The Economist. London: Jan 15, 2005. Vol. 374, Iss. 8409; pp. 6-7
War with China may not be likely, but if it happened it would be devastating
"AT THE beginning of this new century, nowhere is the danger for Americans as great as in the Taiwan Strait, where the potential for a war with China, a nuclear-armed great power, could erupt out of miscalculation, misunderstanding or accident." So argues Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, an American scholar, in an edited volume, "Dangerous Strait", due to be published shortly. Other threats may be more certain, such as conflict in the Middle East, terrorism or clashes with rogue or failed states, yet "none but a collision with China would be as massive and devastating," Ms Tucker suggests.
Since 1995, China has been engaged in a rapid military build-up on the coast facing Taiwan, triggered by the then President Lee's visit to his alma mater, Cornell University. China was incensed by America's willingness to give a Taiwanese president a public platform on American soil. It saw the event as confirmation that Taiwan's democratisation was strengthening international support for Taiwan's separateness. Military pressure, it felt, was needed as a warning to Taiwan and the Americans about the dangers of going too far.
In 1995 and 1996 China staged large-scale military manoeuvres in the Taiwan Strait, including the firing of unarmed missiles close to Taiwan's two main ports. America responded with its biggest naval deployment in the region since the Vietnam war, sending two aircraft-carrier battle groups to the area. China has fired no more missiles since, but has positioned large numbers of truck-mounted short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) along the coast. It has also increased deployments of longer-range missiles that could target American bases in Japan or on the Pacific island of Guam, about 1,500 miles from Taiwan. And it is working to develop land-attack cruise missiles, which could be fired across the 160km (100 mile) strait and penetrate even the most sophisticated anti-missile defences that Taiwan is acquiring from America.
China has also been buying an array of Russian weaponry, from SU-27 and SU-30 fighter jets to quiet Kilo-class submarines and Sovremenny-class destroyers. These ships are equipped with Sunburn anti-ship missiles, the ones America's navy "fears most", says Peter Brookes, a former senior defence official in the Bush administration. Russian-supplied anti-aircraft batteries on the coast can lock on to Taiwanese aircraft as soon as they take off from the island. The technical superiority of Taiwan's weaponry could well be overtaken by China's within a few years.
Kurt Campbell, the Pentagon's senior official responsible for the region at the time of the crisis in 1995-96, says the biggest cautionary tale was how difficult America found it to communicate with the Taiwanese and to understand their capabilities and intentions. This did not bode well should the two sides find themselves fighting together against China. So the Clinton administration decided to step up contacts with the Taiwanese armed forces, including mutual visits and training of Taiwanese officers.
In 2001, after George Bush became president, the Republican administration strengthened these ties. Mr Bush also offered to sell Taiwan a huge package of advanced weaponry and help it buy diesel submarines. As Michael Swaine, an American academic, notes in "Dangerous Strait", reports suggest that there are now more American military programmes in progress with Taiwan than with any other major American ally. And America has been adding to its submarines and bombers stationed on Guam.
But Taiwan itself is curiously ambivalent about China's growing military prowess. The purchase of new weapons from America has become bogged down in fierce political debate on the island, with many arguing that they are too expensive, will take too long to acquire and integrate into the Taiwanese military, or will simply fuel an arms race with the mainland. American requests that Taiwan do more to protect vital structures such as command-and-control centres and airfields have met similar foot-dragging. Taiwan's defence spending as a share of GDP has been declining for several years, to around 2.4% in 2003, below South Korea's (2.8%) and well below China's (see chart 3, previous page). In 2005 it is set to rise to 2.5%.
Look at it our way
The problem, according to James Mulvenon of the Centre for Intelligence Research and Analysis, an American consultancy, is that there is a "fundamental perceptual difference" between Taiwanese officials and American ones about the nature of the Chinese threat. The Americans brief their Taiwan counterparts on Chinese military capabilities, he says, but are "flummoxed" by their unwillingness to accept that "the threat is imminent".
The Americans are also worried that these days the Taiwanese talk a lot more about acquiring offensive capabilities of their own. The prime minister, Yu Shyi-kun, last September famously threatened missile strikes against the mainland should China attack Taiwan. "If you hit us with 100 missiles, we'll fight you back with 50 missiles," he said. "If you hit Taipei or Kaohsiung, we'll strike Shanghai." To the many Taiwanese who balk at spending $18 billion on America's proposed arms package, offensive weapons seem a more cost-effective way of deterring an attack.
Taiwan has been working for several years to develop supersonic cruise missiles that could hit mainland targets. Since President Chen took office, it has installed less advanced subsonic anti-ship missiles on outlying islands that could also hit the mainland. These moves worry some in the Pentagon, who think that in the event of conflict a Taiwanese attack on the mainland could escalate out of control. Naturally, they also anger China.
There are concerns, too, that Taiwan might secretly acquire nuclear weapons. President Chen has ruled this out. But Taiwan has tried in the past to make such weapons behind America's back. As recently as the late 1980s, the Americans put a halt to a suspected nuclear-weapons programme in Taiwan. Some commentators there say it should be revived. China has said it might attack if Taiwan goes nuclear. "If I had to nominate an area that was ripe for a strategic surprise in the next three or four years, I would probably place China-Taiwan at the top of the list, above North Korea," says Mr Campbell.
Policymakers in Washington are right to worry about the risks, but the chances are that Chinese leaders would think more than twice about mobilising their arsenal. Politically, any military action against Taiwan could well prove riskier for China than doing nothing. "The risk of failure weighs pretty heavily on a lot of the senior leadership [in China]," says a Pentagon official. A war that failed to achieve Taiwan's submission would be a powerful blow to the party's credibility. And it is hard to see how, even if China were to subdue Taiwan's armed forces, it could be confident of a lasting political solution that would rule out any return to independence.
A war would come at a terrible economic price, not only for Taiwan but for China too. And one thing Chinese officials seem to agree on is that the party's grip on power depends on a vibrant economy.