It’s the ultimate nightmare scenario. China orchestrates a masterful strategic deception, and catches the Republic of China government (Taiwan) with its guard down. The ROC government and military are astonished and overwhelmed. They collapse under the strain. Within days, the island’s surviving officials are in PLA custody, and a red flag with five gold stars is flying over the Presidential Office in Taipei.
What would a flash invasion look like? How realistic is such a scenario, and what could the United States do to help Taiwan defend against it?
In 2008, Taiwan’s Military Intelligence Bureau reportedly discovered that their adversaries across the Strait had secretly developed a new blueprint to topple Taiwan’s seat of government. What’s worse, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had already begun conducting exercises to test and refine this war plan. These drills simulated surprise amphibious assaults along Taiwan’s northwest coast, specifically targeting the Port of Taipei.
The plan relied on stealth. It envisioned Chinese military units mobilizing and marshaling along the Fujian coastline, directly across from Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party leadership would announce live-fire military drills and close the Taiwan Strait to international shipping traffic. To dampen alarm, Beijing would use its state-media outlets and agents of influence abroad to convince observers that the drills were nothing more than political posturing.
Troops would then clandestinely load aboard civilian ferries and roll-on/roll-off ships which regularly ply the waters between China and Taiwan. On the date of the planned “exercise” these ships would put to sea and steam toward Taiwan, taking pains to avoid tipping their hand until the last moment.
When they reached the port of Taipei, the ostensibly civilian ships would disgorge mechanized infantry and tanks. These would crush local resistance and secure the area for follow-on reinforcements, delivered by swarms of helicopters and ships. Meanwhile, fast Chinese hovercrafts would blitz commandos down the nearby Tamsui River, and paratroopers would drop onto the runways at Taoyuan International Airport. Within minutes the entire northwestern coastline of Taiwan would be a fiery warzone.
To keep Taiwan’s government paralyzed, the PLA would simultaneously execute cyber attacks, missile strikes, targeted assassinations, submarine ambushes, and heavy bombing. In addition, the plan reportedly envisioned storming the Penghu Islands, keeping Taiwanese units in central and southern parts of the island occupied and unable to reinforce Taipei.
Could it actually happen?
It would be almost impossible for the PLA to pull-off such a daring operation. The plan could only work if China caught Taiwan by surprise. If Taipei knew an attack was coming, it could quickly mobilize its forces and mine the Strait. Lacking the element of surprise, the PLA would be walking blind into a deadly ambush.
Could the Chinese high command avoid leaking the plot? No. In fact, they already did a decade ago. This intelligence coup led Taiwanese authorities to bolster the defense of the capital. In response, they moved the elite 66th Marine brigade to the hills outside the capital, ready to pounce on any Chinese landings at the Port of Taipei. To strengthen the air defense umbrella, they installed advanced Tien Kung and Patriot missile units around the city.
The ROC Army’s Guandu Defense Command, located near the Tamsui River delta, was directed to make preparations for securing the northern tip of the island against hovercraft assaults. Mechanized infantry and armored brigades in Yangmei and Hukou, respectively, trained to lock down Taoyuan International Airport and the nearby beaches. In nearby Longtan, the Aviation and Special Forces Command acquired new Blackhawk and Apache attack helicopters to better enable rapid response.
The ROC Navy deployed dozens of stealthy missile fast boats to northern Taiwan and moved anti-ship missiles out of old concrete bunkers, placing them aboard truck launchers for ease of transport. In downtown Taipei, Military Police and National Security Bureau units refined plans and brought on better equipment to protect government leaders and secure critical facilities.
Taipei is now well defended. But gaps remain and the threat is growing fast.
Taiwan’s defense strategy calls for making its armed forces more resilient and agile, and therefore better able to respond to enemy surprise attacks. Part of this effort has involved downsizing and moving toward an all-volunteer military.
In the early 2000s, the island had over 270,000 men and women in active duty service. Today, Taiwanese forces total around 180,000 uniformed personnel, backstopped by another 1.5 million reservists. This is still a giant standing military for a country of 23 million people. Yet it’s much smaller than it used to be, and efforts to update aging equipment and outdated training have proven slow to bear fruit.
The United States has an indispensable role to play. Only the United States can provide Taiwan with access to advanced training and weapons. To keep Taiwanese combat units one step ahead of the would-be aggressor, the Pentagon should give them access to U.S. training ranges in California and invite them to training exercises in Hawaii and Guam. In addition, Washington should restart regular arms sales to Taiwan and lift self-imposed restrictions on ship visits and high-ranking officer visits.
Greater urgency is needed. President Tsai Ing-wen has taken a moderate approach toward cross-Strait relations, but her goodwill gestures have been repeatedly rebuffed. China’s dictatorial and hawkish leader, Xi Jinping, has shown zero interest in keeping the status quo. Peace and stability are not his aim. Annexing Taiwan is.
Does this mean that all-out war in the Taiwan Strait just a matter of time? Of course not. At the current time, there is no evidence that China’s supreme leader has tied his fate to a timetable. It seems more likely that he will seek to maximize his freedom of action (or inaction).
The PLA has the objective of being ready to invade Taiwan by 2020. And Chinese generals have drawn up a menu of Taiwan attack options from which Chairman Xi could select, should he ever have a mind to do that.
While a flash invasion of Taiwan is improbable, it’s prudent for military professionals to prepare for the worst. By working more closely together, the United States and Taiwan will be better able to deter and if necessary defeat all of China’s various war plans, including this one.
Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia (中共攻台大解密).