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March 8, 2006

Chinese Threat Update

Readers of this blog know that I have been worried about the possibility of conflict with China over Taiwan. In April of 2005 I wrote War with China: 2008 - 2010?", in which I set forth my reasons why I believe that if China makes a move, it will come shortly after the 2008 Olympics in Bejing. Nothing I have seen since then has changed my mind.

The good news is that the US military in general, and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld in particular, are well aware of the danger.

In this post I am going to review some of the political and military developments since I wrote that post.

The Third Goal

Chinese foreign policy under the communists has centered around taking back three territories that they say they lost during the "century of humiliation": Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. China (People's Republic of China, or "PRC") took back Tibet in the 1950s, got Hong Kong in 1997, and now only Taiwan is left.

Getting back Tibet and Hong Kong were relatively easy, there was no one to oppose the former, and the British lease was up on the latter anyway. Taiwan poses a challenge. The United States has always said that it will oppose reunification by force, and indeed in 1979 Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, making this policy legally binding on the president.

Taiwan (the Republic of China, or "ROC") was for decades run by the authoritarian Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek. Starting in 1987, however, has evolved into a democracy. Although the Chinese communists have moderated since the days of Mao Tse-Tung, the spectre of a totalitarian giant attacking a peaceful democracy will not play well on the world stage.

The Chinese Military Build-Up

Those who accuse the United States of being recklessly adventuristic would do well to cast their eyes on the immense growth of the Chinese Army and Navy (PLA - Peoples Liberation Army, and PLAN, Peoples Liberation Army/Navy).

As Bill Gertz documented the massive Chinese ___ in his book "The Chinese Dragon Awakens", excerpted in the Washington Times last June. Gertz told about what he heard from Pentagon officials

China is building its military forces faster than U.S. intelligence and military analysts expected, prompting fears that Beijing will attack Taiwan in the next two years, according to Pentagon officials.

U.S. defense and intelligence officials say all the signs point in one troubling direction: Beijing then will be forced to go to war with the United States, which has vowed to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack.

China's military buildup includes an array of new high-technology weapons, such as warships, submarines, missiles and a maneuverable warhead designed to defeat U.S. missile defenses. Recent intelligence reports also show that China has stepped up military exercises involving amphibious assaults, viewed as another sign that it is preparing for an attack on Taiwan.

The Problem with China

John Derbyshire, a longtime China watcher who writes for National Review, said the other day that "I try to keep tabs on the China watchers and their moods. The current mood is darkening." Indeed so. He pointed to a BBC article in which the Chinese announced a 14% increase in military spending, a huge amount by western standards. Derbyshire also quotes Australian sinologist Geremie R. Barme from the Jan '06 China Journal:

"With the accession of Hu Jintao ... many presumed that the relatively lax ideological rule of the Jiang Zemin years would continue. Ever-optimistic observers even thought that here, finally, China had a Soviet-style reformist of its own (recall putative Sino-Gorbachev's past, Qiao Shi for example).

"It was probably the 2003 commemoration of the 110th anniversary of Mao Zedong's birth, and the speech that Hu Jintao made at the Great Hall of the People in December that year, that put paid to such a notion..."

In other words, forget about a Chinese Gorbachev, much less a Yeltsin.

China is in an unusual situaion, one that I believe is without parallel this past hundred years, at least for a large nation. It is an officially communist country that has almost totally abandoned the economic tenants of communism. Yet the Communist Party of China maintains absolute rule, and immediately represses any perceived threat to it's power. It's only idiology is power for it's own sake.

The Chinese communists now practice a sort of "crony capitalism", whereby one can start a business and make money, but only by the grace of the state. An independent judiciary and what the West calls "rule of law" are non-existent.

This offers the average Chinese nothing to believe in. A seek out new religions such as Falun Gong, but given the persecution of believers by the state few take the risk. Most are apparently happy, for now, just trying to take part in the new Chinese semi-capitalist economy.

Chinese leaders are attempting to deal with this problem through the "Three Represents" campaign. As outlined in a paper last year by Jia Hepeng, published by the Cato Institute,

The Three Represents Campaign has long been considered to ensure that the Party expand its membership to include private entrepreneurs, redefine its societal role, modify its core tenets, and institutionalize its rule. The constitutional status of the slogans seems to corroborate that conclusion. The assertion, however, overlooks another side of the ideological movement: the CCP’s desire to absorb capitalists into a preexisting Party line and to indoctrinate them with the Party ortho-doxy. By doing this, the CCP is in fact strengthening its orthodox ideology so as to increase its authority and legitimacy.

Hepeng concludes that the ability of the communists to bring the capitalists into it's fold and get them to buy into their idiology (whatever it is these days) is "very limited". Thus the party will "continue its pragmatic policies in economic and social fields" but will relaunch similar campaigns everytime it detects a threat to it's legitimacy.

But the state knows that this will not work over time. It therefore does what all totalitarian nations eventually do; play the nationalism and anti-foreigner cards. In the case of China, this means making it appear that the "century of humiliation" (the 19th) and World War II were only yesterday. Their solution is to whip up popular passions over Taiwan, and at the same time whip up anti-Japanese and anti-American sentiment.

Chinese Threat Update

A recent BBC story headlines "Military Balance Goes Against Taiwan"

In its annual report to the US Congress in July last year, the Pentagon said China had 450 short-range ballistic missiles - considerably more than was previously thought - and was expected to deploy 75 additional missiles a year for some years to come.

All of them are based in the Nanjing military region opposite Taiwan.

These missiles are mostly equiped with conventional warheads. What China will do is use them in conjunction with an attempted naval blockade of the island. The Chinese know that their chances against the US Navy are dicey. However, they can rain missiles on Taiwan with relative impunity. Their hope is that they can force Taiwan into making favorable concessions that would lead to de facto reunification.

Chinese shipyards have been busy turning out ships, both civilian and military. In the past 10 years they have gone from being a minor player to the third-largest builder of ships in the world. Take a look at this chart of Chinese warships and it becomes apparent that China is busy replacing older ships and submarines with new models at a rapid pace.

China is not only on a building spree, they have been purchasing advanced Russian submarines at an alarming pace. Last year they purchased 8 Russian Kilo class diesel-electric subs, the best the Russians have to offer. No one should dismiss these simply because they are not nuclear powered. Since the Chinese are only going to send them to the waters around Taiwan, they do not need the range that nuclear power offers. Diesel-electic subs are very quiet when running on batteries, and in a few instances have been able to get within torpedo range of US carriers.

However, despite their growing numbers and new technologies, Chinese ability to use these new naval weapons effectively is open to serious question. They are currenly able to only keep a tiny fraction of them at sea at any one time. While they can "surge" during a crisis, it would appear that they do not have much confidence in their abilities as of yet.

The US has engaged Japan as an ally against China, something China has noted with growing alarm. In response, the Chinese have played the World War II card, as noted above, trying to whip up anti-Japanese sentiment at home, and playing to historical fears regionally in an attempt to scare off the Japanese. So far it has not worked.

The Japanese have the world's second largest defense budget, something that is not widely known, and put most of that money into their navy and air force, the two branches that would be the most useful in a war over Taiwan.

In an October 2005 interview in the Taipei Times, retired Japanese Rear Admiral Sumihiko Kawamura said that he does not yet see the PLAN as being a threat yet to the US or Japan. Commented Admiral Kawamura

Regarding PLAN's ability to project power, its range only extends to the waters around Taiwan. PLAN's submarines have a very limited ability to prevent the US and Japanese navies from projecting their power to the waters around Taiwan.

As for its ability to control sea lanes, it would be impossible for PLAN to control the waters between China and Taiwan if it faced a US and Japanese joint naval force. In contrast, within the so-called first island chain [islands including the Aleutians, Japan, South Korea, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines and Singapore], PLAN has a very limited capability to deny the US and Japan command of the seas.

So if China invaded Taiwan, PLAN would not be able to sustain logistic support from China because it cannot control the waters between Taiwan and China.

Finally, China also has a limited capability to conduct a blockade of sea lanes.

While certainly true, it may be irrelevant. As noted above, China has been building not only naval forces but medium-range missiles as well. They will use these to bombard Taiwan and demoralize the population into demanding that it's government agree to terms favorable to the mainland Chinese. Even with the most aggressive anti-missile development and deployment, no system that I am aware of will be able to stop but a fraction of these weapons.

Chinese-Russian cooperation has become significant also, with the two countries engaged in sevaral joint military operations. Several times the two militaries have engaged in joint exercises. The issue is not that Russia would help China in a showdown, for they would not. The issue is that, one, China is learning advanced techniques from Russia, two, this provides Russia an opportunity to "show off" the weaponry they hope to sell China, and three a show of ideological unity over issues such as Taiwan and a joint desire to see the US replaced as having dominant influence in that part of the world.

China is also in bed with several African dictators, most notably those who govern Sudan, where they see a reliable supply of oil to feed their growing economy. China has several thousand troops in Sudan to guard the oil terminals, which is rare for a country that has traditionally not sent soldiers far from home. Zimbabwe is another country that has received much Chinese attention. Both the Sudan and Zimbabwe are among the most repressive regimes on the Aftican continent.

Let's not forget about the Internet, or "cyberwarfare", as it is sometimes called. Although these things are difficult to prove, there is much evidence that China is behind a series of attacks on US military computers. The biggest and most organized hacking was the 2003 "Titan Rain" incident

This was a massive and well organized attack on American military networks. The people carrying out the attack really knew what they were doing, and thousands of military and industrial documents were sent back to China. The attackers were not able to cover their trail completely, and some of the attackers were traced back to a Chinese government facility in southern China.

In 2005 they attacked the British parliament network, although the report cited above indicates that the "defense won the round". The US and British governments have stepped up security in the wake of these incidents. All of this, however, is just a test run for what will be all-out cyberwarfare if things get hot around Taiwan.

The US Response

GlobalSecurity provides a link to the US Pacific Fleet here. The Pacific Fleet consists of the 3rd Fleet and the 7th Fleet. The 3rd Fleet covers the eastern and northern Pacific, while the 7th is responsible for the western Pacific and Indian oceans.

The 7th Fleet consists of the following Battle Groups;
# Kitty Hawk Battle Group
# Nimitz Battle Group
# Vinson Battle Group
# Lincoln Battle Group
# Stennis Battle Group
# Reagan Strike Group

Each Battle Group consists of one aircraft carrier, two cruisers, two or three destroyers, one or two frigates, two attack submarines, and a supply ship.

In addition, the Pacific Fleet consists of Submarine Group 7 and Submarine Group 9, with a total of 31 attack boats. Attack submarines would, of course, operate on their own when not assigned a carrier. Surface force strike groups may be formed also, but likely would not operate this way in a war over China.

In a move designed to bolster our defenses in the western Pacific,StrategyPage reported recently that over the next 4 years, the US Navy will transfer six Los Angeles Class boats from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This brings the total number of Pacific fleet boats to 31, as opposed to 21 for the Atlantic fleet.

The United States also maintains much air power in the region, most notably on Guam , where we have a variety of aircraft stationed, including B-1bs and B-52s.

The Japanese maintain a fairly powerful navy, and a complete list of their ships can be found on the Global Security website. They lack aircraft carriers, and so their ships would need to be covered by aircraft based out of Japan.


Again, I see no reason to change my view that if China moves against Taiwan, it will be in 2008. I will quote the Naval War College paper cited in a previous post:

China’s military power will peak relative to that of Taiwan and the regional forces of the United States sometime between 2005 and 2008. In this window, improved naval and air capabilities—including ballistic and cruise missiles—will give China its best chance to effect Taiwan’s acquiescence. After 2008, Taiwan’s expected defensive gains and the seemingly exponential military advances of the United States will preclude a successful attack on the island

By "exponential military advances of the United States" the author is referring to US weapons systems like the F-22 fighter and Virginia class submarines.

Chinese military analysists watched US capabilities grow from the 1991 Gulf War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and are alarmed at the increase in US capabilities. Any war over Taiwan will play to US strengths, unlike a situation like the insurgency in Iraq, which arguably does not. The US is at it's best in a tradional shoot-out, and the Chinese know full well that we spent over forty years studying how to fight the Soviet Navy

The reason I believe that China will wait until 2008 is that the Olynmpics will be held in Bejing that same year. They will not risk a boycott by attacking sooner.

In summary, there is a very real threat from China over Taiwan. We will come to the island's defense if it comes to war, and we have the military power to stop a Chinese attack or attempted blockade. A missile barrage aimed at destroying the morale of the Taiwanese people introduces an asymettrical concept whose results are problematical.

However, we should caution ourselves against "mirror image" thinking. Just becase our studies show that we can blunt a Chinese advance does not mean that they share our assumptions. By our way of thinking, the Chinese would not possibly want to risk the immense damage to their economy that would result from even a successful war. But as some of the evidence above indicates, ideology may be stronger than reason, and so we must be prepared for the worst.

Posted by Tom at March 8, 2006 9:30 PM

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Getting back Tibet and Hong Kong were relatively easy, there was no one to oppose the former, and the British lease was up on the latter anyway. Taiwan poses a challenge. The United States has always said that it will oppose reunification by force, and indeed in 1979 Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, making this policy legally binding on the president.

Actually the lease was not up on all of Hong Kong, and the Taiwan Relations Act most certainly does not legally bind the President to defend Taiwan. That is a common misconception. If you read it carefully, you'll soon find that all it binds the US to do is have a conference between the Pres and Congress, and the Pres has to certify that Taiwan can defend itself. No mechanism brings Taiwan into the equation, and there is no trigger or definition of what constitutes a Chinese attack. It's pure facade.

You have also left out the extremely salient point that the officer class in Taiwan is composed of mainlanders who are largely pro-China. I expect that sections of the military will go over to the Chinese if they can get troops on Taiwan.

I have also concluded that 2008 will be the key year. I wrote a semi-fantasy about China taking Taiwan on my Taiwan blog last year. Enjoy!


Posted by: Michael Turton at March 9, 2006 9:55 AM

I was at a Hong Kong museum a few years back, and I think what Micheal said about Hong Kong is true. "Hong Kong" consists of islands as well as a fair bit of territory on a peninsula on the mainland. The lease was up on the latter, but not on the former. By the 1980s though, the whole ball of wax was economically integrated, and splitting it would have created severe dislocations. The Brits relinquished control over the islands because they claimed that keeping them was economically unviable without the mainland chunk of land.

There were other considerations too - the desire to shake off the vestiges of colonialism as well as wariness regarding Britain's ability to commit itself to the defense of such a small piece of land so far from her shores.

But you're right that it was easy for China to retake Hong Kong. Indeed, the idea for the handover was in fact first proposed by Britain.

Posted by: The Foreigner at March 10, 2006 11:41 PM

In any conflict with China we would destroy them.

Also, if China attacked Taiwan then they would no doubt destroy their own economy beyond repair because we are their largest investor/customer.

The war would clearly go in our favor, and China will become the next Japan. Defeated, humiliated, and not allowed to have a military.

Posted by: Stephen at July 25, 2007 2:30 PM

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