Taiwan remains 90 miles off the Chinese coast, but politically the island might just have shifted in the mainland’s direction.
This week the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defence (MND) issued a warning that China has achieved air superiority over the Taiwan Strait for the first time. This could prove critical in a situation where the military scales have always been delicately tipped against China and its hopes of reclaiming what it sees as part of its turf.
The thinking has always been that it would be too difficult for Chinese troops to make it onto Taiwan’s beaches – let alone take the whole island – without control of the skies, not to mention the waters of the Strait itself, which the vastly superior US Navy would lock down in the event of a crisis.
However, for the last 60 years, the Chinese military has been thinking about how to solve these problems – and, frankly, not much else. Unsurprisingly then, according to the MND’s latest assessment, Taiwan’s old advantages may finally have been eroded.
First, there’s the issue of air power. Taiwan still has a fleet of US-built F-16 fighters, which, the MND says, retains a paper-thin edge over China’s best aircraft. However, it has less than 150 of these, and they’re getting old: so they may no longer be equipped to hold back China’s far larger and newer air force, which includes highly capable Russian Sukhoi Su-30s, as well as increasingly advanced domestically designed jets.
The fighter match-up might not even be the most telling factor, explains Eric Heginbotham, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation who analyses China and its military. He points to ballistic missiles based on the mainland, which could knock out Taiwanese airfields, and to advanced surface-to-air missile systems that are more dangerous to Taiwan’s F-16s than Chinese fighters.
“In terms of the balance between Taiwan and China, we may have reached that tipping point a few years ago,” Heginbotham says. “If you’re talking about scenarios without US intervention, they’re pretty grim for Taiwan. The US still has a lot of answers to China at this point. But 20 or 30 years down the line, the scenarios look pretty grim even with the US.”
There is considerable doubt in Taiwan as to whether the US would actually step in should China decide to have a tilt at storming the island. First, Washington may baulk at the economic price. Taiwan might be a brother democracy, but the US and China are in bed together when it comes to trade and finance. Moreover, China arguably now has the technology to dissuade the US from intervening militarily: anti-ship ballistic missiles, which could sink American aircraft carriers (though these are still in development); nuclear subs prowling the Strait; anti-satellite missiles to knock out communications; and cyber warfare divisions that could launch a virtual counterattack. The US may once have looked on Taiwan as its “unsinkable aircraft carrier”; but if China attacked today, the Americans might find it easier just to abandon the ship.
However, there is a subplot to the MND’s claims about the Chinese air force’s newfound advantages. The US recently approved a $6bn (€4.3bn) arms sale to Taiwan, but withheld a batch of new F-16s that the island’s government had asked for. So the report about Chinese air superiority may really be code – for “give us those planes”.
The Taiwanese should move on from this, Heginbotham suggests. “We did sell them Patriot missiles as part of that package, and they’re quite plausibly a better response [to Chinese air power] than F-16s,” he says. He adds that an invasion of Taiwan will always be a hellish prospect for the Chinese military. “It would be enormously complex. Even if the landing succeeded, the ground campaign would need supplies [that would have to come in by sea].” China’s military might be getting “better and better”, Heginbotham says, but they will never be able to strike Taiwan with any great confidence.
This provides some consolation to the Taiwanese, for whom every Chinese military advance comes as sombre news. Looking over at Tibet, where Beijing launched its latest crackdown this week, most islanders think that life in the People’s Republic might not be their thing.