System Overload: Can China’s Military Be Distracted in a War over Taiwan?
By Joel Wuthnow
China Strategic Perspectives 15
June 25, 2020 —
- A war with Taiwan remains the primary contingency of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). While the near-term prospects of China initiating a war are low due to the enormous economic costs and military risks, the PLA must still prepare to compel Taiwan’s leaders to accept unification or, barring that, to seize and occupy the island.
- At the same time, the PLA has been tasked with an array of additional missions, including deterring other regional rivals, enforcing China’s territorial claims, protecting China’s overseas interests, and serving as the ultimate guarantor of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) survival in the face of domestic challenges. Those missions reduce PLA resources and attention devoted to Taiwan and result in capabilities that are less relevant to cross- Strait scenarios.
- Chinese strategists have long worried that China’s rivals—including domestic secessionists, regional powers, or the United States—could exploit a Taiwan conflict to press their own agendas, such as launching border wars to solidify their territorial claims or even stoking a “color revolution” to overthrow the CCP. PLA analysts refer to this as “chain reaction” warfare.
- Navigating these dilemmas requires the PLA to be able to concentrate warfighting capabilities across the Taiwan Strait while simultaneously maintaining readiness in other regions, shift resources among theaters when required, and coordinate multi-theater operations. These demands have led to a number of changes in PLA force development, force distribution, command and control, logistics, and human capital.
- However, handling multiple problems remains a weakness for the PLA. Specific deficiencies include difficulties setting priorities due to interservice bargaining, a weak force posture beyond the First Island Chain, a convoluted command structure for multitheater operations, and the lack of a rotational assignment system that would give officers exposure to multiple problem sets. Latent civil-military distrust could also reduce the confidence of civilian leaders that the system will work as intended in a war.
- U.S. discussions on improving Taiwan’s defenses tend to focus on selling defense articles to Taipei and enabling U.S. operations in an antiaccess/area-denial environment. However, there is also room for a broader military strategy that strengthens Taiwan’s security by exploiting China’s limited ability to handle multiple challenges. U.S. strategy should aim to achieve “system overload” by expanding the range of challenges the PLA faces in other theaters and overwhelming its capacity to conduct multitheater operations.
- An effective peacetime strategy would aim to encourage the PLA to build capabilities less relevant to cross–Taiwan Strait operations and reduce its ability to concentrate resources on Taiwan. Activities that support that objective include providing advanced arms to China’s other neighbors and conducing dynamic U.S. military operations throughout the region. Highly publicized upgrades in U.S.-Taiwan defense relations would negate this effect by catalyzing the PLA to focus on a single contingency. Washington should instead prioritize selling Taiwan low-profile but highly effective defensive systems.
- If deterrence fails, U.S. operations could attempt to cause delays in PLA decisionmaking and operations, buying time for U.S. forces to arrive. This supports what U.S. doctrine refers to as presenting adversaries with “multiple dilemmas” by reducing their capacity to quickly reach and execute decisions. Options that exploit stresses in China’s ability to coordinate large campaigns and shift resources among theaters include attacks on China’s command and control and logistics networks, information operations aggravating tensions in China’s civil-military relations, conventional strikes launched from multiple directions, and a “far seas” blockade.