Why Taiwan may be a key factor in China’s military modernisation plan

Minnie Chan
·4-min read

China’s plan to transform its military by 2027 means it will have to catch up with the United States in Pacific, which it sees as one of the biggest barriers to reunifying Taiwan, according to military sources and analysts.

The target was included in a communique issued after a key policy meeting ended in Beijing on Thursday and this was the first time that the modernisation plan – designed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Liberation Army – was made public.

It calls for the PLA to become a real combat-ready force with counter strategic capabilities to defend China’s national sovereignty, security and developing interests at home and overseas.

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Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province that must eventually be reunited with the mainland – by force if necessary – and this remains a key goal for the Communist Party.

However, the threat of US intervention remains a deterrent to any attempts to use military force to bring the island to the negotiating table or even mount a full-scale invasion.

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A PLA source familiar with the matter said the modernisation plan had been developed by the Central Military Commission’s political affairs department and had recently been added to the party’s goals for 2049, the centenary of the People’s Republic.

The Chinese Communist Party has announced it wants to build China into a “modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious” in time for the anniversary.

“This is the first time this concept has been introduced to the Chinese public, even many military insiders only heard it for the first time,” the source who served in an official military think tank said.

“The key words for the PLA’s role are ‘modern’ and ‘strong’. The benchmark for a modern army is certainly the United States. The key gauge of PLA’s strength lies in its ability to defend the nation’s core interests with Taiwan as the closest to China’s heart, followed by the South China Sea etc.”

The source said that under this plan, the PLA’s air force, navy and rocket force will be given higher priority.

Another source said China would aim to have three combat-ready carrier battle groups by 2027.

The new targets are a step up from the ones set at the party congress in 2017, which included plans to enhance the PLA’s ability to defend maritime rights, fight terrorism and carry out disaster relief and peacekeeping operations.

“This means PLA needs to at least catch up with the US military in the Pacific region by 2027, so it can fend off all interventions in Taiwan’s reunification, allowing the mainland to force Taiwan to return to the negotiation table,” the military source said.

Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming said Taiwan reunification was a key motivation behind President Xi Jinping’s sweeping military reforms.

“The military overhaul couldn’t be pushed and implemented so efficiently without the pressure to reunify Taiwan,” Zhou said.

“Since introducing the military overhaul in 2015, it’s time for Xi to review the results as the central government has poured tremendous amounts of resources into the reforms.”

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Beijing has stepped up its shipbuilding in the past decade, and aims to have six carrier battle groups operating by 2035, matching US strength in the Pacific.

Work has a started on two Type 002 next generation carriers, which are equipped with the world’s most advanced electromagnetic launch system. The first one is expected to be launched next year, and the other should be ready in five years’ time.

It regards three operational carrier groups as the minimum needed to fend off foreign forces during an attack on Taiwan.

“One of the Type 002s is likely to have reached initial operational capability (IOC) by 2027,” the source said, referring to the minimum capacity needed to operate.

Currently China has only one such carrier, the Liaoning, which was bought from Ukraine in 1998 and retrofitted. The Shandong, which was built in China based on a Soviet model, is expected to reach IOC standard next year.

But Taipei-based military expert Chi Le-yi said the PLA’s future combat capability may have been overstated because it had so far been unable to deter the US from sending reconnaissance flights close to the mainland.

“If the PLA can’t strengthen its joint and systematic operations like their American counterparts by projecting troops and weapons 1,500 kilometres outside the mainland, they will definitely fail,” Chi said.

“The Taiwan Strait is a very complicated battlefield and very hard to completely seal off … Indeed, who can predict what will happen seven years later?

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