A Matter of Time: Taiwan’s Eroding Military Advantage

David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs; Director of the China Policy Program - Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

March 1, 2000


Taiwan will continue to hold a number of significant qualitative military advantages against its potential adversary in mainland China for most of the next decade. During this period, the island’s security will be insured not so much by Taiwan’s adequate defenses as by China’s shortfalls in offensive capabilities. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has one big trump card, its growing ballistic missile force, but its other conventional capabilities remain far from adequate to pursue a decisive range of offensive operations against Taiwan.

This article describes Taiwan’s defensive strengths and China’s offensive weaknesses. It argues that China is closing the gap in several key areas and Taiwan’s “window of invulnerability” is gradually closing. If current trends continue, sometime in the second half of this decade the conventional force balance between the two will tip in China’s favor unless the United States transfers massive amounts of high-tech weaponry to the island’s armed forces. Even if Washington did so, Taiwan’s military would likely suffer even greater problems absorbing and utilizing the equipment than it suffers today. Finally, the article describes likely conflict scenarios if push came to shove between China and Taiwan.