Report to Congress on Taiwan Defense and Military Issues

March 1, 2024 9:10 AM

The following is the March 1, 2024, Congressional Research Service In Focus Report, Taiwan: Defense and Military Issues.

From the report

U.S. policy toward Taiwan (which officially calls itself the Republic of China or ROC, Taiwan) has long prioritized the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. The United States supports Taiwan’s efforts to deter the People’s Republic of China (PRC or China) from using force to gain control of the archipelago, which the PRC claims as its territory. Increasingly, the U.S. government has sought to strengthen its own ability to deter PRC military aggression in Asia. Congress has passed several laws aimed at strengthening U.S.-Taiwan defense ties. A key challenge for U.S. policymakers is supporting Taiwan’s defense without triggering the conflict that U.S. policy seeks to prevent.

Taiwan’s Security Situation

Taiwan’s technologically-advanced military is tasked with deterring—and if necessary, defeating—PRC military aggression. Taiwan enjoys 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. Weather conditions make the Strait perilous to navigate at certain times of the year. Taiwan’s mountainous terrain and densely populated coast are largely unsuitable for amphibious landing and invasion operations. Taiwan’s leaders since 2017 have grown the defense budget; from 2019 to 2023, spending increased by an average of nearly 5% per year, and as a percentage of GDP increased from 2% to 2.5%. Defense spending is set to increase again in 2024, albeit at a slower rate. To increase readiness, Taiwan’s leaders announced plans to extend compulsory military service from four months to a year and to expand civil defense capabilities. Taiwan’s defense relationship with the United States also confers political and military advantages.

Taiwan faces an increasingly asymmetric power balance across the Strait, however. 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 annex Taiwan. Some observers assess that the PLA is, or soon will 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 takeover 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 its military struggles to recruit, retain, and train personnel. At a societal level, it is not clear what costs—in terms of economic security, physical safety and security, and lives—Taiwan’s people would be willing or able to bear in the face of possible PRC armed aggression.

U.S. officials have said a PRC invasion of Taiwan is “neither imminent nor inevitable.” In 2023, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director William J. Burns said PRC leader Xi Jinping had instructed the PLA “to be ready by 2027 to conduct a successful invasion. 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 cited specific years in the mid-2020s as possible target dates for an attack, renewing U.S. debates about how to allocate limited resources to shore up Taiwan’s resilience.

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