Analysis from the China understander: Taiwan is powerless against Xi’s nuclear bombs – but it has an ace up its sleeve
In the conflict between China and Taiwan, it is worth taking a look at the respective arsenal of weapons: while China has invested heavily in the expansion of nuclear weapons silos in recent years, Taiwan relies on small precision weapons – and the USA, whose submarine torpedoes Xis Marine always can’t locate yet.
The war that the People’s Republic of China is seeking with Taiwan has been compared more than once to the biblical battle between David and Goliath. The People’s Republic is the evil, big giant that seems to have all the cards in hand that are needed for victory: size, strength, experience.
Taiwan, on the other hand, is the noble boy David, graceful, pure, but unfortunately inexperienced and equipped with little more than a slingshot. However, the state of the Taiwanese armed forces is not quite so drastic. The army does not have to defend island democracy with slingshots. But compared to the giant next door, Taiwan’s equipment is manageable in comparison.
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176 bombers against 2,475 fighter jets: Taiwan is a dwarf compared to China’s air force
Taiwan’s air force has 176 bombers, while the People’s Republic has 2,475 fighter jets. China has 59 submarines, while Taiwan has only four. Taipei ordered five new ones last year, but they can only be delivered in a few years. In addition, Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping commands around 300 other warships of various sizes. The People’s Liberation Army is two million strong, Taiwan does not even get ten percent of it.
That means Taiwan, like the young David, must defend itself in unconventional ways to even stand a chance. The People’s Republic is currently holding the island country in a pincer. The “military exercises”, which amount to a de facto blockade of the island, make it impossible for ships to approach or leave the island. At six locations around Taiwan, Beijing is bringing up its ships and announcing that it intends to fire live ammunition.
This is reminiscent of the last naval blockade by Beijing in 1995/96. The occasion is also similar: At that time, the incumbent Taiwanese President traveled to the USA, to the university where he had studied, to give a lecture there. Beijing foamed. In response, rockets even hit Taiwan. US President Bill Clinton finally put an end to China’s activities and sent an aircraft carrier into the Taiwan Strait. The conflict will not be that easy to resolve this time.
Taipei’s new strategy: small, agile precision weapons instead of heavy aircraft carriers
Because aircraft carriers today are more of a liability than a profit. They are easy to spot as targets of modern missiles. If you want to keep them out of range of those missiles, the fighter jets that launch from them won’t have enough fuel for the mission.
Taiwan is therefore moving away from large weapon systems, aircraft carriers and tanks, all of which are easy targets for missiles, to the modern-day slingshots designed to help deftly defend the island. The military and civilian population in Taiwan have also learned from the war that Kremlin dictator Putin is waging against Ukraine in violation of international law.
Taipei’s new strategy is now to stop a Chinese attack with small, highly maneuverable and agile units and easily transportable precision weapons. In Ukraine, the army is using this tactic to stall Putin’s army. As in Ukraine, civilians are doing their part and flocking to courses designed to prepare for an invasion of the island.
Advantage of island location: China’s navy cannot locate American submarine torpedoes
Taiwan’s fundamental disadvantage, its island location, is now becoming an advantage for the country in view of the threat of an invasion by China. While Beijing can cut off the island, which passing Portuguese sailors dubbed “The Beautiful” (“La Formosa”), a waterborne invasion would be very difficult for various reasons.
Although the People’s Liberation Army has the necessary equipment, a sea landing is a highly complex maneuver that Taiwan (or its ally USA) can use submarine operations to prevent against the invaders. Here, the USA is still ahead of the Chinese Navy, which cannot locate the American submarine torpedoes. Should Chinese troops manage to land on the island, they would expect guerrilla warfare in the forest and on the streets of towns and villages. Xi Jinping would then have to explain to the people of China how the expected high losses came about.
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Like Putin, Xi maintains that the conquest should be thought of as a Sunday picnic
Because just like Putin, Xi and his conformist state media claim that the conquest of Taiwan should be imagined as a kind of Sunday picnic. Whether Xi still realizes that he is letting a myth be spread here or, like Putin, no longer allows other voices to get a hold of him and really believes what he says, is not clear.
The former is more likely, because the naval blockade, although it has the potential to lead to war, is too soft for a number of commentators on the Chinese Internet. They demand that Xi live up to his promise to bomb and then conquer Taiwan.
Incidentally, when it comes to bombs, the nuclear power China clearly holds all the trump cards. At the end of July 2021, international media reported on a place in the desert 1,200 kilometers west of Beijing where 120 new silos for rockets with nuclear explosives had been built. These silos are located in the eastern part of Xinjiang Province.
Xi and the massive expansion of China’s nuclear weapons silos
Another such field was discovered earlier this year in eastern China. More than 100 silos are said to have been built there. These newspaper articles report that China can now possess up to 300 nuclear warheads, which is a small arsenal compared to nuclear powers Russia and America.
Here, as in many other places, President Xi broke with the policy of his predecessors, who did not want to involve China in a global arms race with nuclear weapons. Until Xi’s change of course, China only had 20 such silos. It is not clear if all of these silos will be loaded with nuclear missiles or if parts of them will be left empty to confuse the enemy and not reveal where the nuclear devices really are. According to estimates, the People’s Republic has 400 nuclear warheads. Missiles that can be launched from the new silos have a range of thousands of kilometers and could easily devastate Taiwan.
Not only a total bombing war is demanded by China’s ultra-nationalists. The Chinese ambassador in France wants to “re-educate” the Taiwanese after the successful conquest. He said so in a television interview. What the People’s Republic means by “re-education”: Concentration camps like those in Xinjiang, where over a million people are imprisoned because of their ethnicity, which Beijing considers inferior. The fact that Xi has not yet launched the attack his diplomat has been hoping for is due to the above reason and another: a possible entry into the war by the United States of America.
About the guest author
Alexander Görlach is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. The linguist and theologian, who has a doctorate, teaches democratic theory in Germany, Austria and Spain as an honorary professor at Leuphana University. In the 2017-18 academic year, he was at National Taiwan University and City University Hong Kong doing research on China’s rise. He is currently researching new technologies at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute and how they are used in democracies and abused in dictatorships.
China is investing primarily in medium-range missiles that could easily reach Okinawa and Guam
The Chinese leadership has invested massively in expanding and modernizing the army over the past two decades. Nevertheless, the approximately $220 billion that Beijing is now putting into its army every year is little compared to the approximately $790 billion that Washington is putting into its hands.
China is therefore focusing and, in view of a possible intervention by the USA and its allies in the region in favor of democratic Taiwan, is investing in a new class of weapon: medium-range missiles that can fly up to 2000 kilometers at multiples of the speed of sound and can easily destroy targets such as aircraft carriers. Beijing could also use them to destroy the two US military bases in the region, on Okinawa and Guam.
A look at the raw numbers makes a Taiwan victory over nefarious invaders from across the Taiwan Straits seem extremely unlikely. But ultimately the outcome of the struggle will be determined by factors other than those that have prevailed in the past. How things will continue will become clear on August 8th at the latest. That is when the “manoeuvres”, which are actually a naval blockade, should end. However, it is to be feared that Beijing will continue to hold the island in its grip. The last naval blockade in 1995/96 lasted a total of eight months.