Taiwan's Defense: Assessing The U.S. Department of Defense Report, "The Security Situation in the Taiwan Strait"
CRS Report for Congress
Assessing The U.S. Department of Defense Report,
“The Security Situation in the Taiwan Strait”
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
The 106 Congress is being called on to consider legislation on U.S. support forth
Taiwan’s military defense needs, based in part on a congressionally-mandated U.S.
Defense Department (DoD) report released in February 1999 on “The Security Situation
in the Taiwan Strait.” To respond to a number of inquiries, CRS has prepared this brief
analysis of the 28-page DoD report. The DoD report provides an authoritative and
straight-forward review of the status and short term outlook of military forces on the
People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan sides of the Taiwan Strait. It concludes
that the “dynamic equilibrium” has not changed in the last 20 years. On the other hand,
although the DoD report has language that can be interpreted to support no change in
U.S. military support for Taiwan, much of the report’s discussion suggests that Taiwan’s
defensive edge may be eroding as it faces increased PRC ballistic and cruise missile and
air defense capabilities and an increased ability to carry out a naval blockade against
Taiwan. This CRS report will not be updated. For coverage of Taiwan issues, see the
discussion and selected readings in Taiwan, CRS Issue Brief 98034. For a photocopy of
the DoD report, please call the Inquiry Section at 7-7500 and ask for LRS99-1975.
The 106 Congress is being called on to consider legislation on U.S. support forth
Taiwan’s military defense needs. The Department of Defense (DoD) released a
congressionally-mandated unclassified report in February 1999 on “The Security Situation
in the Taiwan Strait.” H.Con.Res. 56 (passed House March 23, 1999) and S.Con.Res. 17
(passed Senate April 12, 1999) refer to the Defense Department report in urging greater
U.S. support for Taiwan’s defense against a military buildup by the People’s Republic of
China (PRC) opposite Taiwan. S. 693 (introduced March 24, 1999) also refers to the
findings of the Department of Defense report in laying out many specific steps to be taken
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
by the U.S. government in order to shore up Taiwan’s security in the face of the PRC
CRS has been asked by Members and staff for a brief analysis of the lengthy (about
28 pages single spaced) Defense Department report. This CRS report provides an
assessment noting some of the strengths of the DoD report while discussing at greater
length four areas of perceived limitation or shortcoming that are relevant to current
congressional concerns. Those interested in obtaining a photocopy of the DoD report may
call the Inquiry Section at 7-7500 and ask for LRS99-1975.
Strengths of the Department of Defense Report
The DoD report provides an authoritative, comprehensive, and straight forward
review of the status and short term outlook of military forces on the People’s Republic of
China (PRC) and Taiwan sides of the Taiwan Strait. It looks in considerable detail at2
salient weapon systems and other military hardware on both sides. It also pays close
attention to the two sides’ efforts in upgrading “software,” such as information and
electronic warfare; and it discusses strengths and weaknesses in the military leadership,
education, training, and morale of the fighting forces on both sides.
Against this backdrop, it examines the broader defense strategy and war planning of
the PRC and Taiwan and reviews in particular how the PRC might use its military forces
to carry out operations against Taiwan. Four specific options for the PRC are noted;
blockade; missile strikes; air superiority; and amphibious invasion. The report explains why
the likelihood of such operations is not high now, given the October 1998 resumption of
high-level dialogue across the Strait and efforts by both sides to avoid provocative military
exercises or other activity in the Strait following the crisis caused by the PRC provocative
military exercises there in 1995 and 1996.3
Limitations and Perceived Shortcomings of the Department of Defense
Some of the following issues relate to the report’s limited scope, defined by
congressional mandate. The report does not address several policy issues as well as
seemingly relevant military issues outside its original scope. Additionally, some observers
would challenge the findings and conclusions of the report from other perspectives.
1. The report treats the cross Strait military balance narrowly. It does not, for
example, discuss how a conflict in the area could involve other powers, notably the United
States and Japan. Many analysts believe the United States would become involved in a
For a review of recent legislation on Taiwan, and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan based on the Taiwan1
Relations Act (PL 96-8) and three U.S.-PRC communiques dealing with Taiwan, see Taiwan,
CRS Issue Brief 98034 (updated regularly). There is also a classified version of the DoD report
which presumably is available from the Defense Department for those with appropriate clearances.
The status of Taiwan’s military is often overlooked by nongovernment western specialists. 2
For background, see also Taiwan: Recent Developments and U.S. Policy Choices. CRS Issue3
Brief 98034 (updated regularly).
conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and PRC military planning for a Taiwan contingency
reportedly assumes the United States would be involved. U.S. interest in peace and4
stability in East Asia and the western Pacific is repeatedly noted as a basic pillar of
American policy in the region. The deployment of 100,000 U.S. forces in the region is5
justified by this interest. Moreover, the Taiwan Relations Act codified U.S. interest in
stability in the Taiwan area and noted that the United States would view with “grave
concern” possible disruptions there. Meanwhile, the Japanese government, the main U.S.6
ally in Asia, shares U.S. interest in regional stability. It eschews any explicit statements
about the security situation around Taiwan, though its interest in this neighboring area is
thought to be very keen.7
2. The report focuses narrowly on PRC military options to use force against
Taiwan. It tends to treat these options (i.e. blockade, missile strikes, air superiority, and
amphibious invasion) separately. Many other specialists judge that Beijing’s approach to
using force--if carried out--would be much more sophisticated and multifaceted,
integrating numerous political as well as military options. Thus, they see the prime PRC8
goal in these circumstances as intimidation of Taiwan’s political leaders. They believe the
PRC might use force in order to coerce the Taiwan leadership to come to terms on
Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland acceptable to the PRC. The use of force could
follow a sliding scale of escalating military pressure, or perhaps involve all areas (i.e.
blockade, air superiority, missile attack, amphibious invasion) at once, and presumably
would be combined with political overtures to Taiwan for a settlement on PRC terms and
diplomatic and other international moves designed to keep the United States and other
powers out of the conflict. The PRC leadership is not seen as likely to use military force
to destroy Taiwan; rather it is thought that it might use military force in ways that do the
least damage to Taiwan and PRC interests in order to get Taiwan leaders to give in to
PRC demands over reunification and other sensitive issues.
Military pressure against Taiwan could include:
Clow-level intimidation (military exercises, weapons displays, confrontations at sea or
in the air, and various kinds of covert subversion);
Cnaval blockade or interdiction efforts, amphibious invasion of off shore islands;
Ca limited missile and/or air attack against Taiwanese territory or strategic targets;
Ca full scale attack.
See among others Hans Binnendijk and Ronald Montaperto, Strategic Trends in China,4
Washington, National Defense University Press, 1998.
See, The United States Security Strategy for the East Asia-Pacific Region, Department of5
Defense East Asia Strategy Report 1998.
Section 2, Public Law 96-8.6
Bonnie Glaser and Banning Garrett, “Chinese Apprehensions About the Revitalization of the7
U.S.-Japan Alliance,” Asian Survey, 37:4 (April 1997): 383-402.
See among others Michael Swaine, “The Military Challenge to Taiwan,” Institute of International8
Strategic Studies/China Council of Advanced Policy Studies Conference, June-July 1998; and Tai
Ming Cheung, China’s Military Agenda towards Taiwan, China Council of Advanced Policy
Studies Paper No.24, November 1998.
As a result, these specialists tend to see the key variables in this situation as the PRC
leadership’s willingness to escalate the use of force; their effectiveness in keeping the
United States and other powers from intervening in the conflict; and the Taiwan
government leadership and people’s willingness to continue to resist rising PRC pressure.
These critical variables are not examined in this report.
3. The report can be interpreted in different ways regarding U.S. military support
for Taiwan. Those U.S. policy makers in Congress and the Administration who are9
cautious about giving greater U.S. military support for Taiwan may read the report’s
introduction, which notes that “the security situation in the Taiwan strait remains calm
with no threat of imminent hostilities,” as indicating no remedial action by the United10
States as far as added military support for Taiwan is required. To counter the opposing
view that China’s rising military power poses growing threats to Taiwan requiring greater
U.S. military support for the island, these policy makers could cite the first paragraph of
the conclusion of the report, which states “the dynamic equilibrium of (PRC and Taiwan)
forces in the Taiwan Strait has not changed dramatically over the last two decades.”11
Some U.S. policy advocates argue that even if there is a growing PRC military threat
to Taiwan, the appropriate U.S. response is not to add U.S. military support for Taiwan.12
They believe that it is in the U.S. best interests to try to calm the cross strait situation by
persuading and even pressuring the two sides to ease tensions, establish confidence
building measures, and move toward accommodation. They judge that more U.S. military
support for Taiwan has the added disadvantage of exacerbating U.S.-PRC relations over
this sensitive question, raising the prospect of renewed confrontation in the Taiwan Strait--
something they seek to avoid.
On the other hand, the bulk of the findings in the report when considered against the
backdrop of past assessments of the military balance in the Taiwan Strait can be read by13
U.S. policy makers in Congress and the Administration who favor greater U.S. military
support for Taiwan as buttressing their position. They could make several major points:
Cchanged strategic environment. The main strategic obstacle to a possible PRC use
of military force against Taiwan in the later 1970s and early 1980s was the Soviet
Union. PRC leaders were focused on the strategic danger posed by the USSR, its
active fleet in the western Pacific, its alliance relationships with Vietnam and India,
and its bases in Vietnam. Any use of force against Taiwan would not only have
diverted Chinese military resources needed to confront the Soviet threat, but also
would have provided the USSR with an opportunity to make gains elsewhere along
China’s periphery if the PRC were distracted in Taiwan. Since the end of the Cold
The debate on U.S. military support for Taiwan is reviewed in Taiwan CRS Issue Brief 980349
op. cit.; see also Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, “China-Taiwan: US Debates and Policy Choices,”
Survival, 40:4 (Winter 1998-1999) p. 150-167.
DoD report, p. 1.10
DoD report, p. 25.11
See among others, Tucker, “China-Taiwan,” op. cit.12
See among others, Taiwan: One Year After United States-China Normalization, U.S. Congress,13th
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Print, 96 Congress, 2d session, June 1980.
War, the Chinese military has been free to redirect its attention and now devotes
priority to contingencies regarding Taiwan. Unlike the 1970s and early 1980s, it
faces no major military threat along its periphery.14
Cballistic/cruise missile threat. The report reviews in considerable detail the growth
in numbers and improvement in accuracy of PRC ballistic and cruise missiles for
possible use against Taiwan. Beijing had much less capability in the 1970s and15
1980s. The report also makes clear that Taiwan’s ability to defend against this kind
of threat has not kept pace with PRC advances, posing a major strategic vulnerability
for Taiwan. This vulnerability affects Taiwan’s need to maintain air superiority in
order to thwart a blockade and fend off an amphibious invasion (see discussion
Cair superiority. The report makes clear that Taiwan’s air superiority vis-a-vis PRC
forces is eroding. In the 1970s and 1980s, PLA air forces were so backward that
Beijing chose not to use them in its World War I style military attack against Vietnam
in 1979 (using mainly artillery and infantry) . Taiwan air forces had markedly
superior air-to-air missiles and over-the-horizon radars to compete with antiquated
PRC fighters that had to rely on line-of-sight engagement. Although Taiwan fighters
were outnumbered, it was assumed by U.S. specialists that they would be able to pick
off incoming PRC fighters before they got close enough for engagement and quickly
return to base to refit and fight again. In this way, air superiority would be
maintained, allowing Taiwan aircraft the ability to counter a PRC blockade or16
The DoD report makes clear that Taiwan no longer has the advantage in air to air
missiles. Meanwhile, the increased accuracy of ballistic and cruise missiles means
that PRC forces could destroy Taiwan airfields, making it harder and perhaps
impossible for the very capable but outnumbered Taiwan jet fighters to resupply and
fight again. Losing air superiority would mean that Taiwan would not be able to use
its air force to counter a PRC blockade and/or amphibious invasion.
Cblockade. Taiwan’s air superiority and PRC backwardness persuaded U.S. analysts
in the 1970s and 1980s that Beijing would not be able to execute a successful military
blockade of Taiwan. In particular, it was thought by analysts at that time that17
interdicting shipments to the eastern part of the island would be particularly difficult
for PRC forces. In contrast, the current DoD report states that “Taiwan’s military
forces probably would not be able to keep the island’s key ports and sea lines of
See among others, Paul Godwin, “Force and Diplomacy: China Prepares for the Twenty-First14
Century,” in Samuel Kim (ed.) China and the World, Westview Press, Boulder, CO. 1998, p. 171-
It does not treat some Taiwan short range ballistic missiles, the Ching Feng and Tien Chi.15
See discussion in Taiwan: One Year After United States-China Normalization, op.cit. P.117-16
Ibid., p 152-153.17
communications (SLOCs) open in the face of concerted Chinese military action.
Taiwan’s small surface fleet and four submarines are numerically insufficient...”18
To keep pace with growing PRC military advances in the post Cold War security
environment that allows Beijing to focus primary military attention on Taiwan
contingencies, these U.S. advocates of greater military support for Taiwan could conclude:
CThe U.S. needs to press the PRC to curb its military buildup focused on Taiwan
contingencies or face U.S. countermeasures to redress the balance in the Taiwan
CCountermeasures could include providing more advanced air-to-air missiles for
Taiwan fighters; support for stronger Taiwan defenses against growing cruise and
ballistic missile threats from the PRC; and support for the Taiwan efforts to thwart
a PRC blockade (e.g. better anti-submarine aircraft; submarines for Taiwan’s navy).
Of course, as noted above, other U.S. policy advocates would draw different
implications for U.S. policy. They may see a growing PRC military threat to Taiwan as
requiring stronger U.S. efforts to try to calm the cross strait situation by persuading and
pressuring the two sides to ease tensions, establish confidence building measures, and
move toward accommodation. From their perspective, more U.S. military support for
Taiwan could have the added disadvantage of exacerbating U.S.-PRC relations over this
sensitive question, raising the prospect of renewed confrontation in the Taiwan Strait--
something they seek to avoid.
4. Conditions for PRC use of force. The report notes circumstances under which the
PRC has claimed it would use force against Taiwan. Those are Taiwan declaring
independence, foreign intervention in Taiwan, and Taiwan developing nuclear weapons.
It does not note other circumstances in which the PRC might use force against Taiwan.
On January 28, 1999, the leading PRC official in charge of policy toward Taiwan, Vice
Premier Qian Qichen, said that if Taiwan were to hold a referendum on its future it would
be “playing with fire” and would “bring disaster to Taiwan”--suggesting for the first time
in authoritative PRC leadership statements that Taiwan holding a referendum might be
grounds for a PRC use of force. Meanwhile, recent Chinese rhetoric against possible19
U.S. support for a missile defense system in Taiwan also suggest particular sensitivity that
some analysts believe could result in PRC use of force.20
DoD report, p 23.18
“Qian Qichen on Reunification,” Xinhua, January 28, 1999.19
China and U.S. Missile Defense Proposals: Reactions and Implications. By Robert Sutter, CRS20
Report RS20031, January 28, 1999.