Taiwan Can Win a War With China

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Danger is part of the friction of war. Without an accurate conception of danger we cannot understand war.

Clausewitz, On War (c. 1825)

Over the last month or so we have had a few raucous discussions about Taiwan and its future here at the Scholar’s Stage. In these comment threads I have expressed the belief that Taiwan is in a much stronger military position vis a vis the PLA than most people inside or outside of Taiwan realize. Today I have a column up in Foreign Policy that lays out my argument. I encourage you to go an read the whole thing, but I will quote the core of the argument here:

To understand the real strength of these defenses, imagine them as a PLA grunt would experience them. Like most privates, he is a countryside boy from a poor province. He has been told his entire life that Taiwan has been totally and fatally eclipsed by Chinese power. He will be eager to put the separatists in their place. Yet events will not work out as he has imagined. In the weeks leading up to war, he discovers that his older cousin—whose remittances support their grandparents in the Anhui countryside—has lost her job in Shanghai. All wire money transfers from Taipei have stopped, and the millions of Chinese who are employed by Taiwanese companies have had their pay suspended.

Our private celebrates the opening of hostilities in Shanwei, where he is rushed through a three-week training course on fighting in the fetid and unfamiliar jungles of China’s south. By now, the PLA has put him in a media blackout, but still rumors creep in: Yesterday it was whispered that the 10-hour delay in their train schedule had nothing to do with an overwhelmed transportation system and everything to do with Taiwanese saboteurs. Today’s whispers report that the commander of the 1st Marine Brigade in Zhanjiang was assassinated. Tomorrow, men will wonder if rolling power outages really are just an attempt to save power for the war effort.

But by the time he reaches the staging area in Fuzhou, the myth of China’s invincibility has been shattered by more than rumors. The gray ruins of Fuzhou’s PLA offices are his first introduction to the terror of missile attack. Perhaps he takes comfort in the fact that the salvos coming from Taiwan do not seem to match the number of salvos streaking toward it—but abstractions like this can only do so much to shore up broken nerves, and he doesn’t have the time to acclimate himself to the shock. Blast by terrifying blast, his confidence that the Chinese army can keep him safe is chipped away.

The last, most terrible salvo comes as he embarks—he is one of the lucky few setting foot on a proper amphibious assault boat, not a civilian vessel converted to war use in the eleventh hour—but this is only the first of many horrors on the waters. Some transports are sunk by Taiwanese torpedoes, released by submarines held in reserve for this day. Airborne Harpoon missiles, fired by F-16s leaving the safety of cavernous, nuclear-proof mountain bunkers for the first time in the war, will destroy others. The greatest casualties, however, will be caused by sea mines. Minefield after minefield must be crossed by every ship in the flotilla, some a harrowing eight miles in width. Seasick thanks to the strait’s rough waves, our grunt can do nothing but pray his ship safely makes it across.

As he approaches land, the psychological pressure increases. The first craft to cross the shore are met with a sudden wall of flame springing up from the water from the miles of oil-filled pipeline sunk underneath. As his ship makes it through the fire (he is lucky; others around it are speared or entangled on sea traps) he faces what Easton describes as a mile’s worth of “razor wire nets, hook boards, skin-peeling planks, barbed wire fences, wire obstacles, spike strips, landmines, anti-tank barrier walls, anti-tank obstacles … bamboo spikes, felled trees, truck shipping containers, and junkyard cars.”

At this stage, his safety depends largely on whether the Chinese Air Force has been able to able to distinguish between real artillery pieces from the hundreds of decoy targets and dummy equipment PLA manuals believe the Taiwanese Army has created. The odds are against him: As Beckley notes in a study published last fall, in the 1990 to 1991 Gulf War, the 88,500 tons of ordnance dropped by the U.S.-led coalition did not destroy a single Iraqi road-mobile missile launcher. NATO’s 78-day campaign aimed at Serbian air defenses only managed to destroy three of Serbia’s 22 mobile-missile batteries. There is no reason to think that the Chinese Air Force will have a higher success rate when targeting Taiwan’s mobile artillery and missile defense.

But if our grunt survives the initial barrages on the beach, he still must fight his way through the main Taiwanese Army groups, 2.5 million armed reservists dispersed in the dense cities and jungles of Taiwan, and miles of mines, booby traps, and debris. This is an enormous thing to ask of a private who has no personal experience with war. It is an even great thing to ask it of a private who naively believed in his own army’s invincibility. [1]

I want to make a few additional comments about the piece. First of all, I try to be very transparent about the source of these arguments. Most of it is not original to me–much of the hard data that appears in the piece and my analysis of that data is adapted from Michael Beckley’s 42-page paper for International Security, The Emerging Military Balance in East Asia: How China’s Neighbors Can Check Chinese Naval Expansion,” and Ian Easton’s book length study, The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in East Asia (which I have referenced and recommended here before). Both of these fellows approach the issue from different perspective. Easton draws on studies conducted by the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense and manuals published by the PLA; Beckley focuses on historical comparison and Pentagon simulations. Despite this, their conclusions are complimentary. If you have read these two studies, very little of my article will be new to you.[2]

Second, you may notice a stylistic difference between this piece and the rather staid sort of military analysis you see published in places like War on the Rocks or most (but not all) think tank reports. I went out of my way to present my case in as vivid a narrative as possible. This is not just because the vivid is more likely to go viral (though I won’t deny I enjoy it when something I have written travels). Rather, I chose to write the column in this fashion because vivid narrative is a useful analytical tool. Defense analysts are fond of acronyms, figures, and an obscure sort of idiom I will call RANDspeak. In some cases, RANDspeak brings clarity. In many cases, however, it simply serves as a linguistic signal that the author is a professional, not an amateur. I have little patience for publications that demand ‘professional’ writing like this. RANDspeak comes at a cost: in reducing analysis of military conflict to a flurry of euphemisms, one tends to forget the true nature of the topic being analyzed. War is not waged with acronyms. It is waged with men. The strategic results of conflict cannot be divorced from the lived experience of combat. War means steel, smoke, and blood–and more importantly, the awe, terror, pride, and rage these things instill into the hearts of the men and women who witness them. Narrative redirects our attention away from weapon systems and towards the minds of the men and women these systems are designed to kill and terrify. Often times it is at this level that victory and defeat is decided.

The second benefit of narrative is that it is more accessible to those who are not joined in the cloistered ranks of professional defense analysts. For many analysts this kind of concern is foolish. What matters, they tell me, is that the people who matter buy their argument. The people at large are never the people who matter. I find this extremely short sided. In the case of Taiwan the trouble with this sort of view should be obvious: Taiwan’s greatest weakness is resolve. As I discuss in the article, the Taiwanese people have little confidence in their military. The Chinese invasion strategy is designed to take advantage of this. Easton’s research reveals that their plans are centered on shocking the Taiwanese into submission. The success of the Chinese invasion strategy thus turns on the morale of the Taiwanese citizenry. That morale, in turn, will turn on the confidence the Taiwanese have in their own defensive systems. If the true strength of their position is not communicated to average people, their position will have no strength.


[1] Tanner Greer, “Taiwan Can Win a War With China,” Foreign Policy 25 September 2018.

[2] Michael Beckely, “The Emerging Military Balance in East Asia: How China’s Neighbors Can Check Chinese Naval Expansion,”International Security Vol. 42, No. 2 (Fall 2017), pp. 78–119,; Ian Easton, The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in East Asia (CreateSpace: 2017).

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Mines. Lots and lots of mines. Especially at the PRC's major ports (probably either at the deterrent or escalation phase of any conflict).

mines, very shortsighted, as proven everywhere they have ever been used, cause huge damage when the conflict ends .. and not too effective against naval blockade, air power, or missiles ..

an aside, you know the usa isn't going to help out in this dance

I am curious about some of the defensive preparations you've mentioned, such as sunken oil pipelines, or the use of chemical plants as toxic fume traps. You've linked to 台军20年转型之路, which I can't easily read. Are all of the defensive preparations listed in your soldier POV real, or are some hypothetical?

Overall, I certainly agree with an asymmetric A2AD strategy, although I am much more skeptical about the survivability of the current fighter and submarine force. I am also skeptical about the effectiveness of Taiwanese intelligence, particularly given the proven success of Chinese counterintelligence. I also do not expect much from the reservists or the conscript units. But I agree that road-mobile SAM and artillery will be quite difficult to target, especially in the dense, mountainous rainforests of Taiwan's main mountain ranges. I also agree that minefields should be a major part of Taiwan's sea defense.

And I also agree that the main fight is in the hearts-and-minds of the Taiwanese people, who must believe that an effective defense is possible. This is particularly critical if any war plan expect reservists to maintain unit cohesion beyond initial contact.

The resolve of people who are facing invasion is critical. It is what determines the political options of the leadership, it shapes the attackers expectations, and it is potentially the dispositive factor in the conflict if war occurs. The people of the Soviet Union were initially inclined to welcome the Germans as liberators, but soon realized that the Germans were even more ravenously homicidal than even Stalin was. Their resolution to fight was critical to the defeat of the Germans. The British in 1940 were resolved to resist, Churchill's renowned verbal defiance was a manifestation of that resolve, and the Germans knew it, and the Germans knew that trying to get a negotiated political resolution was pointless. The Japanese people's resolution in 1945 led to massive firebombing and the use of the atomic bombs, because the Japanese were known to be willing to fight to the death in the face of a conventional invasion. This suggests that a resolute Taiwan will have deterrence, because if the alternative is to incinerate Taiwan, China is unlikely to prefer that to the status quo. On the other end of the Axis spectrum, the Italians in 1943 were assumed, correctly, to not be universally committed to a fight to the finish against an Allied invasion. To the contrary, an invasion was considered likely to cause Italy to capitulate. The invaders expectations regarding popular resolve were a significant factor in the decision to invade. Invaders can also make mistakes regarding popular resolve, usually as a result of wishful thinking. The British in 1776 sent their troops into New Jersey, expecting the civil population to welcome them. This turned out to be less true than they hoped, and the locals soon grew unhappy and became increasingly uncooperative. The American pipe-dream about what would happen when the US military had destroyed the civil and military power of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, with literally no coherent plan of what to do to maintain order or stand up a civil government, is perhaps the most egregious example of an invader's self-delusion in military history. As it turned out, the Iraqi population had lots of resolution to attack the invaders, even to the point of suicide.

The Taiwanese would be well advised to (1) actively seek to increase the popular resolve to resist, (2) demonstrate that resolve with visible demonstrations of preparation to resist, (3) communicate that resolve to the PRC, their own people, and the world, as a deterrent factor in any confrontation.

And I second lcrees — mines, lots of them, and a mix of platforms to deliver them.

Mines causing “huge damage when the conflict ends” is a feature not a bug for Taiwan. A willingness to use large numbers of mines would show that for Taiwan there is no “after the war” if they lose. It would signal that they put survival and victory, or in the alternative, inflicting maximum long-term damage on the attacker, above all other considerations. Taiwan would strengthen deterrence if it signaled that it had massive numbers of mines and was going to indiscriminately strew them everywhere that a Chinese ship or boat can float. It would be something like Charles DeGaulle‘s comment about the French nuclear deterrent. When he was told that the Soviet union could completely destroyed friends, but that France could not similarly destroy the Soviet union, he said, we will tear an arm off. Taiwan sending a signal to the Chinese that in the event they are destroyed they will do maximum damage to China in the process, will enhance deterrence.

You portray the rural Han conscript as a weak reed. That's the people who obeyed Mao through lots of fighting against Nationalists and some against Japanese. Isn't it much more fitting of Taiwanese? If Taiwanese get convinced they have sufficient defenses (contrary to current defeatism), aren't they likely to conclude "K, can continue democratically listening to K-pop [instead of having children or preparing to fight]" ?

@J– All of the things listed in the article are things PLA sources say are real. Or at least, things they tell their soldiers they need to be prepared to face. Much depends on how much you trust their own estimation of their enemy I suppose.

@Lexington- Concur on all points.

@Silva–No, that's the great-grandchildren of those people. I can't say I am terribly impressed with the ROC rank and file.. but then again, I am not terribly impressed with the PRC rank and file either. If I had to compare either to, say, Korean men at arms, I don't think there is much a comparison… at this point. Things may change in the future.