Taiwan: Deterring, Denying, and Defending
Understanding Taiwan’s ability to defend itself against mainland China is becoming increasingly significant as the likelihood of a cross-straits conflict rises. Taipei is unlikely to unify with China on Beijing’s terms, and Beijing is unlikely to relinquish its claim that Taiwan falls under its domestic jurisdiction. Even a confrontation over Taiwan that falls short of war will have regional and global ramifications.
Please note: below you find the executive summary of the report. For the full report, including footnotes and graphics, please download the pdf here.
This report assesses trends in Taiwan’s defense policy and force posture. The Republic of China’s (ROC, Taiwan) armed forces’ primary aim is to deter the People’s Republic of China (PRC, China) from military aggression against Taiwan’s main island and offshore islands. In the event of such a contingency, the ROC armed forces aim to deny the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) the ability to establish mainland China’s rule over Taipei. But Beijing is ratcheting up military pressure on Taiwan to coerce it to accept “peaceful reunification” on Chinese terms. This includes record-setting air incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in October 2021 and the regular holding of military drills and amphibious landings on small islands near Taiwan. As well, in response to the 2022 visit of the US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan, China held its largest live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait with the firing of ballistic missiles and the deployment of warships and fighter jets. The exercises simulated a blockade of Taiwan and infringed on Taiwan’s territorial waters. Such scenarios have demonstrated the vulnerabilities in Taiwan’s defense, including a haphazard force structure, lack of readiness, and dependence on US military and diplomatic support.
The United States has recently stated that it would prevent changes to the cross-strait status quo by bolstering Taiwan’s defense against China. As a result, America’s Indo-Pacific allies and partners are considering how to contribute to Taiwan’s defense and deterrence against China. Also, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reminded Taiwan and other countries in the Indo-Pacific that the possibility of war in the Taiwan Strait is very real. The willingness with which Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, and Singapore responded to the Biden administration’s call to sanction Russia and provide assistance to Ukraine suggests that the Indo-Pacific would be looking to Europe for similar support should China provoke conflict. Today, neither Europe nor the Indo-Pacific can continue to hold the notion that “far-away” conflicts will not have political, economic, or strategic repercussions on their own neighborhood.
This report begins by tracing Taiwan’s evolution to a de facto sovereign nation with a unique geopolitical and geostrategic status. It then looks at the country’s military capabilities and modernization plans and examines whether Taipei can meet its objectives to deter and deny China from using force to impose sovereign control over Taiwan. Taiwan is investing in missile defense and asymmetric weapons to signal to China that it would incur high costs if it decided to invade. Should such an invasion occur, Taiwan’s armed forces must meet certain requirements to defend its littoral coast and offshore islands. For China to invade Taiwan, PLA forces would have to dominate the air and sea approaches to Taiwan, land amphibious forces, and deliver sufficient manpower, weapons, logistics, and supplies to achieve control over Taiwan. Such an effort would also mean occupying Taiwan’s offshore islands which could otherwise be used to cut off the PLA from resupply and support from the mainland. Due to their geostrategic position, the islands also serve as an early warning system for Taiwan, the United States, and its allies.
As part of its deterrence effort, Taipei is also attempting to diversify its security partnerships, to increase its standing in the international system, and to raise awareness of the repercussions if China invaded Taiwan. As Taiwan remains reliant on the United States for arms and informal security guarantees under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and the 1982 Six Assurances, it is focusing on enhancing its partnerships with the United States’ allies in the region. Primarily, these are Japan and Australia, who have a shared interest in countering China in the East and South China Sea. Taipei may also look to European defense manufacturing nations such as France and Germany to obtain technological and military know-how for its indigenous defense industry.
This report continues with an analysis of the regional and international implications of a possible loss of Taiwan’s independence. The United States and its allies have already begun to adjust doctrine and force posture. Regional stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific are also discussing what they can learn from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to strategically support Taiwan in the event of a conflict with China. This has heated up the debate within Taiwan – as well as between Taipei and Washington – of how ROC armed forces can succeed in defending Taiwan, deterring China from a unilateral attack, and denying China control over Taiwan and its offshore islands.
Moreover, bolstering Taiwan’s defense in the short to medium term would make a lasting contribution to deterring China from aggression and adventurism. Therefore, this report concludes with a set of policy recommendations to hold substantive ex - changes between Taiwan, Europe, and the IndoPacific. The recommendations are based on the assumption that war over Taiwan is not a certainty. Key recommendations include establishing an official dialogue between Taiwanese and Europe - an lawmakers to exchange knowledge on countering foreign interference and disinformation. NATO and Taiwan should set up a working group to raise awareness of the implications to both the IndoPacific and Europe of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. This could include a wargame about the consequences of a Taiwan Strait conflict on Russia’s calculations in Europe and NATO deployments. Lastly, it would be useful for Taiwan, other Indo-Pacific nations, and European countries to share insights on improving societal resilience and civil defense capabilities. Such joint efforts would signal to China the willingness to punish actions that change the cross-straits status quo. This could contribute to deterring China from conducting a unilateral attack on Taiwan and its territories and might decrease the likelihood of conflict.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
The DGAP’s project on “Risk Reduction and Arms Control in the Asia-Pacific Region” aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of the security dynamics in the In-do-Pacific and East Asia, with a focus on important players including Australia, China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States. The objective is to foster understanding in Germany and Europe of the risk of conflict in the Asia-Pacific and suggest possible steps to mitigate this risk and safeguard stability in and beyond the region. The project starts with taking stock of security developments in the Asia-Pacific. As part of a series, the following report provides a detailed review of Japan’s security and defense policies and partnerships in the current geopolitical context. It concludes with a list of policy recommendations to stakeholders and policymakers.
This report does not contain new empirical findings but assesses primary documents and compiles existing studies, primarily from expert sources. It is tailored for a European audience.
This report was published on September 19, 2020 in the project “Risk Reduction and Arms Control in the Asia-Pacific Region”.