A question of strategy
By Stanley Chan

The latest Pentagon report on China's military buildup has, as in previous years, generated heated debates on the validity of the US military's assessment, and the unspoken motivations of the US defense and foreign-policy community. Critics have dismissed these assessments as alarmist, as reflecting the paranoia of US hawks overly fixated on the obsessions of their counterparts in Beijing.

But if China possesses a "hollow military", and the combined military strength of Taiwan and the United States can stop China from conquering Taiwan, why not just let Taiwan declare independence? After all, if China can't conquer Taiwan, why deny 23 million Taiwanese their right of self-determination?

Many critics of the Pentagon's assessments (as well as many who concur with the report's findings) would reply with an emphatic "No" to such a suggestion. A variety of reasons would be given, among them "it would lead to bloody and brutal war", "it would destabilize the Asia-Pacific", "it would poison US-China relations for generations", etc.

It would seem that China's military is not quite so hollow after all.

The above question, and the likely replies to the question, touch upon elements missing in many criticisms of the Pentagon's report, and which the report itself only touches on indirectly. Missing from these debates is any detailed discussion of Chinese strategic thinking. There is an assumption that Chinese leaders would not dare to use force while the military balance is against them. This is a flawed and dangerous assumption.

Furthermore, these debates do not include any analysis of the broader political context, specifically of political will on the part of either China, Taiwan, or the United States. A discussion of political will is essential for putting the military balance in context.

Why counting beans is not enough
When examining strategic writings by Mao Zedong, which are still influential within the Chinese strategic community, one discerns several important themes. They are:
  • Political motivation is more important than technology and material factors in determining who ultimately wins the war.
  • The enemy's camp is often not monolithic. Individuals and groups within the enemy camp are often poorly motivated, and can be weaned away.
  • Given patience and time, an adversary with an advantage in numbers and material resources can eventually be defeated.

    These themes have been reflected in Beijing's strategies since 1949. For example, despite an overwhelming material disadvantage vis-à-vis the United States, Beijing intervened in the Korean War to defend what it believed to be a core national-security interest. They are also reflected in Beijing's nuclear strategy. Beijing has never sought to match either the Soviet or the US nuclear stockpile, settling on a relatively small stockpile on the assumption that the threat to destroy a handful of cities in either the United States or the former Soviet Union would provide effective deterrence.

    How does all this relate to the cross-Strait military balance?

    While various Chinese analysts acknowledge some of the material advantages held by the United States, they also cite the fact that the Taiwan issue is not a core security interest for the US, and that the US is casualty-averse. The US would never, they therefore conclude, risk thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of casualties to defend a country that most Americans cannot point to on a map. When they view the Taiwanese military, Chinese analysts are dismissive of both its motivation and its competence, seeing it as no more capable than the Nationalist Chinese armies they defeated more than 50 years ago. Moreover, the island's political and economic elite is seen as vulnerable to seduction by the growing economic ties across the Taiwan Strait. In the end, it is determined, Taiwan's elites would never sacrifice their lives to defend an island they never really considered home.

    An imbalance of political will
    For Chinese strategists, whatever material advantages Washington and Taipei might have do not compensate for the lack of political will. The leadership within both Taipei and Washington can be co-opted and/or deterred.

    Their arguments are not without merit. Critics in Washington, and elsewhere, who pooh-pooh Chinese military capabilities, and who complain that the above views probably only represent a small faction of China's military leadership, often are the embodiment of the dismissive analyses by Chinese strategic analysts. Whenever a high-profile report on the "China threat" is produced, the critics are dismissive. But when forced by events, such as US President George W Bush saying in front of national TV that he would "do whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan, the critics start screaming "back off, we are getting in over our heads". In the end, those who scream the loudest about China not being a threat in reality are often quite fearful of China - but don't want to admit it.

    This contradictory position can be explained by:
  • An ideological hostility toward the Pentagon, the Republican Party, and various elements of the "military industrial complex".
  • A desire to avoid contentious issues within the bilateral US-China relationship.
  • A general, and in some cases willful, ignorance of Taiwan's modern history, and its unusual external and internal political conditions.

    The result of all this is an unspoken lack of political will among many US-based defense and foreign-policy analysts to defend Taiwan. This lack of will at times leads them to dismiss Chinese military capabilities in order to avoid a confrontation over an issue they are at most indifferent to.

    In this environment, strong political will on China's part, combined with a lot of patience, makes up for its limited military capabilities. China need not match US or Taiwanese capabilities. Beijing merely needs to create enough tension and fear among elements of the US foreign-policy elite to get them to argue against supporting Taiwan in any potential cross-Strait crisis.

    In the end, the various analyses of the cross-Strait military balance say less about the military balance and more about how individual critics view US-China relations, and right-of-center groups within the US political establishment.

    (©2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
    Jul 24, 2002

    Security report: Caution or confusion?  (Jul 23, '02)

    Taiwan: Armed to the teeth (Jul 19, '02)

    The PLA, the Pentagon, and politics  (Jul 18, '02)

    China and the US: Parry and thrust  (Jul 18, '02)

    Beijing flexes missile muscles  (Jul 9, '02)

    Russia joins the China game  (Jul 2, '02)

    All eyes on Sino-Russian sub deal  (Jul 1, '02


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