Beijing’s heavy handed and at times threatening behaviour towards neighbouring countries seems to be getting worse. Taiwan is reporting a 20% increase in the number of times it has had to scramble fighters to deal with Chinese intrusions into its airspace compared with the same period in 2019. This represents a total of more than 4,000 sorties so far – and a similar pattern has emerged for encounters between naval vessels.
Just for the period from September 16 to October 4, PLA aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) and/or crossed the Taiwan Strait median line 11 times. In just one of these episodes, 18 Chinese aircraft were involved, including H-6 nuclear capable strategic bombers. All were intercepted and turned back – but the pattern is alarming.
Speaking in Taipei on Monday, the country’s Vice Minister of National Defense for Armaments, General Guang-Chung Chang said:
“Those provocative actions aimed to intimidate Taiwan and attempted to create new routines out of gradual deviation from past practices to compress Taiwan’s defense depth. The Chinese military has also been training itself for force-on-force conflict scenario, joint landing operations, and blue-water missions to step up realistic training against Taiwan.
“They have also intensified military coercion against Taiwan and used measures of psychological warfare and infiltrating propaganda to create divisions in Taiwan. The security situation of Taiwan has therefore become even more difficult.
“Moreover, the Chinese Navy’s long-distance training has gone beyond the second island chain. With higher frequency and extended range of navigation, the Chinese Navy is trying to enhance their capabilities to operate beyond the second island chain. China is also militarizing island reefs in the South China Sea and attempting to expand the control over critical waterways including the Taiwan Strait and Bashi Channel.”
Commenting on the current intimidating behaviour of China, Mr James Moriarty, the head of the American Institute in Taiwan – the de facto US Embassy – said:
“Forty-one years ago the Taiwan Relations Act underscored that the United States considers the security of Taiwan central to the security of the broader Indo-Pacific region. Thus, stable cross-Straits relations are essential to maintaining regional stability. That has not changed. Recent US public speeches and testimony, however, have stressed that the increasing threat posed by Beijing requires increasingly close cooperation between the US and Taiwan to maintain the security of Taiwan and the stability of the entire region.”
This is a blunt and simple message to Beijing: the harder you push, the more the US will do to support Taiwan. In other words, if you want even more US weapons to be sold to Taiwan and the security relationship to be further strengthened, just keep going with your current threatening behaviour. Whether President Xi will listen is anyone’s guess – but clearly Washington is in no mood to back down.
General Chang explained that Taiwan’s Defense budget for 2020 is US $11.388 billion, which is a 3.2% increase over the previous year of $11.041 billion. For reasons that are opaque, the Government is funding the purchase of F-16V fighters separately – and when that is included the budget jumps to $13.43 billion. However, there is also something called the revolving fund and when that is included the 2020 spend comes to a total of $14.706 billion. By comparison, heavily armed, highly capable and ultra-modern Singapore spends US $10.77 billion, which puts Taiwan’s budget in regional context.
According to General Chang, for 2021 the military spend will increase over this year’s by 5.4%. Taiwan’s spending compared with that of the People’s Republic of China remains modest. Officially, Beijing spends around US $178 billion on defence – but analysts such as the Stockholm Institute for Peace Research put it much higher, perhaps around the $260 billion mark.
Despite this difference in scale, Taiwan has the advantage of only needing to prepare for a defensive war against a cross-straits invasion, with General Chang clear on the three main tasks: 1) preserving and protecting Taiwan’s forces; 2) fighting a decisive battle in the littoral zone; and finally if necessary 3) destruction of the enemy on the invasion beach. Reduced to such clarity, the weapons the country already has and is planning to acquire are well suited to these missions.
General Chang also touched on some other principles being followed by Taiwan, such as the importance of asymmetric warfare – which includes things such as submarines, where a small number of these can inflict ruinous losses on an opponent. Speaking of which, construction of the first of class of the country’s indigenous submarines is scheduled to have started this year. Other priorities for this year and next are:
- The continuing modernisation of the country’s air defence system;
- A new Army C4ISR system;
- New LPDs for the navy – presumably to ferry forces to surrounding small islands;
- A fast mine layer;
- Mobile missile launchers – air-to-air and air-to-surface;
- Mobile long range radars;
- UAVs, particularly for surveillance;
- An indigenous jet trainer / light attack aircraft;
- Cyber warfare defensive systems.
General Chang explained Taiwan’s approach:
“Taiwan has no intention to be in an arms race with the enemy. The development of innovative and asymmetric capabilities is aimed at deterring the enemy from invading Taiwan. We are developing systems that are small, numerous, smart, stealthy, fast, mobile, low-cost, survivable, effective, easy to develop, maintain and preserve, and difficult to detect and counter.”
Like many other modern nations, Taiwan has a highly capable industry base that has been producing world-leading products for decades. In just one critical field – the manufacture of semiconductors – Taiwan makes a staggering 65% of the world’s total. This engineering expertise is relatively easy to translate into military capability with platforms become less important while electronics and software are increasingly critical to mission success.
Taiwan has been emphasising a system-of-systems approach for some time – and will look at further investments in local industry. Of course, this is making something of a virtue of necessity because few countries other than the US are prepared to face the threat of an economic boycott from China if they sell to Taiwan. A recent interesting development was a decision by France to supply an upgrade of a naval electronic warfare decoy system – but this is still the exception rather than the rule. General Chang explained the importance of local industry:
“To achieve the greatest national interest, we will prioritize acquiring indigenous systems and also procure foreign systems when necessary. Taiwan’s indigenous efforts currently centre on the three core areas of aerospace, shipbuilding, and information security.
“The on-going programs of indigenous warplanes and warships are not only driving the growth of tangible warfighting capabilities, but also creating positive impact on the defense industry by becoming a locomotive for cluster effect and massive job creation. They have also created momentum of economic growth and business opportunities for companies around the world.”
Taiwan is also expanding its reserve forces and making sure that their level of readiness is increased with a larger number of exercises planned.
No one likes a bully – and the more Beijing throws its weight around, the greater the amount of both regional and international pushback will be. As the level of distrust of China increases so too does the level of sympathy for Taiwan, which by most measures is a good international citizen. This explains why the US remains steadfast in its support for Taiwan – and that is something that crosses partisan lines. Whether Trump or Biden wins in November there is unlikely to be any policy change in this regard. Mr Moriarty explained:
“In other words, US policy on cross-Strait issues does not exist in a vacuum; the actions of the PRC, and the degree to which those actions reflect peaceful intent, will inevitably drive US policy. At the same time, the very core of the assurances is the continuing US support for the people on both sides of the Strait to resolve their differences peacefully. Unfortunately, the threat to Taiwan by the PRC has increased significantly in recent years.”