October 28, 2009
1. Executive Summary
The status of Taiwan stands out among global disputes as one that could realistically trigger a war between major powers. Given the high stakes involved, major players have thus far been content to reluctantly accept the status quo: America supplies Taiwan with a qualitative military advantage over the Chinese military via arms sales and Taiwan persists as the state that dares not speak its’ name. The status quo, however, is starting to break down, as military advances on the Chinese mainland have begun to tip the scales. This backgrounder will first provide a brief historical overview of the conflict and then explore the changing military situation.
2. Historical Background
Owing to the subject matter’s complexity and limited space, this summary will only cover developments that are most pertinent to the present conflict.
There exists a division within Taiwanese society that, while slowly fading, remains to this day. On one side are those who lived on the island during Japanese colonization (1895-1945), and on the other the Kuomintang (KMT) refugees who flooded on to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War . This division was pronounced during the period of KMT rule and Martial Law (1949-1987), when native Taiwanese were forced to accept an authority that was very similar to that of their former colonial overlords in Tokyo.
During the Martial Law period, the KMT launched a ‘Sinification’ campaign aimed at stomping out remnants of Japanese colonialism and Taiwanese identity . The Japanese language and local dialects such as fujianhua were repressed and replaced with Mandarin as the standard language of instruction.
After Taiwanese society democratized and began to open up in the late 80s, the division between ‘Mainlander’ and ‘Taiwanese’ became less pertinent, nevertheless it is still reflected in the support bases of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the KMT. ‘Green’ DPP supporters are less amenable to re-unification than their ‘blue’ KMT counterparts are. As of 2008, 51% of the Taiwanese population was self-identifying as exclusively Taiwanese, and a mere 5% as exclusively Chinese .
At present, the majority of Taiwanese people support maintaining the status quo over a declaration of independence or re-unification with China.
While re-unification lingered as a CCP goal throughout the period of 1949-1980, it took on a whole new meaning after the ascendance of Deng Xiaoping . In the wake of Mao Zedong’s death, Deng and the CCP faced a crisis of legitimacy. Deng wanted to push through economic reforms, but to do so would directly contradict Mao’s ideology. To circumvent this problem, Deng argued that the unresolved status of Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan was indicative of the failure of Mao’s economic policies. In doing so, he presented re-unification as the major benchmark for gauging the success of his own economic reform program, and by extension, the CCP as well .
The CCP has leaned on Chinese nationalism to legitimize one-party rule in the wake of Mao’s death, and re-unification of the motherland has become a critical component. Such is the onus on nationalism that the CCP has managed to imprison itself in a jail of its own making. There are now some foreign policy options that are impossible because of the uncontrollable popular outrage that would break out in Chinese cities . Any compromise on the Taiwan issue is one such policy.
3. The Military Situation – 1980-2000
Beijing’s re-unification strategy since Deng has been to push for negotiations and concurrently develop a military capability with which to strike Taiwan. Up until 2000, the PLA had no hope of launching a successful invasion of Taiwan due to a myriad of military deficiencies: an immature military-industrial complex, poor command structures for joint operations, over-reliance on Russian weapons, and inaccurate missile technology .
During the 1990s, leaders in Beijing watched in horror as a series of American military campaigns in Iraq and Kosovo further emphasized the PLA's backwardness vis-à-vis the American military. In response, the CCP embarked on a massive military reform program meant to re-orient the PLA and PLA Navy towards fighting limited RMA wars along China’s periphery . Fast-forward to 2009 and these reforms have not only bore fruit, but are changing the security picture of the whole of East Asia
4. The Current Military Situation
The military equilibrium that has presided over the Taiwan Strait will tip in the coming years, if it hasn’t done so already. China’s reformed military-industrial complex has bolstered the PLA Navy to the point that it could pose a credible threat to a US Carrier Strike Group. In recent years, the PLA Navy has deployed eight new classes of indigenous destroyers and frigates and now boasts a fleet of over 55 attack submarines . China’s anti-ship missile technology- a crucial deterrent against US naval intervention- has also made strides in recent years [3, 5]. China’s naval military modernization has proceeded with such intensity that it has had the unintentional consequence of triggering a naval arms race with India.
However impressive the PLA Navy's gains have been in building up deterrence against a possible American intervention in a conflict over Taiwan, it is China’s advances in short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) that are having the biggest impact on the military balance. China now has between 1,050-1,150 missiles aimed at Taiwan- an amount that increases by about 100 per year . If the accuracy and range of Chinese SRBMs continues to improve, then Taiwan’s defense will become untenable within a decade .
On the other side of the Strait, Taiwan has struggled to maintain its qualitative edge in military technology because of domestic political opposition to American arms sales. Arms packages with crucial technologies such as Patriot anti-ballistic missiles have been frequently stalled or slashed down in the period from 2000-2008 .
5. A Chinese Attack Scenario
According to a sobering assessment from the RAND Corporation, China already has the military capacity to virtually obliterate Taiwan’s military infrastructure in a surprise attack.
Chinese SRBMs are accurate enough to strike at ROC Air Force (ROCAF) planes parked on their runways, as well as Taiwanese air defense batteries . If a sudden Chinese missile launch were to destroy Taiwan’s runways and SAM sites, the short window of air superiority would enable PLA Air Force (PLAAF) bombers to get through and destroy the ROCAF’s remaining planes while they were trapped in their hangars . In a matter of days, the PLA could establish comprehensive air superiority over the Taiwan Strait; a timeframe that wouldn’t afford the American military enough time to dispatch any effective assistance [6, 8].
6. The Next Ten Years
The clock is running out for Taipei, and even though Ma Ying Jiu’s presidency has thus far been characterized by a thaw in cross-Strait relations, Taiwan’s negotiating leverage has been diminishing with every passing year. Beijing’s growing military advantage not only has Taipei in a vise, but it is also calls the integrity of America’s military commitment into question, especially in a scenario where the PLA can achieve a swift victory before Washington can even act .
It seems likely that Beijing will continue to press for negotiations over the short-term, fully cognizant of its growing military advantage. If, however, Beijing perceives the status quo to be detrimental to eventual re-unification- perhaps in the form of a growing ‘Taiwanese’ consciousness- then China may push its advantage and use force or the threat of force to try and resolve the stand-off.
7. End Notes
 Rubinstein, M. Taiwan: A New History. 1999. M.E Sharpe. London
 Hughes, C. Chinese Nationalism in the Global Era. 2006. Routledge
 Chase, M. Taiwan’s Security Policy: External Threats and Domestic Politics. 2008. Lynne Rienner Publishers. USA.
 Wachman, A. Why Taiwan? Geostrategic Rationales for China’s Territorial Integrity. 2007. Stanford University Press. California.
 Parsons, T. China Develops Anti-ship Missile. 18 January 2006. Janes. http://www.janes.com/defence/naval_forces/news/jdw/jdw060118_1_n.shtml
 Shlapak, D. Does China Have Taiwan in a Strait Jacket? October 2, 2009. Foreign Policy Magazine. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/10/02/chinas_beefed_up_air_force
 Sisci, F. Ten Years to Tackle the Taiwan Equation. Oct 22, 2009. Asia Times. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/KJ22Ad01.html
 Shlapak, D & Orletsky, D & Reid, T & Tanner, M & Wilson, B. A Question of Balance: Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute. 2009. RAND Corporation. http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2009/RAND_MG888.pdf
 Kan, S. Taiwan: Major US Arms Sales Since 1990. September 24, 2009. Congressional Research Service. http://fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL30957.pdf