Taiwan's Response to China's Missile Buildup

Introduction

One of the most dangerous flash-points in East Asia lies in the Taiwan Strait, where tensions between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) could spark a major war or stimulate proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The PRC claims that Taiwan is an integral part of China, while pro-independence forces in Taiwan have become increasingly influential in recent years. Over the next five years, China's growing missile capabilities will be its most important means of exerting military leverage over Taiwan. China currently has 300-350 short- and medium-range missiles deployed opposite Taiwan in Fujian province. The PRC force of DF-11, DF-15, and DF-15A missiles is increasing by about 50 missiles per year.[1] This issue brief provides a systematic outline of Taiwan's potential military and political responses to a PRC missile attack. While not exhaustive, it provides a framework for further discussion of Taiwan's economic, political, and military responses to China's military modernization program.

Taiwan's Potential Responses

Taiwan's potential responses to the Chinese military threat include a range of military and political strategies. The majority of Taiwan's population supports maintaining the status quo for an indefinite period, but there are significant political divisions about whether independence or reunification should be Taiwan's ultimate goal.[2] Taiwan's leadership faces the challenge of developing and pursuing a security strategy that will maximize Taiwan's military and economic resources and make the most of Taiwan's unofficial relationship with the United States to prevent forced reunification on Chinese terms.[3] Varying perceptions of the nature and extent of the Chinese missile threat within Taiwan's military establishment and legislature have made it difficult for Taiwan to decide on an appropriate response. The following section explores Taiwan's military and political options in responding to the Chinese missile build-up.

Military Options

  • Harden Military Targets: Taiwan could make greater efforts to harden military targets, disperse its military assets, and develop rapid repair capabilities to minimize the impact of a Chinese missile attack. This would allow Taiwan to preserve its military forces and its ability to resist follow-on Chinese attacks. Given the inaccuracy of China's current missiles, hardening military targets is a relatively cost-effective and efficient means of defending against a PRC missile attack.
  • Strengthen Missile Defenses: Taiwan could rely on missile defenses to try to intercept incoming Chinese missiles before they hit their targets. However, Taiwan's current force of U.S.-built PAC-2 interceptors possesses only a limited capability against China's large missile force. Taiwan could seek to improve its current missile defenses by acquiring more capable radars and more PAC-2 interceptors, or by persuading the United States to sell it more capable missile defense systems, such as the PAC-3 or a future naval missile defense system mounted on an Aegis destroyer. The difficulty with the missile defense option is its high cost, unproven effectiveness, and Taiwan's uncertain access to more capable systems that the United States will deploy in the future.
  • Implement Civil Defense: Taiwan could resume educational campaigns that emphasize the role of bomb shelters and other forms of civil defense in protecting its civilian population from a Chinese missile attack. The goal would be to prevent China from using missile attacks to terrorize the Taiwan public and to force Taiwan's leaders to capitulate. Since this option relies on the psychological importance of maintaining morale and unity, even relatively ineffective civil defense measures might make significant contributions to reassuring the public. Missile defenses would complement this option.
  • Prepare Counterforce Attacks: Taiwan could use air or missile strikes to try to destroy China's missiles before they could be launched. This approach would be the most active means of confronting the PRC missile threat. However, the mobility of China's missile force and Taiwan's limited reconnaissance capabilities would make it extremely difficult to locate and destroy Chinese missile launchers. Taiwan's own missile forces have limited range, accuracy, and payload capacity.[4] If Taiwan pursued this option, it would need to develop ways to locate Chinese missiles in near real-time and to improve its missile and air strike capabilities.
  • Develop Deterrent Capabilities: Taiwan could try to develop the capability to inflict unacceptable losses and damage on China through military strikes of its own. This would require the ability to destroy military, economic, or symbolic targets such as major population centers, Shanghai's Pudong Tower, or even the Three Gorges Dam.[5] The effectiveness of a Taiwanese deterrent would depend on both the amount of damage Taiwan's military forces could deliver and on China's willingness to absorb damage in pursuit of reunification. However, the damage the Taiwan military could presently impose upon China using conventional means is likely to be insufficient to deter a PRC missile attack. Instead, Taiwan could pursue weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as a deterrent. However, reviving Taiwan's nuclear weapons program[6] would jeopardize the U.S.-Taiwan relationship and might incite a Chinese pre-emptive attack. Even if Taiwan successfully developed and deployed nuclear weapons, its own vulnerability to a nuclear attack would make it difficult to use a small arsenal to ensure its security.[7] Although Taiwan is suspected of possessing chemical and biological weapons (CBW) capabilities, it is unlikely to rely on these weapons as an overt deterrent due to the negative international response.

Political Options

  • Treat Chinese Threats as a Bluff: Taiwan could try to minimize the political influence of Chinese missiles by discounting the seriousness of Chinese threats. This option argues that the economic and diplomatic costs of an all-out military assault on Taiwan are too costly for China to bear. This approach depends on questionable and unproven assumptions about China's willingness to tolerate the status quo indefinitely and about China's limited ability to tolerate international opposition and opprobrium.
  • Rely on Ineffectiveness of PRC Missiles: Taiwan could rely on the assumption that the inaccuracy and small conventional payloads of China's current missile force will limit its ability to inflict significant damage on Taiwan. From this perspective, Chinese missiles pose a psychological rather than military threat. If correct, Taiwan could ride out an initial missile attack from the mainland and either engage in conventional military counter-attacks or wait for U.S. intervention. However, this assumption may not hold over the long term, as China deploys more missiles and works to improve the accuracy of its missile force.[8]
  • Use Vulnerability as an Asset: Taiwan could deliberately maintain a degree of vulnerability to encourage early intervention by the United States in a crisis situation. Rather than trying to develop independent capabilities to deter or respond to a Chinese attack, Taiwan would try to withstand an initial attack and wait for U.S. military forces to respond. Continuing reductions in Taiwan's defense budget and recent U.S. statements suggest this may be an important element of Taiwan's response to the Chinese military threat.[9] However, given changing administrations and foreign policy priorities, relying on U.S. intervention may not be a reliable strategy in the long term.

Assessing the Options

The military and political options outlined above reflect differing assumptions about the nature and degree of the Chinese missile threat. Debates over how to respond to the Chinese missile buildup are occurring in the context of a broader debate about Taiwan's overall defense strategy and policy toward mainland China. As China's military modernization proceeds over the next decade, providing for Taiwan's security is likely to become increasingly difficult. Within this debate, Taiwan has a choice of three broad military strategies for dealing with rising Chinese military power.

  • Rely on U.S. Intervention: This strategy requires military forces that demonstrate Taiwan's commitment to defend itself and that are strong enough to hold out until U.S. forces can arrive. The Taiwan Relations Act, numerous congressional resolutions, and presidential statements illustrate U.S. concern about Taiwan's security. However, the United States does not have a legal obligation to defend Taiwan. U.S. intervention will ultimately require sufficient U.S. political support to confront a nuclear-capable China on Taiwan's behalf.
  • Passive Defense: This strategy emphasizes strengthening Taiwan's defenses to limit China's ability to use military forces to coerce or attack Taiwan. This would require investing in air defenses, missile defenses, and naval forces that could defend against a Chinese blockade. A robust defense capability would be relatively expensive compared to other strategies, but would provide Taiwan with independent options in a military crisis.
  • Active Defense: This strategy emphasizes Taiwan's need to develop independent offensive and counter-force capabilities to ensure its security. The ability to destroy Chinese missiles, aircraft, and naval vessels and to impose significant damage on Chinese economic and military targets would deter China from making military threats or launching actual attacks. Some in the Taiwan military support this approach, which implies de-emphasizing missile defenses in favor of offensive strike capabilities.

Conclusion

The strategies and specific options outlined above illustrate a range of potential Taiwanese responses to China's military modernization and missile buildup. Divisions in Taiwan's military establishment and the fact that policy toward mainland China is a contentious domestic political issue make a clear-cut strategic choice unlikely in the near future. As a result, the outcome of Taiwan's defense debate may ultimately hinge on budget considerations rather than the strategic arguments discussed above. Even with growing concerns over China's military buildup, Taiwan's defense budget has declined steadily in recent years.[10] Lack of consensus and declining defense budgets may make an active defense strategy impractical. Despite stated concerns about the risks of excessive dependence on the United States, Taiwan's de facto defense strategy increasingly relies on U.S. intervention rather than its own independent defense capabilities. The question that remains is whether the United States will continue to support Taiwan despite the risk of a future confrontation with an increasingly powerful China.

Resources

  • NTI: Country Overview–Taiwan, www.nti.org.
  • Secretary of Defense, "Annual Report on the Military of the People's Republic of China," Report to Congress Pursuant to the FY2000 National Defense Authorization Act, 2002, www.defense.gov.
  • Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C., "2002 ROC National Defense Report," July 2002, www.mnd.gov.tw.
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, "China's National Defense in 2000," October 2000, www.fmprc.gov.cn.
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, "The Taiwan Question and Reunification of China," August 1993, www.fmprc.gov.cn.
  • Arms Control Association, "Worldwide Ballistic Missile Inventories," May 2002, www.armscontrol.org.
  • NTI: China Profiles Missile Page, www.nti.org.
  • Michael D. Swaine and Loren H. Runyon, "Ballistic Missiles and Missile Defense in Asia," The National Bureau of Asian Research, NBR Analysis, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2002, www.nbr.org.
  • Evan S. Medeiros, "Ballistic Missile Defense and Northeast Asian Security: Views from Washington, Beijing, and Tokyo," Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, April 2001, http://cns.miis.edu.
  • "Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) in Northeast Asia: An Annotated Chronology, 1990-Present," Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, July 2002, http://cns.miis.edu.
  • David Albright and Corey Gay, "Taiwan: Nuclear Nightmare Averted," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Vol. 54, No. 1, January/February 1998, www.bullatomsci.org.
  • Government Information Office, "Cross-Strait Relations: Public Opinion Polls," The Republic of China Yearbook—Taiwan 2002, July 2002, www.gio.gov.tw.
  • Phillip C. Saunders, "Project Strait Talk: Security and Stability in the Taiwan Strait," Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, July 27, 2000, http://cns.miis.edu.
  • Michael D. Swaine and James Mulvenon, "Taiwan's Foreign and Defense Policies: Features and Determinants," RAND, 2001, www.rand.org.
  • Michael O'Hanlon, "Can China Conquer Taiwan?" International Security, Fall 2000, www.brook.edu.
  • Damon Bristow, "The Military Balance Across the Taiwan Strait: Does China have the Edge?," Division of Strategic and International Studies, Taiwan Research Institute, June 3, 2000, www.dsis.org.tw.
  • Haley Chang, "Heritage Foundation Director Advises on Defense," Taiwan Security Research, January 12, 2002, www.taiwansecurity.org.
  • Colonel Douglas McCready, "Crisis Deterrence in the Taiwan Strait," USAWC Strategy, U.S. Army War College, www.fletcher.tufts.edu.
  • Taiwan Security Research, www.taiwansecurity.org.

Sources:

[1] China could also use longer-range DF-21 missiles against Taiwan. The term Dong Feng (East Wind) refers to China's domestic ballistic missile arsenal, while M designators refer to export versions of the same missiles. The DF-11/M-11 has a 300 km range with an 800 kg payload; the DF-15/M-9 has a 600 km range with a 500 kg payload. For more information on China's ballistic missile capabilities, please refer to the China Profile's Missile Page; Secretary of Defense, "Annual Report on the Military of the People's Republic of China," Report to Congress Pursuant to the FY2000 National Defense Authorization Act, 2002, www.defenselink.mil
[2] Government Information Office, "Cross-Strait Relations: Public Opinion Polls," The Republic of China Yearbook—Taiwan 2002, July 2002, www.gio.gov.tw; Michael D. Swaine and James Mulvenon, "Taiwan's Foreign and Defense Policies: Features and Determinants," RAND, 2001, www.rand.org.
[3] For the official policy, see the Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C., "2002 ROC National Defense Report," July 2002, www.mnd.gov.tw.
[4] Arms Control Association, "Worldwide Ballistic Missile Inventories," May 2002, www.armscontrol.org; Michael D. Swaine and Loren H. Runyon, "Ballistic Missiles and Missile Defense in Asia," The National Bureau of Asian Research, NBR Analysis, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2002, www.nbr.org.
[5] Gang Bian, "PLA Capable of Foiling Taiwan Attacks on Dam," Beijing China Daily (Hong Kong Edition), September 2, 2002, FBIS CPP20020902000039; "China Upgrades Defense of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong," China Times, August 14, 2002, http://news.chinatimes.com.
[6] David Albright and Corey Gay, "Taiwan: Nuclear Nightmare Averted," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Vol. 54, No. 1, January/February 1998, www.bullatomsci.org.
[7] Phillip C. Saunders, "Project Strait Talk: Security and Stability in the Taiwan Strait," Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, July 27, 2000, http://cns.miis.edu.
[8] Secretary of Defense, "Annual Report on the Military of the People's Republic of China," Report to Congress Pursuant to the FY2000 National Defense Authorization Act, 2002, www.defenselink.mil.
[9] "Bush vows 'whatever it takes' to defend Taiwan," CNN.com, April 25, 2001; Brian Hsu, "Budget for defense hits 8-year low," Taipei Times, September 4, 2002, www.taipeitimes.com.
[10] Brian Hsu, "Budget for defense hits 8-year low," Taipei Times, September 4, 2002, www.taipeitimes.com.

October 1, 2002
About

Lora Saalman and Phillip Saunders analyze Taiwan's potential military and political responses to a Chinese missile attack.

Authors
Lora Saalman

Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Phillip Saunders

Director, East Asia Nonproliferation Program, Center for Nonproliferation Studies

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.