Taiwan’s Han Kuang Exercises: Training for a Chinese Invasion One Drill at a Time

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 18

Taiwanese Marines Practice Amphibious Operations During Han Kuang 2015 (Source: Chinese Media)

Earlier this month, in Beijing, the Chinese government staged an epic military parade for the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory over Japan in World War II. Chinese interpretations of history in a contemporary context have, of course, always had a political objective in mind. The missiles, fighter jets and troops passing through Tiananmen Square were not only meant for domestic consumption; the projection of national strength and closely managed pageantry conveyed ample insight into how the Chinese leaders plan to use the military in pursuit of national goals. For the Chinese Communist Party there is no larger goal than reunification with the renegade island of Taiwan, the “sacrosanct mission of the entire Chinese people” Beijing has persistently worked toward since 1949 (China.org).

Taiwan has always been a focal point both for the Chinese leadership and the military apparatus writ large. And it is not just the crafted diplomacy and 1,600 missiles pointed at the island. Indeed, the core mission of reunification has incentivized modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces and capabilities (Taipei Times, October 9, 2013). To be fair, while this month’s commemorative parade did happen beyond the cycle of decennial national day festivities, the military technology on display sent a familiar message to Taiwan. Seven missiles were from China’s foremost set of major missiles, the Dongfeng (DF) series. These included the DF-10 anti-ship missile, the DF-15B short-range ballistic missile; the DF-16 and DF-21D medium-range ballistic missiles; the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile; and the DF-5B and DF-31 intercontinental ballistic missiles (China Real Time Report, September 3). As anticipated, China also unveiled its DF-31D anti-ship ballistic missile—capable of disabling U.S. carrier strike groups—and the DF-26, the first missile capable of striking Guam. The resounding message displayed in Chinese offensive capabilities is certainly aimed at Taiwan, as it continues to grapple with the demands of a shrinking defense budget and requirements of modernizing defensive capabilities. But the target of such messaging is also any partner or ally that would come to Taipei’s support in the case of cross-strait conflict.

Even despite staunch domestic opposition, Taiwan sent former Kuomintang (KMT) chairman Lien Chan to join Chinese President Xi Jinping and dozens of other world leaders atop the rostrum at Tiananmen for the display of Chinese military might and V-Day commemoration (CNA, August 28; Phoenix News, September 1). As with many aspects of cross-strait ties, Taiwan’s official stance on World War II emphasizes a version of events different enough to confound Beijing. Yet, Lien accepted Beijing’s invitation, even meeting privately with President Xi. But there was a larger calculus in mind. Ironically, Lien witnessed the military parade on the heels of a report issued by the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense (MND) regarding Beijing’s military capabilities and possible Taiwan contingencies. Taiwanese politicians on both sides of the aisle should presumably be able to agree that any scenario in which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would invade Taiwan needs to be mitigated, if not avoided altogether.

The MND report noted Beijing’s concerns in advance of the 2016 presidential elections in Taiwan. With Tsai Ing-wen, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), candidate increasingly likely to win, PLA drills seeming to simulate an attack on Taipei are perhaps a direct result of mainland China’s electoral angst (Focus Taiwan, August 31). Yet, irrespective of Taiwan’s next president, the MND report posits that Beijing would invade Taiwan under six possible scenarios: 1) Taiwan declares independence or takes steps toward de jure independence; 2) Taiwan obtains nuclear weapons; 3) foreign forces interfere in Taiwan’s affairs; 4) foreign troops are deployed in Taiwan; 5) domestic unrest in Taiwan; or 6) cross-strait negotiations on eventual reunification are delayed by Taiwan. Should mainland China resort to military means for reunification with Taiwan, the report hypothesizes the PLA would use a combination of military threats or a blockade strategy targeting major ports at Kinmen, Matsu or other outlying frontier islands (Taipei Times, September 1). If the conflict were to further escalate, or if Beijing would seek to fully defeat Taiwanese defenses, joint PLA military operations in the form of missiles and other firepower would be deployed to attack Taiwan’s major military and political headquarters, as well as telecommunications infrastructure, followed by airborne and amphibious landings for an invasion of the island.

Despite the dismal picture painted by the MND report, Taiwanese defense officials remain surprisingly confident in the capability of Taiwan’s armed forces to defend against a possible attack by the PLA. This year, as in the past seven years, the Han Kuang exercises (HK, 漢光演習) have allowed Taiwanese defense forces to simulate an invasion by mainland China. Divided into two phases, HK is composed of a Command Post Exercise (CPX) and computer-simulated wargaming followed by Field Training Exercises (FTX). Analysis in China Brief following the 2010 Han Kuang drills suggested that the focal point of the HK exercises reflects the defense policy platform of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou: “passive protection measures and ground defense” are favored over the air and naval-centric active defense strategies of Ma’s predecessors (China Brief, May 27, 2010).

This year’s 63 drills suggest that onlookers have, at best, underestimated Ma’s vision of an active Taiwanese defense (Taiwan Today, September 8). The FTX maneuvers saw the army, navy and air force test their joint operations following computer-aided war games earlier this spring (Focus Taiwan, September 11). One drill held at Kinmen simulated an attack by enemy forces on a group of Taiwanese naval supply vessels heading toward the island. Live-fire drills included an anti-amphibious landing on the shores of Hsinchu, incorporating both self-propelled howitzers and shells. Still other drills included an amphibious landing in Pingtung County and an airborne exercise in Taichung with a C-130 delivering military vehicles and paratroopers with supplies (Taipei Times, September 11). With Taiwan’s newest and most advanced technology on display—including a P-3C sub-hunting plane, the AH-64E Apache attack helicopter, locally-designed stealth missile corvettes and supply vessels, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—the Republic of China armed forces put on a full display of Taiwan’s joint defensive capabilities (Epoch Times, September 9; Apple Daily, September 11).

Still, Taiwanese defense preparedness must also necessarily depend upon the resiliency of military bases and local infrastructure. The advantage of Beijing’s military arsenal over the current capabilities of Taiwanese defense forces is clear­—gone are the days of Taiwan’s impregnability. Mainland China’s advanced missile systems, in particular, coupled with declining Taiwanese defense budgets have shifted the balance of power to the point where defeat in an invasion scenario sans foreign intervention is inevitable (Apple Daily, May 9). The Han Kuang exercises, however, remain a time for Taiwan to test all capacities for bolstering the island’s self-defense solutions.

In the instance of cross-strait conflict, the 1,600 missiles aimed at Taiwan are likely to first target military installations in hopes of preventing Taiwanese forces from launching a full airborne defensive. Mainland China may look to its latest Dongfeng missiles to destroy Taiwan’s military runways, for instance, with the objective of denying Taiwan’s Air Force a minimum operating surface (MOS) requisite for aircraft to become airborne. Equipped with knowledge that a nominal MOS is 5,000 feet long and fifty feet wide, an important element of this year’s HK exercises was held at Chiayi Air Base. [1] Army and air force units worked in coordination for rapid runway repair work, precisely in hopes of simulating a Chinese attack (Taipei Times, September 9). In the event a cross-strait conflict breaks out and Chinese forces do, indeed, focus their attack on Taiwanese air bases, it will take the fastest air force and army troops up to three hours to return airstrips to service (China Post, January 14, 2014).

For Taiwan, the need to prepare for a possible contingency with mainland China has been bolstered by the realities of the “one country, two systems’ (一国两制) model seen in neighboring Hong Kong. Officials in Beijing have long promised that reunification with Taiwan would happen on terms that would allow the “socialist” mainland system to coexist with Taiwanese capitalism, a situation not dissimilar to the handover of Hong Kong by the British to Chinese officials in 1997. However, the “one country, two systems” promise has not held true in the case of Hong Kong—as the 2014 Umbrella Movement made clear, not only is the population of Hong Kong limited in who it can vote for, but the top contenders are certainly vetted and approved first by the central authorities in Beijing. Taiwanese onlookers are undoubtedly skeptical that Beijing has other plans in mind for a post-reunification “one country, two systems” model with Taipei, and thus must necessarily be prepared for all forms of reunification, including a military invasion.

Despite continued cross-strait militarization and a perceived willingness by both sides to offensively or defensively stake claims to divergent national interests, any cross-strait conflict is unlikely to start without sufficient warning signals. As Taiwan expert J. Michael Cole points out, “the greater the scope of the initial phase, the more time will be necessary for the PLA to prepare the assault, giving Taiwanese, Japanese and U.S. intelligence assets in the region greater opportunities to detect unusual activity in China and more time to prepare” (The National Interest, August 22, 2014). Annual Taiwanese drills as part of the Han Kuang exercise are one small step in ensuring the island is prepared for a possible PLA invasion. What was seen in Beijing’s V-Day commemorative parade is a direct challenge to both the final months of the Ma presidency, as well as the next administration. In 2016, with a DPP administration led by Tsai Ing-wen increasingly likely to take the political reins in Taipei, the new Taiwanese government will have to tread a delicate balance between further antagonizing Beijing and investing in a military capable of countering China’s growing military power and presence.

Lauren Dickey is a PhD candidate in War Studies at Kings College London and the National University of Singapore. Her research focuses on cross-strait ties, specifically Xi Jinping’s strategy toward Taiwan. She was formerly a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Note

1. Jacob L. Heim, “The Iranian Missile Threat to Air Bases – A distant Second to China’s Conventional Deterrent,” Air and Space Power Journal, July–August 2015, http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/digital/pdf/articles/2015-Jul-Aug/F-Heim.pdf, p. 33.