Why Taiwan Could (Still) Start World War III

An F-18 fighter jet prepares for launch on flight deck of the American aircraft carrier USS Nimitz on deployment in the Pacific Ocean, June 27, 2012
An F-18 fighter jet prepares for launch on flight deck of the American aircraft carrier USS Nimitz on deployment in the Pacific Ocean, June 27, 2012 (USN/Ian A. Cotter)

Surely you know already the tripwire: Taiwan is a de facto country but a de jure province of mainland China. The people’s republic wants to bring it back under mainland China’s rule while the people of Taiwan want exactly the opposite.

Moreover, Taiwan’s military security is guaranteed by the United States via the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which stipulates the United States must respond militarily to a communist invasion.

So if the PRC tries to bring Taiwan back into the fold by military force, the United States must retaliate. Conventional battles turn to nuclear battles and then we all die in the irradiated glow of our own monstrous weapons. Read more

China, Taiwan Ink Service Trade Agreement

The Bund of Shanghai, China, May 1, 2009
The Bund of Shanghai, China, May 1, 2009 (Flickr/IceNineJon)

Trade relations between China and Taiwan received a substantial boost last month with the signing of a bilateral Service Trade Agreement.

The agreement, which will grant access to a large number of service sector businesses for cross-Strait transactions, was signed between China’s Association of Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) and Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) during negotiations held in Shanghai this month.

The Service Trade Agreement will expand the role of the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which was the first significant step towards trade liberalization following five decades of strained trade relations between China and Taiwan. Read more

Taiwan’s Defense Review Consciously Vague

A Taiwanese Mirage 2000 fighter jet takes off from Hsinchu Air Base, June 2, 2012
A Taiwanese Mirage 2000 fighter jet takes off from Hsinchu Air Base, June 2, 2012 (Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this month, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense released its second Quadrennial Defense Review. The document, in addition to discussing the state of defense policies in the present political environment, examines the challenges facing the island and reports on the condition of national military preparedness.

Beyond minor changes in the language describing the local threat environment, there is very little new content over what was in the 2009 version. Indeed, the only substantial changes come in the form of a renewed focus on mainland China’s strategic transformation from a focus on near shore power projection to far sea perimeter defense.

This, of course, will guide Taiwanese defense planning and preparedness calculations in the future. But details on how that will translate into what new capabilities are to be pursued are thin on the ground and commentators have been quick to suggest that proposed spending levels and a lack of decisive developments could leave the island vulnerable to Chinese attack.

Why is this? After all, one might think it the case that a country so existentially challenged would have the greatest interest in deterring aggression and projecting an image of readiness through the effective broadcasting of its capabilities abroad.

One need only look at the report’s language and broad geopolitical observations to understand why the details of strategic planning and new defense apparatus development might increasingly lose a measure of effectiveness if exposed to the public limelight, however.

In recognizing China’s transformation of capacity and focus toward far seas anti-access missions, Taiwan is almost certainly also recognizing that Chinese area denial and conventional first strike capabilities, including sophisticated ballistic and cyber forces, are lengthening the shadow of the future for the island in conflict scenarios. A successful response to any degree of direct aggressive action on China’s part would undoubtedly require American intercession. Taipei’s forces would have to capably blunt or derail an attack long enough to allow the United States to deploy appropriate force.

New hardware, much of which was generally commented on in the defense report, is certainly needed to ensure that Taiwan’s conventional military units remain effective against Chinese counterparts. Anti-submarine warfare capabilities, advanced ballistic missile defense platforms, more surface combatants and stealth fighters, if they can feasibly be bought or built, will all boost the island’s survivability.

But many of the steps to be taken to transform Taiwan’s national-security capabilities and enable the possibility of sustained resistance beyond the opening phases of an assault are those that require or benefit from more clandestine preparation.

In particular, cyber defense capabilities benefit from the lack of a public profile of any kind, as Taiwan’s military leadership undoubtedly wants to avoid allowing China the ability to adapt or compensate for any online weapons the island might be able to bring to bear.

This is perhaps most important in the realm of focused offensive cyber assets that Taiwan could develop. After all, active defense of infrastructural and military systems is to be expected by China in the event of an assault on the island but any ability that Taipei might produce to disrupt counterpart military or intelligence systems, particularly those that are increasingly tying China’s over the horizon radar and communications platforms together to improve command and control awareness, need obscurity and confidentiality if they are to stand a chance of proving effective.

Furthermore, installation hardening and alternative infrastructure development projects are most likely best left unenumerated. While China is certainly aware of the drills that Taiwan has undertaken to assess the feasibility of military aircraft using highways in place of airfields assumed to be destroyed in an opening attack barrage, it would clearly be unwise to publicly indicate the location or nature of contingency assets, infrastructural and otherwise, that could simply be added to a list of sites to be targeted in a ballistic assault.

Finally, the problem of domestic threat awareness might benefit, at least in terms of the island’s international relationships, from an avoidance of the limelight.

The issue of popular complacency and willingness to shelf national security priorities in favor of more conservative outlooks on the prospect for conflict, laid out in a very brief paragraph in the defense review’s first chapter, is to be tackled in the future in several ways.

Notably, Taiwan aims to actively integrate defense education resources, increase popular awareness of threats from espionage and leverage increasing understanding of the island’s threat environment to gain support for future national-security improvement spending.

And that is about as specific as the leadership in Taipei likely wants to get. The diversion of defense funds to what could be construed as a politically motivated drive to galvanize nationalist support for greater military spending and an expansion of the national-security apparatus would almost certainly draw sharp criticism, and perhaps even further redistributions of force to coastal areas, from China.

Moreover, indications of a drive to institutionalize nationalist sentiment, even to improve threat awareness and create opportunities for intraregional security cooperation, could introduce an element of uncertainty to the calculations of policymakers from the United States and other potential partners. While many would value a strengthening of Taiwan’s capabilities and diversion from other pressure points in East Asia, nobody wants to see the development of a national mindset likely to provoke conflict.

So, whether Taiwan’s vague report is the result of poor planning development or of something more calculating, it is clear that the increasingly encircled nature of the island’s security environment generates both a significant need for unconventional defenses and for the secrecy to ensure that they remain effective options for the future.

A New Air Force Procurement Strategy for Taiwan

Republic of Korea F-16 fighter jets prepare for takeoff, May 7, 2008
Republic of Korea F-16 fighter jets prepare for takeoff, May 7, 2008 (Steven Weng)

It is reported that Taiwan has more than halved the number of F-16 fighter planes it requests from the United States government, from 66 down to 24.

The China Times based in Taipei quotes a supposedly authoritative military source on the matter. That source, in citing budgetary concerns as the primary reason for the reduced order, indicates that the combined cost of indigenous defense programs and other international purchases would not leave sufficient funds over the course of near term fiscal periods to accommodate a large purchase.

While the Taiwanese government has denied the report, other news outlets, citing multiple sources, have picked up on the news. In many ways, a reduction in F-16 purchases does make sense. Read more

A Precedent-Setting Sale in the Taiwan Straits

Republic of Korea F-16 fighter jets prepare for takeoff, May 7, 2008
Republic of Korea F-16 fighter jets prepare for takeoff, May 7, 2008 (Steven Weng)

The House of Representatives in the United States ordered the sale of more advanced F-16 multirole fighters to Taiwan this month. The move, a big step forward for Taiwan in preparing for the future, may be precedent setting in more ways than one and could inspire new thinking in both Beijing and Taipei.

While the sale of warplanes to Taiwan is yet to be approved by the Senate and the president, congressional success in the lower house represents a breakthrough for those Republican leaders in Washington who have long favored greater military and financial support for the island based Republic of China. Read more

China, US Quietly Hope for Incumbent’s Victory in Taiwan

Taiwan’s presidential candidates tried to rally support on Friday ahead of a vote that could impact the island’s foreign policy with regard to China and so, by extension, its relations with the United States.

Although the elections are mostly about economic issues, with the incumbent pointing at Taiwan’s solid growth rate last year and relatively low unemployment and his challenger citing mounting income disparity, Saturday will also be a referendum on the president’s conciliatory China policy.

Ma Ying-jeou, chairman of the Kuomintang Party, has tied the island’s economy ever closer to China’s. He welcomed Chinese tourists to Taiwan and enacted a free-trade agreement with the mainland in 2010 that reduced or eliminated tariffs on hundreds of goods. Most of Taiwan’s $124 billion worth of exports to China last year were electronic goods but there has been upsurge in agricultural sales across the Strait as a result of the tariff reductions.

China has entertained Ma’s overtures with largesse because it would rather have the Kuomintang in power than Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party which is left of center but more adamant about Taiwanese independence.

Tsai has accused the president of undermining Taiwan’s de facto independence in favor of economic ties with the mainland. She has moved to the center in recent days to convince voters that she’s not a hardliner but China regards her election prospects warily nevertheless, especially after the United States announced a “pivot” to East Asia in order to contain China’s rise.

The Chinese still think of Taiwan as a renegade province. After the communists defeated the nationalist Kuomintang in China’s civil war in 1949, the party fled to Taiwan where it established a Republic of China that, until the early 1970s, was recognized as the true China by the United States.

The Americans remain Taiwan’s most important security partners up to this very day although there are voices in Washington calling for a suspension in military aid to the island in favor of more stable relations with the mainland.

The Obama Administration last year conceded to Chinese pressure when it canceled a fighter plane sale to Taiwan while the country had scheduled to retire some 70 percent of its fighter fleet over the course of this decade. China has significantly enhanced its air and missile strike capabilities at the same time, causing a security imbalance to develop across the Taiwanese Strait that America is unlikely to be able to mend with military force alone.

China seeks control of the Strait to enforce its claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea and keep foreign, i.e., American, naval forces out of that body of water. America isn’t giving up on Taiwan for this reason but has to pick its battles carefully as China emerges as the predominant power of East Asia. It may quietly hope for Ma’s reelection on Saturday and thus avoid a showdown with Beijing while a new generation of leadership prepares to take office there. It may see a need to assert itself in the face of what China perceives as Americans encroaching upon its natural sphere of interest. The question of Taiwanese independence would only complicate Sino-American relations while a fifth generation of leadership aims to consolidate power and authority in Beijing.

A similar dynamic plays out in the United States. President Barack Obama stands for reelection this year. If a shift in Taiwanese policy provokes a confrontation with China, that could leave him vulnerable to criticism from the Republican opposition that he’s “soft” on China whereas his challenger would vow to stand firm with America’s ally, Taiwan.

The Pacific Balance is Shifting in China’s Favor

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.