Following the 2020 U.S. presidential election, many observers asserted that China-U.S. relations, what have been strained most of the time over the past three years, will see a change, most likely for the better. Judging from the moves taken by the militaries of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait in the air and under the sea during this same period, we can see that both sides have taken advantage of the occasion to expand their respective freedom of movement – whether through military exercises made known to the public or in clandestine ways.
As an ancient Chinese proverb says, “People who know about military affairs tend not to be bellicose.” Taiwan will not recklessly start a war. However, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is no longer the underdog that it was before the most recent round of military reform that kicked off at the end of 2015. We have to guard against the possibility that Beijing might opt to use force against Taiwan because of pressure from within and without. Currently, China mainly resorts to a gray zone strategy, as manifested in the dispatch of military aircraft and ships to harass Taiwan on a regular basis. However, we cannot rule out the possibility of more direct actions. It’s also possible that Taiwan’s reaction time to threats from the PLA may become insufficient due to its inactivity in the face of the constant presence of PLA aircraft and ships around Taiwan.
Basic Rules for the PLA in Its Quest to Subdue Taiwan
On the part of the PLA, operations against Taiwan can be summed up with the slogan of “first engagement as final engagement” or “first battle as decisive battle.” This is more than a slogan; it is actually an objective for the PLA, first unveiled by the PLA Daily. It implies that if operations in the Taiwan Strait are prolonged, chances for international intervention or unexpected twists in China’s internal situation will increase. Time is key to the outcome of such operations.
The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said: “The best of the best is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” According to his classic book, “The best way to engage the enemy is to use strategy; the second best is to use diplomacy; the third best is to fight the enemy head-on; and the worst of all is to besiege enemy troops in a walled city.” Of course, the best option for China is to unify Taiwan without having to use force. However, if the goal of “peaceful unification” with Taiwan is beyond reach anytime soon, Beijing may choose to intimidate Taiwan in a way that does not involve a large-scale deployment of forces.
That might be the reason why the PLA now actively employs a gray zone strategy. In doing so, the PLA expects to manage the battle space in the Taiwan Strait, such as the underwater environment, which contains blind spots that Taiwan’s surveillance and reconnaissance systems fail to cover. The goal is to suppress Taiwan’s strategic reaction time or drag down the Taiwan military’s logistics and maintenance systems using war of attrition tactics.
If military intimidation still fails to coerce Taiwan into accepting the “unification” conditions set by Beijing, more aggressive tactics might be used against Taiwan, such as imposing an air and sea blockade and sending ships to encircle Taiwan’s offshore islands and block their sea traffic. The old tactic of “encircling enemy positions while preventing reinforcements from coming to their rescue,” which Communist troops proved quite good at during the Chinese Civil War with their Nationalist counterparts, might be used against Taiwan’s offshore islands, such as Dongsha and Taiping Islands in the South China Sea. Only after the tactics mentioned above fail to achieve their designated purposes will China consider attacking Taiwan proper.
In the scenarios discussed above, Beijing will concentrate a large number of troops at a time when what it really wants to achieve is still to subdue Taiwan through military intimidation rather than real war. The leadership in Beijing still hopes that the goal of unification with Taiwan can be achieved through limited use of force. Whether the goal can be reached has a lot to do with Taiwanese public opinion. Do Taiwan’s people have the will to counter China’s coercion and the willingness to support the military? China has been using its “proxies” in Taiwan these few years to divide Taiwan, launching disinformation campaigns, public opinion warfare, and cognitive warfare at the same time. The aim is to let the PLA take advantage of divisions within Taiwan to reach the goal of “first engagement as final engagement” with only limited use of force.
Immediately after initiating a strike against Taiwan, the PLA will call on Taiwan’s people to surrender. Therefore, whether the first engagement will become the final engagement is not up to the combat strength of Taiwan’s military, but the support of Taiwan’s people, who should stand behind the military. Taiwan’s military conforms to the ROC constitution. Without the support of the people, the military surely has no way to deter enemy intrusions. Such a result would be similar to what China can achieve through direct military intimidation. The best option for Beijing is still to subdue Taiwan without fighting, while the second best is to use a gray zone strategy or small-scale deployments of troops without much fanfare and publicity in the process while supplementing those tactics with a two-hand approach that appeals mainly to the psychology of some Taiwanese politicians and people who are apparently daunted by China’s military intimidation. These people will exert pressure on the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), potentially resulting in Taiwan’s society giving in to communist China. This scenario is currently Beijing’s primary strategic approach to the Taiwan issue.
Subduing the Enemy Without Fighting
Although military operations against Taiwan have always been an option for China, peaceful unification is also a choice that has not been ruled out. Although hawkish scholars in China now grab public attention with their belligerent remarks, there are still voices within academia calling for peaceful unification with Taiwan. As a matter of fact, China has kept adjusting its Taiwan policy, reflected in the replacement of the older “Three Middles, One Youth” (三中一青) project with the new “One Generation, One Line”(一代一線) project, both of which aim to attract and influence Taiwanese youths and certain business sectors. There are also a great variety of exchange programs that China’s provincial governments have with Taiwan. All these examples show another possibility other than use of force.
Notably, threats from China do not necessarily come in the form of direct military action. However, many intimidation tactics being used against Taiwan are extra-military means based on the PLA’s capabilities, as exemplified by the kind of gray zone strategy that has been constantly applied in the Taiwan Strait in recent years. This gray zone strategy, besides leveraging low-intensify conflicts, also counts on other submilitary organizations (or organizations with official status) to effectively approach neighboring countries.
At this stage, although the PLA has exhibited self-control in its approach to Taiwan, its moves are obviously aimed at declaring China’s sovereignty over Taiwan and managing the battle space in the Taiwan Strait through intensive military activities in the region. Moreover, such tactics are combined with other non-military means, such as those in the diplomatic field where China keeps squeezing Taiwan’s international space, to confine the ROC to where Beijing wants this so-called “breakaway province” to stay.
The three warfares (public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare) and other means are employed as well. For example, China, in the name of Hong Kong Flight Information Region, blocked a Taiwanese civilian plane from approaching Dongsha Island, where it was supposed to land and deliver supplies. China may also use its maritime militia or coast guard ships to encircle Taiwan’s offshore islands. A combined use of high- and low-speed aircraft as well as manned aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles could achieve the purpose of harassing Taiwan as well.
Subduing the Enemy With Small-Scale Fighting
If the aforementioned tactics still cannot achieve the goal of coercing Taiwan into submission, the PLA may raise tensions by creating “low-intensity conflicts” in an attempt to force Taiwan to accept unification with China. At this stage, the PLA is most likely to send forces to encircle Taiwan’s offshore islands and even take those islands by superior firepower. It may also hold exercises in the vicinity of those islands, which will then be surrounded by regular PLA ships rather than non-military forces as mentioned earlier.
Up to this point, Beijing is willing to use force, but only to a limited extent. Such limited use of force allows certain casualties, meaning that the PLA will be more audacious in action and even willing to use force to neutralize forces standing in the way. Taiwan’s offshore islands become targets mainly because they are most suitable for the PLA’s tactic of “encircling enemy positions while preventing reinforcements from coming to their rescue.” It is also because the offshore islands are Taiwan’s vulnerabilities in national defense. As PLA ships encircle those islands and block access to them, the PLA may multiply the effects by launching the three warfares at the same time, causing Taiwan’s people to become weary of war and ask for peace without too much hesitation.
If still unable to subdue Taiwan, Beijing may take one step further by cutting off Taiwan’s sea lines of communication (SLOC) through an air and sea blockade. As an island country, Taiwan’s energy supplies and economy depend on trade with other nations. It is especially so with digital finance and e-commerce, which require stable energy supplies. In the event of a power shortage, do Taiwan people still have the will to counter the enemy? Do all sectors of society still trust and support the military? All these questions are worth thinking about. Under a blockade launched by the PLA, Taiwan may take countermeasures. If so, it means that a full-scale war has begun. That will be a completely different story.
Mao Zedong once said, “Fight no battle unprepared and fight no battle you are not sure of winning.” Therefore, how to keep Beijing from being confident about using force against Taiwan is a top priority for Taiwan in its efforts to prevent a war from breaking out in the Taiwan Strait. It is also goal for Taiwan’s arms build-up and comprehensive defense strategy.
In national defense, Taiwan needs a will that cannot be conquered, a strategy that keeps the enemy at bay, and an environment that leaves no room for fighting so that it can put itself in an invincible position. To create an environment which leaves no room for fighting, the two sides need to interact and communicate with each other. But if Taiwan expects stable cross-strait relations to serve as the basis for its national security, without developing at the same time sufficient defense capabilities to deter against the enemy, it would be equivalent to pinning all the hopes for peace on the goodwill of the enemy. The peace gained therefrom is not the right kind of national security for Taiwan. That is like putting the cart before the horse
What Taiwan needs more is a will that cannot be conquered and an arms build-up that deters the enemy from daring to provoke. These form pre-conditions for an environment that leaves no room for fighting. After all, without strong defense capabilities as a support, Taiwan will create a chance for the enemy to bring a quick end to operations against it..
The ancient Chinese strategist Mozi, responding to a question from his disciple Qin Guli about how a small country can defend against invaders, said:
We should strengthen the fortifications of our walled cities, have equipment necessary for the defense of the cities, and maintain a sufficient supply of wood for burning and forage for horses; the leaders should be on good terms with their subordinates and subjects while obtaining help from the rulers of neighboring countries. This is how to survive against all odds. And if the guardians of the cities, despite being capable, are not trusted and used by the ruler of their country, they can do nothing to the defense of the cities. The guardians of the cities must be people who are really capable. If the ruler of the country uses incompetent guardians, it is like leaving the cities unguarded. Therefore, guardians of the cities must be people who are not only capable but also trusted by the ruler of the country. That is how the security of a country can be secured.
Translated into modern-day equivalents, fortifications of walled cities and equipment for the defense of the cities would refer to an arms build-up. The leaders’ being on good terms with their subordinates and subjects is solidarity as we would call it today. And getting help from the rulers of neighboring countries is the result of diplomacy. All these conditions are still necessary today for effective deterrence against an enemy.
Dr. Ying-Yu Lin is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Institute of Strategic and International Affairs, located at National Chung Cheng University in Chiayi, Taiwan. He is also a Research Fellow with the Association of Strategic Foresight. Dr. Lin received his Ph.D from the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies, Tamkang University. His research interests include the development of PLA capabilities and cybersecurity issues.