Atlantic Council Panel: China Likely Doesn’t Have the Ability to Invade Taiwan, Yet

February 10, 2016 11:45 AM
Chinese amphibious warship Changbaishan deploys what appear to be several ZBD-05 infantry fighting vehicles as part of Joint Sea 2015 on Aug. 25, 2015. Chinese MoD Photo
Chinese amphibious warship Changbaishan deploys what appear to be several ZBD-05 infantry fighting vehicles as part of Joint Sea 2015 on Aug. 25, 2015. Chinese MoD Photo

When viewed from the Chinese mainland, a hundred miles of water is a long way away and remains a big obstacle if Beijing intends to take military action anytime soon against Taiwan following the island’s election of a new president and a legislature controlled by pro-independence parties, an international security expert said Tuesday.

Speaking Tuesday at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., Thomas L. McNaugher, a professor at Georgetown University, said, an amphibious assault would be “an extremely dicey operation” for a military still dominated by its army and having no recent experience in that kind of warfare.

“Right now, they’re capable of moving about two divisions at a time” over water, he said in answer to a question.
“But they’re working on” overcoming those shortfalls.

Roger Cliff, a fellow of the council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, said despite China’s 600 percent increase in real-term defense spending over the past 20 years “important weaknesses remain” in technology, logistics, training and organization.

An example he used was maintaining equipment in the field. It “has to be sent back to the factory for maintenance and repair,” making sustained operations difficult. Cliff also cited shortfalls in underway replenishment and aerial refueling.

While China has changed its military doctrine from “positional warfare” since 1995—when it launched missiles to intimidate Taiwan—to one based on surprise, deception and indirection used by the United States in Desert Storm, it still retains a centralized structure that does not “encourage risk-taking or creativity,” but “loyalty and obedience.”

In response 20 years ago to China’s attempt to cow the island, which was holding its first presidential election, the United States sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into those waters and were not detected by the Chinese. Taiwan is not a treaty partner with the United States. After recognizing the People’s Republic of China, the Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which, in part, allows United States arms sales to the island.

In a cross-straits conflict, however, Cliff said that China’s numerical superiority could “make up for organizational shortcomings.”

“The question is still out there” for Beijing in whether to try to recover Taiwan, said Tiffany Ma, the center’s director of political and security affairs. One factor that could cause Chinese to move against Taiwan is that they “no longer see time is on their side” and/or “inattention” on the part of the United States. Inattention “is really the poison here.”

Taiwan’s incoming administration, led by Tsai Ing-wen, has not ratcheted up the rhetoric with the mainland but intends to continue its defense buildup, she said. McNaugher added, based upon what is happening in Hong Kong since it reverted to Chinese control, “the Taiwanese do not want to go back to China.” Taiwan’s economy is booming.

In fact, China’s “more assertive stance” in territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas may lead to more regional support for Taiwan, Ma said.

McNaugher said that Taiwan needs to keep at improving its defenses and the United States should look at its basing strategy in the Pacific to include hardening air bases in Japan.

Cliff said Taiwanese defense investments should look to better protecting itself against air and maritime blockade or invasion. In addition to corvettes, modern submarines and mines, Taiwan “needs more platforms, more modern platforms,” such as F-16s, and mobile air-defense systems.

Taiwan earlier announced plans to spend 3 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. Those plans included spending $4 billion for eight diesel-powered submarines, but contracts have not yet been announced.

If there were a blockade, Beijing needs to realize “two can play that game,” McNaugher said, referring to the American Navy’s strong presence in the Pacific.

If there were an invasion, Ma said the Chinese “should not underestimate a people’s will to fight.”

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox