The Magazine

Wishful Thinking in Our Time

From the August 8, 2005 issue: The Pentagon looks at China, and blinks.

Aug 8, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 44 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL and GARY SCHMITT
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What's not new in the report is China's increasing military capacity to bring Taiwan to its knees. Last year's report judged that China could force Taiwan to accept unification with the mainland under certain conditions: "The campaign could succeed--barring third-party intervention--if Beijing were willing to accept the political, economic, diplomatic, and military costs that an invasion would produce." The point here is that Beijing does not believe a full-fledged invasion would be necessary to accomplish its goal. Rather, the PLA leadership, according to its own doctrinal papers, thinks a combination of ballistic-missile, special-operation, and aerial strikes could be sufficient to shock Taiwan's population and leadership into accepting Beijing's version of "one China."

For similar reasons, China is working hard to develop the capacity to blockade Taiwan. The submarine modernization program that the report details is extensive. Eight new quiet KILO-class diesels will soon be added to the four already in the arsenal; China's indigenous SONG diesel is now in serial production; and a new diesel submarine, the YUAN class, was launched last year. Chinese naval journals indicate a deep interest in blockading operations, and pay close attention to the vulnerabilities of Taiwan's island economy.

Such scenarios, of course, raise the question of what role the United States would or would not want to play in turning back Chinese aggression. Here, too, the answer is clear as day: China's military knows that it must be able to prevent, or, at least severely complicate, the American Navy's use of its aircraft carriers. To this end, as the new report spells out, China's antiship cruise missile force is growing by leaps and bounds. It has begun to field high-end, supersonic and subsonic cruise missiles on its new destroyers, attack boats, and submarines. It has even experimented with use of maneuverable, multiple-entry MRBMs and SRBMs to hit carrier battle groups. Once China solves the problem of longer-range detection and targeting, it will pose the most serious threat to American carriers in the world. And, in truth, when it comes to China's close-in waters, no serious American naval planner believes it would be safe sailing for American surface combatants, even as things stand today. As one PLA general remarked: "We have the ability to deal with an aircraft carrier that dares to get into our range of fire."

The report also details China's programs to upgrade its intercontinental ballistic missile force with new solid-fuel, road-mobile missiles and new sea-based, submarine-launched systems. The net effect will be a more survivable, more accurate, and more lethal nuclear strategic capability--aimed primarily at the United States. As General Zhu Chenghu, dean of China's National Defense University, not so subtly reminded American visitors recently: Should the United States intervene in a conflict between China and Taiwan, "the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds . . . of [their] cities will be destroyed by the Chinese" nuclear weapons.

Combine the PLA's fascination with "carrier killing," its ability to degrade severely the operational utility of U.S. air bases in Japan through missile strikes, its aggressive pursuit of space and counterspace capabilities, and its upgraded nuclear arsenal, and you have a military that believes it has or is close to having the means to make any American president think twice before going to Taiwan's rescue.

LAZILY, the U.S. government has accepted the Chinese propaganda line that these trends in Chinese military modernization are first designed to deter Taiwan "from moving toward de jure 'independence.'" Never mind that only a small minority in Taiwan supports taking that step (so even the most pro-independence politician in Taiwan would probably be unsuccessful in pushing the idea), China almost certainly would not be seeking these military capabilities to support a policy of mere deterrence. A few hundred missiles aimed at Taiwan could do that.

Obviously, China is interested in deterring Taiwan from declaring independence, but, more significantly, it is interested in pursuing its stated goal of "reuniting" Taiwan with the motherland--and it is in relation to this goal that the PLA's actions and plans make sense.

The Chinese Communist leadership has made clear time and again that it will not tolerate a prolonged separation of Taiwan from the mainland, and it has tasked the PLA, as earlier Pentagon reports indicated, with providing real military options. As this year's report notes (and as China's recent adoption of the Anti-Secession law essentially codifies): "The Chinese Communist Party came to power on its credentials as a defender of Chinese sovereignty; its leaders appear to see progress--or perhaps, the absence of failure--on the Taiwan issue as affecting the legitimacy of their rule."