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Don't Buy Rumors of China Invading Taiwan

by Eric Margolis

Taiwan is causing deepening concern across Asia and in Washington
NEW YORK -- Last week tropical hurricanes and political crises battered East Asia. A most inauspicious time, as Chinese astrologers would say.

Rumors swept Taiwan that China was preparing to invade the island republic. In the midst of a war of words against the United States, China pointedly announced the successful test of a new mobile ICBM, the DF-31, capable of reaching North America.

North Korea showed every intention of going ahead with an imminent test of its new intermediate-range missile, the Taepodong-2, which will be able to hit North America when a third stage is added. Old enemies South Korea and Japan were so enraged by North Korea, they actually agreed to hold joint naval exercises.

The growing crisis over increasingly independence-minded Taiwan is causing deepening concern across Asia and in Washington. For domestic political reasons that remain obscure, Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, recently announced a new policy that appeared to move his nation of 21.6 million closer to full independence from China. As expected, Beijing reacted with fury, denouncing the "rogue province of Taiwan," and threatening war.

China massed troops along the coast of Fukien Province opposite Taiwan and launched provocative air and naval patrols across the 100-mile wide Formosa Strait separating the breakaway island from the mainland. Taiwan responded by increasing its patrols, raising the danger of a clash between the opposing forces.

Taiwan braced for a repeat of China's 1996 missile barrages at the island, put it 376,000-man armed forces on high alert, and activated extensive coastal defense fortifications. Deliveries to Taiwan by the U.S. of military material was sharply increased. Intensifying China's psychological warfare against Taiwan, Red Chinese agents on the island spread rumors an invasion was imminent.

In fact, China is unlikely to mount such a massive operation against Taiwan or the nearby Pescadore Islands anytime soon. China's weak navy has only 72 dedicated amphibious ships, capable of landing about 12,000 troops and 100 tanks per mission. The Chinese Marine Corps numbers one active, 5,000 man brigade. China has three airborne divisions but lacks transport aircraft to drop more than one brigade at a time.

Transporting the minimum 500,000-1,000,000 troops needed to conqueror Taiwan would mean employing a vast armada of lumbering junks and rusty coastal transports that would be sitting ducks for air and naval attack.

China faces the same problem Germany encountered when planning to invade Britain. The huge but obsolescent Chinese Air Force cannot guarantee top cover for an invasion fleet, nor neutralize Taiwan's air fields and fleet. China's 1950's vintage, brown-water navy cannot assure Taiwan's 36 surface combatants, many armed with anti-ship missiles, will not cause heavy loses to a Chinese invasion fleet. Nor does China have the naval gunfire capability to overcoming Taiwan's powerful shore defenses that would massacre landing troops.

More important, China fears the U.S. 7th Fleet's carrier aircraft and submarines would intervene to halt any invasion. The result would be what U.S. military men call, "a million-man swim." China's invasion fleet would be sunk. Any Chinese beachheads would be cut off from supplies and reinforcements.

If China choses the military option, a more likely scenario would be an amphibious assault on the small islands of Matsu and Quemoy, which lie within sight of the Chinese coast. But these little Gibraltars are heavily fortified and protected by batteries of Israeli-supplied anti-ship missiles. The islands could be taken, but the price for China would be very high, and attacking them might trigger U.S. intervention.

China could opt to merely bombard Taiwan with M-9 and M-11 missiles, aiming at industrial complex, airports and ports, in an effort to degrade the island's economy and deter maritime trade. Any major attack on Taiwan, which lives by export trade, would scare off merchant vessels and make insurance rates prohibitive. Air attacks are equally possible, but China's obsolete warplanes lack range, bomb load, avionics and endurance to do to Taiwan what NATO did to Serbia. Taiwan has good pilots and a modern air force equipped with 90 US F-16's and French Mirage 2000's that would do a turkey shoot with China's old MiG-19's and 21's variants, and even its handful of modern, Russian-supplied SU-27's.

China could also to throw a submarine blockade around Taiwan that would even more effectively drive away its vital maritime trade and even bring the rebellious island to its knees. But the U.S. would be very likely to send its highly skilled ASW forces to break the blockade by China's old, noisy submarines that are slow and easy to detect. Taiwan could retaliate by mining the Chinese ports of Hong Kong, Canton, Amoy, Fuchou, and Shanghai.

Much as China would like to invade Taiwan, it clearly lacks the military capability to do so. So it's more likely Beijing will continue to bombard Taiwan with threats and perhaps a few missiles to underline its point. Behind all the threats, China and Taiwan still need one another, Taiwan has over $30 billion invested in mainland China. Taiwan has many friends in the U.S., notably in the Republican Party. Threatening Taiwan could backfire on China by producing an embargo on its important exports to the USA.

So despite all the hot air and theatrical fury, it's still business as usual between China and her prodigal daughter -- at least for this week.

© Eric Margolis
Eric Margolis is a syndicated columnist and broadcaster whose "Foreign Correspondent" column appears twice weekly.
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Albion Monitor August 16, 1999 (

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