Of all the security concerns that were discussed in chapter one, with the exception of regime preservation, it can be argued that those issues with the highest priority are Taiwan and the SCS. The PLA has made great strides forward in modernising itself to deal with the security challenges faced by the PRC. However it is very clear that it has a long way to go to achieve its long term military aspirations and it is obviously no match for the US in a stand up fight. It can be argued that the PRC has developed its military enough to make Taiwan and the littoral states of the SCS increase their own military preparations. Between the considerable development undertaken on its conventional forces and its previously mentioned embryonic asymmetric capabilities, it is possible that the PRC is in a position to achieve its objectives should either the Taiwan or SCS situation devolve to conflict. The level of success for the PRC in dealing with these scenarios if the US intervenes militarily decreases sharply. The military assets assigned to the US Pacific Command alone are staggering. These forces in all likelihood would be further supplemented by other military assets such as extra C4ISTAR capabilities and long range strike platforms equipped with PGMs. This would be in addition to the not inconsiderable armed forces of Taiwan in that scenario and the less considerable might of the SCS littoral states in that scenario. However a PRC – US/Coalition conflict would no longer be the one sided affair that it would have been twenty years ago. The improvements to the PLA’s conventional war fighting capabilities now make it extremely likely that any conflict would be intense, bloody and costly to both sides in terms of casualties and materiel. Although a defeat of US military forces is still unlikely in the conventional sense, as previously stated in chapter two, a victory can be achieved by one side making it too costly for the other. As an open and democratic society the US is far more susceptible to this issue than the CCP controlled PRC.
It can be argued that the PLA approach to a conflict with Taiwan will consist of three phases. Firstly, establish a blockade of the island in an effort to limit external military aid and to cut the flow of essential supplies such as oil and food. Secondly use the assets of Second Artillery and the PLAAF to knock out key targets such as C3 nodes, airbases and air defences and to begin wearing down Taiwanese air assets and naval surface platforms. The third and final phase would be an amphibious and airborne assault against the island itself. It is worth noting that Special Forces operations against Taiwan would in all likelihood run simultaneously with all three phases. To have any chance of succeeding, it is highly likely that there would need to be a degree of concurrency between phases one and two. If the blockade were enacted without the strikes from Second Artillery and the PLAAF then it would give time for Taiwanese forces, possibly in conjunction with US forces, a chance to break the blockade. A rapid and massive strike from Second Artillery and the PLAAF would at best have a paralysing effect on a Taiwanese response, and at worst would serve as a distraction. This would force the Taiwanese to deal with the threat from Second Artillery and the PLAAF, diverting resources from breaking the blockade and risking those same resources in the teeth of mainland PRC defences composed of aircraft, SAMs and ASCMs. There is a counter to the concurrency argument, the success of which would depend completely on the political situation at the time. If US intervention or other international support were not assured for whatever reason, such as US domestic war weariness or if Taiwan had precipitated the situation by declaring independence against external advice, then phase one on its own offers extra advantages. A blockade could exert enough pressure to force a change in policy with the absolute minimum in bloodshed. This becomes even more likely the longer the blockade is maintained. A blockade is also easier to step back from once objectives are achieved or if it looks like events are going against the PRC.
The PLAN would be the primary force used to enforce a blockade, with the PLAAF having a secondary role. The PLAN’s force of 44 attack submarines would be the most effective arm in enforcing a blockade but a visible presence would need to be maintained and that role would belong to the surface fleet probably in conjunction with a maritime exclusion zone similar to what the British declared around the Falklands Islands in 1982. A blockade implemented on its own or in conjunction with rapid missile and air strikes against Taiwan could prevent challenges to the current capabilities of the PRC if the US intervened militarily. The modern destroyers and frigates of the PLAN are geared almost exclusively towards anti-air warfare (AAW) and anti-surface warfare (ASuW) with only limited anti-submarine capability (ASW). This leaves the lion’s share of ASW work to be undertaken by the submarine force. If Taiwan is operating independently then this is not an issue as the Taiwanese Navy only possesses two Dutch built Hai Lung class SSKs. However if the US has intervened, then the PLAN would face the 31 SSNs of the Los Angeles, Seawolf and Virginia class that are assigned to PACOM. Assuming that some of those boats are kept back for maintenance and contingencies, the remaining submarines would be more than a match for the PLAN. The US boats are all nuclear powered, are far more advanced in terms of stealth, sonar and weapons fit, and US ASW skills were honed over many years against the Soviets during the Cold War.
From the viewpoint of a surface fleet versus surface fleet engagement, the odds are more in the PLAN’s favour, again assuming that they are just engaging the Taiwanese. The Taiwanese Navy has 26 major surface combatants ranging from eight 40 year old ex-USN Knox class frigates and four ex-USN Kidd class destroyers to eight modern French designed Lafayette class frigates. Although these are all armed with ASCMs and are backed up by a large number of ASCM equipped patrol boats, they are massively outgunned by the sheer number of ASCM equipped platforms the PLAN could bring to bear. This includes modern designs such as the Sovremenny and Luyang destroyers and Jiangkai frigates. As before, this equation tips the other way if US forces are present. Not counting the six carriers assigned to PACOM, the US could deploy up to 48 cruisers, destroyers and frigates, the majority of which are armed with Harpoon ASCMs. Again assuming some units are in maintenance or kept back for contingencies, the remainder would still be a powerful force which could overwhelm the PLAN.
The Taiwanese threat from the air is not as great as perhaps was once perceived as the capability gap has closed considerably. The most modern and capable aircraft in the Taiwanese inventory are the US built F-16 A/Bs and French built Mirage 2000Ds. Against these the PLAAF can field the more advanced Su-27 Flanker/J-11, the Su-30/33 and the indigenous J-10. These assets would be able to dominate the immediate airspace and provide air cover to the surface fleet. US airpower would outgun and outclass the PLAAF. The capability provided by six carrier air wings alone would present a significant challenge. These would be reinforced by units forward staged to Japan. From an air superiority point of view, the capability gap is perfectly highlighted by the US fifth generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor, which far outclasses anything fielded by the PRC. The capability gap is further widened by platforms such as E-3D Sentry AWACS and KC-135 Stratotankers which act as force multipliers. US air superiority would also allow rapid re-supply of Taiwan and render any blockade ineffective.
The most effective way for the PRC to prevent this from happening would be to conduct a phase two rapid air and missile strike against Taiwan. There are several advantages highlighted by this kind of action. Depending on the degree of success it could severely limit Taiwanese options in dealing with the PRC. It would also increase the pressure on the Taiwanese government and could force a policy shift as described earlier. An effective strike could cause an undecided US to waver further in the face of potential casualties. However a strike also brings several potential disadvantages. Once a strike has been launched against Taiwan it would make it a lot more difficult to take a step back and calm the situation down. Although it has been pointed out that a strike could weaken resolve, it could also have the opposite effect and strengthen resolve. Unless the strike was so overwhelming and demoralising, a strong and charismatic figure or figures could play on ideas of spilt blood and national pride to instil a sense of defiance. Similarly an actual strike could cause the US to commit to the defence of Taiwan unless the strike had reduced enough Taiwanese capabilities to make US intervention relatively pointless without the commitment of massive amounts of resources.
A phase three attack against the island, consisting of an airborne and amphibious assault would be the most challenging for the PLA to undertake. If phases one and two have not been as successful as hoped and if there is a substantial US military presence then an invasion would be almost impossible to pull off with any degree of success. As stated in chapter three, the PLA airborne capability is severely limited by its current transport fleet. The amphibious elements of the PLAN also face massive limitations in the number of troops that can be carried in a single lift. Utilising the full inventory of air and amphibious transports, the PLA could only move 21,000 troops for an initial assault. Geography places a limit on the number of locations where an amphibious assault can take place. These options are limited further when you take into account the fact that the seizure and control of a deepwater port has to be a primary objective of any assault and thus a landing must take place relatively close to one of those. If a deepwater port is not quickly seized then the PLA would find itself unable to bring across large numbers of reinforcements in commercial shipping vessels. This simplifies the task for the Taiwanese of concentrating an overwhelming defensive force in the right place. If the initial assault force is unable to seize a deepwater port and exploit it to build up reinforcements, then the PLA beachhead would be quickly swept back into the sea. Therefore with its current capabilities, a PLA invasion of Taiwan would be a risky option at best, even if all the factors were in the PRC’s favour.
Militarily resolving the PRC’s claim to the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands in the SCS, and enforcing its sovereignty over the SCS would present its own set of challenges. The Paracel Islands lie approximately 300km south east of the Chinese island of Hainan and are claimed by the PRC, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Spratly Islands lie approximately 900km south east of Hainan Island and are claimed by the PRC, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Although on friendly terms with the nations involved, it is unlikely that the US would intervene militarily in these disputes unless as part of some UN peacekeeping force. However if the shooting had not actually started, it may deploy naval platforms in the hope that a show of force would be enough to keep the peace. This would leave the PRC in a position of only needing to defeat or deter the states mentioned above who also claim sovereignty over the islands.
Again this scenario would see the maritime forces of each nation play the dominant role, backed by the other services where appropriate and possible. Comparing the various Orders of Battle (ORBATs) of the nations involved indicates superiority in numbers and capability for the PRC. The South Sea Fleet (SSF) would be the primary force used by the PLAN, backed up where necessary by assets from the North and East Sea Fleets. The current force structure of the SSF can outmatch any one of the other claimant nations with the possible exception of Taiwan. This has been recognised and Vietnam and Malaysia are taking steps to improve their capabilities. One potential countermeasure for the other claimants to adopt in order to overcome these deficiencies would be to operate as a coalition against the PRC. Although this would seem to be an ideal solution on paper, the reality would be very different.
A combined maritime force would have a paper strength of 68 major surface combatants and six submarines. However even before taking into account a reduction in platforms due to maintenance and contingencies, close analysis of those platforms reveals how wide the capability gap is. The Taiwanese Navy is the only force with a number of relatively modern destroyers and frigates armed with ASCMs. The other navies are mostly composed of corvette sized vessels of varying age and capability, with only Malaysia and Vietnam fielding modern frigate sized vessels. The Philippines lists three vessels of Second World War vintage on its ORBAT. These nations have only made limited, if any, efforts to incorporate current RMA style improvements and advances to their armed forces. Even the relatively limited RMA improvements undertaken by the PRC gives them a further advantage. Several of the PLAN’s most advanced platforms, including all four destroyers of the Luyang class, are based in the SSF along with two modern Shang SSNs and four Kilo SSKs. These platforms are backed up by large numbers of older platforms in the SSF which are at least as capable as the majority of platforms arrayed against them, with the exceptions noted above.
Another problem with a coalition approach is the probable disunity in terms of final goals and objectives. All the nations so far mentioned are claimants to either one or both groups of islands. It would be a huge error to assume that the other nations would co-operate with each other just to oppose the PRC. If the situation has devolved to the use of force, it is far more likely that each nation would seize any opportunity to gain an advantage over the other claimants. This is further complicated given that not all the nations lay claim to both island groups. It is unlikely that Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines would risk a conflict with the PRC over the Paracel Islands. Even if these issues could be overcome, there would still be significant obstacles to mounting a co-ordinated coalition campaign. The sheer number of differences between the maritime forces in equipment, logistical support, C3 procedures and capabilities and language would make coalition operations haphazard and disjointed at best. The PLAN operating under a single command would be well placed to exploit these difficulties and potentially defeat each nation’s force in detail. In contrast to a Taiwan scenario, the amphibious and airborne assault capabilities of the PRC would be more than adequate to seize these island groups and hold them long enough for follow on forces to reinforce them. The same cannot be said of the other claimant nations. Their very limited airborne and amphibious capabilities would mean that they would be heavily reliant on existing infrastructure to seize and hold their targets.
The PRC would currently struggle to achieve any of its security objectives that would bring it into a conventional, or non-nuclear, conflict with the US. Although it has made many significant leaps forward it still lags a considerable distance behind the US. This is most apparent in the PRC’s C4ISTAR and power projection capabilities, however as previously stated it is developing its own capabilities which would assist in nullifying some of the US superiority in these areas such as its ASBM and ASAT programmes. In a situation where there is no firm commitment from the US on its desire to engage in a shooting war, then the PRC has the capability to be a dominant regional power, especially in the two scenarios discussed in this chapter. Even without US intervention a full three phase engagement with Taiwan would test the military capabilities of the PRC to the absolute limit and success would be by no means assured. The PLAN is still lacking in amphibious assault ships and transport aircraft which would make an assault very difficult to successfully complete. The improvements that the PRC has made however, give it the ability to try a range of military options when trying to resolve the Taiwan situation. Two decades ago the PLAN was barely sufficient to guard the PRC’s coastline whereas now it is capable of undertaking a wide variety of missions including a blockade of Taiwan. The capabilities of the Second Artillery Corps give the PRC further options to deal with Taiwan before resorting to an invasion. These capabilities will improve with continued development. How the PRC would deal with a conflict in the SCS illustrates that against many of its potential opponents the PRC is already superior. The fact that it is not at the same capability level of the US clearly does not matter in every security challenge.