Type 99A or ZTZ-99A Chinese third generation main battle tank (MBT) Credit: CC BY-SA 4.0 - Photo: 2023

A Nuclear Goliath vs a Non-Nuclear David

By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, 16 April 2023 (IDN) — The rising military tensions between a nuclear-armed China and a non-nuclear Taiwan is turning out to be an upcoming re-play of the ongoing battle between Russia and Ukraine—a conflict between a nuclear and a non-nuclear country.

But any confrontation in Asia will likely favour a heavily-armed China against a relatively weak Taiwan.

Caught in the middle is the United States, another nuclear power, whose US Taiwan Relations Act of April 1979 underlines a longstanding American commitment.

The US, says the Act, shall provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character and shall maintain the capacity of the US to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.

If a war occurs, “we’ll fight it ourselves”, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, was quoted as saying, April 11.

Wu said Taiwan did not anticipate a military conflict any time soon, but whether one were to happen tomorrow or in 10 years, the key element would be preparation.

“Defending Taiwan is our own responsibility and we’re absolutely committed in our self-defence,” he said, in an interview with Cable News Network (CNN).

“If there’s going to be a war between Taiwan and China, we’ll fight the war ourselves. If other countries will come to our aid, that would be highly appreciated. But we will fight the war for our own survival, for our own future.”

“Chinese leaders will think twice before they decide to use force against Taiwan. And no matter whether it is 2025 or 2027 or even beyond, Taiwan simply needs to get ready,” he said.

Asked about the comparative firepower of the two countries, Siemon Wezeman, Senior Researcher, Arms Transfers Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IDN “it is really a David-Goliath picture”.

But unlike the ancient biblical legend, this time around, Goliath is likely to prevail over David.

According to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) the Taiwan military is armed mostly with second-hand weapons and equipment provided by the US, and the US has continued to be the largest provider of arms in recent years; Taiwan also has a domestic defense industry capable of building and upgrading a range of weapons systems, including surface ships and submarines

Taiwan has approximately 170,000 active duty troops (90,000 Army; 40,000 Navy, including approximately 10,000 marines; 40,000 Air Force). Taiwan also trains about 120,000 reservists annually, but in 2022 announced intentions to increase that figure to 260,000, according to the CIA.

In a Q&A with IDN, Wezeman said China’s military forces are very much bigger than those of Taiwan—in the number of troops, reserves and in all categories of weapons (e.g. https://www.statista.com/chart/3471/the-military-imbalance-in-the-taiwan-strait/, according to US Department of Defense (DoD) data.

Q: Is Taiwan any match for China?

A: Based purely on numbers, no. But of course, in any direct action against Taiwan will have the advantage of the Taiwan Strait: China will have to cross that either by sea or by air and that is not going to be easy. In effect, that rather narrow piece of water, without any natural cover, is an enormous force-multiplier for Taiwan.

Especially any invasion of Taiwan would have to manage first to cross the sea, land and establish a bridgehead and finally get enough troops across to win. The crossing and the landing would be the most troublesome for China as Taiwan has long trained and equipped itself (including with large numbers of anti-ship missiles) to deal with just that.

Other issues that have to be taken into account are the will of Taiwan and the Taiwanese to resist, and the will of China to fight, and how the world will react? We’ve seen in Ukraine how a will to resist is a powerful weapon in itself. And how supplies and other support from friendly states can impact.

In the Taiwan-China case, it is obviously most important to see what the US will do (or for China, to picture a worst-case scenario of what the US might do). Any active US action changes the force comparison dramatically.

Q: What are the major weapons in Taiwan’s and China’s arsenals? And who are the primary suppliers?

A: Taiwan is mainly dependent on the US for its major arms. The US is basically the only state today that is willing to face down China on arms supplies to Taiwan (but some other states provide some components and technologies or support weapons supplied earlier—e.g. France still supports the Mirage-2000 combat aircraft delivered in the mid-1990s and the Netherlands supports the two submarines—the only two operational submarines Taiwan has, which were delivered in the 1980s).

However, Taiwan does have a fairly substantial arms industry that does produce at least some of the major arms (mainly ships and land-based major arms and missiles), albeit it still depends on foreign suppliers for some key components (e.g. engines) for locally-produced major arms.

China is largely producing its own major arms in all categories. A limited dependency on foreign components (e.g., again, mainly aircraft engines and helicopters from Russia) still exists but is likely to disappear as Chinese designs also become available.

Q: Is China a major arms manufacturer?

A: Yes, it is. By now without doubt the second-largest (after the US; but far ahead of Russia and others) (e.g. see https://sipri.org/publications/2022/sipri-fact-sheets/sipri-top-100-arms-producing-and-military-services-companies-2021).

China has the second largest military spending globally (in 2021 and estimated US $293 billion or 14% of the global total; see https://sipri.org/publications/2022/sipri-fact-sheets/trends-world-military-expenditure-2021) and thus also its procurement and R&D are larger than those of any other state except the USA.

It has been the second largest spender on arms now for quite some years and has thus invested significantly in building modern, well-equipped forces.

China has also invested significantly over the last decades in developing weapons and military technology and is currently able to produce almost all the weapons and other military equipment it needs, to Chinese designs.

We published a paper last year on the level of self-reliance in arms production of Indo-Pacific states and considered China to be far more self-reliant than any other state in Asia-Oceania (https://sipri.org/sites/default/files/2022-10/1022_indopacific_arms_production.pdf; e.g. on page 43 and pages 11-12).

Basically, China buys every year more major arms (measured in number of units) than almost any other state, and the quality of the weapons acquired has increased significantly in the last 20 years to a current quality level that is often on par with what the large Western states or Russia can produce. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Type 99A or ZTZ-99A Chinese third generation main battle tank (MBT) Credit: CC BY-SA 4.0

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