Invading Taiwan would be a high-risk gamble for President Xi

Logistics challenges could sink China’s operation before the fleet left home ports

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China has repeatedly rattled its sharp-edged saber at Taiwan, a democratic island that Beijing is determined to reunite with the motherland at any cost.

This has come in the form of overflights into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, as well as invasion exercises by sea and air. There has also been a military build-up of unprecedented proportions with the aim of retaking what China considers a breakaway province.

But as American, British and Canadian troops found out on D-Day in 1944, invading a fortified coastline is one thing, taking it and holding it, quite another.

Taiwan’s terrain is distinctly different and more challenging than France’s Normandy. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would also have to factor in the United States military.

Still this week, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry issued a report, which concluded that a Chinese invasion with troops landing and seizing ports and airports would be difficult to achieve due to logistical problems, Al Jazeera reported.

In the study to legislators, the ministry said China’s transport capacity was limited, and it would not be able to land all its forces in one go.

Limited capacity

It would have to rely on “non-standard” roll-on, roll-off ships that would need to use port facilities and transport aircraft that would need airports, the report said.

“[Taiwan’s] military strongly defends ports and airports, and they will not be easy to occupy in a short time. Landing operations will face extremely high risks,” the ministry said in the white paper, a copy of which was reviewed by the Reuters news agency.

Any PLA troop-laden assault ships would need to be resupplied with weapons, food and medicines across the Taiwan Strait.

“The nation’s military has the advantage of the Taiwan Strait being a natural moat and can use joint intercept operations, cutting off the Communist military’s supplies, severely reducing the combat effectiveness and endurance of the landing forces,” the report stated.

The PLA Air Force has increased exercises around Taiwan. Photo: File

China would also need to keep some of its forces in reserve to prevent any foreign intervention, the ministry pointed out.

“US and Japanese military bases are close to Taiwan, and any Chinese Communist attack would be monitored, plus it would need to reserve forces to prevent foreign intervention. It is difficult to concentrate all its efforts on fighting with Taiwan,” the ministry said.

The study was made public just 24 hours before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged that Washington would push back against Beijing’s “aggressive actions” in the South China Sea. Up to US$3 trillion of trade traverses through this maritime superhighway with China claiming vast areas of the 1.3 million-square-mile waters as its “sovereign territory.”

“We’ll work with our allies and partners to defend the rules-based order that we’ve built together over decades to ensure the region remains open and accessible,” he said in a speech reported by the Associated Press in Jakarta on Tuesday during a trip to Indonesia. 

“Let me be clear: the goal of defending the rules-based order is not to keep any country down. Rather, it’s to protect the right of all countries to choose their own path, free from coercion and intimidation,” Blinken added before visits to Malaysia and Thailand later this week.

Escalating tension

His trip could not be more timely with escalating tension between Taipei and Beijing. There is a growing concern that Chinese President Xi Jinping might resort to force to take the island after his crackdown in Hong Kong and the PLA Navy’s militarization of the South China Sea.

But experts believe that China could use other means to bring Taiwan to its knees. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in October that Xi “does not need to use force” in order to achieve its desired “reunification” with Taiwan, CNBC reported.

“China [has] a powerful economy in terms of purchasing parity. By increasing its economic potential, China is capable of implementing its national objectives. I do not see any threats,” Putin said, according to a translation.

But Taiwan is taking no chances. President Tsai Ing-wen has rolled out a military modernization program. The government plans to spend an extra T$240 billion (US$8.66 billion) during the next five years, Most of the money will be spent on missiles and warships.

PLA soldiers take part in a battle drill. Photo: Courtesy of Xinhua

Just months ago, Tsai made a rare public acknowledgment confirming that American troops had been training with the Taiwanese military.

President Joe Biden’s administration has sent more US forces to the island in the past few months, according to US Department of Defense data. There are nearly 40 troops on the embattled island to protect the de facto US embassy and train Taiwanese forces, Foreign Policy reported.

While some are worried that US troops in Taiwan could commit the Pentagon to defend the island, others are unconvinced that Washington is serious about getting directly involved.

“The reality is that the American people would not and do not support going to war with China over Taiwan,” said Alexander McCoy, a progressive foreign-policy organizer and one of the co-founders of Common Defense, a veterans group.

“That’s just the basic reality. So these members of Congress that are being hawkish, they’re bluffing with their weak poker hand face-up on the table, and they’re using our lives as chips, not to mention the lives of all the people who would be caught in the crossfire,” he added.

Invasion scenario

Yet former US Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work has argued that once an invasion scenario begins to unfold, the US needs the ability to sink or disable hundreds of Chinese ships and target the PLA Air Force in Taiwan’s airspace.

In the meantime, Taipei is beefing up its defenses. Last year, the US Department of Defense announced that Taiwan would buy 66 new American-made F-16 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin – one of the biggest arms sales to the island in years.

They will be the latest, upgraded models of the single-engine aircraft which first flew with the US Air Force in the late 1970s. They will join about 140 others already in the Taiwanese fleet, CNN reported.

The US State Department also approved a request by Taipei to upgrade its Patriot surface-to-air missiles at an estimated cost of US$620 million, according to Taiwan’s government-run Central News Agency.