Shifting Balance Of Power In The Taiwan Strait

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 7

The issue of Taiwan’s future–independence or absorption by China–remains one of principle for all three of the major actors in this drama. Beijing insists that Taiwan is a Chinese province; Taiwan insists that it has the right to determine its own future; Washington adheres to a “one China” policy in public but refuses to allow Taiwan’s involuntary reunification with the mainland.

China refuses to renounce the use military force against Taiwan, while the United States, in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) that was passed into law by Congress in 1979, declares that any such action will “be viewed with grave concern.” The TRA does not, however, commit Washington to come to Taipei’s aid, lending an air of ambiguity to Taiwan’s strategic situation. Under these circumstances, the island has no choice–short of capitulation–but to maintain a military strong enough to at least deter Beijing from employing military force.

As an island, Taiwan exists in a maritime environment. It is surrounded by the East China Sea and dependent on sea lines of communication for all of its energy requirements and most of its other imports, including food. No branch of the military is as significant to the strategic situation faced by Taiwan and China, as is the navy.

The Chinese navy–known as the People’s Liberation Army-Navy, or PLAN–is several times the size of Taiwan’s navy, especially in numbers of submarines, probably fifty to four. Despite that numerical inferiority, however, Taiwan’s navy is usually accorded superiority in technology and systems integration categories, a superiority that might well translate into at least equality with the PLAN as a fighting force at sea. That calculus is rapidly changing, however, as China and Taiwan engage in naval modernization programs that, while similar in objective, differ radically in the progress being achieved.

In 1999, senior military leaders in Taiwan expressed confidence in their services’ ability to maintain control of the Taiwan Strait until 2005, no doubt assuming in that estimate a certain rate of successful modernization and improved capabilities by their forces. That progress, however, has not occurred. Instead, Taiwan’s naval profile has remained almost static: the navy has added just three frigates and several patrol craft in the past half-decade, although four ex-U.S. Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers (DDG) have been purchased from the United States with a 2005/6 delivery date.

The PLAN during the past decade has added two Luhu-class and one Luhai-class DDG, four Jiangwei-class guided-missile frigates (FFG), and purchased two Sovremenny-class DDGs from Russia. Another four Sovremennys are on order and three to four Luhai follow-on DDGs are under construction in Chinese shipyards. These ships are equipped with combat direction centers, integrated sensor and weapons systems, and very capable surface-to-surface (SSM) cruise missiles. Especially potent are the Sovremenny’s SS-N-22 SSMs, against which Taiwan has no reliably effective defense.

Taiwan’s submarine force is particularly weak, with only four boats, two of which date from World War II and are good for little but shallow water training exercises. The United States agreed to sell eight conventionally powered submarines to Taiwan as part of the path-breaking 2001 arms agreement, but neither Taipei nor Washington has been able to identify a source for these boats.

The PLAN, on the other hand, deploys at least thirty modern conventionally powered submarines and five unreliable nuclear powered attack boats as well as one ballistic missile-launching submarine. The most significant ships in China’s undersea fleet, the indigenously produced Song-class and the Kilos being purchased from Russia, may be capable of launching anti-ship cruise missiles while submerged, a very dangerous threat.

The PLAN, as noted above, has been the recipient of a slow but steady stream of improved surface ships and submarines. China is both building combatants in its own, modernized shipyards, and buying warships from Russia. These ships do suffer from a common weakness, however: They lack long-range, area-capable air defense systems. This leads to another area in which the mainland appears to be outstripping Taiwan in modernizing capability–maritime air power. To a great extent, in the twenty-first century “sea power” is really “air power.” That is, he who commands the air commands the sea under it.

Hence, Taiwan’s weak naval air posture is significant. Apart from a very capable force of ship-borne and shore-based helicopters, Taiwan’s naval air power is limited to twenty-one anti-submarine warfare (ASW) S2F aircraft, eleven of which are considered to be operational. Even these aircraft suffer from old age and maintenance problems. These aircraft rarely operate because they are very old and poorly maintained. Again, while the United States in 2001 agreed to sell P-3C long-range patrol and ASW aircraft to Taiwan, Taipei has been unable to reach a decision about buying these aircraft, the best in the world at their mission.

Over the past decade, Taiwan has completed fielding its “new” air force, composed of 160 U.S.-designed F-16 fighters, sixty French-designed Mirage 2000 fighter-bombers, and approximately 250 indigenously designed fighters (IDFs) that are a much-improved version of the old U.S.-designed F-5 aircraft. There currently are no active aircraft acquisition programs for the Taiwan military, unless Taipei finally agrees to purchase the P-3C aircraft offered by Washington three years ago.

Across the strait, the People’s Liberation Army-Air Force (PLAAF) is in the midst of an extensive, ongoing modernization program. The purchase of Su-27 fighters from Russia has progressed to the point where China is assembling kits of these very capable aircraft, which now number approximately 200 in the PLAAF. The Su-30 fighter/attack aircraft is also rapidly being acquired by China, and more than seventy-five are currently in its air force. Some of these aircraft are assigned to the navy and the PLAAF in general in recent years has increased its training in maritime attack missions.

With these aircraft, China is acquiring long range, “fire and forget” air-to-air missiles to match the U.S.-produced AMRAAMs sold to Taiwan. The current balance of power in the air over the Strait is probably about even, but the superiority claimed by Taiwan’s senior air force commanders in 2000 is fading. Indeed, the balance may well shift to the mainland by the end of 2005, as the PLAAF continues to acquire modern tactical aircraft while Taiwan’s air force stands pat.

“Balance of power” is not an easily definable term, especially in the maritime sense. Counting warships and aircraft is important, but other factors must also be examined. First, the PLAN is able operate from numerous bases on the Chinese coast and islands; the Taiwan navy is extremely limited in this respect, with its primary base at Tsoying, located on the island’s southwestern coast directly across from the mainland. In the event of war, the first task of the Taiwanese navy is likely to be to abandon its primary support base, hardly a harbinger of success.

Second, the prevailing strategic situation in the Taiwan Strait almost certainly means that any naval actions will be initiated by the PLAN, giving that force the advantage of surprise over Taiwan’s navy. The element of surprise in a PLAN versus Taiwan navy contest might not be on the order of a Pearl Harbor-like attack, but rather would be an important ingredient at the operational level.

Third, the PLAN would presumably initiate action at a time and in locations of its own choosing, in accordance with carefully drawn up, specific plans. The Taiwan navy, on the other hand, is forced to prepare for a wide range of possible PLAN courses of action, ranging from an all-out amphibious assault to limited actions directed against its seaborne trade.

Fourth, the geography of the likely maritime theater favors the mainland. The PLAN would be able to take advantage of a wide range of attack routes from what the military art describes as “exterior lines.” Taiwan’s naval defenders might have the advantages of concentrating their forces along their “interior lines,” but this factor would count for little against the numerically superior PLAN surface, subsurface, and air forces.

Finally, China’s naval modernization is affecting the balance of maritime power in East Asia as a whole. The PLAN already outnumbers Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, although the latter retains a significant technological advantage. The U.S. Navy remains the world’s strongest, but currently is thinly spread, primarily because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hence, on any given day, the PLAN may be the most powerful naval force on the China Seas.

In sum, the balance of naval power favoring Taiwan is far less certain than it was perhaps ten years ago. The ability to command the sea in the theater centering on the Taiwan Strait, key to any conflict in that area, is shifting in favor of the mainland. Simply put, Beijing is expanding and modernizing its navy, while Taipei is not.

What can Taiwan do to at least maintain a naval balance in this theater, if not to reestablish Taiwanese superiority? First, of course, the intervention of the U.S. military would quickly overwhelm the PLAN (and PLAAF). Second and more important is for Taipei to begin taking advantage of the weapons made available for sale by President Bush in the spring of 2001. The almost complete inaction of the past three years has not been fatal to Taiwan’s naval strength, but every passing month during which the government fails to allocate the financial resources and adopt necessary personnel and other support measures puts the navy deeper into a position of inferiority.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not represent those of the National Defense University or any agency of the U.S. Government.