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Modernisation of Chinese Special Forces

Ryan Clarke was Visiting Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • November 06, 2007

    Tension has subsided across the Taiwan Strait in recent years. China has adopted a “wait and see” approach and has chosen to focus more on economic growth, scientific development, and securing energy supplies, while Taiwan has been content with the status quo up until recently. Further, trade links between Taiwan and the Mainland are expanding rapidly and there have even been discussions about increasing air traffic in order to promote stronger business ties. However, Beijing’s passing of the Anti-Secession Law in 2005 and Taiwan’s failed attempt to join the United Nations this year clearly demonstrate that the issue is far from settled. In addition, although Hu Jintao and his top leadership have tried not to bring as much publicity to the Taiwan issue, to interpret these omissions as a softening of China’s stance on Taiwan would be incorrect.

    A Taiwan invasion has been the focus of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) since at least 1993, the year the Nanjing Military Region (MR) received a weapons preference and training exercises in the region began to increase. Consequently, there has been much speculation regarding PLA strategy in the event of an invasion of Taiwan, and especially the role of the PLA Special Operations Forces (SOF). It has been generally accepted amongst analysts that any first wave of attack against Taiwan would involve precision strikes that would attempt to paralyse the island’s infrastructure as well as command and control nodes. However, in order for these precision strikes to occur, the PLA would likely have to clandestinely land a small ground force to lace the targets.

    According to a 2003 US Department of Defense report to Congress titled “Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,” the SOF are expected to play a vital role in “achieving objectives in which limited goals, scale of force, and time would be crucial to victory.” In any invasion of Taiwan, all of these factors would be of critical importance, especially time. An attack on the self-governing island would have to be without much prior warning and would have to complete its objectives quickly in order to prevent third party involvement and to present the world with an indisputable fait accompli. Further, the outcome would have to be decisive as anything less would bring about further international condemnation and dash Beijing’s hopes of reunification for at least a generation. Given the high stakes of any use of force against Taiwan, the SOF has been given a priority.

    The SOF’s Taiwan-focused training has made them highly proficient at locating and destroying transportation nodes, logistics depots, and conducting reconnaissance missions. They are also strong in the fields of communications security and deception and their mandate now includes counter-terrorism, unconventional combat, as well as direct attack missions. As such, it would be prudent for India to take note of these upgrades in capabilities and to realise that the PLA is no longer an oversized, inflexible military but rather a rapidly modernising force that has placed emphasis upon mobility, science, and technology.

    China’s behaviour in the subcontinent, such as the provision of nuclear and ballistic missile technology to Pakistan, demonstrates that, at a minimum, it is hedging its bets against India and would prefer to see New Delhi’s freedom of movement restricted within the region. Also, the 90,000 square kilometres of disputed territory is a sore spot in Sino-Indian ties, though this issue has been temporarily put on the back burner. However, these territorial disputes may flare up in future, possibly when both nations have become much more developed and have greater military capabilities. China has also begun to construct infrastructure near the Indian border, some of which is still disputed territory (Aksai Chin), and the PLA has a heavy presence in Tibet. Seemingly in response to these moves, India has taken steps to increase transportation infrastructure in its northern frontier regions such as Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing claims is a part of China.

    Although a conflict with China over disputed territory is by no means imminent, it would be wise for Indian policy makers and defence analysts to take note of the SOF’s relatively newly acquired strengths, especially its ability to locate and destroy transportation nodes and logistics depots. In the event of hostilities, a PLA first strike would likely involve air strikes followed by a ground incursion and in order for this to occur, the SOF would need to create ground conditions that would be conducive to such operations. India should remain vigilant along its disputed border with China and should maximise any opportunity that it has to observe Taiwan-focused PLA training.

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