BOOK REVIEW: The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and US Strategy in Asia

Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
Why you need to know

Don't believe the hype. Ian Easton's new book is no roadmap to a 2020 invasion of Taiwan by China. Instead, it is a thoroughly researched joy of a read that delves deep into the complexities of potential cross-Strait conflict, and comes up suggesting Taiwan remains a tough nut to crack for the PLA.

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Suddenly Woundwort spoke.

"Thlayli," he said, "Why do you want to throw your life away? I can send one fresh rabbit after another into this run if I choose. You're too good to be killed. Come back to Efrafa. I promise I'll give you the command of any Mark you like. I give you my word."

"Silflay hraka, u embleer rah," replied Bigwig.

— Richard Adams, "Watership Down"

Despite the flurry of recent media accounts, Ian Easton's new book “The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia” makes no prediction of a 2020 invasion of Taiwan. Ignore the erroneous media hype: Easton offers a brilliant, thick description of China's invasion plans, Taiwan's plans to repel an invasion, potential invasion scenarios, and how the U.S. might respond. Throughout the incredible level of detail, and the vast number of plans, locations, weapons systems, operations and doctrines it presents, Easton's clarity of order and logical presentation keep everything firmly under control. As the father of a son soon to serve in the Taiwan army, I came away from this book with a renewed sense of optimism and pride in the abilities of the Taiwan to handle an invasion from China, and a much better appreciation of how difficult it would be to invade "The Beautiful Island." In short, do not buy the pessimism, but do buy this book.

Easton begins by explaining why China wants to invade and annex Taiwan. It then jumps back in time, to the 1950s, when the first plans for taking Taiwan were drawn up. The author then moves on to cover the whole range of problems China faces — from how to handle the problem of Taiwan's offshore islands to what to do about the notoriously crappy weather in the Taiwan Strait to how the People's Republic of China (PRC) would attack Taiwan with both weapons and subversion.

For this reader, two key themes shaped this work. The first is just how difficult it is for China to take Taiwan, with its insuperable combination of natural barriers and stacked professional military defenses. The second key theme in this work is the way drip-drip PRC psychological warfare operations interferes with the ability of observers, even those habituated to PRC claims, to accurately assess PRC abilities and potential for victory. These two themes are constantly intertwined. For example, Easton begins the third chapter by asking whether China could surprise Taiwan:

“The assumption that China has the capacity to catch Taiwan off-guard is foundational to most negative assessments regarding Taiwan's defensibility. Surprise is viewed by those who embrace pessimistic judgments as not only possible, but probable. From their perspective, the analytical problems of early warning repeatedly seen throughout history, from Pearl Harbor to September 11, 2001, make the anticipation of a Chinese attack on Taiwan nearly impossible, especially since the intentions animating the Chinese Communist Party (and by extension the PLA) are often so opaque. However, such leaps in analytical logic deserve close scrutiny in light of what is known about indications and warning, which is the art of avoiding surprise and judging when an attack is coming.”

In reality, as Easton points out, Chinese plans call for the mobilization of numerous government departments, thousands of weapons systems, ships, planes and vehicles, millions of people and supplies for all the above, over several weeks. Concealing that from Taiwan's spies human and electronic would be nigh-on impossible. China might be able to conceal exactly where the landings would take place, but Taiwan would know that the invasion was inbound.

Easton covers the invasion in loving detail. Where would it arrive? (There are only 14 good beaches, but not all of them offer easy access to ports, airports, and roads) When would it come — what is the best time of year, when the weather is free of typhoons, the grim waves of the Strait relatively small, and good weather without constant rain and fog? How would China attack Taiwan?

“Another text indicates that during invasion operations Chinese special forces will try to abduct or kill many of Taiwan's most important political and military leaders, weapons experts, and scientists using a combination of clandestine means and direct attacks. Early-warning intelligence networks are therefore critical not only for providing strategic warning that an attack is being planned, they are important for tactical warning to ensure top leaders, including the president, are not caught by surprise and killed in the first hours of war.”

Easton paints the way the island-nation would be attacked with a fine calligraphy brush, detailing how the landings would go, what would happen if the PRC got a foothold, and what weapons would be deployed where and how. The work's great hidden strength is present throughout: despite spending page after page in painstaking review of military systems and equipment and how they would behave, the reader never wastes hours untangling acronym-filled sentences that are the bane of so many Vietnam War works. Instead the prose is accessible, acronym-free, and stuffed with explanations.

“The Chinese Invasion Threat” draws heavily on PRC sources, and Easton quotes from them frequently. On the subject of the offshore islands, for instance, Easton cites a PRC work:

“The enemy occupies offshore islands in the waters near the mainland coast. These pose a serious threat to the assembly of landing troops in the coastal area, and to their crossing during the opening phases of operations. As such, if we can blockade the waters and occupy the islands the enemy has near our crossing routes, this will remove the serious threat that offshore islands pose to our landing troops as they load aboard ships, cross the sea, and assault the main island. This will ensure we can smoothly launch our offensive against the main island.”

Among the many joys of this marvelously detailed book are tidbits of fascinating information. Readers may recall the Formosa Fun Coast fire disaster, in which hundreds of young people were burned when powder sprayed on party-goers ignited. Easton observes:

“Unbeknownst to the party goers, they were raving in one of Taiwan's most dangerous potential invasion zones, an area heavily monitored by the military in case of Chinese attack. The deadly fireball led national authorities to activate emergency procedures originally designed for the defense of greater Taipei. Rapid reaction units, having regularly practiced deployments to the area before, quickly arrived on scene and had a triage station and evacuation operation set up in record time.”

Another interesting facet of this book is the way it presents Taiwan's defenses through PRC eyes. Again and again it quotes PRC internal military texts making doleful assessments of Taiwan's ability to repel an invasion. This prevents the book from reading like a puff piece on the ROC military. It also suggests that it be translated into Chinese for public consumption in Taiwan, as a prophylactic against the pessimism one often hears from Taiwanese.

Easton's closing chapter on the U.S. dispels myths about its reaction. The book locates Taiwan firmly in the larger strategic issues of Japan and South Korea, citing PRC texts that see Chinese annexation of Taiwan as an important step in striking at Japan. Writings that advocate selling Taiwan out to China typically ignore the effect of that betrayal on Japan, the Philippines, and other U.S. allies and potential allies in Asia. Easton outlines directions that U.S. policy could take, and then closes with a discussion of some of problems the U.S. faces in evaluating PRC capabilities, as well as its chronic ignorance and underestimation of Taiwan's ability to defend itself, and the problems the PRC faces in attempting to craft military plans in a culture where negative possibilities cannot be candidly discussed.

I am ashamed to admit that the PRC's Baron von Ruthless-style monologuing about Taiwan's inevitable defeat has affected my thinking about the island-nation's chances in a fight. Ian Easton cured me of that. This book is an education, and a joy, and belongs in the library of everyone who loves and lives in Taiwan, and wants to talk knowledgeably and sensibly about the wars that Asia is very likely to experience in coming decades.

Editor: Olivia Yang

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