Thursday, November 27, 2003

The Taiwan Showdown—Part I (Intentions)

The Chinese are psyching themselves up for the showdown with us over Taiwan. A recently passed Taiwanese bill that at one time seemed to threaten a public referendum on a formal declaration of independence upsets China:

Pro-independence activists have campaigned for 10 years for a referendum law. The movement has gained wide public support ahead of presidential elections on March 20, 2004, when the question of Taiwan's sovereignty is expected to take center stage.

President Chen has enraged China by aggressively asserting his island is a separate country -- making that and a referendum on a new constitution the key pillars of his campaign for re-election on March 20, 2004.

The Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College has an excellent paper on deterring a war over Taiwan (“Crisis Deterrence in the Taiwan Strait” Douglas McCready, November 2003). I’ll not cite specific points, but much of this post will draw on this paper. Much of it reinforces information I’ve read elsewhere or opinions I have formed already. In some cases, I disagree with the conclusions reached on specific points. It is an excellent one-stop shopping point for this post.

I believe America will fight to stop China from taking over Taiwan. The US has a legal commitment to defending Taiwan; a moral obligation to defend a democracy against a dictatorship; and a strategic goal of preventing allies from peeling away if they see us retreat in the face of Chinese power, and thus losing influence in the area. Plus, we have a general interest in keeping the area quiet for trade and prosperity reasons. Indeed although we say that we want this resolved without use of force, McCready notes that even a peaceful union of Taiwan under Chinese rule would be unacceptable to America.

One problem is that the Chinese don’t think we will fight for Taiwan. They think their interests are so much greater than ours that they will out-suffer us if necessary to win.

A related problem with our perceptions is that we try to impress upon our enemies our power by letting them see our military up close in training. The idea is that potential foes will come away with a “holy freaking crap” moment and impress upon their countrymen that there is no way they can beat America. This is a major error on our part, especially with the Chinese. Why? Because the Chinese are already terribly impressed with our technology and military skills after seeing the Persian Gulf War, Kosovo War, and Iraq War from a distance. We know this. So there is no reason to let them see us up close and see our weaknesses. We don’t want them to see our weaknesses because the Chinese know they are inferior, yet are absolutely convinced that we will not accept even light casualties in a war. The Chinese believe this is our crucial weakness. They are wrong, but they will act on this belief. Their belief that they can create niche capabilities that will nullify our overall superiority is strengthened by our policy of showing them our stuff. Shut this down! Now.

Perhaps most important, I don’t think we appreciate that China regards taking over Taiwan as the only thing that matters to them. It is central to their very legitimacy as a government. Indeed, the Chinese think the fact that we don’t appreciate this is our most dangerous misperception. We are too numbed to the threat after numerous saber rattling by China and 50 years of stability despite the saber rattling. Also, the Chinese know that taking Taiwan will push us out of the Western Pacific and East Asia as an effective power able to counter China. Indeed, even if showing China our military power up close could tell them anything useful to us that they can’t see from afar, this would not be enough. McCready notes that Chinese leaders have repeatedly stated that they would go to war rather than allow Taiwan become independent. And they’d go to war whether they thought they’d lose or not. The belief by some over here that “everyone” would lose in a war over Taiwan is just silly. We have no idea what China considers losing on this issue.

And the crisis in 1996 when China fired missiles around Taiwan and we sent two carrier battle groups to the area showed China that we would respond to intimidation tactics. Have the Chinese learned that only a preemptive offensive that quickly conquers China will give them Taiwan? Will they try to win clearly before America can effectively respond?

One problem we have with our assessments of what China could do militarily is that we mirror image them. McCready notes this but does not draw the right conclusion in my mind. He says, “Because different viewers evaluate capabilities differently, what we see as capabilities do not necessarily limit our adversary’s intentions.” He then says, “Thus, having decided not to pursue the cross-Strait amphibious invasion option, the PRC is not investing heavily in amphibious assault craft or associated weapons. Instead, China has chosen to concentrate resources on weapons that will permit it to intimidate Taiwan and deter U. S. intervention.” We look at the geography and add China’s deficiencies in air power and sea lift and say the Chinese wouldn’t dare try it. You think we’d know better, since in 1950, we concluded that China was incapable of intervening in Korea with enough power to be successful. We thought that it was obviously irrational to fight us and so assumed China would not.

As I’ve written repeatedly, the Chinese desire for Taiwan trumps all other considerations. We are in a very dangerous period and I think the period right before the Olympics in ’08 will be a window for a Chinese invasion. Some cite what McCready correctly calls the clichĂ© of Asian patience to support their belief that China will never invade Taiwan. Patience does not mean you never act. It means you act at a time and place and methods of your choosing, timed to give you maximum chances for victory.

And remember, as McCready noted, “China has said that if using force becomes necessary, it intends to defeat Taiwan before the United States can intervene effectively.” Just as ominously, he cites the fact that “Chinese military history demonstrates readiness to use preemptive strikes, especially against more powerful foes.”

Next time, a template for Chinese action?

UPDATE: See Part II.

UPDATE: I moved the original Geocities posts to Blogger.