The Taiwanese navy needs to start building small, cheap, missile-armed attack boats, and fast. It’s the only way Taipei can hope to hold off a Chinese invasion force long enough for the United States to intervene on the island country’s behalf.
That’s the urgent advice from U.S. Naval War College professor James Holmes. “Fast patrol craft could range around Taiwan’s rugged periphery, using geography for concealment,” Holmes wrote in Foreign Policy.
“They could make small fishing harbors their bases, daring China to distinguish them from fishing vessels or pleasure craft berthed there,” Holmes continued. “Small craft would be Taiwan’s great equalizer.”
There was a time, not long ago, when Taiwan with its roughly 20 million people was richer and militarily more powerful than China with its billion people. Taiwan also enjoyed a reliable military alliance with the United States, which as recently as 1996 sailed aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait in order to deter authoritarian China from moving against the democratic island neighbor that it considers a breakaway province.
But China’s economic expansion has altered the balance of power. “U.S. presidential administrations and Congress have been stingier and stingier with arms sales over the years, even as China opened itself to the world economically, made itself rich, and sluiced some of its wealth into new weaponry for [People’s Liberation Army] naval, air and missile forces,” Holmes wrote.
“Both assumptions—U.S. support and mainland backwardness—are now suspect,” he continued.
Today, Taiwan’s defenders remain outnumbered, as always, but they can no longer count on technology and human excellence to make up for relatively sparse numbers of ships, planes, and tanks.
The PLA is good and getting better, while its advantage in sheer mass will last into the indefinite future. The geopolitical advantage goes to the well-armed continental power overshadowing the winsome island lying just offshore.