Decapitation à la America: How China might invade Taiwan

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Decapitation à la America: How China might invade Taiwan

Max Hirsch ([email protected]) is a former translator in the Ministry of Economic Affairs in the Taiwanese government. He is currently a reporter at the Taipei Times, Taiwan’s premier English-language newspaper, and conducts research for the Ackerman Group, a Miami-based risk consulting and investigative company that specializes in kidnap victim recovery. Contributed articles do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of ÆGIS.

What’s China waiting for?

Despite decades of saber rattling in the Taiwan Strait, geopolitical analysts are generally in agreement that the “opportunity cost” of an all-out invasion or blockade of Taiwan by China is exorbitant. That is, China simply has too much to risk by staging such maneuvers, particularly in this era of globalization, they argue. However, the possibility of an invasion or blockade in the near future – although increasingly slim – still exists and to a great extent influences regional players’ behavior. This paper briefly explores invasion scenarios, focusing on probable methods of attack and offering safety tips to multinationals on Taiwan.

The consensus among analysts that China is very unlikely to invade Taiwan in the short-term, at least before the 2008 Olympics, is sound. Since Deng Xiaoping’s liberalization reforms in 1978, China’s highest priority has been economic development, the preconditions for which include domestic and regional stability. As such, China’s foreign policies have largely focused on fostering constructive relations with its neighbors. As China continues to integrate itself with the rules-based global community, it will also increasingly lay emphasis on maintaining basically healthy bilateral relations with the U.S. and E.U. (trade disputes and the usual diplomatic spats notwithstanding). 1 A sudden, violent takeover of Taiwan by China would undoubtedly alarm and anger the international community, destabilizing the region and setting off an economic backlash that China might not be able to withstand. Furthermore, the range and enormity of China’s domestic problems are staggering; experts are quick to point out that China is still too beleaguered by domestic troubles to stage the kind of military campaign required to successfully integrate Taiwan. 2

Economically, cross-strait integration is already a reality. Taiwan presently enjoys a US$23.56 billion trade surplus with China, its largest export market. China, meanwhile, has benefited tremendously from the US$100 billion that Taiwanese investors have pumped into its economy to date. 3 To be sure, many vital, deeply entrenched production and supply chains in the Asia Pacific region and elsewhere would become severed or disrupted in the event of a war or blockade, devastating China’s economy and the world’s.

The consequences of attacking Taiwan could also include a swift U.S. response in kind. Although America is keen to preserve the status quo and avoid jeopardizing relations with China, it also has a track record for intervening in cross-strait flare-ups. In 1996, for example, the U.S. deployed the largest armada to the region since the Vietnam War in response to Chinese missile tests in the Strait (Chinese missiles had splashed down alarmingly close to Taiwan). 4 Also, U.S. arms sales to the island are extensive. Analysts are increasingly skeptical that the U.S. is willing to wage a full-blown war – or even a limited war – with China to protect Taiwan. Nonetheless, given these examples and President Bush’s vow to use any and all means to safeguard the island, the possibility of a strong U.S. response to a Chinese attack on or blockade of Taiwan still serves as a strong deterrent.

1 China’s Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing commented on March 7th during the 2006 annual session of parliament that China’s ascendancy will benefit, not threaten, its neighbors. He also called for better relations with the U.S. (China has consistently portrayed its rising power as beneficial to the international community.)
2 See my last AEGIS article: “China Syndrome: Staving Off Social Meltdown in Rural China” (March 2006). In it I discuss China’s struggle to maintain social order in its countryside. Indeed, corruption, environmental degradation, poverty, inadequate health care, and land disputes are some factors that have destabilized Chinese rural communities. China’s top leaders are scrambling to address these problems and head off a nationwide implosion.
3 Lim, Benjamin Kang (2006, March 9). “Leading China economist says trade war can break Taiwan.” Reuters. Published in The China Post on 03/09/2006, page 1.
4 Lasater, Martin L. The Taiwan Conundrum in US China Policy. Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 2000 (page 261).

In February 2005, Japan issued a joint statement with the U.S. in which Taiwan is referred to as an area of “mutual concern.” The Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party – Japan’s ruling party – commented that the U.S. and Japan would absolutely not tolerate a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan. Japan later announced in May 2005 that it would deploy 24 of its most advanced fighter aircraft (F-15J) to Okinawa by 2009, significantly boosting its ability to respond to a crisis in the Strait. 5 (Recent backsliding in Sino-Japanese relations has empowered hardliners in the Japanese government, resulting in Japan’s committing more military resources to the protection of Taiwan.) As long as the status quo and a containment of China serve U.S. and Japanese interests, 6 China must factor in the possibility of waging war against these countries in a campaign to forcefully annex Taiwan.

New tensions, old risks

These and many other deterrents explain why China has yet to yank Taiwan into its administrative fold, in spite of all its bluster and brinkmanship. However, recent provocations by Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian and other pro-independence elements have thrown a spotlight once again on the threat of a cross-strait war. In late February 2006, Chen terminated a domestic advisory council charged with overseeing unification with rival China (against the advice of the U.S.). He has also reiterated his intention to draft a new constitution before the end of his second term, and is trying to steer Taiwanese investment and trade away from China. China views such actions as precursors to declaring formal independence. The U.S., for its part, seeks to rein in Chen before he goes too far in his brinkmanship.

5 Bishop, Mac William (29 May 2005). “Japan to station advanced fighters on Okinawa.” Taipei Times, front page.
6 Control of regional shipping lanes, especially in the Taiwan and Bashi Straits, and the Strait of Malacca, is potentially an extremely contentious (and a less talked about) issue due to the sheer tonnage of cargo that passes through these straits. In this era of globalization and trade, and especially as energy competition heats up, the U.S. needs regional partners like Taiwan in maintaining control of key waterways amid China’s awesome military buildup.

In light of recent tensions and China’s military buildup, 7 speculation regarding a Chinese invasion of Taiwan deserves revisiting here. As I have tried to demonstrate, China is poised to invade Taiwan, but has been held back by numerous cogent disincentives. These are edgy circumstances in which misunderstandings or false moves could precipitate a war. Indeed, a recent “scenario study” conducted by a major faction within Taiwan’s ruling party (the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party [DPP]) concluded that there exists a high probability of China and Taiwan misjudging each other’s actions, and that such miscalculation could lead to major cross-strait conflict. According to a report by Taiwan’s Central News Agency, the study explores two scenarios:

The first [scenario] was set in 2007, with China using a major oil find in the western half of the Taiwan Strait to launch an offensive against Taiwan. The second scenario was set in 2015 when a nuclear plant explodes in Qinhuangdao on China’s eastern coast, creating major domestic turmoil. The question poised was: Would China invade Taiwan to divert public attention from the disaster?8

Anatomy of attack

Assuming that a war did erupt, how would it play out? How would China invade and then integrate Taiwan? According to David Shambaugh’s authoritative Modernizing China’s Military: Progress, Problems, and Prospects, China is taking its cues more and more from the U.S. in this regard. That is, America’s (and NATO’s) technological and tactical prowess on the battlefield has inspired Chinese war planners. The PLA has observed the U.S. military and NATO closely in their operations, admiring their “decapitation” of command and control targets in recent conflicts, as well their technological capabilities.9 Given that the PLA is actively internalizing

7 On 7 March 2006, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense reported that China now has more than 800 ballistic missiles pointed at the island. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) staged high-tech exercises in early March, serving as a warning to Chen just after he terminated Taiwan’s National Unification Council and Guidelines. Additionally, China announced on 4 March 2006 that it would increase its military budget 14.7% to US$35 billion (China’s true military spending is widely believed to be many times the official figure).
8 23 January 2006. “New Tide worrying about cross-strait miscalculation.” Central News Agency (CNA). Reprinted in Taipei Times on 01/23/2006, front page.
9 Shambaugh discusses in depth the PLA’s ongoing attempts to emulate the U.S. in its modernization, admiring and fearing America’s and NATO’s prowess in waging a “limited war Another seminal publication regarding China’s military modernization is former US Air Force Colonel Mark Stokes’ study entitled, China’s Strategic Modernization: Implications for the United States (Carlisle Barracks, Pa.: U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 1999). Stokes was a U.S. defense attaché at the U.S. embassy in Beijing and the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). The study is downloadable in its entirety at and at high- technology conditions,” particularly in the Introduction and Doctrine and Training chapters of his book, Modernizing China’s Military: Progress, Problems, and Prospects (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004).  American standards of warfare, it is fair to assume that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be reminiscent of America’s overall style of attack since at least the first Gulf War. Jane’s Defence Weekly’s Taiwan correspondent, Wendell Minnick, spells out precisely what a PLA invasion of Taiwan would look like in his article, The year to fear for Taiwan: 2006. 10 The opening paragraph of the article reads:

If China ever makes the decision to invade Taiwan it is unlikely to be a large-scale Normandy-style amphibious assault. The reality is that China is more likely to use a decapitation strategy. Decapitation strategies short-circuit command and control systems, wipe out nationwide nerve centers, and leave the opponent hopelessly lost. As the old saying goes, “Kill the head and the body dies.” All China needs to do is seize the center of power, the capital and its leaders.11

Minnick then portrays a hellish takeover scenario beginning with an airborne assault comprised of sudden, massive airdrops of Chinese paratroopers directly on Taipei and other strategic points. Preempting claims that China currently lacks the resources to be able to execute this initial airborne assault, Minnick notes, “…intelligence reports have indicated that China was able to airlift one airborne division to Tibet in less than 48 hours in 1988. Today, China’s ability to transport troops has greatly improved. China is expected to be able to deliver twice that number – 22,000 – in two days.” According to the article, a more clandestine offensive perpetrated by Chinese spies and assassins would precede the airborne assault:

Pre-positioned special forces, smuggled into Taiwan months before, would assassinate key leaders, and attack radar and communication facilities around Taiwan a few hours before the attack. Infiltrators might receive some assistance from sympathetic elements within Taiwan’s military and police, who are believed to be at least 75 percent pro- Kuomintang (KMT), and hence, pro-unification. Many could use taxis to move about the city unnoticed. Mainland Chinese prostitutes, already in abundance in Taiwan, could be recruited by Chinese intelligence to serve as femme fatales, supplying critical intelligence on the locations of key government and military leaders at odd hours of the night; death is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

10 Although Minnick would now probably withdraw his prediction that an invasion is likely in 2006, his depiction of how a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be, is still very incisive and relevant.
11 Minnick, Wendell (10 April 2004). “The year to fear for Taiwan: 2006.” Asia Times Online (see

China’s offensive, according to Minnick, would quickly overwhelm Taiwan’s military, which he represents as wholly ineffective in protecting the island against a hypothetical Chinese attack. Taiwan’s air force, for example, is believed to have only enough munitions to hold out for two days in a war with China.12

With regard to post-war political integration, Minnick writes:

Once Taipei was captured, a new government chosen by Beijing would be sworn into office. There would be plenty of Taiwanese politicians to choose from. It is well known there are many pro-China legislators who have investments in China and more than a few who have had private meetings with Beijing officials. The inauguration would be conducted in the spotlight of the international media… There would be too many pro- China people in the State Department – privately relieved the Taiwan issue was finally settled – to say anything in Taiwan’s defense…With the new government inaugurated, the new president would declare an end to all hostilities with China… With pro-China sentiments running high in the Taiwan military, it is likely that most would grudgingly accept the new president.

What about a guerilla insurgency? Would a high-tech, strategic offensive à la America deliver China into a quagmire à la America in Vietnam, or America in Iraq? Taiwan’s mountainous terrain, subtropical jungles, and coastal urban sprawl would certainly serve as an ideal backdrop for a nasty guerilla war. Such a grass-roots insurgency is possible but very unlikely. Guns, for instance, are almost unheard of among Taiwanese citizens (except among aborigines and triad members). Moreover, it would be very difficult to funnel weapons to Taiwan after a Chinese invasion – Taiwan is, after all, a fairly small island that China would no doubt surround and seal off in an invasion or blockade.

How willing ordinary Taiwanese are to fight back is another issue. Northern Taiwanese are known for their political ambiguity and lack of nationalistic

12 Minnick, Wendell (25 May 2005). “Taiwan’s military will fire blanks.” Taipei Times, page 8.

fervor; it is difficult to imagine the PLA meeting much resistance from the citizenry north of the Choshui River. 13 Southern Taiwanese, on the other hand, are typically much more nationalistic, and would be ideal candidates to wage an underground resistance. However, citizens’ lack of weaponry and the fact that the PLA’s greatest asset is its sheer number of troops 14 bode ill for potential insurgents. Also, the cultural and linguistic sameness between the Taiwanese and Chinese would make it that much easier for the former to eventually accept the latter as the island’s new stewards.

Some analysts assert that a no-holds-barred military offensive is unnecessary; China need only blockade the island with its growing arsenal of destroyers, submarines, and other vessels. A trade-oriented island economy like Taiwan’s would quickly collapse. Even cross-strait across-the- board trade sanctions, imposed by China without a blockade, would “force Taiwan to its knees in a week,” according to Hu An’gang, a prominent Chinese economist. 15

China’s need for naval supremacy to pull off a successful invasion and/or blockade of Taiwan is obvious – especially if China is to discourage the U.S. and possibly Japan from militarily intervening – and accounts for a certain doctrinal shift in the PLA as well as some spooky occurrences in the Pacific theater lately. Shambaugh does well to illustrate China’s paradigmatic evolution in the context of naval warfare:

China’s claimed strategic frontiers now extend beyond its immediate borders into its regional periphery…The principle [doctrinal] shift was from continental to maritime and national to regional definitions. They also include defined spheres under the sea and in space. A redefinition of China’s maritime interests has been cultivated, and Chinese are now told to develop a “conception of sea as territory”…Chinese are now regularly taught in textbooks that their “sovereignty” includes three million square kilometers of oceans and seas…16 A recent study conducted at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica suggests that although Taiwanese are fostering a stronger sense of identity with their island, their nationalism is as lukewarm as ever (see

13 The Choshui River is known in Taiwanese politics as the geographic line that roughly divides voters into northern and southern blocks. Northern constituents statistically tend to support pro-unification or pro- status quo parties and policies; southern constituents tend to back pro-independence parties and policies.
14 China boasts the largest military in the world, with a staggering 3.25 million members (that figure includes active paramilitary personnel).
15 Lim, Benjamin Kang (2006, March 9). “Leading China economist says trade war can break Taiwan.” Reuters. Published in The China Post on 03/09/2006, page 1.
16 Shambaugh, David. Modernizing China’s Military: Progress, Problems, and Prospects. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004 (pp. 66-67).

The launching of China’s next generation nuclear attack submarine, as well as new indigenous and newly bought diesel submarines from Russia have gone hand in hand with occasional intrusions of Chinese vessels into Taiwan’s and Japan’s maritime zones. A Chinese submarine’s bold expedition in Japanese waters in November 2004 is perhaps the most egregious example. However, stealthy incursions of Chinese scientific ships into Taiwanese and Japanese maritime territories are more common. A 2005 paper published by the Brookings Institution, a prominent American think tank, cites Japan’s 2004 defense white paper in reiterating the suspicions of military experts that such “activities have been conducted in order for the Chinese navy to better map the ocean floor and gather…specific data needed for their submarines to exit into the Pacific without being detected by U.S.- Japan reconnaissance capabilities.”:

In recent years, China has been expanding the scope of its maritime operations…Chinese vessels have carried out activities that seem to be oceanographic research, mainly in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Japan. Japan and China, to settle the issue, formulated a framework for mutual prior notification on scientific oceanographic research activities in areas close to each country in the East China Sea… However, Chinese oceanographic research activities without notification or inconsistent with notification under the framework have been observed. Furthermore, Chinese…activities have been conducted…even in Japan’s territorial waters, without Japan’s consent…Chinese warships have often navigated in waters near Japan. Chinese naval vessels that seemed to conduct some exercises or be engaged in intelligence [gathering] or maritime research have been observed. In June 2003, a Chinese Navy icebreaking and survey and research ship…was observed stopping dead in the ocean south of Iriomote Island. In November 2003, a Ming-class submarine was seen surfacing in the Osumi Strait of Kyushi Island…17

17 Tomohiko, Taniguchi. “Whither Japan? New Constitution and Defense Buildup.” Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.: May 2005 (pp 25-26) (see

The idea behind these maritime forays seems to be to conduct hydrographic/ oceanographic surveys to map the ocean floor and pinpoint certain thermal below which Chinese subs can operate with impunity, undetected. Such stealth would give China the option of dispatching a diesel-electric submarine fleet (diesel subs are quieter than nuclear ones) to lie in wait for American vessels before the actual invasion or blockade is staged. Chinese subs could then surface and checkmate incoming enemy vessels before they are near enough to assist Taiwan. One-upping the U.S. on the high seas would create a window of opportunity for China to employ its missiles, air force, special forces, and IT-based weapons and systems to snatch the democratic life right out of Taiwan. The Chinese offensive would be fast and surgical, severing the Achilles’ heel that is Taiwan’s command and control infrastructure.

Executive protection

So, what is the bottom line for multinationals on Taiwan? Whether or not China will use “non-peaceful means” to seize the island in the foreseeable future is an inexhaustible debate that exceeds the scope of this paper. What it all boils down to, however, is this: an invasion or blockade is unlikely but possible.

The next question, then, is what should multinationals do in the event of a Chinese offensive? Obviously, multinationals should flee the island as soon as possible; however, chances are the attack would be so abrupt and swift that they would not get that chance. So, if multinationals unwittingly find themselves with ringside seats to a full-blown invasion, what then?

Firstly, for those in Taipei, where the vast majority of foreigners are on Taiwan, it would be imperative to stay out of the subway system, known as the MRT (Mass Rail Transit). A main metro artery – the Danshui and Xindian lines – snakes right through the nexus of the federal government, situated near the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and National Taiwan University Hospital stations. Errant missiles and other ordnance slamming into the streets could easily collapse the metro tunnels and stations in that area. A citywide blackout is also likely, so imagine if you will, getting trapped 100 feet below the surface in pitch blackness (or high above the city as would be the case on the Muzha Line and the Danshui Line from its Minquan East Road stop to the Danshui stop), possibly in throngs of panicking people. Another especially dangerous MRT line to be on would be the Xiaonanmen Line – Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense and its Procurement Bureau are just opposite of Xiaonanmen Station. Aboveground in the Zhong Zheng District in the heart of Taipei, where most federal buildings are concentrated, would not be any safer. If missiles do not rain down on this area, PLA paratroopers will, and they will probably be met with stiff resistance by Taiwanese paramilitary personnel. Street combat would be intense here, so give it wide berth. Fleeing the city via Yangmingshan (or Yangming Mountain), is ill-advised. The National Security Bureau – Taiwan’s CIA – is right on Yang De Boulevard (No. 110), the main road up Yangmingshan. The Bureau is an eerie green-tiled fortress surrounded by jungle, barbed wire, and cameras, and is surprisingly close to the street. Stay away from this compound. In fact, stay away from Yangmingshan altogether – the whole mountain is peppered with signals intelligence (SIGINT) installations, and is likely to get hit hard. Neihu District, where numerous high-tech companies are based, would also be especially vulnerable. This is because Taiwan’s “NORAD” is located somewhere in the mountains adjacent to the district. The command center would be a prime target in a first-wave attack by China.

The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT: the de facto U.S. embassy), like other U.S. embassies worldwide, employs the Warden Notification System or “warden system” to alert and advise Americans in Taiwan in the event of a crisis. American citizens should register with the American Citizen Services section at AIT in person or online ( to receive warden system services. Once registered, Americans will be assigned a “warden” based on the location of their residence on the island. Wardens are American volunteers who are charged with contacting and assembling U.S. citizens per AIT’s instructions in the event of a crisis that may necessitate their evacuation. Other multinationals’ home countries’ missions are likely to implement a similar plan; signing up for it is a good idea. U.S. Regional Security Officers (RSOs) and other security personnel have been known to don Kevlar and arm themselves with assault rifles, and hit the streets to round up Americans in some emergencies. It would be wise to register a working cellular phone with the warden system and keep it on your person, and follow the instructions of the warden or RSO. In the event that cell and landline phones are out, try to be at your home address as registered with your warden. Of course, if you are in the Zheng Zhong District, take cover or flee from that area – on foot if you have to. For Americans, AIT may not be the safest place to go to, especially if the U.S. decides to assist Taiwan in defending itself. (The PLA may very well obliterate AIT much like U.S.-led NATO forces “mistakenly” blew up the Chinese embassy in Kosovo in 1999.)

Westerners are not likely to be targeted – individually – in a Chinese assault, so lying low and being contactable by one’s embassy or mission is the best plan. Moreover, it is in China’s best interests to minimize civilian casualties and other collateral damage, and allow foreigners to exit Taiwan once major hostilities have ceased. It is recommended that expatriates on the island formulate at least a ballpark exit strategy that encompasses not only themselves but also their financial assets.

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