Persuade, invade, blockade: what is Beijing's best strategy to reunify Taiwan?

Persuade, invade, blockade: what is Beijing's best strategy to reunify Taiwan?
A section of troops training in beach assault / Daily Mail UK
By Gav Don November 30, 2020

A few months ago a poll of Taiwanese voters revealed that popular desire for independence from China is hardening: 54% of respondents wanted early independence, while only 12.5% wanted unification with Beijing. Hardening attitudes in Taiwan reflect hardening attitudes in Beijing, where President Xi (actually Chairman Xi, but let’s skip that detail) has unequivocally and repeatedly declared his intention to achieve unification, probably before he retires, whenever that might be.

The approach of what looks like an unstoppable force towards an immovable object has turned the spotlight onto the military options open to Beijing – options anticipated and authorised by Article 8 of China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law, which states that if Taiwan will not unify peacefully it must (the Law says “shall”, not “may”) be unified by force of arms.

Beijing’s military options

Most of the narrative around China’s military options is stunningly uninformed. What are Beijing’s real and practical military options today, and in the near future?

This short question takes us into a massively complex set of interacting issues – weapons capabilities, logistics, geography, politics, international law, national will, vital interests and the effects of hubris, just to list the highlights. The issues are too complex for a short blog (I may analyse them in full detail later), but for the moment here is a summary of the larger pieces of the puzzle.

Taiwan is an armed camp

Taiwan is a well-armed camp. Crammed into its small western plains (about the same size as Connecticut) are 130,000 well trained and reasonably equipped conscript soldiers. Another 3mn past conscripts wait in reserve. About a hundred F16s support this large force. Taiwan’s navy is too small and old to be relevant. Taiwan’s strategy has been that of the porcupine facing a hungry lion – curl up into a spiky ball to make yourself a meal that offers more pain than protein.

Armchair strategists tend to look at large-scale maps of the region and assume that Beijing could pop over the intervening straits any time it feels in the mood, using air, sea and missile superiority to suppress Taiwan’s navy and air force, before relying on overwhelming land forces to roll over Taiwan’s army.

Invasion is a logistical nightmare

With a map of the correct scale that option fades away. An invasion force has to cross 170 km of water – the same “throw” required for Operation OVERLORD in 1944. OVERLORD landed just 120,000 men on day 1 to attack just 40,000 defenders. To achieve that landing OVERLORD required complete tactical surprise, complete battlespace domination, 7,000 landing ships of various sizes and the support of 200 warships throwing some 60 tonnes of high explosive onto the defenders per minute. In addition, several thousand guerrillas worked behind the lines to obstruct the movements of reinforcements. OVERLORD just succeeded with a 3:1 infantry superiority. It was a close-run thing.

Compare Normandy with Taiwan

Can Beijing achieve the same superiority? China’s navy, the PLAN, has eight large landing ships, each capable of landing an armoured regiment, and 25 small ones, each capable of landing a quarter of a regiment. The speed/time/distance/load equation generates a capacity to land a single armoured division of about 15,000 men and tanks in the first “throw”. A second light division could be delivered simultaneously by parachute drop, probably over a port. Creative use of the large fishing militia (thousands of large fishing vessels manned by the “little Blue Men”) might allow more men to be landed in the first wave, but not more heavy equipment or ammunition.

Beijing not have tactical surprise. Taiwan’s purchase this month of four Seaguardian drones equipped with long-range radar (about 300 km from operating height) will provide effective 24/7 surveillance of the straits from its own airspace, in addition to other sources of real-time intelligence. A second division could be delivered to Taiwan’s beaches about 18 hours after the first (again, sooner if the fishing militia is used well).

Landing forces outnumbered

It is readily obvious that an amphibious landing would fall a very long way short of generating a 3:1 ratio. Indeed, the ratio would start at over 3:1 on the side of the defenders. In practice, with precise target tracks coming from those Seaguardian drones Taiwan will be able to use its 400 new Harpoon anti-ship missiles to thin out the invasion fleet. The Harpoon, subsonic and relying on active radar homing so easily jammed, spoofed or decoyed, may be nearing obsolescence but a multi-directional swarm attack of even obsolescent missiles is going to see a useful number of hits (probably not more that 5-10%, and not all of those on the assault ships).

There are ways in which Beijing could ramp up its force generation on days 2 and later (for discussion in a deeper analysis) but in brief, with its fishing militia fully engaged the initial invasion could land another 30,000 men per day, but not the tens of thousands of tonnes per day of ammunition and vehicles needed to sustain high-intensity offensive operations. While Beijing was ramping up its landing force Taipei would be calling up reservists at a faster rate. Beijing would struggle to achieve numerical superiority at all, never mind 3:1.

An invasion is likely to fail

In short, geography robs Beijing of the resources needed to overwhelm a determined defence of Taiwan, even with complete air, sea-surface and sub-surface domination. The word “determined” is key here. Past polls in Taiwan have revealed a worrying reluctance on the part of young Taiwanese men to die for their country (or their “non-country” as Beijing would have it). Beijing might base its plans on a moral collapse of Taiwan’s land forces in the face of a sharp military shock but that is probably too risky a strategy for choice, especially now that young Taiwanese have the unpleasant recent experience of Hong Kong as a visible alternative to fighting.

The material damage would be intense, and expensive

Another reason that Beijing will avoid an invasion is the inevitable material damage that would follow. Western Taiwan is fundamentally a single megalopolis, so the war would take place in an urban environment. The rocket, bomb and artillery attacks required to support an invasion would destroy tens of thousands of buildings and kill tens of thousands of civilians – if you need evidence of that have a look at photographs of Idlib and Aleppo. Neither of those outcomes are consistent with Beijing’s position that Taiwanese are Chinese brothers being reconciled with their national family. Material and human damage would be painfully expensive as well, with Beijing picking up the bill for rebuilding one way or another.

When you look at it through this lens an invasion looks vanishingly unlikely. If Beijing had no alternative strategies to compel unification then it might keep building its amphibious capacity and one day accept the costs, but it does have an alternative course of action. Hu Jintao’s 20th century plan – a steady reconciliation based on goodwill and forgiveness and a two-system state – is not it, though, especially now that Hong Kong has been brought violently to heel. What is that other alternative?

An alternative strategy

Taiwan lives entirely on imported energy, importing 1mn barrels per day of oil and 2bn cubic metres of gas per month. Every hydrocarbon molecule has to arrive by ship –200,000 tonnes of liquids per day. Over the past decade Beijing has built a navy which now appears capable of exercising access control over Taiwan. It is important to remember here that “access control” does not require control over a large area of sea, but just a scant few miles of water outside Taiwan’s ports. Access control does not even need ships and aircraft – a small handful of sea mines laid inside the 22-km boundary of Chinese Territorial Waters around Taiwan can do the job (China has a stock of some 50,000 mines).

With its thumb firmly pressed on Taiwan’s energy jugular Beijing can, at any time, control or stop the flow of hydrocarbons into Taiwan. The pressure can be dialled up or down at will, giving Beijing power to crater Taiwan’s economy as it pleases. Food and other essential goods can also be controlled at will. Taiwan’s small and largely obsolete navy would be powerless. If it tried to exert its modest power it would find itself being either sunk, taken or burnt in short order. The power of the US Navy would be ineffective in the face of a sea mine campaign. The small and vulnerable ships and equipment used to clear sea mines can only operate in fully protected and secured waters, and the PLAN will be able to keep control of those waters. In any case, the US Navy’s mine clearance capability is minimal after decades of neglect.

Taiwan’s air force will be of little use, too small to have the required effect, and in any case grounded as Taiwan consumes its stocks of jet fuel, if it has not already been destroyed on the ground or in the air.

Besieged into unification

Squeezed into an approaching economic collapse, with factories, offices and hospitals going dark, supermarkets empty, lights, heating and air conditioning all going out and mile-long queues for fuel at filling stations, Taiwan’s government would have no choice but to concede control of Taiwan to Beijing.

This option has been available to Beijing for several years already, but why has it not acted on it? The answer lies far beyond China, in likely actions by Taiwan’s friends. The relevant friends here are the US/Japan axis (“the Alliance”) and a looser and younger Japan/US/Australia/India group known as “the Quad” (short for the Quadrilateral Alliance).

At the kinetic end of the spectrum, the Alliance might consider trying to force Beijing’s blockade by escorting hydrocarbon tankers past the PLAN. This would require the Alliance to use high-intensity weapons within Taiwan’s territorial waters. Given that no-one recognises Taiwan as a state, that means using lethal force inside China’s territorial waters.

The Alliance has few practical kinetic options

Whatever action Beijing might or might not risk on the high seas, it will certainly be willing to use unrestricted kinetic force inside its Territorial Waters, as indeed it is fully entitled to do under International Law, both UNCLOS and Customary. In practice, this would mean PLAN special forces boarding blockade runners from helicopters, by force of arms if necessary, and also PLAN destroying any foreign warship or aircraft inside those waters.

To counter that response the Alliance would have to try to seize battlespace control over the 22-km wide Territorial Zone outside Taiwan’s ports. That would place the Alliance in a state of open warfare with China. It seems unlikely to me, at least, that either Japan or the US would see that as a price worth paying. In any event the aggressor in Law would be the Alliance, not China. Even the UK might choke on supporting that action.

The power, or lack of power, of Carrier Strike

This brings us back to our armchair warrior, imbued with a concept of the overwhelming power of the US Navy’s Carrier Strike Group. The reality is different. A US carrier airwing contains around 80-90 aircraft. One third of these are dedicated to, and needed for, defence of the carrier and her escorting force against air attack. A sustained 24/7 combat air patrol of five aircraft needs a stock of 30 airframes. A second third, made up of helicopters and slow maritime patrol aircraft, is dedicated to defence of the Strike Group against sub-surface attack. This third has a small role in power projection.

Only the third third, around 30 aircraft, has any capacity to project striking power at distance. Some of these are AWACS and electronic warfare aircraft. That means a US carrier will bring only a couple of dozen F18s to the strike party. This force has a maximum effective mission radius of around 600 km (depending on the height profile of the mission, the amount of loiter time on task, the use of evasive routing, the availability of tankers in safe airspace and half a dozen lesser factors). The same limitations apply to F35s.

A carrier must generally therefore close to within 600 km of its target to strike, but its own survival depends on staying out of range of missile and rocket threats. Geography defines a carrier’s operating area within remarkably small margins, making submarine attack a certainty.

Each strike mission requires time for crew rest, mission briefing and debriefing, aircraft maintenance, battle damage repair, fuelling and arming and rotation of the aircraft from deck to hangar and back, in competition with air defence and anti-submarine warfare aircraft. That in turn means that the “sortie rate” for strike aircraft is surprisingly low. 24 aircraft can sustain less than fifty sorties per 24-hour day, and that number falls as aircraft break down, are damaged or lost.

Strike missions will meet most of the PLA air defences

When they arrive over Taiwan’s littoral to force tankers through, the small F18/F35 strike force will find the greater part of China’s air defence aircraft in opposition, operating from land bases only 200 km away, supported by the air defence assets of a large part of China’s surface fleet. In truth a Carrier Strike Group is not the overwhelming force required to break a Beijing blockade. Two, three or even four CSGs would still fall short, and that is before allowing for battle casualties or for the loss of a carrier to submarine attack.

With this balance of power and range, a close blockade of Taiwan looks like a good option for Beijing. The legal foundation is strong. The Alliance’s surface ships could be left unharmed, removing a source of provocation and escalation. Allied aircraft entering China’s sovereign airspace could be destroyed without breaching International Law. The humiliation of the US hegemon and its allies would be a bonus. A clear message would be sent through diplomatic channels that escalation by the Allies (in the form of attacks on China’s mainland military assets) would lead to attack on the Carrier Strike Group itself and/or retaliatory attacks on US bases in Japan and Guam, and even conventional attacks on the homeland (delivered by nuclear submarines and cruise missiles). How that might play out is too complex a question for this short piece, but we might return to it another day.

If you can't lift the siege, then counter-siege

Lacking military options around Taiwan the Alliance would look for other ways to put pressure on China. Probably the best source of that pressure would be to impose a tit-for-tat blockade on China’s own hydrocarbon imports. China’s economy is almost as dependant on hydrocarbon imports as Taiwan’s: roughly 11mn bpd of oil and LNG must flow into China to keep its economy churning. Of these about 25% enter by land pipeline. The rest, something just over 1mn tonnes per day, can only arrive by sea.

China has been preparing for a blockade for some 20 years, by creating the world’s second-largest strategic oil reserve, which contains some 50 days worth of net oil imports, but even with overland supplies and a couple of months’ oil in reserve, a blockade is an existential threat both to China and to the CCP’s rule of China.

An Alliance blockade, supported by the Quad partners India and Australia, could quickly deprive Beijing of access to GCC and Saudi oil. North African, Venezuelan and West African supplies would be too remote, and in Venezuela’s case too small, to replace them. China’s main source for oil under an embargo would have to be Iran and Iraq, possibly with Qatar as a source of LNG. Between them these could comfortably accommodate China’s demand if cargoes could be moved and protected.

Sanctions will not be enough

It seems safe to assume that the Quad’s embargo would have to rely on force, not sanctions, since neither Iran nor its client Iraq would be minded to pay much attention to the latter. So, we will now look at how China’s hydrocarbon jugular might be cut, and how Beijing would protect it. It’s time to turn back to geography.

To reach southern China oil from Iran and Iraq must cross some 9,000 km of ocean. A VLCC sailing alone has a “speed of advance” of around 40 km/h – say 900 km per day – and will take about ten days to reach China. Adding the time at each end for loading and unloading produces a 28-day delivery cycle for a given ship. China needs 30mn tonnes of hydrocarbon liquids per month – a hundred 300,000-tonne VLCC voyages (and a hundred empty return voyages).

With single-ship sailings the necessary schedule would create an un-protectable daisy-chain of VLCCs stretching from Hormuz to China and back roughly 45 km apart. At the outset we can probably discount the possibility that the Quad would sink a fully-laden crude tanker and commit an environmental crime of gigantic proportions, not least as the pollution would end up on the coast of India – a key member of the Quad.

But to stop a tanker you don’t have to sink it. Boarding and capture (via a helicopter assault) is a less kinetic and less polluting solution. Iran demonstrated the technique in August 2020 off Oman, and the Royal Marines gave another highly professional demonstration in the Channel in October 2020. Boarding operations follow a kind of “Top Trumps” ladder of escalation. A well-armed guard party aboard a tanker trumps a helicopter assault, but an attack helicopter in support of the boarders trumps the ship-guard. In turn a fast jet trumps an attack helicopter.

A robust defence against armed boarding by an air-capable opponent therefore requires 24-hour control of the airspace around your tanker. Can China deliver that control? The answer is “yes”, but not for a daisy-chain of tankers spread over 9,000 km of ocean.

We’ve got ourselves a convoy

The solution is one of the oldest in the maritime warfare book – convoy. Convoys have always worked because they force your enemy to come to a defended space, and then concentrate your defence in that one space. How many 300,000 tonne ships can one fit into a convoy? A key condition is that the convoy must fit within one “visual horizon” of its centre. That means a maximum convoy diameter of about 20 km.

Sailing a number of large ships that close together in company is not easy, but with naval seariders to help masters maintain their allotted stations, with speed reduced to provide a margin for station-keeping and for error, and due caution it is possible to sail VLCCs in convoy, probably with ship separation of 7 km laterally and horizontally. A convoy 20 km square (so one working well inside its visual horizon) would contain 16 ships.

These 16 ships could deliver 5mn tonnes per convoy, so Beijing would need six departures per month (and six return convoys), with each voyage requiring about ten days. And it is this frequency which creates the limiting factor on Beijing’s present options for Taiwan.

But Beijing has only half the number of aircraft carriers it needs

Air superiority over a convoy demands an escorting aircraft carrier, with its supporting battle group of air, surface and sub-surface capable ships and submarines. If each convoy requires cover from a carrier battle group in both directions Beijing would needs four carrier battle groups to guarantee cover. At present Beijing has only two operational carriers – Liaoning and Shandong – suitable for the task. The String of Pearls is capable of supporting ships and submarines, but not (yet) capable of supporting land-based air-superiority aircraft. China’s third carrier is years away from commissioning, and its fourth (nuclear powered) ship has barely started cutting steel. The hard truth is that the PLAN is several years away from being able to guarantee the safe arrival of China’s hydrocarbons from the Persian Gulf.

Doubling the size of the convoys probably doesn’t work. With 30 ships strung out over nearly a thousand square kilometres cover would be diluted to a point at which ships could be taken by assault by a determined opponent, especially at night. Such large convoys would also block up loading and unloading capacity at each end of the route. Tankers returning empty would be at severe risk of being sunk as well.

You sink my carrier, I’ll sink yours

The Alliance and the Quad certainly have the resources to sink both the carriers and the tankers, but are the US and Japan willing to start a major war with China for the sake of Taiwan? Probably not. If they are willing, then the enemy always gets a vote, and China is more than capable of retaliating in kind. I seriously doubt that Mr Biden wants to present the US people with the loss of a 100,000-tonne supercarrier and a few thousand American lives for the sake of an independent Taiwan which the US does not even recognise as a state.

Beijing’s retaliation does not depend on China’s (overhyped) DF21D “carrier-killer” missiles. Submarine attack is a much more likely source of danger to a US carrier, assisted by sea mines. Beijing has sufficient submarines in commission to execute an attack (by torpedoes, mines or anti-ship cruise missiles) more or less anywhere on the planet and more or less at will. Beijing, with a taste for adding insult to injury, has the capability to sink a US carrier within sight of the US mainland – imagine how that would play out on Fox News.

Beijing is only half-way to its goal

With only two carriers Beijing can ensure the delivery of less than half of its needed 30mn tonnes per month of crude. If the Quad cut the overland pipelines to China that proportion would fall to one third. The risk to China’s economy and therefore to the CPC’s credibility and security are probably (presently) too high. If the Alliance attempts to blockade China’s oil imports only a steel fist in a steel glove will be able to stop it.

So where does that leave Taiwan? Beijing can blockade Taiwan into reunification at any time of its choosing, but cannot presently afford the likely consequences for its oil and LNG imports.

2025 will find China with four operational carriers, a larger supporting fleet of escorts and submarines, a larger amphibious force, a larger strategic oil stockpile and a smaller reliance on tanker-borne oil imports as pipelines are built and oil/gas substitution makes progress. That combination is probably the set of conditions precedent for aggressive action against Taiwan.

Taiwan may have a few more years to wait.



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