The following is the Sept. 19, 2023, Congressional Research Service In Focus report, Taiwan: Defense Military Issues.
From the report
U.S. policy toward Taiwan has long prioritized the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. To dissuade the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from using force to try to gain control of self-governing Taiwan (which officially calls itself the Republic of China or ROC), the United States has supported Taiwan’s military deterrence efforts. At the same time, the United States has been strengthening its ability to deter PRC military aggression in Asia. One challenge for the United States has been how to deepen military ties with Taiwan without triggering the conflict that U.S. policy seeks to prevent. See CRS In Focus IF10275, Taiwan: Political and Security Issues, for background on Taiwan’s political status, the unofficial relationship between Taiwan and the United States, and the PRC’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan.
Taiwan’s Security Situation
Taiwan has a technologically advanced military that is tasked with deterring—and if necessary, defeating—PRC military aggression against the archipelago. Taiwan enjoys some strategic advantages, including geography and climate. The Taiwan Strait is 70 nautical miles (nm) wide at its narrowest point, and 220 nm wide at its widest. Extreme weather conditions make the Strait perilous to navigate at certain times of the year. Moreover, Taiwan’s mountainous terrain and densely populated coastal areas are largely unsuitable for amphibious landing and invasion operations. Taiwan’s defense budget is expanding nominally and as a share of gross domestic product; Taiwan’s 2023 defense budget of around U.S. $24.6 billion represents nearly a 10% increase from 2022. To increase readiness, Taiwan’s leaders are extending compulsory military service and looking to build robust civil defense capabilities. Taiwan’s defense relationship with the United States (detailed below) confers political and military advantages as well.
Taiwan faces an increasingly asymmetric power balance across the Strait. The Communist Party of China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has undergone a decades-long modernization program focused primarily on developing the capabilities needed to prevail in a conflict over Taiwan. Some observers assess that the PLA now is able, or will soon be able, to execute a range of military campaigns against Taiwan. The PLA trains for operations such as missile strikes, seizures of Taiwan’s small outlying islands, blockades, and—the riskiest and most challenging campaign for the PLA—an amphibious landing and invasion of Taiwan’s main island.
Taiwan also faces defense challenges at home. Civil-military relations are strained for historical, political, and bureaucratic reasons. The archipelago’s energy, food, water, internet, and other critical infrastructure systems are vulnerable to external disruption. According to some observers, Taiwan’s civil defense preparedness is insufficient, and Taiwan’s military struggles to recruit, retain, and train personnel. At a societal level, it is not clear what costs—in terms of economic security, safety and security, and lives—Taiwan’s people would be willing or able to bear in the face of possible PRC armed aggression.
In 2023, U.S. officials have said that a PRC invasion of Taiwan is “neither imminent nor inevitable.” In February 2023, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director William J. Burns said that PRC leader Xi Jinping has instructed the PLA “to be ready by 2027 to conduct a successful invasion [of Taiwan]. Now that does not mean that he’s decided to conduct an invasion in 2027 or any other year. But it’s a reminder of the seriousness of his focus and his ambition.” Previously, some U.S. officials had publicly cited specific years in the mid-2020s as possible target dates for a PLA attack on Taiwan, sparking alarm and reinvigorating debates among experts and policymakers about how to allocate limited time and resources to shore up Taiwan’s resilience to PRC military aggression.
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