Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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China, Republic of, Armed Forces

The Republic of China's (ROC) armed forces trace their origins to the Guomindang (GMD, Nationalist) military forces that fought against both the Japanese in World War II and the communist forces during the Chinese Civil War (1945–1949). Defeated on the Chinese mainland by communist forces that were better trained and better led, the GMD's army evacuated to the islands immediately off Fujian Province and to Taiwan in October 1949.

A number of GMD political and military leaders settled in Taiwan (Formosa). With the main island of Taiwan protected by the U.S. Seventh Fleet after the June 1950 outbreak of the Korean War, throughout the 1950s the ROC's military forces concentrated on protecting the coastal islands against numerous assaults and artillery barrages by the People's Republic of China's (PRC) military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA). ROC leader Jiang Jieshi hoped to use the coastal islands as a launching base for returning to the mainland. Although that dream faded as the years advanced, the ROC military benefited greatly from the U.S. commitment to sustaining the ROC as a bulwark against the PRC.

As the 1950s progressed, better ROC training and tactical cohesion enabled its forces to win several significant skirmishes against PRC forces, including the 1956 downing of six Chinese MiG-17 fighters without loss for ROC Air Force fighters. ROC forces maintained their superiority in equipment, maintenance, and training throughout the Cold War but began to lose their edge as the Cold War ended and the PRC threat seemed to recede.

Taiwan's military is based on the nation at arms concept in which all able-bodied males are conscripted into military service for two years. After that, they transfer into the reserves and can be recalled for periodic training and national emergencies until they reach the age of thirty. Generally, the military recalls approximately 10 percent of its reservists annually for training and education. This system enables Taiwan to mobilize up to 4 million soldiers in less than forty-eight hours, with more than 3 million available for service in the army. With each soldier, airman, and sailor receiving up to three times the training of their mainland counterparts and being equipped with more modern weapons and command and control support, Taiwan's military enjoys a significant qualitative advantage over the PLA. More important, the Taiwan Strait provided an all but insurmountable barrier to any Chinese attempt to invade the island nation.

The mobilization system remained largely unchanged throughout the period of the Cold War, although as the immediate PRC threat receded in the late 1970s, the military slowly shifted to a greater reliance on reservists and timely mobilization. Regular army strength declined from its peak of approximately 600,000 men in 1958 to roughly 250,000 by 1991. The transition to a smaller standing army reduced military spending and facilitated Taiwan's impressive economic growth during the 1970s and 1980s. With the reduced emphasis on standing forces came a greater focus on rapid mobilization and improved early warning systems of the PRC's military intentions.

Within that context, the Taiwanese Army's hold on the offshore islands of Jinmen, Mazu, and Penghu represented the country's first line of defense. Massively fortified and patrolled by more than 50,000 heavily equipped troops, the islands continue to be important listening posts and house early-warning radar stations, even though they no longer serve as forward staging bases for the GMD's return to the mainland.

The Taiwanese Air Force and Navy formed the country's second line of defense, supporting the army's hold on the offshore islands and ensuring that the PRC's navy could neither blockade the country nor mount an amphibious assault. Antisubmarine warfare (ASW) and mine countermeasure units were established and maintained to keep open the sea-lanes on which Taiwan's economic survival had become increasingly dependent. Light attack units equipped with the latest antiship missiles were stationed on the Penghu Islands to attack any task groups that might venture into those waters in time of war. The elite Taiwan Marine Corps is stationed in the Penghu Islands, both to prevent their seizure as a forward operating base against Taiwan and to act as a counterattack or reserve force to recapture or reinforce Jinmen and Mazu if necessary. The ROC Air Force was tasked with maintaining air superiority over Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait in the event of war. The superior quality of Taiwan's aircraft and pilot training was considered more than sufficient to overcome the PRC's numerical advantage.

The army also served as the nation's final defense. It was to provide ground-based air defense of Taiwan's key cities, facilities, and infrastructure as well as to repel any forces that reached the country's shores. The army's three armored divisions and independent mechanized units were expected to drive any invading forces back into the sea. Light infantry and mobile units were to hold key cities, landing beaches, and facilities until the mobile forces and reserves could arrive. Army equipment was the least advanced of the three services, relying mostly on artillery and tanks from the late 1950s and 1960s. Although old and rather obsolete, the army's weapons were still superior to those of the PRC's landing forces, which were equipped with inferior Soviet designs of the same era. In addition, Taiwanese special forces were trained and equipped to conduct special operations in the Chinese rear, including on the mainland itself.

Taiwan's ability to acquire and maintain modern military equipment began to decline in the late 1970s as the PRC gained ground diplomatically and economically and arrived at rapprochement with the United States. Countries once willing to sell arms to Taiwan increasingly refused to do so as the 1980s advanced. Many nations feared losing access to the much larger and more rapidly growing markets in the PRC and were thus reluctant to antagonize the PRC leadership. Having eschewed building its own arms industry in favor of developing a robust civilian economy, Taiwan found it difficult to develop a domestic arms production capability, particularly in high-technology systems that were becoming increasingly important in modern warfare.

More critically, the PRC Air Force and Navy began to acquire newer Soviet-built weapons and Western-made weapons systems as well as electronics from Israel and France. Thus, as the Cold War drew to an end, Taiwan saw its qualitative edge eroding and its opportunities for addressing that challenge diminishing. Initial work on building a technological and defense industry base began in the late 1980s but remained incomplete as the next decade advanced. Today, the country is almost entirely dependent upon the United States for its modern military equipment.

Carl Otis Schuster


Further Reading
Military Balance 1970–71. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1970.; Military Balance 1988–89. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1988.; Carpenter, Galen. Let Taiwan Defend Itself. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1998.; Li Thian-hok, "The China Impasse: A Formosan View." Foreign Affairs (April 1958): 437–448.
 

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