Taiwan’s Threat Perceptions: Underestimating China’s Capabilities and Intentions?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 5

The official threat assessments that Taiwan has released in recent years reflect the growing concern over China’s military modernization, which is typically portrayed as part of a broader strategic challenge with potentially serious implications for the island’s security. Moreover, Taiwanese officials assess that the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is focused primarily on Taiwan scenarios. For example, Taiwan’s 2006 National Security Report notes that the PLA has built mock-ups of some of Taiwan’s major military bases and other critical facilities and conducted a number of military exercises simulating attacks on Taiwan [1]. Nevertheless, in contrast to the sobering assessments of the U.S. Department of Defense as well as other U.S. research institutions, many analysts and officials in Taiwan do not believe that there is a significant risk of conflict in the near future. They instead suggest that the most dangerous period of time for Taiwan will not arrive until about 2010-2015, when they believe China will have an overwhelming military advantage. Taiwanese analysts also seem to doubt Beijing’s willingness to employ its growing military capability against Taiwan, with domestic political considerations playing an important role in shaping Taipei’s threat perceptions.

Taiwan’s Strategic Thinking

Taiwanese officials and analysts regard the enhancement of Chinese military power as part of a much broader Chinese challenge to the island’s political, military and economic security. Indeed, Taiwan’s definition of national security encompasses much more than the cross-Strait military balance. According to the Taiwanese National Security Council (NSC) 2006 National Security Report, the concept of national security includes military security, economic and financial security, information security, energy security, population and land conservation issues, epidemic prevention and issues related to ethnicity and national identity (NSC 2006 National Security Report, p. 2). Similarly, according to a recent article in National Defense magazine, China’s growing power and influence threaten Taiwan’s security in no fewer than six areas: politics, economics, psychology, information, military affairs, and science and technology [2].

Taipei is particularly concerned about China’s “united front” strategy and the potential long-term implications of increasing cross-Strait economic interaction. President Chen Shui-bian’s administration views Beijing’s “united front” tactics, such as its recent courting of unification-leaning pan-Blue (KMT and PFP) opposition leaders, as highly threatening to Taiwan’s national security. Independence-leaning pan-Green (DPP and TSU) politicians are also deeply concerned about China’s growing economic power, increasing cross-Strait trade, and rising Taiwanese investment in China and technology transfer to the mainland. Policymakers in Taiwan define the threat to the island’s national security broadly and tend to focus most heavily on the political and economic aspects of the threat, with the military balance as only an important part of the larger equation.

Assessments of PLA Military Capabilities and Potential Conflict Scenarios

Taiwan’s official threat assessments in recent years suggest the government recognizes that Chinese military capabilities are growing and that this will ultimately give Beijing more credible and attractive options to attack or coerce Taiwan. The Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense’s (MND) 2006 National Defense Report, for example, lists three potential scenarios for Chinese military action: “intimidation warfare,” “paralysis warfare,” and “invasion warfare” [3]. According to the report, “intimidation warfare” consists of military pressure or show of force actions short of full-scale war, such as large-scale military exercises, computer network attacks, electronic attacks, psychological operations and provocative air and naval activity in the Taiwan Strait. At the highest end of the intimidation spectrum is a partial or full blockade of Taiwan. “Paralysis Warfare” would involve surprise attacks, cyber warfare, missile strikes, long-range precision strikes, special operations and sabotage. It would aim at achieving a quick, decisive victory by “rapidly paralyzing Taiwan’s command and control system and political and military nerve centers and disintegrating Taiwan’s organized military operations.” At the highest end of the conflict spectrum is “invasion warfare,” which would entail PLA occupation of the offshore islands, the Penghus or the main island of Taiwan.

The NSC’s 2006 National Security Report assesses that China’s objective would be to fight a “quick war with quick results.” The same report further describes a possible course of action that appears to incorporate elements of “paralysis warfare” and “invasion warfare,” in which China would attempt to achieve a quick, decisive victory by launching a joint-service attack, involving precision strikes and limited use of ground forces to bring about a rapid collapse of Taiwanese military resistance: “In the event of a future Chinese invasion of Taiwan, it is highly likely that China will launch missiles to carry out precision strikes, combine its special operations forces with personnel it has in place in Taiwan, and coordinate airborne, heliborne, and amphibious assaults to conduct simultaneous multi-point, multi-level attacks on Taiwan’s core political, economic, and other centers. This new type of warfare…is designed to allow the PLA to mount attacks from within and outside Taiwan, paralyze and control the core of Taiwan’s government and economy, and quickly destroy the government’s decision-making mechanisms and capabilities to respond, so that it may achieve decisive results on the battlefield” (NSC 2006 National Security Report, p.41).

Most official assessments indicate that ROC officials view a full-scale invasion of this type as the least likely potential Chinese course of action, at least in the near-term, because the PLA does not yet have the capabilities required to successfully conduct a large-scale “invasion warfare” campaign. For example, the 2006 National Security Report states that “at present the PLA does not have the capability to launch a large-scale invasion of Taiwan” (NSC 2006 National Security Report , p. 41). The most recent MND report also concludes that the “invasion warfare” scenario is “highly unlikely” in the short-term, given the current political and economic environment and the limitations of Chinese military power (MND 2006 National Defense Report).

Although the NSC and MND reports are in agreement on the large-scale invasion option, they appear to differ somewhat on the near-term likelihood of the other scenarios. The MND 2006 report suggests that the “intimidation warfare” scenario is currently the most likely threat to Taiwan and will remain so at least through 2008. The report does warn, however, that if the cross-Strait military balance continues to shift in China’s favor, paralysis warfare and invasion will become much more serious and probable threats to Taiwan’s security in the next few years (2006 MND National Defense Report). The NSC report appears to express a more immediate concern about coercive use of force scenarios, including blockades, attacks against the offshore islands and several courses of action that would fall into the MND’s “paralysis warfare” category. For example, it states that the PLA already has the capacity to conduct various types of coercive military operations and suggests that China might launch a decapitation strike against Taiwan in order to paralyze its defenses. According to the NSC report, “With its new command and control systems and weapons capabilities, the PLA is now able to organize warfare of a new order, change the pace of war, launch a quick decapitation strike against its opponents’ command systems, and destroy its opponents’ abilities to put up organized defenses, thus shortening wars and gaining quick victories” (NSC 2006 National Security Report, p. 39).

While this seems to reflect some variance in estimates of PLA capabilities, most government officials and think tank researchers in Taiwan clearly recognize that the Chinese military is becoming a much more potent and capable fighting force. At the same time, however, they seem to underestimate China’s willingness to use force, especially if Taipei crosses one of Beijing’s “red lines.” For example, the MND’s 2004 National Defense Report paints a picture of an increasingly capable Chinese military, but casts doubt on Beijing’s willingness to use force against Taiwan, at least in the near- to mid-term. According to the 2004 MND report, “Taking into consideration its economic growth and political stability, and barring unpredictable factors, the PRC is unlikely to pick up the fight against Taiwan in the near future” (MND 2004 National Defense Report , p. 53). Similarly, in a March 2006 report to the Legislative Yuan’s National Defense Committee, National Security Bureau (NSB) Director Shih-min Hsueh said it was unlikely that China would use force against Taiwan within the next two years [4].

Analysts in Taiwan cite a number of reasons they believe would make China very reluctant to seriously contemplate a use of force against Taiwan. Perhaps the most frequently mentioned reason is Beijing’s current preoccupation with domestic politics and its reluctance to risk further undermining social stability. Others argue that Beijing would not be willing to risk derailing its plans to host the 2008 Olympics, an important event that the Chinese Community Party (CCP) leadership views as a reflection of China’s emergence as an influential and respected global political and economic power. Still another argument some Taiwanese analysts have posited is that China would seek to avoid becoming embroiled in a conflict that could potentially disrupt its continued domestic economic development, which has become one of the regime’s primary sources of legitimacy.

Others have also argued that even though the cross-Strait military balance is shifting, China is unlikely to seriously contemplate using force until it has such an overwhelming military advantage, which would enable them to win a rapid and decisive victory with relatively low costs. For example, in January 2003, then-Vice Minister of National Defense Chong-Pin Lin stated that the PLA would surpass Taiwan’s capabilities between 2005 and 2008, but dismissed concerns that this shift in the cross-Strait military balance would embolden China to choose war in the near-term. “The simple fact of a crossover is insufficient to make leaders in Beijing feel 100 percent confident in winning a war,” Lin said (Reuters, January 11, 2003). For now, Beijing would place economic development above national unification, relying on diplomatic isolation, increasing cross-Strait economic ties and “united front” tactics to prevent Taiwan from achieving de jure independence. The period of greatest danger for Taiwan would not arrive until 2010-2015, Lin argued, when “the PLA will have such…supremacy in both qualitative and quantitative comparison of forces that it may feel confident to move” (Reuters, January 11, 2003).

Although many analysts downplay the possibility of an imminent cross-Strait conflict, some argue that the combination of increasing internal unrest and growing nationalism could spark a crisis. Indeed, some officials and analysts in Taipei assess that serious domestic political problems in China would be the most likely cause of a cross-Strait conflict. The NSC’s 2006 National Security Report warns that “the greatest hidden risk” of China’s rise would be any attempt by Beijing to shift attention away from internal social problems “by inciting extreme nationalism and directing hostility toward foreign targets, or even initiating military aggression against Taiwan.” Another variant of this analysis suggests that serious divisions within the CCP leadership or an intense succession struggle could tempt leaders to use the Taiwan issue to manipulate nationalist sentiment, consolidate their power and overcome their rivals. Overall, however, many analysts and officials in Taiwan appear to believe that the likelihood of conflict over the next few years is low, since even with the PLA’s improved military capabilities, Chinese leaders would want to exhaust all other options before accepting the tremendous risks and uncertainties that would be associated with using force against Taiwan.

In contrast to Taiwan’s threat assessments, many official and unofficial U.S. analyses paint a more pessimistic picture of Taiwan’s vulnerability to Chinese military coercion. Recent U.S. assessments note that China’s military modernization has accelerated since the late 1990s, giving Beijing a number of potential options it lacked in 1995-96, when the PLA could do little more than attempt to intimidate Taiwan with missile tests and military exercises [5]. Although U.S. analysts note that China’s cross-Strait strategy is focused mainly on deterring Taiwan from further moves toward formal independence, many observers in the United States also tend to give more credence to Beijing’s repeated warnings about its willingness to “pay any price” to prevent Taiwan’s permanent separation from the mainland.

Domestic Politics and Threat Assessments

Taiwan’s official threat assessments appear to reflect a broader lack of consensus on the immediacy and severity of the Chinese threat to the island’s security. Political elites in Taiwan are divided on the seriousness and urgency of the threat and on how best to cope with the challenges posed by PLA modernization. These differences stem from disagreements about how best to protect Taiwan’s interests in its complex relationship with China. Moreover, politicians on both sides of the debate have domestic political disincentives to emphasize the seriousness of the Chinese military threat to Taiwan’s national security. The KMT and PFP cannot draw attention to the growing threat without raising questions about the potential implications of greater economic and political engagement with China, which they strongly support. Moreover, recognizing the gravity of the Chinese military threat would result in questions regarding the motives behind their intense opposition to the Chen administration’s proposals to procure new weapons and equipment from the United States. On the other side of the political spectrum, a number of independence-leaning politicians in the DPP and TSU also appear reluctant to draw greater attention to the threat. Emphasizing the growing capabilities of the PLA, they fear, would increase their vulnerability to pan-Blue charges that their “localization” policies and unyielding stance on cross-Strait relations risk endangering Taiwan’s security by provoking China and alienating the United States. In short, neither side is in a position to highlight the threat without running the risk of undermining its own positions on other key issues, which could cost its candidates votes in future elections.

The domestic political factors that influence Taiwan’s threat perceptions thus tend to diminish the likelihood of a more comprehensive and coordinated response to Chinese military modernization. Indeed, the assessment that China is unlikely to use force in the short-term clearly helps to explain why some politicians in Taiwan are willing to pursue domestic political strategies that U.S. officials worry may needlessly provoke China. For these same reasons, others appear relatively unconcerned about the potential national security implications of prolonged stalemates over arms procurement and other critical issues of national security.


1. National Security Council, Taiwan, 2006 National Security Report, Taipei, Taiwan: National Security Council, May 20, 2006, p. 39. From hereinafter referred to in-text as “NSC 2006 National Security Report.”

2. Yu Yongzhang, Col, ROC Army, “Reflections on China’s Increasing Military Power and the Cross-Strait Asymmetric Warfare Threat to Taiwan” [Cong zhonggong junli chengzhang lunshu Taihai buduichen zhanzheng dui wo weixie], National Defense Magazine [Guofang zazhi], 20:1 (2005), pp. 97-108.

3. Ministry of National Defense, 2006 National Defense Report, Taipei, Taiwan, August 2006, pp. 82-85. From hereinafter referred to in-text as “MND 2006 National Defense Report.”

4. Hsueh identified four variables as influences on the stability of cross-Strait relations: the growing military imbalance between China and Taiwan; the deterrent value of U.S. support for Taiwan; nationalism and the political situation in China; and domestic politics in Taiwan.

5. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2006.