Taiwan shores up its defences to meet a rising military threat from China

Nicola Smith
·6-min read
The US plans to sell Taiwan a $7bn arms package to defend itself against China - Sam Yeh/AFP
The US plans to sell Taiwan a $7bn arms package to defend itself against China - Sam Yeh/AFP

Taiwan may be vastly outmatched by China’s massive military machine but the island of 24 million is preparing to put up a good fight if Beijing ever moves forward with its threats to invade and occupy it. 

Over the past week, the US has signed off on $4.2 billion worth of arms sales to Taipei that will significantly boost its ability to resist an attack, including precision-guided SLAM-ER cruise missiles and up to 100 Harpoon Coastal Defence Systems that could shred invading forces. 

“They complicate China’s plans for invasion,” said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council. “They are all designed to complicate the loading of troops, the embarcation points as well as any effort by the Chinese to bring a large force across the Taiwan Strait,” he said. 

“There will be a big push to deliver them in the next two to three years. Coupled with Taiwan’s domestic missiles..it will give Taiwan the kind of deterrent capability that will really give the Chinese pause.”

Taiwan, which operates like any other nation with its own democratically-elected government, military and foreign policy, has for decades lived under hostile threats from the Chinese Communist Party, which lays territorial claims to the island even though it has never ruled there. 

A Taiwanese soldier stands guard during a drill  - Ann Wang/Reuters
A Taiwanese soldier stands guard during a drill - Ann Wang/Reuters

But this year, as China pursues a more aggressive foreign policy in a presumed strategy to deflect from President Xi Jinping’s pandemic and economic pressures, Beijing has intensified its air force sorties close to Taiwanese airspace and crossed the Taiwan Strait’s sensitive mid line - an unofficial buffer zone. 

Tensions were dialled up on October 13 when, after numerous naval drills in the waters surrounding Taiwan, President Xi visited a People's Liberation Army (PLA) Marine Corp base in southern Guangdong province and told the marines there to "prepare for war".

Few fear Mr Xi will take the risk of an imminent and punishing invasion but there is a greater sense of urgency among Taiwan and its allies that the timetable for military action may have been accelerated. 

The rising threat has prompted a surge in weapons offers from Washington, Taiwan’s biggest arms supplier despite not having official diplomatic ties. 

The latest round of what is expected to be an overall $7bn arms package features M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launchers with a range of 190 miles, allowing them to fire from Taiwan’s mountainous east coast into ports and airfields in western China. 

A soldier launches a Javelin missile during a military drill in southern Taiwan - Sam Yeh/AFP
A soldier launches a Javelin missile during a military drill in southern Taiwan - Sam Yeh/AFP

But the recent weapons approvals also mark a significant shift in tactics away from focusing on showy big ticket items like fighter jets, which have a shorter life expectancy on the battlefield, to boosting more durable asymmetric warfare capabilities.

This strategy seeks to inflict maximum damage on the weakest spots of an invading PLA force and limit its ability to wipe out Taiwan’s defences and Air Force, rather than meeting it head on in an unequal battle. 

The approach has long been promoted to Taiwan by US defence officials and has been reflected in Washington’s strategy to sell “building blocks” for a smarter armory, said Fu S. Mei, director of the New York-based Taiwan Security Analysis Centre. 

This would mean purchasing large numbers of survivable, smaller items useful in the short term, as well as high tech surveillance and reconnaissance equipment. “Taiwan’s real challenge is not that we don’t have missiles, but we’ve got to know where the targets are,” he said. 

US weapons sales go far beyond propping up its own defence industry. 

Taiwan’s strategic importance at the critical midpoint of the so-called “first island chain,” a thread of major archipelagos that runs from Russia’s Kuril Islands to the Malay Peninsula is integral to Washington’s Indo-Pacific policy and to denying China open access to the Pacific coastline. 

“If Taiwan were to fall or falter or capitulate – and it doesn’t have to be militarily captured, it could just throw in with China - that could cause a big problem for the US. Shoring up Taiwan militarily and certainly politically has now taken on new significance,” said Mr Mei. 

But while the island’s military has “pockets of excellence,” analysts warn it faces a race against time to address major shortfalls in personnel management, logistics, as well as upgrades and spare parts for vehicles and equipment. 

On Thursday, Taiwan's Air Force temporarily suspended the operation of its aging F-5 fighter jet fleet to investigate a fatal crash during a training exercise. 

Conscription, a vital layer of homeland defence if the fight reaches Taiwan’s shores, also remains a politically-charged and unresolved issue. 

Anti-landing spikes on Taiwan's Kinmen island, 2 miles from China - Sam Yeh/AFP
Anti-landing spikes on Taiwan's Kinmen island, 2 miles from China - Sam Yeh/AFP

Enoch Wu, who runs Forward Alliance, a Taiwanese NGO aiming to raise awareness about defence challenges and national security, is advocating for a revamp of the conscription requirement – currently just four months – and for a deep-rooted reform of training to teach meaningful skills. 

“With only an all-volunteer force we are not doing all that we can to deter conflict in the first place,” he said. 

In a poll released this week, more than 77 per cent of Taiwanese said they would be willing to take up arms in the event of an invasion by China. 

“If war broke out, a lot of people are willing to fight for their country. The question becomes what do we do during peacetime to prepare for that,” said Mr Wu. “There is this disconnect. The public has said it is willing to step up and save the country but there isn’t a way to do it yet.”

Mr Wu runs a resilience training programme to teach communities how to survive during a catastrophic event or invasion. 

Such skills could be vital to enduring an alternative scenario where China eschews conventional military means to conquer Taiwan, instead opting for blockades and economic measures to destabilise the population. 

“I see the larger vulnerability of Taiwan is infrastructure and energy supply,” said Alexander Huang, a professor of international relations and strategic studies at Taipei’s Tamkang University.

Naval blockades could disrupt the island’s gas and oil supplies, sowing chaos, he predicted. 

“My hunch is that China can announce an intention of economic punishment and quietly advise the US to conduct non-combattant evacuation operations,” he added. “There are different measures that can really create panic in Taiwan without firing a shot.”