Wall Street Journal

August 18, 1999

China's Options Against Taiwan Are Limited

By Gerald Segal, director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Six weeks after Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui said that relations with mainland China are on a state-to-state basis, the rumbling of military thunder from the other side of the Taiwan Strait is growing louder. In the air Chinese fighter aircraft are flying patrols in the center of the Strait, while on the sea China seized a Taiwanese ship near the Taiwan-held island of Matsu. Hong Kong publications report on plans being hatched in Beijing for missile strikes on at least 150 civil and military targets in Taiwan, including civil nuclear power plants. Senior Chinese officials are quoted as saying they are prepared to take the U.S. to World War III if that is what it takes to regain Taiwan. Chinese officials are "unofficially" sounding out American visitors about what the U.S. might do in the event of a Chinese military strike.

But there are also good reasons to believe that this military thunder is still far away. It is true that China has military options that could cause great damage to Taiwan. But China must calculate that any serious military option will be met with at least the same kind of robust U.S. response -- the deployment of two aircraft carrier battle groups -- that warned China in 1996 against escalating its missile tests in the open sea near Taiwan. As long as the U.S. remains firm, China is a weak power even on its own maritime frontier.

China certainly has no credible capability for a full-scale invasion. Taiwan itself could turn back an initial attempt, and it certainly could hold on long enough for the American fleet to arrive. Nor is it plausible to think China could seize offshore islands such as Kinmen or Matsu without considerable cost, since the U.S. could hardly view such action as any less deplorable than missile firings into empty sea. If China should seize the islands, the U.S., the wider world and certainly East Asia would abandon the notion of China as a peaceful international partner and would place more emphasis on effective military deterrence. Foreign investment in a "rogue" China would plummet.

China would also be making a major mistake if it thought that the U.S. had only simplistic military options such as deploying carrier battle groups. In order to be credible in defense of its Asian and global commitments, the U.S. military has worked hard to ensure that it has credible deterrence and offensive power for a wide range of contingencies. Unlike China, the U.S. with its modern technology, especially for maritime and air warfare, has what in the jargon is known as "escalation dominance" over China.

For instance, if China thought it could get away with seizing Taiwanese ships, the U.S. could blind Chinese radar so Taiwan could retaliate and pick up "lost" mainland ships. If China shot down Taiwan's aircraft, the island might well begin to get the best U.S. forward intelligence so it too could shoot down Chinese aircraft to even the balance. If China wanted to move up the ladder of escalation and launch missile strikes, the U.S. could help Taiwan target Chinese sites or even use its current limited anti-missile forces to pick off an incoming missile, thereby demonstrating American resolve.

As recently as 1996, Chinese military men were stunned by how little control they had of a modern naval and air battlefield, and if anything the gap in favor of U.S. capacities has grown larger in the intervening years. U.S. defense planners have already made it clear to Chinese counterparts --who are still learning lessons from their confused initial response in 1995-96 -- just how much more they know about Chinese deployments and capabilities and how feasible it would be to blind Chinese military systems that are by and large inferior to their Serbian counterparts.

Of course China might use some of its supposed 150 missiles aimed at Taiwan, but a strike on a civil nuclear power plant in Taiwan would be beyond strategic comprehension, since it would only succeed in branding China as a military and environmental outlaw. Taiwan may not be as robust as Serbia in resisting missile attacks on military sites, but unless China decided to take its missile "downtown" into Taipei and knock out power and water, the Taiwanese public's morale would hold long enough for the U.S. to threaten retaliatory strikes against China. The fact that China's Aug. 3 test-firing of a Dongfeng 31 intercontinental missile intended for use against the U.S. provoked no worried reaction from Washington illustrates just how bereft Beijing is of plausible orthodox military options.

Unorthodox or "asymmetrical" military attacks are not a plausible option for Beijing either. Taiwanese ships and aircraft might be hijacked, but in the current climate of tension that too would be seen an act of war. Beijing might attempt to use its much-touted potential for "Cyberwar," and there are some indications that Taiwan's civil infrastructure is vulnerable to information warfare. But Taiwanese have been pioneering cyberwarfare against Chinese civil targets for years and their world-class computer industry has given them an effective "counter-force" capability if China wants to fight that kind of war.

Sensible Chinese leaders will also know that the configuration of the political battlefield also suggests the need to avoid military action. The U.S. has already warned that it views any escalation of current activity as very worrying. China has no way to use orthodox military means without appearing to be a dangerous bully that deserves to face the full force of U.S. deterrence. Resorting to any kind of military option would preclude a decent summit with U.S. President Bill Clinton at the APEC summit in New Zealand. And if China does not want to see Japan and other U.S. allies running even harder to deploy a Theater Missile Defense system then it must keep its missile forces under wraps.

The most powerful political argument for a non-military response is the damage that military threats could do to candidate James Soong in the Taiwanese presidential campaign. Mr. Soong is the most pro-Beijing candidate and leads the polls, but his rivals in the pro-independence DPP, Chen Shui-bian, and the KMT's Lien Chan would benefit if Mr. Soong were seen to be passive in the face of Chinese threats. It should be blindingly obvious to China that by letting Mr. Soong win in March they will have their best prospects for striking a deal with Taiwan since the beginning of the Lee Teng-hui era.

One problem with this reasoning is that China does not recognize how limited its powers really are, and thus it may not be so sensible in eschewing military force. China may be treated with exaggerated respect by the outside world as a great power, but the reality of the Taiwan crisis is that this power cannot even impose its military or political will in its front yard and on the most sensitive of issues. Unfortunately, precisely because this reality is so frustrating to Chinese military and civilian nationalists, the logic of a relatively peaceful Taiwan Strait may not hold. Wars have started elsewhere where the narrow military and nationalist logic seemed even weaker. The Chinese fury about the mistaken NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade reminds us of the visceral and illogical nature of modern Chinese nationalism.

So even if China sees at least the short-term logic of avoiding military action before March 2000, we must all hold our breath for what happens next. If James Soong should lose and Taiwan continues its drift towards a New Taiwan, then China's fury will turn all the more nasty. Then that talk in Beijing of fighting World War III may seem much scarier.

--From The Asian Wall Street Journal


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