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Academic lists 5 tactics China could use to seize Taiwan

Hal Brands warns China rapidly expanding military capabilities to take Taiwan

Troops from 542nd Armor Brigade train during Han Kuang exercises in 2019. 

Troops from 542nd Armor Brigade train during Han Kuang exercises in 2019.  (CNA photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University Hal Brands listed five strategies China could use to seize Taiwan in a Bloomberg opinion article published Nov. 5.

Beijing may ramp up gray zone tactics, including deploying military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and naval and air force assets across the median line of the Taiwan Strait, Brands said. This tactic is intended to “exhaust Taiwan’s military, reduce its physical space, and create a sense that the island is unable to defend itself,” he said. Disinformation, cyberattacks, and diplomatic isolation of Taiwan are also effective in “coercion below the threshold of war,” he added.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping (習近平) prefers forced annexation without violence because an all-out war would bring multiple risks, Brands said. However, this strategy has only garnered more public support for the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan, he said. Additionally, it has pushed the U.S. to boost arms sales and increase high-level visits to Taiwan, he pointed out.

China could also attempt to first capture one of the offshore islands, such as Kinmen or Matsu, as a precursor to attacking the main island of Taiwan. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops could arrive under the facade of a humanitarian crisis, Brands suggested.

This would force Taiwan to decide between committing its military to save the offshore islands and allowing part of its territory to be taken by Beijing, the professor said. The downside of such a tactic would be the possibility of revitalizing Taiwan’s defense reforms and spurring it to form a regional anti-China alliance and pushing the U.S. to help it counter a Chinese attack, he said.

A third option would be a blockade, Brands said. A blockade could range from a full “physical quarantine” or a “customs inspection” of ships trying to access Taiwan. China could also carry out missile tests nearby to deter maritime traffic, he said.

However, “there is no guarantee economic deprivation will make Taiwan capitulate,” Brands said. A blockade takes time to be effective, which would give Washington and its allies a window to organize a response, he said.

A more aggressive approach would be to strike Taiwan with bombs and ballistic missiles to destroy its vital infrastructure, military facilities, and hardware. Though this would likely wreak havoc on Taiwan’s navy and air force, there is no guarantee that bombardment would convince the government and public to capitulate, he said.

Previous bombing campaigns in history have only hardened the populace’s will to resist the enemy, Brands noted.

The last option would be a full-scale invasion, which would entail airstrikes, assassination attempts on Taiwan’s leadership, and amphibious landings, the professor said. “An invasion would probably require air- or sea-lifting more than 100,000 troops onto hostile territory, while controlling the air and water around Taiwan,” he said.

Such a massive attack might cause the U.S., Japan, and other partners to intervene, which would complicate China’s goal of annexation, he added.

Brands warned that China is building up its military at an unprecedented rate, which would allow it to capture Taiwan with force. He urged the U.S. and its allies to “be ready for all the courses Xi might pursue — especially the one whose effects would be most catastrophic.”