Geopolitics in the Taiwan Strait

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Title: The Geopolitics in the Taiwan Strait – A military Perspective

I Introduction

II Military Dimensions: Factors and Options in the Geopolitical Triangle ROC – PRC – USA
II.I State of the Military
II.II Worst Case Scenario
A) Missile Attack
B) Air Combat
C) Maritime Control
II.III Missile Threat

III U.S. Involvement

IV The Likeliness of War

V Summary & Conclusion



I. Introduction

After the end of the Cold War the Taiwan Strait is one of the remaining global ‘hot spots’. In fact, the Taiwan Strait “remains the locus of one of the most dangerous military confrontations in the world”[1], a fact that was underlined through the showdown during 1996 missile crisis when the U.S. send two carrier battle groups into the region in order to deter a hawkish mainland Chinese towards the Republic of China, Taiwan.[2]

As we have evaluated during the seminar, the strategic focus of the United States has since the end of the Cold War clearly shifted from Europe to Asia (Brezinski: Die einzige Weltmacht, 1997). I have chosen to look more closely at the geopolitics of the Taiwanese-Chinese conflict theater and especially the involvement of another regional hegemon in East Asia, the United States of America. For 30 years (1949-1979) the United States was Taiwan’s principal patron tied in a mutual defense treaty that secured the tiny island republic’s stand against the highly populated communist mainland and emerging economic powerhouse.[3] In 1979 the U.S. officially recognizes the People’s Republic of China which terminated official relations to Taipei and the mutual defense treaty.[4] Yet, the same year, U.S. Congress’ Taiwan Relation Act ties Taiwan’s defense concerns close to American interest again. From then on, Washington is balancing its responsibility and security concerns for ROC on the one side and an interest in closer and stabilized relations with PRC.

The Taiwan question – reunification, independence or status quo – bears not only geopolitical ramifications, but also has a cultural, economical, and political dimension. Yet, I will try to strap down this question to the military aspects of geopolitics.

The worst case conflict scenario is no doubt the military conflict. At this state, a declaration of independence by Taiwan would be the equivalent of a declaration of war. Thus, as long as Beijing will not renounce its right to use force on unification respectively separation issues, it is crucial for Taiwan’s defense and its independence to be realistically concerned with military scenarios and preparedness. The levels of military engagement range from a variety of non-lethal levers, such as information warfare, covert operations, and psychological warfare to serious combat hostilities from blockades, missile strikes, to a full-scale invasion.[5] The following pages will describe the military dimension of the confrontation between China and Taiwan and the parameter of a likely U.S. involvement.

I will begin with describing the current state of the ROC and PRC military and continue to consider different conflict scenarios, with a focus on the worst case scenario – the Chinese invasion of the island. After that, will look at the missile threat and the issue of proliferation and finally I conclude with summary of policy options.

II. Military Dimension – Factors and Options in the Geopolitical Triangle

II.I State of the Military

In 1978 the Chinese military (PLA) launched a general modernization and professionalisation process to improve fighting skills and update combat equipment.[6] Despite these efforts, the PLA is relatively backward compared to the modern military of Japan, South Korea or Taiwan. Most PLA forces are obsolete, with weak logistic support; they are large, characterized by low technology, low pay and poor living conditions for the majority of ground troops. The Chinese military employs 2.27 million personnel in over 58 army divisions, operates 2,400 combat aircraft, 63 principal surface combatants, and 69 attack submarines[7].[8] The plain numbers have to be reconsidered with the fact in mind that of all combat airplanes only a small fraction are modern 4th-generation fighters[9] ; Chinese warships and submarines may compare in seize and class to Russian and American counterparts but they cannot match the modern combat and engineering systems. Modernization efforts have not had the anticipated impact due to, according to US intelligence agencies, “massive, resource, technology and management deficiencies”[10]. Most of Chinas military forces are tied to homeland defense. Thus Air Force and Navy lack the resources that are available for the Army that makes up 75 percent of the PLA.

On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, the ROC Army employs about 200.000 troops and has around 1.5 million reserves at their disposal.[11] The ROCAF counts a total of 394 modern aircrafts, including 162 F-16A/B fighters and 54 Mirage 2000 fighters (other sources attribute 431 modern 4th-generation aircrafts to Taiwan’s Air Force)[12]. Taiwan’s Navy operates 32 major surface combatants. Comparing these numbers with the Chinese side, one needs to consider that the bulk of ROC military systems are modern, partly state-of-the-art, American exports.

A significant military imbalance across the Strait constitutes China’s Strategic Missile Force (SMF) and nuclear capability.[13]

II.II Worst Case Scenario

The most likely forms of Chinese use of force are coercive scenarios such as limited missile strikes or naval blockades[14]. Yet, I will focus on the worst case scenario for Taiwanese and its independence: a full-scale Chinese invasion. I chose to analyze the more unlikely[15] scenario because a) it brings about the most severe implications for all participants, b) it alters the geopolitical situation in the whole region significantly, and c) the probability of an invasion and the capability of successfully defending an invasion determine the military balance between the two countries and furthermore shapes American proliferation policy. An invasion would most probably begin with a (1) “barrage of Chinese missiles raining down on key military targets[16] on the island”[17], followed by (2) the battle for the very crucial air superiority above the Strait and (3) maritime control on the strait again followed by (4) the actual invasion.

(A) Missile Attack

As long as there is no Theater Missile Defense (TDM) developed, the currently 330 till 500[18] short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) with a destruction force of about 450[19] and more tons of high explosives pose a significant threat to Taiwan’s military. “While this is a nontrivial amount of destructive power, it is far from clear that it would be sufficient to materially devastate Taiwan’s military, economy, or society.”[20] Deterrence by means of threatening a counter-strike is no option for Taiwan since it has no missiles of its own. There is disagreement about the accuracy of the Chinese M-9 and M-11 missiles.[21] Taking a less accurate missile version into consideration, the missiles are of little military value. But even when one calculates conservatively (more accurate missiles) it would still take several missiles to for example to shut down a runway. Nevertheless, a recent Department of Defense report concluded that by 2005, the PLA likely will have deployed two types of SRBMs and a first-generation Land-Attack Cruise Missile (LACM), that, with the advancement of GPS-supported guidance, could hit critical facilities, such as key airfields and C2I nodes, with a higher probability. RAND projects that China could use for these matters/objectives about 80 DF-15 missiles with GPS (range 600 km) and another 80 DF-15 missiles without GPS.[22]

In short, at this state it is less likely that PRC SRBM cause high military damage.[23] Yet, there is a probability that SRBM have the ability to strike accurately. This scenario would render the outcome of conflict significantly. In the near future, PRC SRBM probably will be more accurate and will be available in even larger numbers.


[1] Shlapak, David A.; Orletsky, David T.; Wilson, Barry A.: Dire Strait? - Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Confrontation and Options for U.S. Policy. RAND, 2000.p.iii.

[2] Yet the CVBGs did not enter he Taiwan Strait.

[3] Land area: ROC = 13,969 sq mi; PRC = 3,706,566 sq mi / Population: ROC = 22.28 million; PRC = 1.26 billion (ROC Yearbook. 2004).

[4] Diplomatic relations were sustained at a lower level through the American Institute in Taiwan.

[5] ICG Asia Report N°54, p.ii.

[6] The military modernization campaign was a joint effort along with modernizing the economic and agricultural sector. (Ibenda, p.3-4)

[7] Including two Russian Sovremenny class destroyer (ICG II p.6) and four Kilo -class submarines (Ibenda p.7).

[8] Just as a comparison: the US employs 1.41 million personnel in ten army divisions and operates about 6.000 combat aircrafts,129 principal surface combatants (including twelve aircraft carriers) and 54 attack submarines (Ibenda p.4).

[9] SU-27 and SU-30 fighters imported from Russia.

[10] ICG Asia Report N°54, p.5.

[11] Policy Briefing CATO Institute No.74. The China-Taiwan Military Balance. Ivan Eland. 2003. p.4.

[12] ICG Asia Report N°54, p.26.

[13] Due to its significance, I decided to address this issue separately in section II.III below.

[14] RAND. “Dire Strait? Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan. p.7.

[15] Some analysts argue that an invasion is from a historical perspective a very likely form of conflict: “Massive surprise attacks have distinguished PLA opening campaigns in the past, such as in Korea in [1950], India in 1962, and Vietnam in 1979. More importantly, [Chinese] military planners believe that the gulf in cross-strait relations would be so wide by the time the leadership resorted to force that limited attacks would be futile in dissuading Taiwan […] and that the only viable option would be to invade the island.” (Cheung, 1997, p. 57.).

[16] Such as command and control (C2) centers, air-defense sites, and air bases.

[17] RAND. p.9.

[18] The numbers differ in different sources: ICG Asia Report N°54 (2003) lists 335 offensive SRBM (p.26), while U.S. and Taiwanese officials state that China has deployed at least 496 SRBM (Tim Johnson, “Chinese Ad Missiles Aimed at Taiwan, Causing U.S. Concern.” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 16, 2004.).

[19] RAND p.59.

[20] RAND p.59.

[21] The ‘Circular Error Probable’ (CEP) ranges from 50 meters to 300 meters, meaning at least 50 percent of the fired missiles will hit the target within a radius of 50 meters or 300 meters.

[22] RAND. p.15.

[23] The economical and psychological damage of ‘city busting’ is discussed in section II.III.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Geopolitics in the Taiwan Strait
University of Potsdam
Security Studies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
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This seminar paper introduces the military dimension to the geopolitical triangle China - Taiwan - USA.
Geopolitics, Taiwan, Strait, Security, Studies
Quote paper
Karl Lemberg (Author), 2004, Geopolitics in the Taiwan Strait, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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