Editor’s Note: This article is part of our 2023 Writing Contest called The Taiwan Offensive, which took place from March 1, 2023 to July 31, 2023. More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.
Thomas J. Shattuck is the Global Order Program Manager at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, a member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Foreign Policy Initiative and the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program, as well as a Non-Resident Fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute and Foreign Policy Research Institute. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: The People’s Republic of China (PRC) conducts a conventional missile strike against a military air base in central Taiwan.
Date Originally Written: May 9, 2023.
Date Originally Published: May 22, 2023.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The article is written from the point of view of Taiwan towards the PRC.
Background: In response to the election of the Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate as President of the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 2032, the leadership in Beijing decides that peaceful unification is no longer possible and that steps must be taken to remind Taiwan of where they stand. The PRC’s People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force conducts a conventional missile strike on Ching Chuan Kang Air Base in Taichung, Taiwan. The attack results in the destruction of the air base and two wings of F-16 fighters, and the death of 200 military personnel and 50 civilians.
Significance: Beijing ordered the missile strike to remind the Taiwanese public of the power of the Chinese military and the immense destruction of an all-out invasion. The PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that the attack was conducted to thwart the “expansion of Taiwan independence separatists” and warns that progress must be made on peaceful unification or additional strikes “will once and for all quash the Taiwan independence movement and achieve the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.” Taipei promises to retaliate to this breach of sovereignty and to defend every inch of its territory against Chinese military attacks.
The strike is viewed as the first step toward an invasion of Taiwan as it is the first time since the Cold War that PRC forces attacked Taiwan. The United States and its regional allies and partners worry that additional missile strikes will occur, causing Taipei respond to these military incursions and escalating the situation into a war. Washington sends additional carrier strike groups to the region, and Japan prepares its southern islands for war. Estimates put the global economic costs of a cross-Strait war at a figure of at least $2 trillion. Conflict in the Taiwan Strait would test U.S. resolve to protect a longstanding partner, put regional allies at risk, and decimate the global economy.
Option #1: Taipei conducts a missile strike against Shuimen Air Base in Fujian Province, PRC.
Risk: Ordering a retaliatory strike on a Chinese military base will escalate the already tense situation. Such a response could result in Beijing launching additional strikes throughout Taiwan. By fearing to look weak in the face of a Taiwanese challenge, Beijing may not limit its response to military bases and could consider striking cities in Taiwan as it views attacks on the “Chinese Mainland” as off limits in cross-Strait provocations. Beyond escalatory strikes throughout Taiwan, Taipei would risk the safety and freedom of Taiwanese citizens living in China. A military response aimed at mainland China would allow Beijing justify a number of responses, including a military blockade and seizure of Taiwan’s islands in the South China Sea, and paint Taiwan as the escalatory actor internationally. PRC military leaders would undoubtedly pressure the Chinese Communist Party leaders at Zhongnanhai to destroy the Taiwanese military as punishment. Beijing would not allow any retaliation by Taiwan to go unpunished as it would provide the Chinese military with further justification to diminish Taiwan’s sovereignty and destroy additional military assets and infrastructure.
Gain: By launching a retaliatory military strike against Shuimen Air Base, Taipei demonstrates to not only Beijing but also to the rest of the international community, particularly the United States and its allies, that it is willing to respond to Chinese provocations and will not sit by idly as China attacks Taiwan’s sovereignty. Option #1 is a wake-up call for Beijing, whose leadership believed that Taipei would not respond in-kind to its initial strike. The tit-for-tat strikes point to stronger-than-expected resolve in Taiwan, especially as the people of Taiwan rally to defend their country against a stronger enemy.
Option #2: Taipei uses its newly commissioned submarines to sink the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, which is participating in a military exercise in the Western Pacific, but does not take credit for, or acknowledge its role in, the attack.
Risk: Sinking China’s first aircraft carrier runs the risk of the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN) initiating a blockade of Taiwan to prevent further attacks against Chinese vessels. Demonstrating such a weakness in the PLAN could result in over-compensation by China in asserting control and sovereignty in the Taiwan Strait. By not taking credit for the surprise sinking of the Liaoning, Taipei risks looking weak domestically by not forcefully (and publicly) retaliating against China. Non-acknowledgment also provides space for Beijing to claim domestically that the exercise’s purpose was to simulate the destruction of an aircraft carrier and to retire the now-obsolete Liaoning.
Gain: The submarine attack avoids the controversy and risk of attacking the mainland, which would assuredly result in significant reprisals, and provides Taiwan with plausible deniability regarding who sunk the vessel. Taipei’s strike on the Liaoning demonstrates weaknesses of the PLAN, which was not able to successfully defend one of its carriers against a perceived weaker and less sophisticated enemy, causing leadership in China to question the chances of success of a military invasion of Taiwan. Option #2 also exhibits the power and ability of Taiwan’s long-doubted indigenous military capabilities. The successful sinking of the Liaoning reinvigorates Taiwan’s military, which had been suffering from low morale for years. Due to the difficulty in accrediting the perpetrator of the attack, Taipei limits Beijing’s ability to further retaliate in Taiwan.
Other Comments: Washington privately warns Taipei that any retaliation outside of a limited strike would result in the U.S. military not providing any assistance in the event of further escalation into full-fledged war.
 Vest, C., Kratz, A., & Goujon, R. (2022, December 13). The global economic disruptions from a taiwan conflict. Rhodium Group. https://rhg.com/research/taiwan-economic-disruptions/.