China's biggest challenge to invading Taiwan has been the ability to project force across the Taiwan Strait and establish a fait accompli there, but the political transformation in the latter significantly eases the former's difficulties.
Taipei's increasingly open policies to Beijing have opened more channels for Chinese to visit the island, such as for tourism, education, employment, commerce and so on. More than 3 million Chinese visited Taiwan in 2014; such a huge number presents the People's Liberation Army (PLA) a great opportunity to dispose "undercover" troops prior to invasion. Only 1 percent of Chinese visitors is tantamount to two divisions and more than 1 percent of those visitors could be involved in a military action against Taiwan. Their non-combatant guise could create more strategic and tactical surprises to Taipei than regular troops.
Although the PLA's "forward deployed" units would not bring their equipment during trips, smuggling and local capture could supply light arms and more. To facilitate efficient trade, Taiwan's customs officials can only check a limited number of containers and other cargo, not to mention conducting comprehensive exams inside.
Thus, firearms, anti-tank guided missiles and man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADs) may be smuggled through regular sea transport. Taiwan's upcoming free economic pilot zone, intended to ease trade restrictions, may provide an easier access to smuggle arms due to simplified import processes.
In addition, fishing boats, which have been used by local gangsters for decades, provide some access to light weapons.
Most military bases in Taiwan are not defended well. Unless alerted, most personnel inside are unarmed. The limited number of armed guards and contingent units in their fixed locations would be in an inferior tactical position. As a result, weapons and ammunition could be captured from local military bases.
This Chinese "fifth column," with only basic firepower, could paralyze the command chain and neutralize Taiwan's air defense network, helping pave the way for an airborne invasion. And despite being protected by bodyguards, Taiwan's political leaders are usually vulnerable to assaults or assassination.
With relatively sufficient force, the concealed Chinese units may even be able to launch simultaneous attacks on most key positions and annihilate, or at least disable, the political leadership. The lack of political decision-making would hamper the military command chain.
As for Taiwan's air defense network, the limited number of radar stations and surface-to-air missile sites are vulnerable to ground attack, because destroying their exposed antennas would significantly decrease their capabilities, and a few air bases stationed with fighters could be blockaded by MANPADs and snipers.
Furthermore, the Chinese fifth column does not need to attack all targets of Taiwan's air defense network but only establish an air corridor to the Songshan airport in downtown Taipei City, perhaps including the Taoyuan airport. As long as the air corridor is open, the PLA's airborne Army and other units can rapidly reinforce their pioneers with transporter aircraft and civilian passenger liners.
After securing the capital, the following challenges would be the legitimacy and the potential US intervention.
Since 2008, many political elites in Taiwan, both "pan-blue" and "pan-green," have gained their political and economic interests in and from China. Thus, it would not be very difficult for Beijing to find one or more "quislings" to form a temporary regime under the former's direct control.
Under the "one China" policy, this regime could be named Taiwan "provincial" or "district" government to display its subordination to the central authority of Beijing. As a result, the resistance in Taiwan would become a rebellion — a domestic affair.
Regarding any American intervention, US military units in Okinawa and other adjacent locations would have a chance to stop this scenario but face several constraints. First, sending forces to disrupt China's operations in Taiwan would require US political decisions. The potential for heavy casualties in armed conflict with China could cause hesitation, causing the military to miss its window of response.
Second, Beijing could deploy a certain level of military presence close to Okinawa in order to pin down the US forces. This would force front-line US commanders to decide whether to carry out intervention or defend their own bases. Without external intervention, organized resistance in the rest of Taiwan would not last long, and guerrilla warfare could be strategically meaningless.
Taipei's increasingly cooperative attitude toward Beijing since 2008 makes such a scenario unlikely unless a more independence-oriented administration forms in Taipei. ¦
Wu Shang-Su is a research fellow in the Military Studies Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.