THE CHINESE INVASION THREAT, TAIWAN‘S DEFENSE AND AMERICA’S STRATEGY IN ASIA
By Ian Easton
Project 2049 Institute, $20, 389 pages
Forget Graham Allison’s oversold volume on the so-called Thucydides Trap. If you want to read one essential China policy book this year that offers some hope that your children need not be condemned to a century of wars with China, then read “The Chinese Invasion Threat” by Ian Easton, a research fellow with the Project 2049 Institute.
Mr. Allison offers what amounts to the latest defense of the Cold War-era China policy built by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his successors, which essentially justifies continued concessions (appeasement) to the “rising power” Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dictatorship to uphold “stability” but not peace.
Part of a new generation of China analysts, Mr. Easton is far more impressed with promise of Taiwan’s democracy and rejects policies that appease China, such as our self-constrained “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan. But Mr. Easton also makes clear that both peace and stability between the U.S. and China could end as soon as early in the next decade. For the first time since the early 1950s China is close to being able to attempt its never-abandoned goal of conquering Taiwan.
Why now? Mr. Easton lists reasons, including the CCP’s fear of Taiwan’s strengthening democratic culture and identity making peaceful “unification” unlikely while increasingly undermining the legitimacy of the CCP’s dictatorship. But politics may also be pressing current CCP and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leader Xi Jinping; starting the “historic mission” of unification near the end of his second term in 2022 may help justify an unprecedented third term as leader.
Mr. Easton offers what is to date the most expansive open source examination of historic and current PLA invasion preparations. Using PLA-related publications with restricted access in China, a genre usually first obtained by intelligence agencies, Mr. Easton provides new insights into the details, deliberations, planning and even some doubts of PLA invasion planners. He details an expansive PLA order of battle, modernized with advanced intelligence, information capabilities, and fourth-generation weapon systems, which soon will be more fully prepared for rapid offensive operations.
How aware is Washington of the increasing threat Taiwan faces? A little over a decade ago, some U.S. analysts dismissed this threat as “a million-man swim.” As recently as its 2015 annual report to the Congress on the PLA regarding a Taiwan invasion, the U.S. Department of Defense stated, “China does not appear to be building the conventional amphibious lift required to support such a campaign.”
Mr. Easton ends such magical thinking. He notes the PLA is prepared to mobilize large numbers of civilian cargo ships and aircraft to supplement formal PLA invasion transport. His review of PLA sources shows they are well aware of the challenges, such as the need for surprise and favorable weather in the tricky Taiwan Strait. The PLA knows it must capture vital ports and airfields quickly to surge follow-on forces. Some of these PLA source estimate 1 million troops may be needed, especially to fight grueling urban campaigns against Taiwan’s defenders, who they do not expect to surrender.
While noting that PLA planners know they will have to kill large numbers of Taiwanese in order to win, Mr. Easton is less descriptive of the massive purges that could murder or turn into “boat people” refugees millions of Taiwanese. Mr. Easton points out that CCP control of Taiwan will pose an immediate threat to Japan — PLA planners note that from occupied Taiwan they could quickly reduce Japan’s foreign trade by 30 percent.
PLA military bases on Taiwan will also better enable global power projection. But Mr. Easton dwells less on the post-Taiwan conquest, Asian nuclear proliferation, and the potential series of Asian wars, which could also implicate American involvement. After seizing Taiwan, could China come to lead an anti-democratic coalition with America as its main target?
But this does this have to come to pass? While many doubt Taiwan’s resolve and preparedness, Mr. Easton offers a somber picture of a serious level of Taiwanese military preparedness that Taipei rarely advertises. He details how Taiwan has used recent decades to build a build a fortress that could hold out for a considerable period. But what vexes both PLA and Taiwanese planners is the potential reaction of the United States to a PLA invasion campaign. For Taipei, will the U.S. arrive soon enough, and for the PLA, can they both politically and militarily delay the U.S. rescue mission, perhaps by distracting and debilitating attacks of a cyber or kinetic nature?
Here is the gift of Mr. Easton’s fulsome warning: There is still time to deter a Chinese attack. Washington may have less than 10 years, but much can be done to change the CCP-PLA’s deadly calculus. Mr. Easton recommends integrating Taiwan into U.S. security policy in Asia with the eventual goal of restoring full diplomatic relations. Implied: revive the Mutual Defense Treaty that existed from 1954 to 1978. Washington can also offer decisive arms sales, such as the fifth-generation F-35 fighter, and technology enabling Taiwan to build thousands of cheap cruise missiles, better to deter China’s invasion fleets.
• Richard D. Fisher Jr., a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, is the author of “China’s Military Modernization, Building for Regional and Global Reach” (Stanford University Press, 2010).
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