The Pacific Balance is Shifting in China’s Favor

Hard pressed to defend Taiwan, America must consider retaliatory options.

America’s unwillingness to sell fighter plans to Taiwan could herald a shift in balance across the West Pacific where China’s rise forces a realignment in American strategy.

The Obama Administration conceded to Chinese pressure in September when it announced that the United States would not meet a Taiwanese request for an F-16 weapons sale. The island nation’s existing fleet of fighter aircraft would be upgraded instead which will make them nearly as capable as the new models which Taipei had request. The upgrades, however, will not include improved engines which could make it more difficult for Taiwan to retire its older jets. Some 70 percent of its fighter inventory was supposed to be phased out this decade.

The Taiwanese air force operates 145 F-16s which, by the early 2020s, will average almost thirty years in service.

China, meanwhile, is building a fifth-generation stealth fighter to match America’s newest planes and it has invested heavily in enhancing its missile strike capabilities. More than a thousand ballistic missiles are permanently aimed at Taiwan with a hundred added every year.

The United States are obliged by treaty to provide for Taiwan’s defenses. In the near future, neither of the two allies could bring enough fighters to battle to offset China’s quantitative superiority. The Americans simply don’t have enough planes stationed nearby, either in Japan or Taiwan, and could not dispatch a carrier in time to effectively repel a Chinese invasion attempt.

If the Chinese were to stage an invasion — however improbable that may seem — they would be able to obliterate the island’s fixed-wing airpower in a single strike. Before the United States could have a chance to intervene, China might be in control of Taiwan which would pose a serious dilemma to American policymakers — risk total war with China or give up a key ally in containing its rise in East Asia.

The risk of a Chinese attack may be considered low but is exacerbated by its potential success. Short of deploying military means though, Beijing is set to dominate Taiwan anyway and with it, it could compound the difficulty of maintaining American supremacy in the region.

Relations between Taiwan and the mainland have improved in recent years. More than a thousand commercial flights now take place between China and Taiwan every month and almost a third of Taiwanese exports are destined for the mainland. Although no meaningful progress has been made on deciding Taiwan’s status as either an independent polity or a “renegade” province one day to be reunited with China, strategic planners in Beijing can afford to focus less on recapturing the island and more on projecting Chinese power into the South China Sea. Its ability to back up its revisionist claims in the area will be harnessed as soon as it can deploy an aircraft carrier.

All other nations bordering the South China Sea oppose Chinese attempts to claim this vital body of water, through which passes roughly a third of all commercial maritime traffic worldwide and half of all hydrocarbons destined for Japan and Korea, entirely for itself.

The issue involves some two hundred islands and coral outcroppings. China insists that its exclusive economic zone extends far into the South China Sea which would entitle it to exploit natural riches there. Other countries, which challenge Chinese claims, look to the United States for protection.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared stability in the South China Sea region to be of “national interest” to the United States in July 2010. This stirred a rebuke from the Chinese who argued that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.”

It is. China’s unshakable and apparently selfish scramble for resources, whether it’s in Africa, Central Asia or the South China Sea region, is grounded in self preservation. China may be booming but it is already losing its cheap labor advantage to Southeast Asian competitors. Meanwhile, it faces a demographic challenge unparalleled in human history. By the middle of this century, four hundred million Chinese are expected to have retired. That’s more than America’s total projected population by that time.

Whether “small countries” in East Asia like it or not, China believes it has no choice but to secure resources abroad and safeguard maritime access to them. It has to plan for providing several hundreds of millions of seniors while erecting a twenty-first century industrial base that can compete with Korea and Japan. “This is just a fact.” American strategy will have to adjust to this reality.

Due to its sheer size and economic power, China will become a regional power if it isn’t already. The challenge from the perspective of the United States and its allies is not to prevent Chinese hegemony in East Asia but how best to cope with it.

That is why America cannot afford to give up on Taiwan although it cannot serve as a de facto American base eighty miles off China’s east coast anymore. Outright Chinese control of the island would allow Beijing to bolster its claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea and bar foreign military forces from crossing the Luzon Strait.

Direct defense of contested areas in the West Pacific will becoming problematic for the Americans in the near future and eventually nigh impossible. To compensate, strike range will have to increase. The emphasis must shift from prompt defensive measures and direct retaliation, such as dispatching a carrier strike force to the Strait of Taiwan in the case of an invasion, to escalatory options that could draw China and the United States almost in direct armed conflict.

Possible responses include denying Chinese maritime access to the Strait of Malacca, commercial and military, and striking against Chinese assets outside of the mainland. Making clear that an attack against an ally as Taiwan would be interpreted as an attack against the United States could deter Chinese aggression but would necessitate strikes against China proper in the event of hostilities. The question is whether Washington is willing to risk retaliation against the American homeland under such circumstances?

Perhaps the safest way for the United States to contain China to East Asia would be to improve the defense capabilities of its neighbors. Such a strategy could be interpreted in Beijing as an attempt to encircle China but would be the most effective deterrence against immediate Chinese expansionism.

This article also appeared in The Seoul Times, December 7, 2011.