Foreign Policy Briefing No. 74

The China-Taiwan Military Balance: Implications for the United States

By Ivan Eland
February 5, 2003

Executive Summary

China’s economy is four times the size of Taiwan’s and apparently growing at a faster rate; that economic disparity between China and Taiwan could eventually lead to a military disparity as well. Nonetheless, even an informal U.S. security guarantee for Taiwan against nuclear-armed China is ill-advised. Taiwan is not strategically essential to America’s national security. Moreover, China has significant incentives to avoid attacking Taiwan. Perhaps the most crucial is that hostile behavior toward Taiwan would jeopardize China’s increasing economic linkage with the United States and other key countries.

Taiwan has several military advantages that it could exploit. First, Taiwan could use a “porcupine” strategy to deter China— Taiwan does not need to be able to win a conflict with a more powerful China; it needs only to inflict unacceptable damage on Chinese forces. Second, Taiwan would have the advantage of defending an island against an amphibious attack—an attack that is extremely hard to execute successfully. Prospects for a successful defense are enhanced because China would be unlikely to have strategic surprise; air or naval supremacy; or sufficient landing forces, fleet air defense, or naval gunfire support. Third, because of current Taiwanese naval superiority (including anti-submarine warfare capabilities) and deficiencies in Chinese fleet air defense and command and control, even a partial Chinese naval blockade would be difficult to carry out. Fourth, Chinese missile strikes on Taiwan could be countered with enhanced passive defenses and retaliatory strikes on the Chinese homeland by the superior Taiwanese air force.

Rather than provide an informal security guarantee to Taiwan, the United States should sell that nation more arms to defend itself. President Bush has authorized the sale of more weapons, but Taiwan needs to spend more on its own defenses and actually buy the needed weapons.

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Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World.