The Taiwanese Island Fortress That Could Halt A Chinese Invasion
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There are only so many ways for China to invade Taiwan. The country’s main island is mountainous and rocky on its east coast. The good beaches are on the west coast, in particular in Taiwan’s southwest plain.
If China invades, it’s most likely going to land troops along that plain. But there’s at least one big obstacle to that approach. A fortified Taiwanese island that looms like a jagged speed-bump in the middle of the Taiwan Strait.
To be clear, it in theory is possible for a Chinese invasion fleet to directly attack Taiwan’s capital Taipei, in the country’s north, by sailing straight into the city’s port. Chinese planners reportedly have drawn up plans for just such an operation.
Ian Easton, senior director at the pro-Taiwan Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia, gamed out a Taipei gambit in a 2018 article.
“It’s the ultimate nightmare scenario,” Easton wrote. Fortunately for Taiwan, however, Taipei is heavily-defended so an assault “relie[s] on stealth”—and stealth is hard to pull off when both attacker and defender lie a mere hundred miles from each other.
That makes the southern approach less risky for China. Everyone knows it. Everyone is planning for it. Analysts have had so long to study the problem that they’ve identified all the likely invasion beaches. That of course means the Chinese and Taiwanese militaries also know the beaches.
Shortly after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen landslide reelection in January, the Chinese military apparently leaked a photo depicting soldiers studying maps of Taiwan.
Invasion routes were clearly marked on the maps. One of the maps shows Chinese forces landing in southern Taiwan, but only after seizing Penghu, a Taiwanese archipelago of 90 islets that lies 30 miles from the main island.
China has little choice but to capture or suppress Penghu before invading Taiwan proper. Taiwanese forces on the archipelago operate a long-range radar plus Hsiung Feng II anti-ship cruise missiles and Sky Bow III surface-to-air missiles. If a Chinese invasion fleet bypassed Penghu without destroying its garrison, the fleet would be subject to missile strikes at its flanks.
It’s not for no reason that Paul Huang, a researcher with the Taipei-sponsored Institute for National Defense and Security Research, early this year described Penghu’s as the most important of Taiwan’s three major island garrisons.
If China failed to suppress or capture Penghu, the main invasion force “might be obliged to abort the operation, making an assault on Taiwan one of history’s nonevents—like Hitler’s invasion of England,” analysts Piers Wood and Charles Ferguson wrote in a 2001 edition of the U.S. Naval War College Review.
But taking the islands could be hard for China. The 60,000-strong permanent garrison includes an army brigade with 70 upgraded M-60 tanks and an artillery battalion. The Taiwanese navy routinely deploys a missile destroyer in the waters around Penghu. The air force practices staging nimble Indigenous Defense Fighters to the archipelago’s airport.
A major beach-defense exercise in 2017 involved 3,900 Taiwanese troops, IDF and F-16 fighters, AH-64, CH-47 and UH-60 helicopters, RT-2000 multiple-launch rocket systems, tanks, 155-millimeter and 105-millimeter howitzers and teams firing Javelin anti-tank missiles at offshore targets.
To be clear, Beijing has the power to take Penghu. China’s navy possesses an amphibious flotilla with eight modern assault ships and dozens of large landing craft. China’s marine corps is tens of thousands strong. The Chinese air force and rocket force could bombard Penghu with literally thousands of bombs and missiles.
But every hour the Chinese military spends fighting for Penghu is an hour Taiwan could use to deploy its active forces toward its southern beaches and mobilize its two-million-person reserves.
The U.S. Navy could use that same hour to shift two or three aircraft carrier battle groups toward Taiwan. By the time Chinese troops raised Beijing’s flag over Penghu, American bombers could be en route with loads of stealth cruise missiles.
In any invasion scenario, time is not on China’s side. “Initiating a war over Taiwan in the face of both internal and external threats is the greatest risk imaginable,” wrote Drew Thompson, a researcher at the National University of Singapore.
Penghu embodies that risk. Capturing the island could clear the way for China finally to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland. Failing to capture Penghu could, perhaps for a very long time, end Beijing’s reunification-by-force gambit.
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