Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 4

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

While considered an unlikely eventuality by most China and Taiwan experts, the use of force–or at least its threat–has proven to be one of Beijing’s most potent weapons in what it calls the “great reunification enterprise.”

President Jiang Zemin reiterated during his address on the 80th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on July 1 that Beijing would never pledge not to use force against Taiwan. Indeed, the 1999 White Paper on Taiwan pointed out that “perpetual procrastination” on the issue of reunification by Taipei–in addition to declaration of independence and interference by foreign powers–would constitute grounds for military action by Beijing.

If Beijing did decide to launch an attack, what modus operandi would it take? Sources close to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said scores of invasion scenarios had been tried out on the computer screens of top strategists. And senior generals, including members of the policy-setting Central Military Commission, had narrowed down the options to a couple or so.

Yet no matter which gameplan is used, it has to satisfy the following criteria: first, the operation should be limited to one to two days, partly to minimize the possibility of American intervention; second, it should be effective enough to immediately force Taipei to capitulate; and, third, the number of casualties on both sides should be kept to a minimum.


Based on this set of standards, it is most unlikely that the PLA would attempt an amphibious landing. This is despite the fact that in recent war games, including the one launched in June, the navy and other PLA divisions had often practiced landing on hostile islands.

Western and Taiwan strategists have cast doubt on the PLA’s ability to accomplish an effective amphibious assault on the main Taiwan island. PLA sources said the generals had also conceded that this type of operation would involve committing a prohibitive number of personnel; to be successful, invaders have to outnumber defenders by a ratio of at least four to one.

Equally important, the number of casualties would be high on both sides. And Beijing certainly would not want to engender among Taiwanese the kind of generation-to-generation hatred against the central government that large-scale bloodshed would entail.

Then there is the American factor–or considerations of how Washington, the U.S. Congress and the public would react to war in the Taiwan Strait. TV footage of tens of thousands of PLA troops storming the main island could prod the White House into immediate action. It would also predispose Congress and the U.S. public to favor committing substantial U.S. weaponry–and even ground troops–to saving Taiwan.

PLA sources said a consensus within the PLA and the Communist party leadership was that the course of action to take would be “surgical” missile strikes against military–and if necessary, civilian–targets on the island. The PLA had done a thorough study of the “Kosovo model” of missile attack against Serbia by NATO forces in 1999.

Short- and medium-range missiles are considered the most modern component in the PLA arsenal. As a result of advancement in missile technology, top generals and weapons engineers have repeatedly assured the CCP leadership that the missiles can knock out the majority of important targets–including military airports and weapons depots–in a matter of a day or two.

Moreover, while beginning this summer the Taiwanese have been testing U.S.-made Patriot antimissile systems, PLA generals have expressed confidence that Chinese missiles can tear through Taiwan’s defenses. Key factors in a missile strike will be the element of surprise–and the element of shock largely induced through sheer numbers and ferocity. Production capacities of short- and medium-range missiles by munitions factories have been expanded dramatically the past three years.


PLA generals believe that Taipei will surrender–that is, agree to start reunification talks on Beijing’s terms–after its major military facilities have been incapacitated. Should Taipei refuse to budge, the missiles will also target civilian facilities such as oil depots, electricity plants, reservoirs and water treatment plants.

An internal PLA study pointed out that Taiwan residents, who are used to middle-class comfort, would “hoist the white flag” if they were deprived of electricity and water supply for two days. The study compared the “level of resistance to hardship” between Taiwanese and Vietnamese. It said while the Kosovo model of surgical strikes might not work with tough and adversity-hardened Vietnamese, it should do the trick with the “soft” Taiwanese.

Implicit in the thinking behind the Kosovo model is that the destruction of military–and probably a lesser number of civilian–facilities on Taiwan will be devastating enough that Taipei will capitulate in good time, and in any case before Washington can react in a meaningful fashion. Moreover, these installations are to be decimated with a minimum of casualties. The PLA gameplan does not envisage either landing troops on Taiwan or any degree of military occupation of the island.

In an article in mid-June entitled “The iron fist behind the velvet glove,” the Beijing-run Hong Kong daily Wen Wei Po quoted a PLA general as endorsing something akin to the missile strikes model. The officer opposed a “stage by stage” action beginning with the occupation of outlying islands such as Quemoy or Peng Hu, saying a prolonged action would invite U.S. interference. Among the general’s recommendations were: “destroying Taiwan’s military facilities within a very short time” and “ensuring that the Taiwan army cannot fight back through deploying [mainland] forces that will have an explosive, overwhelming superiority [over Taiwan’s].”


The missile strikes would be accompanied by a number of other offensives. For example, immediately prior to and during the attack, the PLA will launch an electronic warfare aimed at crippling computers at Taiwan army’s command and control centers. Civilian and military authorities in the mainland have dramatically boosted the budget for EDP warfare. Large sums of money are being spent on training computer-warfare experts–and on luring U.S.-educated Chinese computer professionals to return to work for the mainland government. China’s cyberpower was illustrated by the “hacking warfare” with the U.S. in the month after the spy-plane incident of April.

Confidence among the Chinese top brass about their ability to win this particular “localized warfare under hi-tech conditions” has been boosted by a large number of studies the PLA had done on Taiwan’s military capacity.

For example, one recent CCP appraisal of the Taiwan military said that the Air Force–supposedly its trump card–was vulnerable. The reasons cited by the assessment were as follows. First, ace weapons of the Taiwan Air Force such as the F-16 and the Mirage 2000 come from different countries and it is hard to maintain them properly. China’s friendship with EU countries has made it more difficult for Taipei to get new parts from France and other European countries. Second, there is a severe shortfall of highly trained personnel to run imported hardware. For example, there are not enough qualified pilots to fly the F-16s and Mirage 2000s–leading to a surprisingly large number of accidents involving these aircraft. Third, Taiwan lacks the expertise–both hardware and personnel–to ensure smooth and quick coordination among the different branches of its defense establishment especially in times of emergency.


In spite of the apparently advanced degree of military preparedness, however, it is obvious the leadership of Jiang Zemin will not be resorting to a military solution any time soon. This is despite the fact that the piling up of missiles–estimated at around 450 last year–in the three bases in Fujian and Jiangxi provinces has gone on relentlessly.

Diplomatic analysts say that Jiang is happy with the progress made in united front tactics against Taipei. This is manifested in the unprecedented number of Taiwan businessmen and politicians who have come to the mainland to invest or to build ties with the Beijing leadership. The analysts say Beijing is willing to wait at least until the new presidential elections in March 2004, when they expect President Chen Shui-bian will be beaten by a pro-unification candidate from either the Kuomintang or the People’s First Party.

Between now and 2004, the military card will be used mainly as psychological warfare. The right degree of saber rattling will not hurt Beijing’s united front tactics. It may, however, cause the further flight of capital from Taiwan–and discourage multinationals from investing in the island.

Military pressure on Taiwan will further isolate President Chen and his pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party–and provide ammunition to opposition parties such as the KMT to attack Taipei’s failed mainland policy. The military card will also force the embattled Chen administration to spend more on weapons, which will be unpopular given the economic recession. This is despite Chen’s statement that Taiwan would not engage in an arms race with the mainland.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.