Why Taiwan Could (Still) Start World War III

B-52 bomber aircraft
A B-52 Stratofortress bomber leads a formation of American and Japanese fighter jets in a flight over Guam, February 21, 2011 (USAF/Angelita M. Lawrence)

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 “Why Taiwan Could (Still) Start World War III”

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 “China, Taiwan Ink Service Trade Agreement”

Taiwan’s Defense Review Consciously Vague

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. Read more “Taiwan’s Defense Review Consciously Vague”

A New Air Force Procurement Strategy for Taiwan

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 New Air Force Procurement Strategy for Taiwan”

A Precedent-Setting Sale in the Taiwan Straits

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 “A Precedent-Setting Sale in the Taiwan Straits”

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.

War with China: How It Could Happen

A rising China is natural competitor for the United States in the Pacific. Although the prospects for war are limited, they are real and may prove difficult to minimize.

In a recent study (PDF), the RAND Corporation, a public policy think tank, examines not so much the likelihood of a direct confrontation with China rather how and where a crisis can develop that could escalate into war.

If it chose, RAND observes, China could become a more formidable threat to the United States than Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were at the height of their power. China doesn’t appear to seek territorial expansion nor ideological aggrandizement at the expense of other countries and the United States are likely to remain militarily superior but in its immediate neighborhood, China could achieve hegemony. “In consequence, the direct defense of contested assets in that region will become progressively more difficult, eventually approaching impossible,” according to the RAND Corporation. Read more “War with China: How It Could Happen”

US Concede to Chinese Pressure, Cancel F-16 Sale

The United States announced last week that they would not sell new F-16 aircraft to Taiwan but upgrade the island nation’s existing fleet of fighter jets instead.

The move is widely interpreted as an attempt to appease China which regards Taiwan as a renegade province and vehemently criticized an American arms sale to the country last year.

The Obama Administration argues that upgrading Taiwan’s current fleet of F-16s will make the aircraft nearly as capable as the 66 newer models which Taipei had requested. The upgrades reportedly do not include improved engines however which will make it more difficult for the Taiwanese to retire their older jets.

The administration was under pressure from opposition Republicans who are critical of its willingness to water down a weapons deal because of Chinese objections. Conservative lawmakers worry that America may be losing its previously uncontested superiority in the Pacific as China is rapidly expanding and modernizing its armed forces.

Taiwan needed to boost its air defenses as some 70 percent of its fighter fleet was supposed to retire over the next decade.

China has invested heavily in enhancing its air and missile strike capabilities in recent years, causing a security imbalance to develop across the Taiwanese Strait that America is unlikely to be able to mend with military force alone.

In the near future, the United States will probably not be able to bring enough fighter jets to battle to offset China’s quantitative superiority. It hasn’t enough planes stationed nearby, on Taiwan nor in Japan, and could not dispatch enough aircraft carriers to the site in time to effectively repel an invasion.

The Taiwanese air force meanwhile is increasingly vulnerable to a Chinese missile attack which could destroy all of Taiwan’s airfields in a single strike, rendering its fixed-wing airpower virtually useless.

In short, the United States and Taiwan can no longer be confident of winning the battle for the air in the air.

In order to restore balance, the United States could disperse fighter planes across a larger number of bases or seek to pose the same kind of threat to China’s air force bases as it presents to those on Taiwan and Okinawa, Japan. That would require fielding hundreds of additional midrange missiles on Taiwan which neither America nor Taiwan currently operates.

The alternative would be to make abundantly clear that an attack against Taiwan would be considered an attack on the United States but Washington may not be willing to go to war with China over the issue, especially as the two great powers’ economic interests are so intertwined.

China, moreover, is far less likely to stage an invasion of Taiwan today than it may have been fifteen years ago. As Robert D. Kaplan points out in The Washington Post, it doesn’t need to anymore.

The trend line suggests that China will annex Taiwan by, in effect, going around it: by adjusting the correlation of forces in its favor so that China will never have to fight for what it will soon possess.

Not only does China have some 1,500 short range ballistic missiles focused on Taiwan, Kaplan notes, but there are more than a thousand commercial flights between the island and mainland China every month and close to a third of Taiwanese exports go to China. “Such is independence melting away.”

And as China’s strategic planners need to concentrate less on capturing Taiwan, they will be free to focus on projecting power into the energy rich South China Sea and, later, into the adjoining Indian Ocean.

It is in the South China Sea where the United States declared stability to be of “national interest” last year. “People want to see the United States fully engaged in Asia,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January 2010, “so that as China rises the United States is there as a force for peace.”

America isn’t giving up on Taiwan, especially as outright Chinese control of the island would enable Beijing to enforce its claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea and bar foreign military forces from crossing the Luzon Strait. But it is adjusting to a new reality in East Asia. China is a regional power to be reckoned with. If Washington is to frustrate its ascendancy, it has to pick its battles carefully.

Does Taiwan Need More F-16s?

Opposition lawmakers in the United States are appalled that the Obama Administration would consider not selling more and newer F-16s to Taiwan but are aircraft really what the island nation needs to defend itself against mainland China?

The White House is under pressure from Republicans in the Senate to approve additional arms sales to Taiwan after it signaled to its ally last month that a formal request for an F-16 upgrade would probably be denied. Taiwan needs to boost its air defenses as some 70 percent of its current jet fleet is set to retire over the next decade.

Last year’s arms sale of defense equipment to Taiwan soured Sino-American relations for months. Beijing continues to regard the republic as a renegade province at a time when America’s security commitment to Taiwan is becoming problematic and its economic ties with the Chinese becoming evermore important. Read more “Does Taiwan Need More F-16s?”