10 things I learned from Ian Easton's book "The Chinese Invasion Threat"

I just read Ian Easton’s book “The Chinese Invasion Threat” on how a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would likely play out. It’s an excellent book. You can find him on Twitter under the handle @Ian_M_Easton.

Here are my top ten take-aways from the book:

1. China has had a plan to invade Taiwan for many years

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense reported in 2013 that the Chinese leadership planned to invade Taiwan by 2020. The new leadership under Xi Jinping apparently entered into a pact at the 18th National Congress in 2012 to build up operational capabilities to use force against Taiwan.

PLA literature describe a future invasion of Taiwan as “probably inevitable”. The Communist Party sees an invasion as the only way to weed out “separatist” forces that could one day challenge its grip on power. It also sees control of the island as vital to safeguard against foreign blockades. Xi Jinping has said that “these issues [Taiwan’s independence] cannot be passed on from generation to generation”.

Obviously, the 2020 plan never came to fruition. But the invasion may simply have been postponed for a few months or a year.

2. The reason why the PRC hasn't invaded Taiwan yet has been a lack of resources

After the Nationalist government of China (run by Kuomintang, or “KMT”) fled to Taiwan in 1949, the Communists had plans to take over the island as well. They wanted to destroy KMT and their new “Republic of China” (=Taiwan) once and for all. But they had no navy to speak of in the early 1950s, and no air force either. They had no practical experience conducting modern naval warfare.

In the early 1950s, the Nationalists also managed to control a number of islands close to China’s coast (Dongsha, Matsu, Kinmen and Penghu). Via these islands, the Nationalists controlled shipping lanes in and out of southeastern China’s harbours, bays and ports.

The PLA actually attacked Kinmen once in 1949 but was decisively defeated, with almost ten thousand PLA troops lost.

Mao and his generals set up a plan to invade Taiwan after the winter of 1949-50 with roughly 500,000 troops. It turned out to be unrealistic. Mao had difficulties amassing enough troops, landing vehicles and air force to carry out the mission, despite help from Soviet Union.

And then the Korean war sucked resources out of the PLA. A planned 1951 campaign had a force of 675,000 soldiers ready for an attack but the major focus was put on supporting North Korea in its war against its neighbour in the south.

The threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan only subsided after US President Truman ordered aircraft carrier Valley Forge, heavy cruiser Rochester and eight destroyers into the Taiwan Strait, and deployed American seaplanes to the Penghu islands.

Even if the US had not intervened, it seems unlikely that the Communists would have succeeded in taking over Taiwan. The Nationalists had troops of about 500,000, a similar number to the PLA. But they were also supported by 250 combat aircraft, 200 navy ships, including troops on Penghu and Kinmen islands.

3. China’s military spending dwarfs that of Taiwan

According to Easton’s book, Taiwan has a professional military of about 200,000 men. This compares to active personnel in China’s PLA of about 2 million men. Taiwan does have additional reservists of about 2.5 million men, who could be called in to defend their hometowns.

But China’s military spending is on another level. Taiwan’s only spends $15 billion per year. Whereas for China, military spending seems to be closer to $260 billion - 16 times that of Taiwan. Given that PLA literature assumes that the majority of PLA forces would be mobilised in an invasion, it seems that the PLA would have the upper hand.

4. Early warning signals would include: stockpiling of commodities, Chinese aircraft in Taiwanese airspace and suspicious troop movements

Prior to an invasion, we can expect the following to happen.

There would reports on reserves and militia units being called up for service, moved in larger numbers towards the Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. Ballistic missiles and cruise missiles would travel on highways and rail lines towards the coast. Train stations, bus depots and airports would be crowded with troops. Satellites would capture pictures of Chinese tanks, rocket launchers, artillery pieces and armoured vehicles on the move down south.

Fighter jets and other aircraft would fly low in cities such as Shanghai as they rehearse their roles.

Nuclear weapons could be tested in order to deter American intervention. Overseas propaganda campaigns would hint that any conflict will rapidly escalate into a nuclear exchange. Chinese propaganda campaigns within the country would ignite war fever across China, glorifying past PLA heroes and model soldiers.

There would be stockpiling of oil & gas. Chinese factories would be producing weapons, ammunition and equipment as well as food, water, uniforms, medicine and batteries.

Shipyards would run around the clock mass producing landing ships and amphibious assault vehicles. There would be a significant uptick in construction activity at airbases.

Fishing crawlers would be equipped in large numbers with intelligence gears and seen across the Taiwan Strait.

Intelligence-gathering aircraft would prowl the skies around Taiwan, skirting the edge of Taiwan's airspace and to test Taiwanese reaction speeds.

Organized crime syndicates in Taiwan would become active and violence would break out across the country. The Taiwanese president and other high officials could potentially become victims of assassinations.

5. An invasion would start with controlling the air, then fighting via an amphibious attack

Once an invasion actually starts in earnest, the PLA would try to take over the key islands of Kinmen, Matsu and Dongsha. Taking over these islands complicates Taiwan’s intelligence gathering efforts.

The PRC would then try to cut off the island from foreign trade and the importation of fuels such as LNG.

The Chinese would attempt to disrupt or temporarily sever Taiwan’s internet and communications traffic. Aircraft equipped with jamming devices would also reduce the amount of intelligence that ROC forces would be able to collect. China would likely attack American warning satellites in advance of ballistic missile launches.

According to Chinese military writings, they state that Taiwan must be bombed heavily to soften it up for invasion. Air raids would come streaking across the Strait, targeting Taiwan’s air bases and runways. Key targets would be government ministries and military headquarters. In a worst-case scenario, they could also hit Taiwan’s nuclear plants. Water, electric, gas and transportation infrastructure could be obliterated. Bridges, tunnels, communications infrastructure and defence industries would also be targeted.

PLA submarines would release drifting contact mines at the openings of Taiwan’s major ports.

There would be two types of land forces: air assault units and amphibious troops. The latter would storm Taiwan’s beaches. Special operations forces would scale seaside cliffs and execute assaults in rear areas. Before invaders land on Taiwan’s coast, the PLA would launch missiles, rockets, bombs and artillery shells across the shoreline. Roads and bridges would be taken and blown up.

A major landing zone would have to include 1) a large beach 2) a harbour 3) a dockyard and 4) an airport. The primary mission will be a swift capture of Taipei.

Once the island has been taken over, China would institute martial law and tighten control over towns, farmlands and mountains to hunt for remaining fighters. Post-war, Taiwanese radio programs, TV, Internet, media would blast out propaganda.

Specific areas that could be used for landing operations could be Jinshan South Beach close to Taipei and Jialutang Beach close to Kaohsiung. Linkou and Haihu are particularly close to Taipei, and therefore suitable for amphibious landings. Other beaches could be considered as well, but they lack proximity to airports or access to major cities.

6. It would be extraordinarily difficult to take over Taiwan via amphibious landings

America's 1945 plan to invade Taiwan (then “Formosa”) from the Japanese was deemed to be too difficult to carry out. American military planners concluded that they needed a five-to-one superiority to secure a victory, given the dense cities and mountainous geography. Taiwan is still a very difficult terrain to conduct warfare in.

Taiwan’s national defense plan is called the “Gu’An Operational Plan” (meaning “solid and secure”). The plan is very rigorous and does not assume that Taiwan will receive any support from either American or Japanese forces. Some think that the plan is putting too much pressure on a potentially strained Taiwanese military.

As soon as attacks begin, reservists would be mobilised within 24-48 hours and high value assets would be moved into bunkers. Schools would be shut down and children sent to live with elderly relatives in the countryside. The President and key staff would work from deep underground vaults. Joint task forces would engage and destroy Chinese amphibious fleet before they strike. Citizen-soldiers would then be assigned to defend their own hometowns.

Taiwanese engineers have built tunnels and underground facilities all across the island and especially around key landing zones. These tunnels are filled with weapons, ammunition, mines, obstacles and supplies.

The main beaches where the ROC Army expects the PLA to invade have been fortified with tanks, missiles, rockets and artillery guns. Tunnels and bunker systems have been built across nearby hills. Low laying fields and wetlands have been designed for flooding to trap enemy forces as they land. Beach obstacle systems have been designed to entangle, rip apart and incinerate small landing boats. Oil drums filled with gasoline would pour out of pipelines and turn beaches into burning infernos. Landmines have been laid out in kill zones designed to trap the attacker in tangles of barbed wire. Cultivation of sharp-spine agave plants, cactuses and thick thorny hedgerows have taken place to reduce mobility.

To carry out an amphibious invasion would not be an easy task and Taiwan would retain an upper hand initially, despite inferiority in numbers.

7. The surprise factor will be crucial

Most negative assessments regarding Taiwan's defensibility has to do with scenarios where Taiwan is caught off-guard. Intelligence gathering is therefore seen as crucial. If the PLA is able to catch Taiwanese forces by surprise, that would nullify the preparation that the ROC military has carried out over the past 70 years.

Both Taiwan and Japan have excellent early-warning intelligence capabilities. But the PLA does as well and reportedly has a large network of spies and United Front workers trying to influence key decision makers in Taiwan.

Crimea’s “little green men” come to mind. When Russian annexed Crimea, it sent in special forces in unmarked uniforms that eventually overwhelmed the Crimean peninsula. It would be much harder for PLA special agents to gain entry into Taiwan. But over the past decade, the PRC has increasingly use civilian fishing boats to extend its territorial claims, now known as “little blue men”. These boats are in fact military vessels in disguise. But since they do look civilian, Taiwan might be unwilling to open fire in fear of setting off a war. Another possibility is for the PLA special forces to enter Taiwan via commercial container ships, perhaps via Chinese state-owned company COSCO’s terminals at Kaohsiung Port as described here.

8. Even if the US comes to Taiwan's rescue, it will likely be too late

China would probably launch missiles at American forces concentrated on Okinawa, in a repeat of Pearl Harbour. The primary target would be the US Air Force base at Kadena.

For US forces to come to the rescue, they would need at least 2 weeks. But that’s probably an optimistic estimate. The ROC military expects US forces to arrive from Okinawa no sooner than in 21 to 28 days.

The exact timing will probably depend on Biden’s behaviour. Will he act first without Congressional approval (as he is entitled to do)? Or will he stall and wait for Congress to give him a go-ahead?

The entire invasion could be over within 2-3 weeks, so unless Biden acts quickly, Taiwan is likely to be taken over by Communist forces.

9. Weather conditions suggest an April-October attack as most likely

From late October until the middle of March, weather in the Taiwan Strait is incredibly difficult to navigate through. Heavy winds and typhoons affect waves, sometimes making them gigantic. In August and September, waves can get up to 14 metres high.

An invasion would ideally be planned for when the tides hit their monthly peak so that beaches are relatively smaller for soldiers to traverse.

There are two ideal time windows for an invasion: late March until late April, as well as late September until the end of October. During these periods, winds are usually light and waves low.

In addition, there could be a temptation to plan for a Taiwan contingency prior to the 100-year anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in July 2021. That would suggest late March until late April as the most likely period for an invasion.

10. PLA is a political military, not a professional one

The political nature of the PLA pervades its research organisations. When planning for war, PLA research typically limits itself to past cases that turned out successfully. They typically do not study past failures, even though such cases can also provide valuable lessons. Easton makes the case that they typically don’t consider any “Plan" B”.

When PLA promotes individuals to top positions, relatives of Communist Party heroes are routinely favoured over their peers - no matter how incompetent they are. PLA leaders tend to be rewarded for their loyalty rather than their competence. The implication is that high-level officers may not be willing to go against the party line and might be more willing to ignore unwelcome facts that emerge before them. Easton makes the case that Xi Jinping is unlikely to be told anything he does not want to hear. That increases the risk of mistakes.

The likelihood of a Communist invasion of Taiwan in 2021 is probably lower than 10%. Chinese state media threatened Taiwan’s government with the words “勿谓言之不预也”, which translates into “Don’t say that we didn’t warn you [of a war]”. Out of 32 prior instances where Chinese state media used that wording, only three led to actual wars. You could make the argument that China’s stockpiling of commodities and Xi Jinping’s taking full control of the military on 1 January 2021 should increase the probability somewhat.

Either way, Ian Easton’s book is helpful in the sense that it provides you with scenarios that you can check against to update your probabilities over time.

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