The Night that the Lights Went Out in Taipei
Brent W. Thompson
“A crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind.” —Chinese proverb. “Move as swift as the wind.” —Sun Tzu
It started with a storm. Taiwan is no stranger to storms, experiencing an average of nearly four typhoons per year.1 Tropical storms can be particularly destructive on Taiwan, though, due to its steep Central Mountain Range, which deflects approaching tropical cyclones, causes random drops in air pressure, and unleashes severe winds.2 Typhoons hit Taiwan with similar intensity to hurricanes approaching comparable tropical islands like Puerto Rico3 , which Hurricane Maria devastated in 2017 with thousands of deaths and over $85 billion in property damage.4
Taiwan had survived devastating storms before, of course. Typhoon Herb killed over 70 people and destroyed more than $5 billion in property in 19965 , and Typhoon Morakot produced the highest recorded rainfall in a half-century when it hit in 2009.6 Taiwan likely could have survived this storm, too, but the People’s Republic of China had other plans…
The China-Taiwan Reunification Conundrum
There is one China, of which Taiwan is unquestionably a part. On this question, all parties agree, albeit with varying definitions. China insists Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan claims it is the legitimate government for all of China. For its part, the United States has diplomatically recognized one China, with the PRC as the sole and rightful government, since 1972.7
The United States does not support Taiwan’s independence.8 The two countries maintain cultural, commercial, and other relations under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. While American forces are postured to assist Taiwan if China attempts annexation by force,9 there is no treaty obligation to do so because the United States pulled out of the U.S.-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty in the 1970s.10 The United States is thus stuck in a strategically ambiguous position where it insists on peaceful resolution of cross-strait differences but leaves an open question as to whether—and under what circumstances—it would use force in Taiwan’s defense.11
China could exploit the United States’ “One China” policy gap to reunite forcibly reunite Taiwan with the mainland. The keys to success would be for China to act quickly, with little bloodshed, and to cloak the operation with a veneer of legitimacy. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 provides a conceivable blueprint for action. Russian forces brought an autonomous republic back into the Russian Federation through a highly choreographed military operation and influencing campaign.12 Except for some economic sanctions from the United States and European Union, Russia accomplished its strategic objectives with few repercussions on the world stage.13 China could use similar means to seize the island it so highly prizes.
The Beautiful Island
Taiwan is an island 120 miles east of Asia and Mainland China, between Japan and the Philippines, with a landmass of roughly 14,000 square miles. Although indigenous peoples had inhabited the island for hundreds of years, it gained broader attention when Portuguese explorers spotted the main island in 1542 and named it “Ilha Formosa,” which means “Beautiful Island.”14 After serving for a while as a Dutch colony, the island passed to the Chinese Qing Dynasty in 1683.15 After the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, Japan controlled the island through the end of World War II.16 The nationalist Republic of China (ROC) government, led by the Kuomintang (KMT), took control of Taiwan in 1945 and then lost mainland China to the Chinese Communists in 1949 during the Chinese Civil War.17 The ROC government fled to
Taiwan, where it has remained since.18 The overwhelming majority of people of Taiwan now identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.19
Taiwan has geostrategic importance because it is a multiparty, representative democracy in the East China Sea.20 Taiwan’s location offshore of the Chinese coast makes them a valuable ally to the United States and Japan, both in terms of maintaining freedom of movement in the Pacific and containing China’s influence in the region. Japan is the United States’ closest ally in the area, and virtually all of its oil and mineral imports travel the sea lanes of the Taiwan Strait.21 A loss of Taiwan to the PRC would be a significant breach of the United States’ defensive arc that begins in the Aleutian Islands and extends south through Japan and Taiwan into the Philippines.22
Taiwan has a dynamic capitalist economy with robust growth in industrial manufacturing, electronics, and semiconductors.23 Despite its relatively small population, it is a significant trade partner with both the United States and Japan.24 The United States sells Taiwan about $4 billion worth of military equipment per year, including top-of-the-line F-16 fighter aircraft25 and Arleigh Burke-class Aegis guided-missile destroyers.26 Taiwan fields AH-64E Apache attack helicopters that are newer than those fielded by the U.S. Army in the Indo-Pacific region.27 The island has also leveraged its considerable technological know-how to domestically manufacture anti-ship cruise missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, and surface-to-air missiles that extend its defensive belt well into the Chinese mainland.28 While Taiwan’s army, air force, and navy currently enjoy a technological edge, China is quickly closing the gap.29
A Sense of Urgency
China is on the clock. The PRC has long held that Taiwan is a “rebel province” that it must bring under its control.30 The year 2049 will mark 100 years of Communist rule in China, and leaders have expressed the ambition for a “great national rejuvenation” to mark the occasion.31 The national rejuvenation includes reunification with Taiwan under Communist leadership. While the PRC has expressed a wish for peaceful reunification, it has also reserved the right to decide the matter with force if necessary.32 China has a narrowing window of opportunity to seize the strategic advantage and increase its sphere of influence in the greater Indo-Asia Pacific region.33
A full-scale military invasion of Taiwan will not be easy. Although the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) dwarfs the armed forces of Taiwan, the island enjoys significant defensive advantages. The Taiwan Strait is a considerable barrier to invasion. Moving troops across the strait via ship would take at least 10 hours on rough seas.34 Troops would likely arrive at the island seasick and exhausted.35
Additionally, Taiwan’s coast is inhospitable to an amphibious landing. The western coast is an expanse of mudflats that extend miles into the sea and are nearly impassable by vehicle or foot.36 On the east side, many areas of the coast consist of mountains that drop straight to the waterline.37 Taiwan also experiences two monsoon seasons that would severely hamper a hostile invasion.38 Torrential rains and heavy winds would limit visibility and bog down troop movements.39
Further, Taiwan’s entire defense concept is designed to deny China the ability to land and resupply a massive invasion force.40 For China to win, it must move quickly and asymmetrically. As the ancient Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu once said, “go into emptiness, strike voids, bypass what he defends, hit him where he does not expect you.”41 If China desires to attack Taiwan, it must do so, not where it is strong, but where it is weak.
The Fatal Flaw
Human error can have drastic consequences. While supplying natural gas to the Datan Power Station in Taoyuan, south of Taipei in 2017, an employee’s mistake tripped six units at the station. It caused a drop of four million kilowatts of electricity.42 The resulting blackout affected millions of households and businesses across Taiwan. Phone lines went dead, TV broadcasts ceased, and assembly lines ground to a halt for about five hours.43 Citizens said the effects were similar to when an earthquake hit Taiwan in 1999.44 The incident served to underscore Taiwan’s perilous position concerning energy security.
Taiwan’s indigenous energy reserves are insufficient. Over 98% of Taiwan’s energy comes from imported fossil fuels.45 Taiwan’s energy reserves generally fall below 6%, and they dipped near 1% during a heatwave during the summer of 2017.46 The power grid, as it exists now, is out of date and is not built for renewable energy sources like wind and solar.47 The perilous state of Taiwan’s energy infrastructure is cause for alarm. Mistakes can be dangerous, but natural disasters or deliberate interference could be catastrophic.
Back to the Future…
As the typhoon approached the island, Taiwan’s power grid failed unexpectedly and comprehensively. No one could pinpoint the cause of the outage, although many suspected it was a state-sponsored hacking effort from mainland China. Stores closed. Fuel was scarce. Citizens were hungry, scared, and received precious little information from the government in Taipei. Without food, water, and the conveniences of modern life, it takes astonishingly little time for civilization to descend into chaos.
China had been waging a soft power campaign for years to bring Taiwan into its orbit.
Increased economic ties, social media, tourism, and clandestine influencing campaigns had all served to erode support for Taiwan’s independence and a desire to reunite with the mainland in some capacity. Taiwan’s humanitarian crisis, both natural and manufactured, gave China the opening it needed. Under the guise of humanitarian aid, China smuggled special operations forces into Taiwan, who linked up with indigenous citizens sympathetic to the communist cause. Chinese troops in civilian clothing seized strategic sites across the island, dissolved the Legislative Yuan, and deposed the president. Within three weeks, a pro-China government was in power, and Taiwan held a national referendum. A combination of desperate citizens and fraudulent votes led to Taiwan formally declaring itself reunited under Chinese communist rule.
Sound impossible? Perhaps. But Russia followed a very similar blueprint when it seized Crimea in 2014.48 For years before the annexation, Russia leveraged soft power successes, strengthened ethnic ties, and fomented civil unrest in Crimea.49 When the time came, Russia used covert operations to shape the battlefield and elite forces to seize the initiative quickly.50 Russia created enough plausible deniability that the West was slow to react.51 By the time the West realized Russia’s intentions, the annexation was a fait accompli, and the rest of the world had little interest in investing blood and treasure in returning to the status quo ante. An asymmetrical campaign is cheaper and has less downside than overt territorial aggression.
China knows international realities will constrain its options.52 Intelligence suggests that China is considering “everything from ballistic missile attacks to drone strikes, from cyber infiltration to space warfare, and from commando raids to psychological operations” for a potential operation against Taiwan.53 Already, China levies an estimated 10,000 cyberattacks per month against Taiwan’s intelligence and security systems.54 It may just be a matter of time before one proves successful.
The United States has insisted it would assist Taiwan in the event of an unprovoked attack.55 It is much less clear what the United States would do if China were able to conceal its coercive behavior or competed at a level below armed conflict. The United States has long stated it supports peaceful unification of China and Taiwan.56 If China and Taiwan integrate under unclear or more-or-less peaceful circumstances, the United States may have little appetite to risk a bloody war to make a moral statement. In such a case, China would have fulfilled another adage from Sun Tzu: “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”57
The views expressed are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Brent W. Thompson is an officer and attorney in the U.S. Army, stationed in Okinawa, Japan. His education includes a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Bloomington, a Master of Public Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Master of Arts in Defense and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College. His operational assignments include multiple tours in Afghanistan and training rotations to the Republic of Korea, Thailand, and Japan.
1 Chien, Fan-Ching, and Hung-Chi Kuo. 2011. “On the extreme rainfall of Typhoon Morakot (2009).” Journal of Geophysical Research 116 (5): 1-22, at 1.
3 Wu, Chun-Chieh, and Ying-Hwa Kuo. 1999. “Typhoons Affecting Taiwan: Current Understanding and Future Challenges.” Bulletin of the American Meterological Society 80 (1): 67-80, at 67.
4 Friedman, Nicole. 2017. “Hurricane Maria Damage Estimate: As Much as $85 Billion in Insured Losses.” Dow Jones Institutional News, September 26.
5 Wu and Kuo, supra note 3, at 68.
6 Chien and Kuo, supra note 1, at 1.
7 Mitchell, Martin. 2017. “Taiwan and China: A geostrategic reassessment of U.S. policy.” Comparative Strategy
(Taylor & Francis Online) 36 (5): 383-391, at 386.
8 Bush, Richard. 2016. The United States Security Partnership with Taiwan. The Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/fp_20160713_taiwan_alliance.pdf, at 4.
9 Ibid., at 1.
10 Lin, Gang, and Wenxing Zhou. 2018. “Does Taiwan Matter to the United States? Policy Debates on Taiwan Abandonment and Beyond.” The China Review 18 (3): 177-206, at 181.
11 Mitchell, supra note 7, at 386.
12 See Kofman, Michael, Katya Migacheva, Brian Nichiporuk, Andrew Radin, Olesya Tkacheva, and Jenny Oberholtzer. 2017. Lessons from Russia’s Operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. RAND Corporation. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1498.html.
13 Ibid., at 76-88.
14 Hyon-soo, Lee. 2017. “Journey to Ilha Formosa.” The Korea Times, February 5.
15 Mitchell, supra note 7, at 383.
19 Chen, Fang-Yu, Wei-ting Yen, Austin Horng-en Wang, and Brian Hioe. 2017. “The Taiwanese see themselves as Taiwanese, not as Chinese.” The Washington Post, January 2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey- cage/wp/2017/01/02/yes-taiwan-wants-one-china-but-which-china-does-it-want/.
20 Mitchell, supra note 7, at 383.
21 Easton, Ian. 2017. “Why China Plans to Invade Taiwan.” The National Interest, December 11. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/why-china-plans-invade-taiwan-23607.
22 Kotani, Tetsuo. “North and South Korea: Is the Balance Changing Too Rapidly?” The Washington Post, June 14, 2018.
23 Dickey, Lauren. 2016. “Taiwan-Japan Ties Deepen Amid Chinese Assertiveness.” China Brief (The Jamestown Foundation) 16 (16).
24 Teraoka, Ayumi. 2016. “What’s Next for Japan-Taiwan Relations.” Council on Foreign Relations Blog, January
25 Yeo, Mike. 2018. “Taiwan takes delivery of first locally upgraded F-16.” Defense News, October 22. https://www.defensenews.com/air/2018/10/22/taiwan-takes-delivery-of-first-locally-upgraded-f-16/.
26 Shambaugh, David. 2000. “A Matter of Time: Taiwan’s Eroding Military Advantage.” The Washington Quarterly (Center for Strategic and International Studies) 23 (2): 119-133, at 126.
27 Thompson, Drew. 2018. “Hope on the Horizon: Taiwan’s Radical New Defense Concept.” War on the Rocks, October 2. https://warontherocks.com/2018/10/hope-on-the-horizon-taiwans-radical-new-defense-concept/.
29 Shambaugh, supra note 26, at 126.
30 Mitchell, supra note 7, at 385.
31 Greer, Tanner. 2019. “Taiwan’s Defense Strategy Doesn’t Make Military Sense, But It Does Make Political Sense.” Foreign Affairs, September 17. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/taiwan/2019-09-17/taiwans-defense- strategy-doesnt-make-military-sense.
32 Blanchard, Ben, and Yimou Lee. 2019. “China’s Xi threatens Taiwan with force but also seeks peaceful ‘reunification’.” Reuters, January 1. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-taiwan/chinas-xi-threatens-taiwan-with- force-but-also-seeks-peaceful-reunification-idUSKCN1OW04K.
34 Shambaugh, supra note 26, at 122.
37 Ibid., at 123.
38 Ibid., at 122.
40 Thompson, supra note 27.
41 Tzu, Sun. 1963. The Art of War. Translated by Samuel B. Griffith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, at 96.
42 Chung, Lawrence. 2017. “Taiwanese minister resigns after error at power plant plunges 668,000 homes into darkness.” South China Morning Post, August 15. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2106935/taiwanese-minister-resigns-after-error-power-plant- plunges-668000.
43 Horwitz, Josh. 2017. “Taiwan, at the heart of the world’s tech supply chain, has a serious electricity problem.” Quartz, August 17. https://qz.com/1054921/taiwan-at-the-heart-of-the-worlds-tech-supply-chain-has-a-serious- electricity-problem/.
44 Chung, supra note 42.
45 Horwitz, supra note 43.
48 See Kofman, et al., supra note 12, at 85-94.
49 Varettoni, William. 2011. “Crimea’s Overlooked Instability.” The Washington Quarterly 34 (3): 87-99, at 87-88.
50 Kofman, et al., supra note 12, at 23-24.
51 Ibid., at 24.
52 Knodell, Kevin. 2019. “A War With China Would Be Bloody-and Stupid.” The National Interest, May 4. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/war-china-would-be bloody%E2%80%8A%E2%80%94%E2%80%8Aand- stupid-55537.
53 Easton, supra note 21.
54 Greer, supra note 31.
55 Shambaugh, supra note 26, at 131.
56 Lin and Zhou. supra note 10, at 181.
57 Tzu, Sun. supra note 44, at 96.