Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pyrrhic Victory

The Chinese don't think they can beat a fully mobilized and committed America. So they view a war with America as one in which they should seek only a limited objective before we can employ our full power. The RAND study on how China would open a war on us states:

Limited Strategic Aims
Chinese strategists recognize that they will not have to achieve a total military victory over the United States. Under conditions of local war, political goals are limited. As a result, China need only achieve a relative military victory to attain its larger political objectives. As one Chinese source (Jiang, 1997, pp. 115–117) notes,

since the end of the Second World War, in the majority of wars in which the side with inferior equipment has defeated an enemy with superior equipment, the inferior side has won a relative military victory, compelling the superior enemy to stop fighting or to retreat from the battlefield. [authors’ translation]

This has been the case for two primary reasons. The first is that the relative imbalance between the weapons and capabilities of the two sides in a conflict has “limited the scale, scope, and level of the victory” won by the inferior side, making it impossible for that side to seek a further expansion of its gains. The second is that the superior adversary in such conflicts has usually had limited strategic objectives. Consequently, “once the technologically superior enemy calculates that the risks and cost of the war are becoming too great, it often will give up on trying to use military actions to achieve its political objectives” (Jiang, 1997, p. 116 [authors’ translation]).

Thus, in a high-technology local war that pits a relatively inferior country against a superior adversary, China need not seek a purely military victory. Instead, it can achieve its objectives through a combination of “partial military victory on the battlefield plus ultimate political victory at the negotiating table” (Jiang, 1997 [authors’ translation]). This may require it to fight and negotiate at the same time and to use military pressure to gain an advantage in negotiations, especially if negotiations become complicated and protracted.17 The objective of such force is to position China to end the conflict on terms that are as advantageous as possible.

The principal challenges the PLA must confront are preventing the United States from prevailing in an initial engagement, controlling any subsequent escalation, and creating an environment in which it holds a strong advantage in negotiations (Jiang, 1997, pp. 116–117).

If we can either stop the initial Chinese attacks short of their objective or push the war to wider front where we blockade China and begin hitting them at home with our air power, we will have defeated the Chinese. This will give us the advantage in negotiations since continuing the war with China blockaded or Taiwan still standing (assuming no nuclear escalation) benefits us.

One thing I've assumed all along in a potential Taiwan War is that China will try to conquer Taiwan quickly. Taiwan is their objective, so that would be their limited war. But what if China doesn't see a war that way? What if the Chinese see their political objective as more limited and only the first step to actually conquering Taiwan?

So how could China prevail in the initial confrontation, prevent us from escalating at our choice, gain the advantage in negotiations, and win a limited objective?

What if the Chinese objective in a First Taiwan War is to break the American defense guarantee to Taiwan? Not conquering Taiwan, but weakening Taiwan for the next war?

If the Chinese begin the war with attacks on the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, as well as the Pescadores Islands, it would look like opening moves for an invasion of Taiwan. If the Chinese navy deploys to slow us down, we'd charge in seeking to defend Taiwan itself, viewing the defense of the islands by the Taiwanese as buying us time to defend the real objective--the main island. If the Chinese use the time it takes us to deploy forces to defend Taiwan to capture those Taiwanese outlying islands, manage to hit one of our carriers (even without sinking it), and then offer a ceasefire, would we take it?

Our choice would be deceptively easy. We could continue the war to retake some or all of the Chinese-held Taiwanese islands, with possible heavy casualties in both naval elements and Marines, risking an escalation with a nuclear power. Or we could accept the ceasefire and be relieved that we don't have to risk a bigger war. We could even tell ourselves that the ceasefire honors our commitment to defending Taiwan since the main island was not even invaded.

So what would be the result of Washington taking the latter choice? China would have swept away Taiwan's first line of defense in the Pescadores Islands. The Chinese would loom over Taiwan in a way that they don't now. Quemoy and Matsu aren't that important except that they'd represent a defeat with thousands of Taiwanese POWs held by Peking to push Taiwan to accept the ceasefire, too.

For America, we'd have seen that we can't intervene quickly enough to stop the first Chinese strike. We'd also see that we would need to accept heavy casualties to fight the Chinese to honor our commitment to defend Taiwan. Those in America who don't want to fight anywhere under any circumstances might take this brief war as a warning to quickly oppose any American intervention the next time. And even supporters of defending Taiwan might be more cautious with the lesson that we need too much time to effectively intervene and the next initial Chinese strike would be right for the main island.

The worst impact could be on the Taiwanese. The pro-independence Taiwanese seem to have child-like confidence that we will intervene in time to save them no matter what the Taiwanese spend on their defense and no matter how much the Chinese build up their military. Those Taiwanese who want unification with China might be emboldened to undermine Taiwanese defenses more openly. Businessmen on Taiwan might start hedging their bets, prepared to move whichever way the wind is blowing, convinced that being like Hong Kong won't be so bad, really. And ordinary Taiwanese might suddenly realize that America may be more powerful than China, but America is far away. China is powerful enough and very close. The confidence that bolsters the ability of fewer than 25 million Taiwanese to oppose 1.3 billion Chinese might be shaken so badly that the idea of legal independence will die and even de facto independence will start to seem like a dream that is slipping away.

A Chinese operation that captures some Taiwanese territory that serves as a staging area for the next attack, strikes a stinging blow at our Navy to bloody our nose yet offers us a ceasefire short of China conquering Taiwan, and breaks the US-Taiwan link that provides Taiwan with the confidence they can maintain their democracy despite Peking's hostility, might be the limited political objective that satisfied China's objectives. We'd even think we won the war--for a little while anyway.

I think there are things we could do to undermine this Chinese political objective even if we accept a ceasefire. The key is to appreciate what the Chinese are trying to achieve if they launch such a limited war. More on this later.

UPDATE: Add Itu Aba in the Spratly Islands to the PLA island target list. (Tip to the Weekly Standard for reminding me of this important little bit of land.) And Pratas Island while I was browsing Globalsecurity.

UPDATE: As Jeff at Caerdroia noted to me regarding this topic, the Chinese sure seem to be thinking like the Japanese prior to Pearl Harbor. Given that their strategy relies on a study of history, it is odd that the Chinese ignore that history. But since the quote above specifies a study of post-World War II military history you have to wonder if leaders didn't want a study of the biggest counter-example to the "US is too weak to fight" theme.