Leadership: July 29, 2004

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: Chinese diplomats have let it be known that retired generals recommended to Jiang Zemin, the Chairman of the Central Military Commission and former head of state, that China settle the issue of Taiwan well ahead of the 2008 Olympics to be held in Beijing. Although nominally replaced as head of state and chairman of the party by Hu Jintao, it is widely believed Jiang remains in control, as head of the military, and senior member of the body of retired elders. In 1989 this latter group overruled the policy of negotiating with demonstrators at Tiananmen Square, ordering the crackdown instead. 

A few weeks later, one of the deputy chiefs of staff of the Chinese air force (PLAAF) made an address to army (PLA) officers in which he chastised them for believing that a war with Taiwan and the United States would be easy to win. He reminded them that the PLA attempted to conquer Taiwanese held islands in the 1950s. While it eventually did occupy many of them (the largest being Hainan), it suffered setbacks until it imitated Western combined arms concepts, and adopted the use of actual landing craft (instead of traditional Chinese junks). He said that we faced two enemies the enemy and the sea which is an unfamiliar combat environment for the PLA. And, he said, the sea is still there. In the end, the PLA of old could not figure out how to defeat the US Seventh Fleet, and the invasion force assembled for the invasion of Taiwan itself was, instead, sent to Korea. The significant point of this lecture is that there is a wide perception among PLA officers that, once politicians turn them loose, the outcome is not in doubt.

Support for this view comes from an odd quarter: the official U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Report to Congress. Every year, the language found in the conclusions remains the same: A Chinese invasion of Taiwan can succeed if China is willing to pay the political, economic and military price. Indeed, all formal DoD analysis since the Ford administration has reached this conclusion. After all, it is only 133 kilometers from the mainland to Taiwan. If the number of active duty amphibious ships in the Chinese Navy is modest, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) says the total number of Army, Navy, Coast Guard (former Provincial Military District) amphibious ships and craft is vast. Both PLA Ground Forces and PLA Air Force have formal shipping transportation organizations not described or counted in most naval references. 

In addition, according to ONI, there are vast numbers of civil amphibious vessels used for island and river communication, potentially available for mobilization. One analysis indicates that formal military amphibious assets can lift 38 heavy (i.e. tank) battalions plus 58 infantry battalions (of which reserve elements lift 17 heavy battalions and 32 infantry battalions). In addition, assets serving as civil ferries (probably understated as not all are listed in international registries) can lift 7 heavy battalions, 30 medium (i.e. motorized) battalions, and 226 infantry battalions. No less than 95 of the latter can be carried by high speed surface skimmers, an item of concern to Taiwanese military planners. Actual maritime lift includes 139 heavy battalions, 362 medium battalions and 175 infantry battalions on merchant ships and a further 30 medium battalions and 23 infantry battalions on naval auxiliary ships. While only a fraction of these would be available for mobilization, clearly the amount of lift exceeds any realistic requirement. However, the mobilization of this civilian shipping for military use would put Taiwan, and the U.S. Navy, on alert.

 


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