The chatter in China, and military deployments, indicate that the leadership believes they are now able to take Taiwan by force, before the United States can intervene. Such an attack would have to be without warning, because the United States would put forces in the way if there was any indication that an invasion was imminent.
This development comes as no surprise to those who have been watching military and political developments in China and Taiwan during the past two decades. At the end of the Cold War, China had three million troops on active duty, but their weapons, warships and aircraft were largely 1950s technology. They had no ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan, because the only missiles China had were equipped with nuclear warheads and aimed at Russia. The Chinese navy had miniscule amphibious forces and little confidence that the Chinese air force could attain air superiority over the Taiwan Straits, so that they could get troops across.
Twenty years later, the Taiwanese navy has declined while the Chinese force has expanded and been modernized. The Chinese now have nearly as many modern aircraft as Taiwan, and Chinese pilots are much better trained. Amphibious shipping has been greatly expanded, as have airborne forces and army units trained for amphibious landings.
Perhaps the most important change since 1991 is China's force of precision guided missiles and rockets. China has built many, more accurate and cheaper, short range ballistic missiles. China has created a line of shorter range ballistic and cruise missiles meant for non-nuclear war. China has stationed over 1,200 short range ballistic missiles within range of Taiwan. All of these missiles can be launched in a short period of time, overwhelming Taiwan's small anti-missile defenses, and wrecking airfields, ports and army bases.
China is also replacing older short range ballistic missiles with GPS guided 406mm missiles, carried in self-propelled rocket launchers. The WS-2 system consists of an 8x8 truck mounting six canisters, each holding a 1.3 ton, 406mm WS-2 rocket. The WS-2 has a max range of 200 kilometers. Warheads can be as large as 200 kilograms (440 pounds), for the 70 kilometers range version. At 200 kilometers, the warhead is about half that size. The warheads use cluster bomb munitions. The WS-3 version has GPS guidance, a smaller warhead and a longer range (over 300 kilometers). This enables the missile to hit targets all over Taiwan. While the original WS-2 rocket was unguided, and could land within 600 meters of the aiming point at maximum range. The WS-3, using GPS or inertial navigation, as well as terminal homing guidance, can take out key installations on Taiwan. The WS-2 is similar to the U.S. 610mm, 1.8 ton ATACMS rocket, which has GPS guidance and a range of 300 kilometers. Each ATACMS rocket costs about a million dollars. The WS-2 rocket probably goes for less than $100,000 each, although the WS-3 probably costs several times that.
China also continues developing long range cruise missiles, and adapting them to operate from aircraft. The latest missile to get this treatment is the DH-10. This weapon is similar to early U.S. cruise missiles, and has a range of 1,500-3,000 kilometers and uses GPS, along with terrain mapping. The DH-10 was first shown publicly in the recent 60th anniversary of the communists taking control of China, on October 1st. The aircraft carrier version is called the CJ-10. This is believed to be based on some American cruise missile technology.
China has also developed anti-ship missiles similar to the U.S. Harpoon and French Exocet. But these are only effective on a modern aircraft that can maneuver and are equipped with electronic countermeasures to enable it to get close enough to a well defended target (like a U.S. Navy task force.) China, however, has both old and new aircraft assigned to its naval aviation force.
In two decades, China has developed a military force that can do one job very well; quickly capture Taiwan. In the same two decades, Taiwan has allowed its defenses to wither, betting the United States will protect them, no matter what.