Search Asia Times

Advanced Search


US: China 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 contingencies.

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 US-China ties.

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 Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Mar 2, 2004

Taiwan poll should ask about US defense protection 
(Feb 27 '04)

China-Taiwan arms race quickens

(Feb 24, '04)

China warns Taiwan with military exercises
(Feb 21, '04)

Ignore the rhetoric, China won't attack Taiwan
(Feb 11, '04)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong