (out of a total active force of over 2 million) that would have to be transported in many thousands of ships.
  • Although Beijing is unlikely to launch a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, given China’s strength, autocratic government, and ambitions, the United States cannot totally ignore the risk of such an attack.
  • At the same time, however, Washington should develop an overall strategy designed to deter the most likely scenarios—such as imposing economic and financial embargoes on Taiwan, imposing a maritime blockade of the island, or attempting a regime change from within—or prevail militarily if deterrence fails. China does have many other options for pressuring Taiwan.

What’s the issue?

The Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) was substantially predicated on preventing two faits accomplis: a Russian invasion of the Baltics and a Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan. To what degree these scenarios will survive the Biden administration’s soon-to- be-released strategic review remains to be seen. The most likely outcome is that “integrated deterrence,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s term—for now more a slogan than a strategic concept that attempts a more “wholistic” all-of-government effort—will become prominent, as will a greater focus on the “deter” element rather than on “defeat” as was the last NDS. Defining what defeat means and how it would be achieved remains elusive.

Some observers believe that how the United States handles the Ukraine crisis will be closely watched by China. That is true. But, as this paper argues, the Ukraine crisis will not influence Chinese decisions on whether or not to launch a full-scale amphibious invasion because, given the force demands, China simply lacks the capacity to do so for the foreseeable future.

The current and former heads of Indo-Pacific Command have warned about China’s building the necessary forces to invade and conquer Taiwan, possibly by decade’s end. Given China’s long-standing determination to make Taiwan part of the mainland and achieve “one China,” a military takeover of Taiwan sounds plausible.

However, this notion is based on a fundamental misperception regarding China’s capability to launch a major amphibious assault. If China were to launch such a military attack on Taiwan, what would that take in terms of forces and force levels? Does China possess the requisite numbers and capabilities? If not, when, if at all, might it build those forces that, if history counts, would number in the hundreds of thousands of troops and thousands of ships and maritime assault vehicles? Current and past studies do not successfully or specifically address these questions. These studies focus on the how, but not on the specific manpower requirements of what would be required to carry out an invasion. 

The definitive document on what size force would be required to seize Taiwan in a full-out landing was drafted by the US military in the late stages of World War II in the Pacific. In 1944, Operation Causeway was the US plan for retaking Formosa, as it was then called, from 30,000 starving Japanese soldiers. The planned invasion force was double the size of Operation Overlord, the Normandy landing: 400,000 soldiers and marines deployed on 4,000 ships. With a potential defending force of 450,000 Taiwanese today, using the traditional three-to-one ratio of attackers to defenders taught at war colleges, China would need to deploy over 1.2 million soldiers (out of a total active force of over 2 million). Many thousands of ships would be required to land all those forces, and doing so would take weeks. How many occupation forces would be required to pacify the Taiwanese? Surely the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq are not lost on the PLA leadership.

China possesses a small fraction of the necessary ships to execute a landing of that size and lacks the capacity to do so for the foreseeable future. Nor are there any current plans suggesting China is intent on procuring such a force, though that could change.

Further, Taiwan is not conducive to any form of amphibious assault. A handful of landing sites on the west coast are blocked by proximate mountainous areas running the length of the 250-mile-long island, some approaching 10,000 feet in height. Defenders could fall back using this difficult terrain to wage a guerrilla war. Moreover, Taiwan lacks the infrastructure to support over a million invaders and their logistical needs, most of which would have to come from the mainland.

Fixating on an unlikely scenario, no matter how compelling it sounds, skews US resources and force levels.

Nevertheless, given China’s size, strength, autocratic government, ambitions, and commitment to “one China,” the United States cannot totally rule out the possibility of an amphibious assault. Focusing US resources primarily on such a scenario would be a grave mistake, however.

If the danger of Chinese aggression against, and indeed an invasion of, Taiwan is considered among the likely or plausible scenarios, the response must be to plan to defeat that outcome. Any military conflict with the United States beyond a Taiwan scenario would be a home game for China and an away game for the United States and those who might be persuaded to join the fight. Substantial resources would be needed to compensate for the disadvantages of geography and external lines of communications.  

Taiwan is only 100 miles off the Chinese coast. With China’s DF-21 and other missiles with ranges of 1,500-2,000 miles, a reinforcing naval force would come under fire for at least two or more day’s steaming before reaching the combat area. They would also have to avoid submarine and other maritime threats. The same problem applies to aviation units that would enter China’s air defense zones.

To complicate this matter of reinforcement and coming to Taiwan’s defense, some polls show that Americans are more worried about a Chinese invasion than are the Taiwanese. Defending a friend is more difficult when that friend is less preoccupied or concerned with the threat than US citizens are. The United States cannot be successful in defending Taiwan if it regards the Chinese threat as more dangerous than the country it intends to protect.

Finally, fixating on an unlikely scenario, no matter how compelling it sounds, skews US resources and force levels. An expeditionary force designed to protect Taiwan may not fit more relevant roles such as supporting formal treaty allies, responding to other contingencies, and influencing China by force dispositions—especially if there is no appetite to invade in the first place. It was no accident that Napoleon and Hitler failed to cross the 25-mile wide English Channel!

The United States must consider and plan for many contingencies with respect to Taiwan. China has options other than a full-scale amphibious invasion. It could seize small islands belonging to Taiwan, such as Kinmen and Matsu, to exert leverage. It could impose economic and financial embargoes. It could impose a physical blockade with its maritime militia physically denying access to the island. It could attempt a regime change from within, using the equivalent of Russia’s “Little Green Men” who seized the Crimean Parliament in 2014. 

China could infiltrate the political parties and Taiwanese government and use influence operations to change public support. It could contrive or provoke a crisis to force Taiwan to accept a settlement that could lead to annexation. It could obliterate Taiwan under a rain of missiles. However, unless Taiwan were to declare independence, it is very unlikely that—barring a crisis—China would attempt any direct annexation. Moreover, an amphibious assault is not now a serious or feasible option. 

Why does it matter?

Misunderstanding an adversary in developing a strategy leads to failure, or worse. Hitler thought Russia would fold in 1941.  The Japanese thought Pearl Harbor would force an American capitulation. Gen. Douglas MacArthur did not believe the Chinese would intervene in Korea as his forces raced toward the Yalu River in late 1950.  Washington believed it could bomb North Vietnam into submission, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and that Iraqis could easily takeover governing their country after Saddam Hussein had been overthrown.

The Pentagon’s civilian leaders have declared China to be “the pacing challenge for the US military.” Many Americans are fearful that a rising China’s increasing diplomatic assertiveness, military buildup, militarizing small islets in the China Seas, and pursuit of the ambitious Belt-and-Road Initiative is a danger not only to the United States, but to much of the world. However, the nature of the specific threats is not clear. A possible Taiwan invasion must be plausible and based on why and how China could or would embark on that course of action. Thus far, no US administration has explained how such an invasion would be carried out.

This focus on a single contingency distorts defense planning, especially given the Russian buildup around Ukraine. The US Army and Marine Corps are pivoting to the Pacific. However, neither service has justified this shift beyond pointing to the rise of China; nor have they explained how China would be contained, deterred and, if war comes, defeated. Without a rationale for a substantial increase of land forces in the region, it is impossible to judge the value of this redeployment. With the Marines eliminating tanks and much of their heavy artillery, the traditional role of amphibious operations will have to be redefined. 

The Navy has long considered the Pacific its familial home. Under the Obama administration, the Navy had planned to shift 60 percent of the fleet to Asia by 2020. Unfortunately, because the size of the Navy did not meet its growth objectives, the actual number of ships in the Pacific will be less than before the pivot. Just as the Army and Marines have not specified the rationale for this shift except in general terms, neither has the Navy.

What is the solution?

1 Understand China’s true intentions and capabilities. The first and most obvious solution is the most difficult to achieve: rely on objective, unbiased, fact-based analysis of the likelihood of a Chinese amphibious invasion and the measures required to deter or defeat it. In today’s fractured, contentious, and hyper-partisan political environment, fact, truth, and objectivity have become casualties. For example, the current debate should cover more details over what size force China might require in these contingencies, although Operation Causeway would seem to be the definitive guide.

2 Learn how to win wars, not just battles. No matter how much effort is placed on developing policy and strategy, successive US administrations have ignored the following contradiction: The US military has become adept at winning battles, but the United States has become adept at losing wars. This must change. US policymakers and strategists should take account of the failures of the last several decades and incorporate these lessons into discussions of what a war with China would entail and how it might end.

3 US strategy to address the threat to Taiwan must change. The US military is based on an offensive, firepower-intensive strategy that requires highly expensive, often vulnerable, complicated systems for command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, as well as large platforms that can only be produced by major defense contractors. Many are “legacy systems,” meaning that their use was important in the past but is less so today. Today’s military may not need some of these systems, contributing to a misallocation of resources and taxing an overly strained defense budget. However, a Taiwanese invasion scenario—implausible though it may be—plays to sustaining the current force design and the weapons that are being procured.

Rather than persisting with an offensive-minded approach based on costly and vulnerable platforms, US and Taiwanese planners must adopt a Porcupine Defense and its Pacific variant, a Mobile Maritime Defense, to keep China’s military within the first island chain that runs from Japan in the Pacific northeast through Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam. The concept has been detailed elsewhere, including in References A and B. The purpose of the Porcupine and associated defenses, like the metaphorical quilled creature, is to counter the enemy’s strategy and disrupt any attack by deploying daunting defensive measures that would cause great pain to an assailant and thus complicate and deter a possible attack.

In the case of Taiwan, the Porcupine Defense entails a combination of massive numbers of drones and unmanned vehicles along with anti-air and armor missiles, such as Stingers and Javelins, as well as sea mines, to disrupt any attack. Major anti-command-and-control cyber and influence operations are essential, along with heavy use of deception and misdirection to disrupt and confuse any enemy attack.

Such a strategy would greatly complicate any future bid by China to take the island by force. But can Taiwan be convinced to undertake this approach? Taiwan has chosen to buy systems to attack China. This is a mistake. Taiwan will never have the capacity to deter a Chinese assault by threat of retaliation. However, at lower cost, this Porcupine capability can be bought.

Takeaway

The overriding issue for the United States is whether it is able to develop an overall strategy that will deter the most likely scenarios, or prevail militarily if deterrence fails. Such a strategy must be affordable. If not, the United States will be pursuing the wrong response to a highly unlikely Chinese contingency, rather than a strategy based on current and future reality. That is not a prescription for success.


Dr.  Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance (2012). His latest book is The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large  (2021).

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Image: A veteran wears a replica of his military uniform while looking out from a bunker, during an annual trip back to Kinmen, Taiwan, October 17, 2021. Sitting on the front line between Taiwan and China, Kinmen is the last place where the two engaged in major fighting, in 1958 at the height of the Cold War, and where memories of war are burned into minds decades later. REUTERS/Ann Wang SEARCH "WANG KINMEN" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES