has credible Taiwan attack options By Stephen Blank
In the recent history of Sino-Taiwanese relations, China's military exercises
in the Taiwan Strait have played a prominent role. The current phase of
relations dates from China's exercises in 1996 when it fired missiles around
and over Taiwan in an effort to intimidate the island. That exercise proved
futile and triggered a show of United States military might that Beijing had
not expected - Washington sent a carrier battle group into the area.
Since then, while Chinese rhetoric and pressure on Taiwan have continued,
Beijing's annual military exercises have been far less provocative. The same
was true for the latest annual exercises last month.
Nevertheless, China's accumulated capacity to devastate Taiwan and the steady
improvement in its military forces imparts a growing unease to the atmosphere
of these annual exercises. Certainly the amphibious and aerial exercises that
have just taken place show an improved capacity for undertaking amphibious
operations, such as landings on Taiwan's coastline. When taken in tandem with
the annual increase of approximately 75 short-range missiles that are deployed
against Taiwan, it becomes clear that the Chinese military is attempting to
diversify its options and that these exercises are broadcasting this
diversification to interested parties, particularly Taipei and Washington.
The Pentagon's most recent report last year on Chinese military developments
also observed that the sustained increases in Chinese defense spending, reforms
within the Chinese military, and the acquisition of new high-tech weapons now
give China's leadership "an increasing number of credible options to intimidate
or actually attack Taiwan". And it is known that this expansion of China's
military options is intended to deter a US force going to Taiwan's aid against
China in case of an attack. China repeatedly affirms that it will never
renounce the use of force to reunify Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway
province, with the mainland.
Further, China is not resting on its military laurels. Its recent amphibious
and aerial exercises in the vicinity of Taiwan once again reinforced its annual
efforts to intimidate Taiwan, particularly in the run-up to the presidential
elections and scheduled referendum on Chinese missiles on March 20. Under the
referendum, voters will be asked whether China should be requested to redirect
the 496 missiles currently pointed at Taiwan and whether the island should seek
to strengthen its military defenses if China refuses to do so.
China wants long-range, high-tech warfare
But beyond those exercises, China has announced training goals for 2004 that
mandate the entire Chinese military to study and train under conditions of
"operations and training reform under informatized conditions". The Chinese
military will duly focus on combined operations, non-contact (long-range
strike) operations, theories of non-linear operations, and theories of what
China calls informatized, people-based warfare, the informatized referring to
developing an informational capacity to the weapons, making them "smarter", or
the ability to wage information warfare. In other words, China aims to be able
to operate on a technological and operational level sufficient to deter any
other force, including the US, from operating in its "sphere of influence".
Not surprising, Taiwan plans to increase the number of its planned military
exercises and diversify or broaden its options as well. The expected 42
exercises in 2004 will include an unusually high number of maneuvers aimed at
integrating command, control, communication, computers, intelligence,
surveillance, and reform (C4ISR) - ie, high-tech warfare - against projected
Chinese threats of long-range strikes or of amphibious invasion, if not both
In other words, the scale and scope of these exercises on both sides, as well
as their qualitative level, is increasing. Even if China remains confident that
through intimidation alone, coupled with economic and political incentives and
suasion, it can integrate Taiwan with the mainland, the trends are very
negative and ominous. The picture is a disturbing one because of rising and
increasingly internationalized capabilities - due to Taiwan's reliance upon the
US and China's reliance upon its foreign suppliers.
It will be remembered that the genuinely unexpected American response to
China's 1996 missile launch - the carrier battle group - shocked Beijing and
brought home to it the danger that a crisis in Taiwan could represent.
Likewise, the crisis growing out of the emergency landing of a US
EP-3 spy plane in 2001 rekindled fears of how easily the Taiwan issue plus
strained Sino-American relations could bring about an escalatory spiral that
nobody really wanted.
Those dangers still exist and the advent of ever more sophisticated
technologies and release systems could easily make crisis management harder
than ever. In this context the nature and scope of these exercises suggest both
the range of China's increasing military capability and ambitions, and Taiwan's
constant need - but restricted ability - to help itself.
China-Taiwan military imbalance portends trouble
Even if political and economic persuasion were to continue in a non-threatening
way, this military imbalance and Beijing's signs of recklessness would make for
an increasingly difficult situation. But as the imbalance between Taipei and
Beijing grows, Washington will have to be urged ever more persuasively by
Beijing to remain aloof and by Taipei not to sacrifice the island to what it
considers ephemeral and unjustified economic or political gains in improving
The strategic and economic relationship between China and Taiwan are also
dynamic and in a high state of flux, hence, they will not easily be confined by
the status quo. And what war might bring is suggested by these recent limited
Chinese exercises. In a case of war, however, Chinese commanders will be urged
to exercise all their options against the enemy, and there is no doubt that it
will not be a limited conflict.
In the event of a war, Taiwan's very survival will be at stake, and China's
ability, and the right of the government and communist party to remain in power
will be brought to the fore and take priority above all other considerations.
Since there are few, if any, rules to govern the Chinese military exercise,
they can conceal as much as they reveal, and thus they cannot be accepted as
completely transparent indicators of future strategy. But they do open a window
on both the strategies and capabilities for both sides. Notwithstanding the
relative restraint of Beijing's exercises and the general calm, the prospects
revealed by these exercises is not necessarily benign.
Stephen Blank is an analyst of international security affairs residing in
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