The rising military tensions in and around Taiwan – and recent Chinese military exercises to intimidate Taiwan independence forces – have not been widely reported, but there is no doubt that the arms race is heating up on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Western military analysts see enormous and growing danger of military pressure from China, if not direct coercion, even conflict, in the strait.
Analysts do not rule out the possibility that if provoked, or if it believes it could lose Taiwan irrevocably, China would attack what it considers its renegade province in order to reunify it with the mainland.
Douglas Feith, US under secretary for defense, meeting with Xiong Guangkai, deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, on February 10-11 in Beijing, urged China to reduce the nearly 500 missiles targeted at Taiwan. Taipei considers these missiles a direct threat and a provocation. On March 20 Taiwan voters will be asked in a referendum whether the island should acquire new defensive missiles systems if China refuses to redirect its missiles. On the same day they will be asked to choose a president, incumbent Chen Shui-bian having staked his career on the “defensive” anti-missile referendum.
Those Chinese missiles have been a major precipitating factor in the current crisis.
On February 12, the US Knight-Ridder News Service reported that China’s arms acquisitions and development are tipping the military balance in Beijing’s favor – thus heightening Pentagon concerns about an attack against Taiwan.
It also reported that Pentagon officials told Taiwan that by 2006 China might be able to deter US counterattacks and intervention and that more limited action might happen sooner. According to these reports, China is adding not only 75 short-range missiles against Taiwan each year but also an inventory of amphibious carriers and light tanks, cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and a network of surveillance satellites.
The purposes of the missile deployments and the qualitative and quantitative improvements to Chinese forces deployed around Taiwan are clear. First, they are intended to deter any US intervention on behalf of Taiwan by threatening the United States with unacceptable losses in such a war. Though many analysts assume that China is not going to invade Taiwan because to do so would be immensely counterproductive, others consider such complacency to be misplaced.
China would attack if sufficiently provoked
First, many Chinese think the United States will not fight wars that involve high casualties to its forces. Therefore the issue is how many casualties China must suffer to occupy the island, not whether an invasion is a sensible policy.
Second, for China, the Taiwan issue is so bound up with the legitimacy of the government that any successful breakaway by Taiwan could lead to the downfall of the Beijing regime. This contingency, or the fear of it, could lead a Chinese government to fight, even from a position of inferiority. And there should be no illusions about China’s reluctance to fight, because its military doctrine clearly talks of winning wars based on the inferior fighting the superior power. China has demonstrated that before. Therefore China would fight if sufficiently provoked.
The arms race, however, goes beyond Beijing’s annual addition of 50-75 short- and medium-range missiles on its south coast opposite the “renegade” island to encompass its general qualitative and quantitative military buildup – and Taiwan’s own response to acquire more advanced weapons systems.
Beyond the missiles being deployed against Taiwan, China is also qualitatively and quantitatively augmenting its capabilities to strike at Taiwan using the range of its conventional forces.
China is carrying out a major military reform by reducing the numbers of its military but simultaneously improving the quality of technology, weapons systems and training. This is taking place at a time of publicly announced increases in defense spending of about 18 percent a year. Given the well-known opacity of Chinese figures and statistics, especially with regard to defense, it is likely that this announced spending reveals only the tip of a vast and growing iceberg of military expenditure.
Because of this secrecy, which is based not only on communist habits but also on the received wisdom of Chinese military thinking, dating back to Sun Zi (Sun Tzu), it is all but impossible to gain an accurate or objective impression of China’s real capabilities.
Taiwan fears China could attack in five to 10 years
While most US analysts say the Chinese military is still afflicted with multiple shortcomings and is not a major threat to the United States or to other Asian countries, Taiwanese officials clearly fear that within five to 10 years, the tide of Chinese superiority will be such that China could well attack Taiwan if Beijing decides the circumstances warrant military action.
Nor is it only Taiwan that is concerned.
China’s military reforms also clearly encompass planning for contingencies in Xinjiang and Tibet to suppress separatism and dissent there and to conduct operations in Central Asia with the co-signers of the Shanghai Treaty that formed the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO). That treaty represented the first time China ever promised to come to another state’s aid, except in the case of North Korea. It was the first time since 1950 that China had projected its military forces beyond its borders, in bilateral exercises with Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia and joint exercises with all the members of the SCO.
Another major issue regarding the Chinese military buildup is its linkage with Russia. At China’s request, details about which Russian systems and technologies are being acquired and the extent of cooperation since 2000 have been highly classified. It is known that there were joint talks on military cooperation, strategy and preparedness training of Chinese military personnel in Russian institutions, and joint research projects on high-technology with military applications – but not much more.
The systems China purchased earlier – the Su-27 Flanker fighter, the Sovremennyi destroyer with Sunburn anti-ship missiles, the S-300 anti-aircraft missile and the Kilo-class submarines – have been described in Jane’s Intelligence Review by a Chinese source as stopgap acquisitions, but one can tell from Russian sources as well that China is purchasing more technologies for production from Russia than weapons systems.
The purpose of this is to develop an indigenous capacity for producing advanced weapons. Thus it is acquiring, according to most estimates, US$2 billion worth annually from the Russian defense industry, which is still desperate to sell to someone lest it be forced to go out of business as a result of the general Russian economic plague. Russian experts are also talking about selling China even more advanced systems to keep up with its demands and remain technologically competitive.
China builds arms with Russian tech
Meanwhile China has utilized the technologies acquired from Russia to build its own indigenous weapon systems: the new 052-class air-defense destroyers now under construction, the J-10 fighter aircraft, and the Song-class submarines, two of which have been completed, with the rest under construction.
Despite China’s well-known difficulties coping with advanced systems and integrating them, these programs bespeak its enormous ambitions in all fields of military development, including the nuclear arena. The fact that China now also is receiving France’s enthusiastic endorsement for lifting the European Union’s embargo on weapons sales – an embargo that Washington wants preserved, in another instance of Franco-American rivalry – also speaks volumes for its extensive military plans. The embargo was imposed after China’s brutal suppression of peaceful pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
Taiwan, for its part, has not been inactive. It clearly has intensified cooperation with the Pentagon, which is helping the island develop its own “critical needs” in order to survive a Chinese missile barrage before US forces can get there. It has advised Taiwan to beef up its anti-submarine capabilities and to create a command structure to function in the event of missile attacks, since Taiwan’s anti-missile defenses are weak or non-existent.
Since Taiwan’s leadership expects China to gain qualitative superiority during this decade, it also is turning increasingly to high-tech solutions, such as improved command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, space and reconnaissance capabilities (C4ISR), increased bilateral contacts with US military forces, acquisition of Patriot anti-missile missiles, and greater access to US defensive systems.
However, it is not at all clear if this would deter China or if US forces would be able to overcome China’s efforts to obtain both a local superiority in a Taiwanese theater or prevent Beijing’s winning a first-strike attack against Taiwan – thus keeping any future war there short.
China is not bluffing and blustering
Within a few years, China might well be able to challenge Taiwan – beyond the holding of exercises and blustering during the current campaign for a referendum and elections. The issue of missile defenses in Asia generally and near Taiwan in particular will increase in importance.
Despite the current weight accorded the Middle East, terrorism and Iraq, the China-Taiwan situation is an urgent issue that will not go away. Moreover, it has enormous repercussions for China and all Asia, as well as for the United States’ position in Asia.
China has been issuing not-so-veiled threats to Taiwan as it prepares for its elections and referendum on Chinese missiles. It would be foolishly complacent to believe that Chinese capabilities will not be more fully engaged against Taiwan if China feels that it can win safely or if it feels sufficiently provoked to do so. But if Taiwan provokes China, it will most likely do so because of its rising sense of fear and threat from the mainland – a threat that China itself has generated.
This international arms race, encouraged by Moscow and by Washington, each in pursuit of their own perceived vital interests, could soon get out of control and expand to include not only conventional weapons but also space-based systems and nuclear missiles, if not defenses against those missiles.
This arms race, focused on the Taiwan Strait in the short term, will create regional ripples, if not waves, and it is the last thing Asia needs now, in the near future, or ever.