Gordon Arthur / Taipei

“The prospect of the USA coming to Taiwan’s aid has become increasingly difficult, and I think we’re now close to the point where the United States might decide not to,” warned Doctor Chong-Pin Lin, Taiwan’s deputy defence minister from 2003-04. He explained this was due to several factors, including economic interdependence between the two great powers, and China’s area access-denial capability. Cyberwarfare and China’s ability to shoot down satellites are also relevant points. “Area access denial relies on the pillar of ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles]. Beijing doesn’t talk about it but Washington understands…And China has a survivable second-strike capability – undersea and other launchers that are mobile – so that it’s hard to knock them out.”

Dr. Lin spoke at length to Defence Review Asia about Taiwan’s increasingly difficult military situation. Considered one of the island’s foremost strategic thinkers, Lin is espousing a new approach for the Republic of China (ROC). “I’ve been suggesting that it’s futile to deal with a possible PLA [People’s Liberation Army] invasion head on, or with like means, because of their quantitative superiority. Now they’re overtaking us qualitatively so we have to rely on other means.” Lin elaborated that the PLA has been imitating US forces, the most advanced in the world. “So we should emulate a force that’s given the US headaches – mainly Iraqi guerrilla forces.” He submits that Taiwan should give real substance to the term ‘asymmetric warfare’.

He provided further details of his proposed strategy: “In other words, when the PLA is planning to invade us, we don’t send all our fighters and surface ships at once because they’d all be knocked out. We lure the enemy in and don’t let them end the war.” China’s military standpoint is that the first combat against Taiwan must be decisive, for they do not want protracted warfare. They will wish to come in and end the campaign decisively with a swift conquest. “Therefore, if we deny Beijing a quick victory and display our capabilities annually, then Beijing – when in a situation of pondering whether to invade Taiwan – will hesitate…It’s another type of approach, a counterstrategy. In other words, it strikes at the heart of enemy strategic planning.” The prospect of a long and messy conquest would hence become the strongest form of deterrence to Chinese aggression.

Compared to Iraq, for example, Taiwan has a number of advantages for conducting this kind of insurgency warfare. The island has major urban centres scattered from its northern to southern tips, while its mountainous terrain crisscrossed by rivers is not conducive to the easy movement of heavy armoured forces. In order for this kind of defence to occur, “We need to have special operations forces training volunteers and retired reservists…We’re looking for some hardcore, really patriotic elements in society,” pointed out Dr. Lin, who is a professor of the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University in Taipei. These forces would be self-sufficient, able to conduct independent harassment of the enemy in networks of small cells.

Perhaps the motivation to fight is one of Taiwan’s greatest problems though. A recent survey by the Taiwanese magazine CommonWealth demonstrated a very real problem for the military. After sampling students aged 12-17, the study found only 38.7% could imagine themselves or a family member fighting against China if war broke out. A total of 44.3% said they would not fight. The Ministry of National Defence (MND) plans to abolish the current eleven-month-long conscription period and achieve an all-volunteer force by the end of 2014. Simultaneously, the current 270,000 personnel in the ROC Armed Forces will reduce to 210,000. However, difficulties in attracting new recruits and an ageing population are certain to derail such an ambitious policy. To illustrate the impediments the MND faces, there were 123,465 men of draft age available in 2010, but this figure will dwindle dramatically to 75,338 by 2025. This means, for the foreseeable future, Taiwan’s military will remain dependent on high numbers of largely unmotivated draftees.

Apart from advocating that Taiwan enhance its ability to wage guerrilla-type warfare, Dr. Lin still sees an important place for high-tech weaponry such as F-16 fighters, missiles and warships in the ROC Armed Forces. “I wouldn’t abandon them altogether. Keep some for several purposes. If you don’t have any high-tech weapons, when we go to the political negotiation table then we’d be dictated to 100%. The proportion of high-tech, middle-tech and low-tech [equipment] should be planned out. Don’t put all the eggs in one basket.” However, the current Taiwanese economy places constraints on military spending. “In terms of deterring a possible PLA invasion, spending isn’t enough. But what can we do?” Current defence expenditure accounts for just 2.2% of GDP, well below the 3% pledged by President Ma Ying-jeou in his election campaign. Nevertheless, after defence spending declined successively over the past three years, the draft budget for 2012 will increase funding levels to US $10.45 billion.

When asked about the prospect of Taiwan obtaining new diesel-electric submarines, Dr. Lin conceded: “Looking at the whole thing objectively it’s so difficult, because it not only involves the resolve of Washington, it also involves the willingness of other countries…It’s difficult, nearly impossible.” With Europe’s embroiled in its present financial crisis, the continent’s dependence on China becomes even more critical. Such a political and financial climate will make Europe even less likely to sell weaponry to Taiwan.

Defence Review Asia asked Lin, who has also served as a vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council and a senior advisor to the National Security Council, about possible invasion scenarios. He admitted Taiwan surviving 30 days after a PLA invasion would be at the very “upper bounds” of estimates, while other sources talk of scores of hours. “Beijing wouldn’t come in if it’s not confident of a quick victory. The scenario I’ve been envisioning is this. China has ICBMs – land-launched or submarine-launched – and the very position of these weapons would make Washington hesitant. While Washington keeps on deliberating, the PLA comes in fast to create a state of paralysis and end the war. That’s Beijing’s best scenario. The fifth column is already here and all electronic communications are broken. No one gets killed, no bloodshed, no economic infrastructure destruction. Suddenly there’s an announcement on the radio and TV that the war’s ended. If they don’t have that confidence, Beijing will not move in.” This is the most likely scenario for an invasion according to the author of China’s Nuclear Weapons Strategy.

The possibility of a Normandy-style amphibious invasion is “long gone”, as is the capture of islands in the Taiwan Strait or a naval blockade. The principal reason for this is that these scenarios would inevitably adversely affect regional sea lanes and involve international forces. As war dragged on, the situation would get harder for Beijing to handle both internationally and domestically. In its National Defence Report issued in mid-2011, Taiwan acknowledged China already has the capacity to blockade and seize offshore islands. However, doing so would not achieve China’s primary goal of reunifying Taiwan. Instead, Lin spoke candidly of more suitable tactics such as fifth columnists, cyberwarfare and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons in any PLA invasion. Such EMP devices could easily be dumped outside a headquarters in a terrorist’s backpack or via precision missile strikes. He explained that the scenario of a strategic beach landing would only come later once victory was assured.

When asked about the commissioning of the ex-Soviet Varyag aircraft carrier and the establishment of China’s future carrier fleet, Lin stated: “I don’t think that’s meant for Taiwan…They’re meant for other places, not for us. Probably it’s for Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, except for their psychological effect at the negotiating table where it puts a lot of burden on our representatives.”


Every 10 October, on opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the ROC celebrate the outbreak of the Wuchang Uprising in 1911. It was this signal event that eventually led to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of a Chinese republic. On this anniversary, both China and Taiwan honour the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, the republic’s founding father. Taipei hosted a significant military parade on Double Ten Day (as 10 October is known) in 2011, and Defence Review Asia was in attendance.

Taiwan’s last military parade occurred in 2007, while the one prior to that took place in 1991, which emphasises the fact that the island holds such parades only intermittently. This most recent event was significant in that it marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the ROC. Presided over by Ma Ying-jeou in front of the Presidential Office in downtown Taipei, the parade featured a total of 71 aircraft, 168 vehicles and 1,082 military personnel. The ROC Army (ROCA), Air Force (ROCAF), Military Police (ROCMP), Navy (ROCN) and Marine Corps were all represented.

Since assuming power after the March 2008 election, President Ma and his Kuomintang (KMT) Party have carefully sought to avoid antagonising Taiwan’s much larger neighbour, and thus the parade especially emphasised homeland defence and the military’s disaster relief capability. Taiwan is regularly struck by natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes; Typhoon Morakot in 2009, for example, caused 789 fatalities in the island’s deadliest typhoon. Thus there were a number of combat engineer assets in the pageant, including M3 Amphibious Rigs and wheeled excavators. “What we wanted to show in the military display is its ability to protect the homeland, rather than to engage in war,” stated Wang Jin-pyng, chairman of the National Day Ceremony Organising Committee. Of interest, former US secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, was in attendance as a dignitary.



Previous articleSecurity concerns in Afghanistan.
Next articleThe importance of air power


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here