To better understand the Taiwan issue between China, Taiwan, Japan and the United States, it is helpful to understand the military capabilities of the principal players. A critical component of this analysis is the naval one. There are growing questions and conflicting information about China's ability to launch a successful attack against Taiwan. China's goal would be keeping the United States at bay long enough to overwhelm Taiwan's defenses and take control of the island.
Strategic Importance of Taiwan to China
There are strategic reasons that directly affect China's regional security and economic interests in controlling Taiwan. Former Taiwan National Security Council Member Antonio Chiang, in a Taipei Times editorial, explains:
"China has a formidable land-based military force, but in order to become a regional superpower, it must also possess sea power. As China becomes more dependent on oil imports, naval strength is required to maintain its energy and maritime security. But China's navy cannot move beyond the boundaries of the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea, and is locked in by a chain of islands which keeps it from exerting influence in the Pacific. Therefore, control over Taiwan is of strategic military importance to China, in its goal of projecting power in the region.
If Beijing does gain control over Taiwan, its submarines will be given a berth in Ilan County in Eastern Taiwan, making the Taiwan Strait domestic Chinese waters and instantly making it a dominant Pacific nation, placing the South China Sea within range of China's military."
Beyond nationalistic reasons, China has a significant interest in projecting its growing power farther into the Pacific. As the Japanese felt threatened prior to World War II by the United States Navy's ability to restrict its oil, China too has very real concerns.
Building a Blue Water Navy
China, in recent years, has done a great deal to increase its naval power. This has manifested itself in several blue-water exercises demonstrating the growing power of her navy, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). According to a Chinese source in 2002:
"Other PLA naval vessels have, during their 15 goodwill voyages overseas in recent years, called at more than 30 ports in over 20 countries, including the United States, Russia, Canada and Australia. They reached the continent of Africa in 2000 and Europe in 2001."
China spends roughly $60 billion a year on defense, well above Taiwan's $8 billion, yet a far second to the United States' $466 (see DEL here). However, China has only one primary strategic objective, the reunification, "by non peaceful means", of Taiwan with the mainland (see DEL here), compared to the United States' global military position.
The Balance of Power in the Strait of Taiwan
Dr. Bernard D. Cole, who spent 30 years in the US Navy and teaches at the National War College in Washington, DC, has an excellent analysis of the balance of forces between China and Taiwan. His paper "Shifting Balance of Power in the Taiwan Strait" describes an increasingly difficult position for Taiwan:
"The PLAN during the past decade has added two Luhu-class and one Luhai-class DDG, four Jiangwei-class guided-missile frigates (FFG), and purchased two Sovremenny-class DDGs from Russia. Another four Sovremennys are on order and three to four Luhai follow-on DDGs are under construction in Chinese shipyards. These ships are equipped with combat direction centers, integrated sensor and weapons systems, and very capable surface-to-surface (SSM) cruise missiles. Especially potent are the Sovremenny's SS-N-22 SSMs, against which Taiwan has no reliably effective defense."
Taiwan's strategic position grows increasingly precarious as it falls behind an economically expanding China that continues double-digit defense increases annually for the past decade. Dr. Cole continues his comparison:
"Taiwan's submarine force is particularly weak, with only four boats, two of which date from World War II and are good for little but shallow water training exercises. The United States agreed to sell eight conventionally powered submarines to Taiwan as part of the path-breaking 2001 arms agreement, but neither Taipei nor Washington has been able to identify a source for these boats.
The PLAN, on the other hand, deploys at least thirty modern conventionally powered submarines and five unreliable nuclear powered attack boats as well as one ballistic missile-launching submarine. The most significant ships in China's undersea fleet, the indigenously produced Song-class and the Kilos being purchased from Russia, may be capable of launching anti-ship cruise missiles while submerged, a very dangerous threat. [DEL Note: For an in-depth report on China's submarine fleet, see "Undersea Warfare", Winter 2004]
The PLAN, as noted above, has been the recipient of a slow but steady stream of improved surface ships and submarines. China is both building combatants in its own modernized shipyards and buying warships from Russia. These ships do suffer from a common weakness, however: They lack long-range, area-capable air defense systems. This leads to another area in which the mainland appears to be outstripping Taiwan in modernizing capability--maritime air power. To a great extent, in the twenty-first century "sea power" is really "air power." That is, he who commands the air commands the sea under it. "
Taiwan's air defense is in two parts, the first being fighter aircraft and the second being anti-submarine air power. Without dominating the skies against the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), Taiwan's ability to attack PLAN submarines is extremely weakened.
"Apart from a very capable force of ship-borne and shore-based helicopters, Taiwan's naval air power is limited to twenty-one anti-submarine warfare (ASW) S2F aircraft, eleven of which are considered to be operational. Even these aircraft suffer from old age and maintenance problems. These aircraft rarely operate because they are very old and poorly maintained."
"Over the past decade, Taiwan has completed fielding its 'new' air force, composed of 160 U.S.-designed F-16 fighters, sixty French-designed Mirage 2000 fighter-bombers, and approximately 250 indigenously designed fighters (IDFs) that are a much-improved version of the old U.S.-designed F-5 aircraft. There currently are no active aircraft acquisition programs for the Taiwan military, unless Taipei finally agrees to purchase the P-3C aircraft offered by Washington three years ago.
However, China has significantly closed the gap in aircraft with the Taiwanese.
Across the strait, the People's Liberation Army-Air Force (PLAAF) is in the midst of an extensive, ongoing modernization program. The purchase of Su-27 fighters from Russia has progressed to the point where China is assembling kits of these very capable aircraft, which now number approximately 200 in the PLAAF. The Su-30 fighter/attack aircraft [see DEL COPE India article on SU-30 vs. F-15s here] is also rapidly being acquired by China, and more than seventy-five are currently in its air force. Some of these aircraft are assigned to the navy, and the PLAAF in general in recent years has increased its training in maritime attack missions.
With these aircraft, China is acquiring long range, "fire and forget" air-to-air missiles to match the U.S.-produced AMRAAMs sold to Taiwan. The current balance of power in the air over the Strait is probably about even, but the superiority claimed by Taiwan's senior air force commanders in 2000 is fading. Indeed, the balance may well shift to the mainland by the end of 2005, as the PLAAF continues to acquire modern tactical aircraft while Taiwan's air force stands pat."
Dr. Cole lists 4 "Balance of Power" factors that favor the Chinese over Taiwan.
- "The PLAN is able to operate from numerous bases on the Chinese coast and islands; the Taiwan navy is extremely limited in this respect, with its primary base at Tsoying, located on the island's southwestern coast directly across from the mainland. In the event of war, the first task of the Taiwanese navy is likely to be to abandon its primary support base, hardly a harbinger of success."
- Initiative will be with the PLAN and PLAAF. Surprise is on the Chinese side.
- The Taiwan navy must plan to defend on multiple avenues of attack in a defensive mode.
- Geography favors China over Taiwan
His prescription for Taiwan is to acquire weapons that have been approved for sale by the US over three years ago but have not been acted upon by the Taiwanese government.
"What can Taiwan do to at least maintain a naval balance in this theater, if not to reestablish Taiwanese superiority? First, of course, the intervention of the U.S. military would quickly overwhelm the PLAN (and PLAAF). Second and more important is for Taipei to begin taking advantage of the weapons made available for sale by President Bush in the spring of 2001. The almost complete inaction of the past three years has not been fatal to Taiwan's naval strength, but every passing month during which the government fails to allocate the financial resources and adopt necessary personnel and other support measures puts the navy deeper into a position of inferiority."
However, a crisis flaring up in the Middle East or over North Korea for the Americans would create a situation of further spreading thin the United States. This is all the more reason why the renegotiation of the US-Japanese Alliance was so vital for the defense of Taiwan and to restrain China (see DEL here).
Defending Taiwan - A Prescription for Taiwan's Allies
Taiwan needs to demonstrate an increased commitment to their own defense. Protest marches, while inspiring, do not constitute a solid defense. Deterrence of China will happen from a Taiwanese populous dedicated in word and finance to their own defense.
The European Union needs to keep the arms embargo in place against China as the Bush Administration hopes. Since the EU will likely make lofty platitudes and send no military forces for the defense of Taiwan, it should keep its weapons far away from China. China's belligerent tone and growing hostility to Japan and the US should not be rewarded with French, German and British arms. Defending against wholesale technology transfers from Russia is concerning enough.
Australia has a role to play and hopefully it will be as supportive as the Japanese. In this American Enterprise Institute (AEI) publication on the "anti-succession bill", Australia's defense commitment to American interests is addressed:
"If the Australians are not yet quite as forward-leaning as the Japanese on Taiwan, they are equally devoted to their alliance with the United States and to an ambitious defense agenda. Indeed, under the leadership of Prime Minister John Howard, Canberra’s security strategy has shifted since the September 11 attacks away from continental defense toward power projection in partnership with Washington. And in February 2004, Prime Minister Howard’s government literally doubled its defense budget for the next decade -- powerful proof of how serious Australia is about matching its military means to its strategic ends."
It would be helpful if the Australians would put forward more diplomatic pressure on China concerning Taiwan.
The United States should be wary of overarching commitments that will tax the US Navy or decrease its carrier fleet from 12 active aircraft carriers. A recent proposal would retire the USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67), and the decision to not proceed with its planned overhaul adds to this likelihood. Keeping 12 aircraft carriers is important as this excellent study from Rand points out:
"Why a 12-ship fleet? Currently, carrier force structure is based primarily on support of the commanders in chief of U.S. forces in the Western Pacific Ocean, Europe/Mediterranean Sea, and Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf. Maintaining a continuous carrier presence in each of these three areas would require approximately 15 ships—the rationale for the Cold War policy. This 5-to-1 ratio allows for maintenance, training and predeployment exercises, and personnel time in home port, and it accounts for transit time to operational areas from the West Coast of the United States. In the post–Cold War era, limited gaps in carrier presence are deemed acceptable, so current national security objectives are regarded as satisfied with 12 aircraft carriers."
Fifteen aircraft carriers would be a better fit for US global objectives, but at $5 billion apiece for the current Nimitz class and untold billions for the next generation CVX carriers, this is extremely unlikely.
The US Air Force will be called upon as well for the defense of Taiwan, from bases in Japan and Guam. Having adequate forces to counter the Chinese Su-30MK is important. The F-22 could play an important role in continuing US air superiority.
It is DEL's hope that China will become a democracy and the potential for war will be completely avoided. However, in the interim, it is best to lead and deter by having military strength and a developed foreign policy that will proactively avert a military crisis in the Taiwan Strait. The failure to provide a peaceful solution to a building crisis will be devastating in terms of human life, economic development and national pride.