It’s not the final, titanic clash that Taiwan has long feared, with Chinese troops storming the beaches. Instead, the People’s Liberation Army, China’s two-million-strong military, has launched a form of “grey zone” warfare. In this irregular type of conflict, which stops short of an actual shooting war, the aim is to subdue the foe through exhaustion.
Beijing is conducting waves of threatening forays from the air while ratcheting up existing pressure tactics to erode Taiwan’s will to resist, say current and former senior Taiwanese and US military officers. The flights, they say, complement amphibious landing exercises, naval patrols, cyber attacks and diplomatic isolation.
The risk of conflict is now at its highest level in decades. PLA aircraft are flying menacingly towards airspace around Taiwan almost daily, sometimes launching multiple sorties on the same day. Since mid-September, Chinese warplanes have flown more than 100 of these missions, according to a Reuters compilation of flight data drawn from official statements by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence. The data shows that in periods when political tension across the Taiwan Strait peaks, China sends more aircraft, including some of its most potent fighters and bombers.
These encroachment tactics are “super effective,” Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, who until last year was the commander of the Taiwanese military, told Reuters in an interview. “You say it’s your garden, but it turns out that it is your neighbour who’s hanging out in the garden all the time. With that action, they are making a statement that it’s their garden - and that garden is one step away from your house.”
Under President Xi Jinping, China has accelerated the development of forces the PLA would need one day to conquer the island of 23 million - a mission that is the country’s top military priority, according to Chinese and Western analysts. With Hong Kong and the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang under ever-tighter control, Taiwan is the last remaining obstacle to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. In a major speech early last year, Xi said that Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a Chinese province, “must be, will be” unified with China. He set no deadline but would not rule out the use of force.
There has been a “clear shift” this year in Beijing’s posture, a senior Taiwanese security official responsible for intelligence on China told Reuters. Chinese military and government agencies have switched from decades of “theoretical talk” about taking Taiwan by force to debating and working on plans for possible military action, the official said.
In a speech Tuesday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen alluded to the shift. The island democracy is under unrelenting pressure from “authoritarian forces,” she warned, without going into detail. “Taiwan has been at the receiving end of such military threats on a daily basis.”
Admiral Lee, the retired Taiwanese military chief, believes the only thing holding back the PLA from a full assault is that it hasn’t yet achieved the overwhelming firepower needed to overrun the island. Even so, China’s military build-up over the past 20 years means it is now “far ahead” of Taiwan, he said. “Time is definitely not on Taiwan’s side,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time for them to gather enough strength.”
The Chinese government was asked detailed questions for this article, including queries about the grey-zone tactics and its overarching strategy on Taiwan. In a written statement, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said Beijing is committed to “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, a formulation it has used for decades. It added that “so-called experts’ remarks quoted in the story by Reuters are groundless, purely hearsay, and full of prejudice and show a Cold War mentality.” It continued: “They even include absurd remarks about the country’s central leadership. We are strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed to such reports.”
Taiwan’s defence ministry said in a statement it is stepping up naval and air patrols and improving combat readiness to counter China’s grey-zone tactics. The military “sticks to the firm stance of ‘not provoking and not being afraid of the enemy,’ and the principle of ‘the closer they get to the main island, the more active is our response.’”
As the threat mounts, the Taiwanese military is in poor shape to meet it.
Interviews with current and former Taiwan government officials, serving and former military officers, conscripts, reservists and US and other foreign military experts point to dire weaknesses. With the exception of some elements of Taiwan’s military, including the air force, special forces and parts of the navy, decades of isolation and underfunding by successive governments have left the military hollowed out. In any Chinese invasion, much of the island’s expensive hardware would be unlikely to survive a barrage of PLA precision missiles and air strikes, current and retired Taiwanese officers say. Crack, resilient ground forces would be crucial to repel beach landings by Chinese troops and counter airborne assaults, they say.
In addition, Taiwanese service members and Western observers say, Taiwan is suffering a serious and worsening decay in the readiness and training of its troops, particularly its army units.
One army conscript told Reuters he had only fired between 30 and 40 rounds with his rifle during training and was never taught how to clear a jammed firearm. “I don’t think I’m capable of fighting in a war,” said Chen, the soldier, speaking on condition his full name not be disclosed. “I don’t think I’m a qualified soldier.”
President Tsai is coming under pressure at home and in Washington to shore up the island’s defences. Her government is planning to increase defence outlays by more than 10% next year to T$453.4 billion ($16 billion), according to a Reuters calculation based on government figures.
“The military has been whittled down,” said Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps colonel who spent most of last year on the island evaluating its defence capability in a Taiwan government-funded research project. “It is almost as if fighting to defend the country is somebody else’s responsibility,” said Newsham, now a researcher at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.
Taiwan’s defence ministry rejected the idea that it couldn’t defend itself or that its expensive hardware wouldn’t withstand a Chinese attack. The island’s air defences have been bolstered and its “asymmetrical and mobile combat capacity” has been reinforced, the ministry said in a written response to questions.
Taking Taiwan would be an even greater feat for Xi than putting down the democracy movement in Hong Kong, but also a far greater challenge.
PLA troops have been garrisoned in Hong Kong since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Yet the city’s protest movement was quashed this spring not by military force, but by a combination of aggressive policing, the imposition of a draconian national security law and the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, which enabled the government to ban all mass gatherings.
For Xi, democratic Taiwan is now the last outpost of resistance to his dream of a unified and rejuvenated China that can displace the United States as the major power in the Asia-Pacific region. Taiwan has remained effectively independent since 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Republic of China government retreated to the island after the Chinese Civil War.
Bringing Taiwan under Beijing’s wing would give the PLA a commanding position in Asia. It would entrench the Chinese military in the middle of the so-called first island chain - the string of islands from the Japanese archipelago in the north, down to the Philippines and on to Borneo, which enclose China’s coastal seas. The PLA Navy could dominate the shipping lanes to North Asia, giving Beijing a powerful lever over Japan and South Korea. And the PLA Navy would have free access to the Western Pacific.
Standing in the way of that dream is the United States. It would be catastrophic to America’s dominance in the region if Chinese forces took control of Taiwan, most military analysts believe, whether by grey-zone tactics or full-scale invasion. America’s global prestige and role as security guarantor in Asia would be shattered, they say.
Already, Beijing’s recent assertiveness, including its fortification of contested islets in the South China Sea, has galvanised an American-led response. The administration of President Donald Trump has been rushing new weapons into service and realigning US forces in Asia to counter China. Regional powers Japan, India and Australia are tightening cooperation with the Americans.
It isn’t clear how President-elect Joe Biden will respond to Xi’s stepped-up pressure on Taiwan. A spokesman for Biden’s transition team declined to comment.
A US State Department spokesperson said China has “engaged in an increasingly menacing campaign to intimidate Taiwan.” America’s defence backing for Taipei, the spokesperson said, goes beyond arms sales. “We support Taiwan with training and encourage asymmetric approaches to warfare.”
Since the United States switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, US administrations have been required by law to supply Taiwan with the means to defend itself. But Washington has also maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” declining to give explicit security guarantees to the island.
In the past three decades, the PLA has assembled a massive array of missiles and a huge navy designed to keep US forces at bay. There is danger for Taipei in neglecting its own defences, five former senior American commanders told Reuters: Taiwan is putting its fate in the hands of Washington, but there’s a chance the United States and its allies might be defeated by China in a war over the island or delayed from reaching it in time to save the day.
Taiwan’s defence ministry told Reuters it is increasing the island’s self-reliance by developing its domestic defence industry and is making progress in the production of home-made weapons, including training jets and submarines.
Communist Party leaders have always insisted Beijing would prefer to take Taiwan without war. Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office blamed the current tension on Taipei. Tsai’s ruling party and supporters of separatism, the office said, “have colluded with external forces and continuously engaged in Taiwan independence.”
But there is no sign the Taiwanese are willing to embrace unification. The widening crackdown in Hong Kong on pro-democracy forces has offered them a glimpse of what life might be like under Communist Party rule.
Any hot military campaign would be a grave risk for Xi and the Communist Party, to be sure. Beijing could expect to become an international pariah. And, despite Taiwan’s weaknesses, an amphibious landing across the Taiwan Strait, 130 kilometres (80 miles) wide at its narrowest point, could be extremely difficult and bloody. The Taiwanese military has had 70 years to fortify the few landing sites suitable for beach assaults and could hammer an exposed invasion force.
For these reasons, some believe all-out war remains highly unlikely. Two Taipei-based diplomatic sources, citing briefings from Western security officials, said they haven’t changed their assessment of the probability of conventional conflict. “There are no signs of war preparations in China,” said one of the sources.
The risks for China may explain in part why Xi, for now, has opted for grey-zone warfare. Without firing a shot, China’s military is sorely taxing Taiwan’s air force.
The theatre of action is Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). An ADIZ is an area that stretches beyond a territory’s air space where air traffic controllers request incoming flights to identify themselves. When PLA aircraft enter Taiwan’s ADIZ, fighters scramble in response. On occasion, air-defence missile units are put on alert. So far, most of the Chinese aircraft being intercepted and shadowed are entering the south-west corner of Taiwan’s zone.
The pace is unrelenting. Taiwan Defence Minister Yen De-fa said in October that the air force had scrambled 2,972 times against Chinese aircraft this year at a cost of T$25.5 billion ($903 million). The defence ministry said that for the year to early October, its aircraft had flown 4,132 missions, including the scrambles to intercept PLA aircraft and training flights. That’s an increase of 129% on the whole of last year, according to Reuters calculations.
There is pressure at sea, too. Last month, the ministry told parliament that for the year to early November, Taiwanese ships had conducted 1,223 missions to intercept PLA vessels, an increase of about 400 such missions from the previous year.
By increasing the tempo of these operations, the PLA can inflict disproportionate stress on Taiwan’s much smaller force. The Chinese military has more than 2,000 fighters, bombers and other warplanes, compared with Taiwan’s 400 fighters, according to the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military power, published in September. Over time, fuel costs, pilot fatigue and wear and tear on Taiwanese aircraft will threaten the readiness of the island’s air force if this pressure continues, according to Taiwanese and US military analysts. The constant threat is also designed to exact a psychological toll on the defenders, they say.
A senior Trump administration official said the United States has advised the Taiwanese they don’t need to scramble fighters every time Chinese sea patrol planes enter the southwest corner of Taiwan’s ADIZ. Most of the interlopers remain over 100 miles away from the island – close, but not close enough to be a threat. “It’s unnecessarily taxing,” the official said.
That’s not the view in Taipei, where the PLA missions reached a climax on Sept. 18 and 19. That is when US Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment Keith Krach was visiting Taiwan to attend a memorial service for former President Lee Teng-hui, revered by many as the father of the island’s democracy. Krach was the most senior State Department official to visit the island in four decades. Beijing made its displeasure clear. Almost 40 PLA aircraft, mostly fighters and bombers, flew missions toward the island on those two days, according to a tally from Taiwan defence ministry flight-tracking data. On multiple occasions, Chinese fighters crossed the sensitive median line in the Taiwan Strait, which serves as an unofficial buffer.
Beijing is making this flashpoint “ever more unstable and ready for collision and collapse,” said Ian Easton, a senior director of the Project 2049 Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based security research group that studies the PLA. “One could call this new grey-zone conflict a war of nerves.”
The PLA mostly relies on three kinds of aircraft - anti-submarine, electronic-warfare and airborne early-warning-and-control - to conduct its regular missions into Taiwan’s ADIZ, the flight-tracking data show. The use of these aircraft allows the PLA to gather intelligence on the island’s defences, as well as Taiwanese and allied submarine activity in the area, Taiwanese, US and other Western military intelligence officers say.
The PLA conducts drills in the Taiwan Strait “to safeguard national sovereignty” and in response “to the interference of external forces and the provocations by the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces,” Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office said. “We will never allow anyone… to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.”
One of Taiwan’s biggest challenges is basic: putting boots on the ground.
Taiwan has been gradually shifting from a conscript military to a volunteer-dominated professional force. By all accounts, the volunteers are well trained. That’s not the case for recent conscripts.
Evidence from internal government reports seen by Reuters and accounts of serving personnel, conscripts and reservists show that this shift has been poorly managed. Taiwan has struggled in recent years to obtain sufficient recruits to field the 188,000-strong professional force the top brass calculate is needed to fight off a Chinese attack. Defence Minister Yen told parliament on Oct 22 that the military would meet its target to enlist 90% of this force by the end of the year.
Taiwan still has a draft, but the service period for conscripts was slashed in 2013 from one year to four months. This is too short for useful training, and the instruction is often inadequate, six recent conscripts and former officers told Reuters.
In his four months of training last year, a 24-year-old navy conscript surnamed Lin spent a total of 40 minutes on two warships docked at the southern port of Kaohsiung. In an interview, he said he fired about 16 rounds from a rifle on one occasion, after the magazine was loaded for him. Only half of his intake cohort of 400 conscripts could swim a required 50 metres.
“The four month training was just a waste of time,” said Lin, who spoke on condition his full name not be used. In Taiwan, military members who disclose operational details could be deemed to have violated the law. “I would much prefer to go to work. If they want to train us, they need to do it properly.”
Another 24-year old, the army conscript surnamed Chen, described his firearms training to Reuters. In modern armies, trainees might typically fire hundreds of rounds. Not Chen: In four months, he said he twice fired between six and 10 rounds from a rifle, at a distance of 25 meters from the target. And he twice fired about the same number of rounds from 175 meters. He said he was taught how to reload a magazine, but not how to clear the rifle if it jammed. Chen said he also was trained on an anti-tank missile and a grenade launcher - but only about 10% of his intake of 150 conscripts were selected to fire each weapon.
“They only taught me how to fire a rifle,” Chen said, “and the rest of the training was irrelevant to real fighting.”
The defence ministry said it has increased the frequency and intensity of training. Conscripts are being trained as part of the reserve force with an emphasis on urban warfare and physical fitness. In refresher training, they will assemble in the same unit and focus on beach defence, urban combat and defending key facilities. And conscripts will fire three times as many rounds from their rifles.
The troubled switch to a full-time force has contributed to a gutting of the reserves, a crucial component of the island’s ability to reinforce full-time units and repulse invading troops. The 2.31 million-strong reserve force only exists on paper, according to Taiwanese and foreign military experts.
“The reserves really are a mess,” said Newsham. “Pretty close to useless.”
In interviews, reservists called up for refresher training of between one and seven days complained of wasting time on pointless drills, lectures and films. There were no realistic exercises or clear explanations of what action would be required in a crisis, they said.
A reservist surnamed Lee said he was called up for five days of training last year, the second time since he finished his conscription service in 2015. He described the experience as “an opportunity to make friends.” On occasion, instructors knew the students were bored, abandoned their lectures and opened the floor to trainees to introduce themselves. One of Lee’s fellow reservists, a car dealer, took the opportunity to make a sales pitch.
“I’m certainly not trained properly to fight in a war,” Lee said. “The retraining only lasted five days, in which we only fired rifles once.”
There are signs that the Tsai administration is working to boost readiness and firepower and to reform the reserves. In October, Yen revealed a proposal to build a better trained force within the reserves, made up of 268,000 troops, who could be “immediately” mobilised to join the standing military in an emergency. In the annual Han Kuang Exercise held in July in central Taiwan, two battalions of reservists were called up to take part in a live-fire artillery drill with regular units. A senior Taiwan official familiar with the island’s security planning told Reuters the United States had been urging the military to include the reservists in the drill.
Prominent military thinkers on the island are calling for a more radical shake-up. Foremost is Admiral Lee, the former head of the military, who has set out his ideas in a number of articles.
Before his retirement last year, Lee proposed that the island avoid a war of attrition with a massively powerful China. Instead, Lee suggests Taiwan prepare to absorb PLA missile and air strikes. The key, he argues, is to preserve the ability to strike back at an invading force despite the likely loss of major conventional hardware, including big warships and jet fighters.
At the heart of Lee’s proposal are several changes. One, Taiwan should maintain a small number of large, expensive weapons to preserve public morale and counter Beijing’s grey-zone operations. At the same time, though, the island should bristle with big numbers of smaller, cheaper but lethal weapons, including mobile anti-ship missiles, portable anti-aircraft missiles, advanced sea mines and fast missile boats. Camouflaged and dispersed in urban, coastal, jungle and mountain areas, these weapons would be harder for PLA forces to find and destroy and could pummel an invasion force well before it reached land.
Another crucial element is dramatic reform of the reserves and civil defence units, creating urban and guerrilla warfare units. These would engage in protracted warfare with Chinese troops that do manage to land.
For now, it’s unclear whether Tsai’s administration will adopt Lee’s proposals. But Lee’s thinking has strong backing in Washington. The outgoing US national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, said in October that the Taiwanese should “turn themselves into a porcupine” militarily, adding: “Lions generally don’t like to eat porcupines.”
Lee, however, says Taiwan shouldn’t rely on America’s help.
“How do you defend Taiwan? All I can hear is that the United States will intervene,” he said. “What reason is there to believe that the United States will sacrifice the lives of its own children to defend Taiwan?” He added: “My best bet is my own strength, to stop people from bullying me.”