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Taiwan’s Defense Strategy Doesn’t Make Military Sense

But It Does Make Political Sense

Taiwanese tanks during a military exercise in Taiwan, January 2010 Reuters

Taiwan is approaching an ominous deadline. For decades, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have declared that China’s “great national rejuvenation” must be accomplished by the year 2049. National rejuvenation, the party insists, includes a Taiwan governed by the same powers and principles that now reign across the Taiwan Strait. Beijing would prefer to accomplish this through the free assent of the Taiwanese people. If they do not give it, party leadership has made clear that it is willing to decide the matter with military force.

For many years, this seemed like an empty threat. Traditionally, Taiwan offset Chinese manpower with superior technology and training. But over the last 15 years, the Chinese military has implemented the most ambitious modernization program the world has seen since the 1930s. China’s navy has, in the words of one U.S. defense analyst, “metamorphosized from a coastal-defense force composed of largely obsolescent Soviet-era technologies into a modern naval service” with its own carrier wings, guided missile destroyers, and amphibious transport capacity needed to storm enemy beaches. Its air force now has more fourth-generation fighter jets than Taiwan has military aircraft. And its specialized missile force has more than 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles to lob at Taiwanese runways, command centers, and fuel depots in the first hours of a war. Chinese naval squadrons and fighter aircraft now boldly circle Taiwan, while Taiwanese intelligence and security systems are the targets of an estimated 10,000 cyberattacks per month. For the first time since the 1950s, China’s threats to invade Taiwan are frighteningly credible. The countdown to 2049 is ticking.

Still, a Chinese assault on Taiwan would be incredibly risky. It would require the largest amphibious invasion in human history, and because of the island’s unforgiving geography, the Taiwanese would only need to defend a few select beachheads. Modern military technology favors the defender, who can use cheap precision munitions to destroy an aggressor’s more expensive amphibious assault ships, capital ships, and aircraft.

In light of these

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