(Reuters) - The military balance between China and Taiwan has rapidly shifted in China's favor, but a U.S. proposal on Friday to sell advanced arms to the island that Beijing claims as its own would shore up its self-defense.
Despite improved political ties following the election in Taiwan of a more pro-China president last year, China has yet to renounce the use of force to recover the self-ruled island it considers its sovereign territory. The mainland holds a strong lead over long-time political rival Taiwan despite the U.S. arms proposal.
Following is a brief comparison between China's and Taiwan's military forces:
ARMY China Taiwan
Personnel 2.3 million* 277,765
- China's 2.3 million-strong armed forces are far bigger than the world's second-largest military, that of the United States, whose forces number about 1.5 million. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) was born out of the Red Army, a five-million-strong peasant army, which swept the Communists to power in 1949.
Soviet expertise helped organize it into a mass army geared toward wars of attrition during the 1950s, when it fought in the 1950-1953 Korean War alongside North Korea. The PLA is morphing into a modern force capable of fighting short, high-intensity conflicts against high-tech adversaries.
- With U.S. military aid, Taiwan transformed its army from the defeated remnants of the Nationalist forces that fled to the island in 1949 into a modern, disciplined military that has recently downsized in favor of improved technology.
Its primary role is protecting Taiwan and countering any sea or air assault from China. The army has been slimmed down in recent years as Taiwan tries to shift away from a conscript-heavy force to a more professional fighting unit.
AIR FORCE China Taiwan
Fighter aircraft more than 2,000 about 400
- China used to rely on somewhat substandard copies of Soviet-made aircraft, but these days has developed a more formidable design capacity. Its most advanced aircraft, and for Taiwan the potentially most threatening, are Russian Su-30 and Su-27 fighters.
- The backbone of Taiwan's air force is made up of U.S.-made F-16s, around 60 French-built Mirage 2000s and about 130 Ching-kuo Indigenous Defense Fighters, though the defense ministry will not give exact numbers. Taiwan has asked the United States for an additional 66 F-16s.
Training is the air force's strong suit, but experts say that a well-planned early Chinese missile strike could take out most Taiwan air base runways and render the island's aircraft, hidden in fortified or mountain bunkers, trapped on the ground.
NAVY ** China Taiwan
Destroyers 26 9
Frigates 47 22
Submarines 63 4
- Once limited to just protecting China's coast, the Chinese navy has developed in leaps and bounds. Last year, Chinese warships began conducting anti-piracy missions in the sea around Somalia. China has a large and expanding submarine fleet, and has been looking at building an aircraft carrier.
- Taiwan's navy includes four submarines, two of which date from World War Two, and a small fleet of destroyers and frigates. The Defense Ministry will likewise not give exact figures.
- Aside from the estimated 1,400 missiles that China is thought to have aimed at Taiwan, the Chinese navy is equipped with powerful Russian "Sunburn" anti-ship missiles, a weapon much feared by U.S. military strategists.
China also has nuclear weapons.
- Taiwan has older-model Patriots to intercept any missiles fired at the island and domestically made Hsiung Feng surface-to-surface missiles. These could be aimed at ships or used to target nearby Chinese cities such as Shanghai.
On Friday, Washington proposed to Congress a $6.4 billion sale of Patriot "Advanced Capability-3" missiles, Black Hawk utility transport helicopters and other items.
Although they do not tip the balance of power, the new weaponry would make Beijing "think twice" about any attack, a Taiwan defense official said.
Patriots, regarded as some of the best equipment in its class, are designed to hit missiles in mid-air. Friday's proposed sale would sell 114 more of them to Taiwan.
Taiwan is believed to have abandoned a covert nuclear weapons programme in the 1980s after U.S. pressure.
* Does not include about one million Chinese reserves and about 800,000 paramilitary People's Armed Police.
** Warship numbers mostly analyst estimates.
Sources: Reuters, International Institute for Strategic Studies, globalsecurity.org, Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense.
Writing by Ben Blanchard and Ralph Jennings; Editing by Ken Wills