Can The Dragon Swim? The Naval Balance In The Taiwan Strait

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 2

Relations between Taiwan and China, strained at the best of times, are hitting new lows over President Chen Shui-bian’s stated intention to hold a referendum in March on the status of the island.

If relations deteriorate into armed conflict, sea power will be an essential element for both sides. While China has a great numerical edge over Taiwan, Taipei has a number of naval elements that could make a cross channel invasion very risky for Beijing.

Taiwan’s naval strategy is simple–to deter an invasion by the mainland. China’s strategic requirements are more complex–first, to ensure command of the sea in the event it decides to invade Taiwan across the 90-100 mile-wide strait. For Beijing, the wild card in such an operation would be the possible response of Washington, should it decide to send carrier task forces to the area. For Beijing, intervention by the U.S. Navy would be the worst of all scenarios. Up to now, Washington’s ambiguity about how it would respond to a direct Chinese assault on Taiwan has kept the peace more than Taipei’s flotilla.

In between the poles of the unilateral/interventionist Taiwan scenarios China must also take into account the growing naval power of its nearest significant military rival, India. While the implosion of the USSR in 1991 at a stroke removed China’s most menacing rival, Indian naval pretensions have been underlined this week by the announcement that it will buy Russia’s Admiral Gorshkov carrier with a wing of MiG-29s. While China in the past has purchased former Soviet carriers (Varyag and Minsk), neither was operational at the time, being little more than hulks. Beijing must therefore factor into its considerations a future Indian naval maritime capability. The two have unresolved issues, notably in the Bay of Bengal, where China maintains ELEINT monitoring stations on islets belonging to Myanmar. Taiwan has the advantage of being closely focused on its naval mission whereas China must spread itself much thinner. As the purchase of the Gorshkov indicates, India clearly is ahead in purchasing advanced naval systems from Russia.

Beijing has been upgrading its arsenal should it decide to forcibly conquer Taiwan. Besides hundreds of short-to medium-range ballistic missiles installed opposite the island, the acquisition of four Kilo-class submarines (with an additional eight more on order) would allow Beijing to blockade the island. The submarines combined with Sukhoi-30 fighters and two recently-acquired Sovremenny-class destroyers armed with eight supersonic 3M-80E Moskit SS-N-22 “Sunburn” (75/155nm range sea-skimming) and two SA-N-7 launchers could make any attempt by the U.S. Navy to intervene costly in the extreme.

The ROC Navy’s primary mission is simple; to defend the island against a Chinese blockade and to protect Taiwan’s sea lanes. Taiwan’s navy personnel number around 68,000 officers and men, including approximately 30,000 marines. The Navy deploys over two dozen major surface combatants, four submarines, about 100 patrol boats, thirty mine warfare ships, and twenty-five amphibious vessels. Currently, Taipei’s paramount concern is to replace the fleet’s obsolescent World War II-era ships. In addition to buying abroad U.S. warships and a French-built Lafayette-class frigate, Taipei is also constructing a domestically produced version of the U.S. Perry-class frigate. Another advanced weapon system of great interest to Taiwan is advanced antisubmarine warfare technology to counter PLA submarines operating off their coasts.

Taiwan has been upgrading its fleet; in November it retired two of its seven remaining Yang-class destroyers, which had been decommissioned from the U.S. Navy and delivered between 1973 and 1983. The destroyers will be replaced by four Kidd-class destroyers to be delivered by Washington over the next few years. Taiwan is also seeking to replace its Knox-class frigates. Under the “Kuang Hua No. 7” purchase plan, Taiwan is shopping for six to eight new vessels over the next decade to replace all of its Knox-class warships. The new vessels would be equipped with Hsiung Feng-II anti-ship missiles for engaging enemy ships over the horizon. Taiwan’s navy has recently acquired of a total of twenty-one Perry, Knox and La Fayette class frigates equipped with modern shipboard combat systems. The modernization program has provided Taiwan with its greatest advantage relative to China in recent years.

Naval issues are straining relations between Washington and Taiwan. In April 2001 President George Bush approved the sale of diesel submarines to Taiwan as part of the largest U.S. arms sale to the island since 1992 in one of the costliest arms deals ever concluded.

The issue of the cost of the new diesel submarines that the Bush administration promised Taipei has also become an issue. In November Minister of National Defense Tang Yao Ming said that his government was seriously considering withdrawing from the deal to buy eight U.S.-supplied boats, as Washington was quoting a price up to US$11 billion, nearly double the original estimates. Tang said, “The ministry would by no means pay exorbitant prices. All the weapons to be purchased must not exceed international prices and are required to meet our demands.” One legislator pointed out that South Korea built three German-designed diesel submarines for $367 million apiece, while India constructed a trio at $323 million each and Pakistan built three for $317 million each. Tang noted that Taiwan would pay 20 percent more if it constructed the submarines on its own. The government’s budget for submarine procurement is $US4.41 billion. Germany, Spain and the Netherlands had all declined to offer their designs, fearing that such a move would harm their relations with Beijing.

Like Taipei, Beijing over the last decade has scrapped large numbers of older vessels and replaced them with fewer, more modern units, a trend particularly noticeable in the submarine fleet, whose numbers have declined by about one-half. The older ships are slowly being replaced by newer Chinese-built destroyers and frigates. A number of newer vessels have also been bought from Russian shipyards. Despite the progress the Chinese navy continues to lag behind Taiwan’s in many technological areas. While the Chinese navy’s amphibious fleet had a sealift capability to transport approximately one infantry division, the navy also has hundreds of smaller landing craft, barges, and troop transports which could be augmented with fishing boats, trawlers, and civilian merchant ships to support regional amphibious operations.

Both Taipei and Beijing are less interested in blue-water “command of the sea” than “sea deniability” in regional waters. Beijing’s naval modernization program is designed to conduct defensive warfare to defend Chinese economic interests and assert regional sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas. China’s navy currently has approximately 260,000 personnel. The fleet has over fifty destroyers and frigates, about sixty diesel and six Han- and Xia-class submarines, and nearly fifty landing craft. In addition, the Chinese navy has several hundred auxiliary and small patrol vessels, along with a modest naval air arm of more than 500 fixed-winged aircraft and approximately thirty helicopters. The Achilles heel of the Chinese navy remains its foreign-built warships. While its two Sovremenny-class destroyers are impressive, China lacks the resources to repair them; in the event of mishaps, the ships would have to return to Russia for refitting.

Both countries are embroiled with maritime claims with neighboring states. Taiwan’s claim to all the islands in the South China Sea has involved it in a number of disputes. Taipei has territorial disputes with Japan and China over the Tiaoyutau islands. Both China and Taiwan claim the Spratly (Nangsha) islands, along with Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and China.

Taiwan also claims the Pratas (Tungsha); on June 30, 1989, the ROC government set up a national monument on Tungsha island to assert its sovereignty over the archipelago. The Pratas have significant strategic value for Taiwan, as they command the entire southern mouth of the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan also claims the Paracels, placing it in dispute with China and Vietnam. The energy reserves of the Paracels are believed to be significant. Lastly, Taiwan also claims the Macclesfield Bank. The one advantage that China currently has over its archipelago rivals is that their navies are even more modest than China’s.

The lack of an amphibious capability combined with Beijing’s modest long-range airlift capabilities mean that the navy would be crucial in supporting an invasion by both ferrying the necessary troops and keeping them re-supplied. In such an instance Taiwan’s diesel submarines could wreak havoc with an invasion fleet, even if the Chinese air force quickly secured command of the air over an invasion force. Given China’s modes ASW capabilities, the Taiwanese submarines could prove a nearly insurmountable problem.

The Chinese navy has been increasingly asserting its presence both regionally and globally. In 2002 China trumpeted its navy’s first circumnavigation of the globe; the accomplishment was somewhat diminished by the fact that the squadron contained only the destroyer Qingdao and a supply ship. In November 2003 the Chinese and Indian navies conducted their first-ever joint naval exercises off Shanghai, following earlier naval exercises in October between the Chinese and Pakistani navies. The Communist Party’s newspaper, the Liberation Daily, noted, “The exercises don’t really include much real military content, but they do have a very powerful symbolic significance.”

As neither country is likely anytime soon to achieve overwhelming naval superiority over its rival, barring a tripwire incident the situation seems likely to remain as it’s been for years–Beijing making bellicose threats while warning the international community to stay out of an “internal dispute,” Taiwan belligerently defying Beijing while imploring the international community to exert pressure. Current analysis would seem to indicate that neither state’s modest maritime forces are sufficient to support its grandiose aspirations. Given both sides’ dependence on imported foreign naval technology, if the international community were serious about seeking a peaceful resolution to the dispute, it could begin with a comprehensive arms embargo.

Dr. John C. K. Daly received his Ph.D. in Russian and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of London and is an Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.