BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long desired to reacquire the semi-independent state of Taiwan. For the Chinese, this island (historically known as Formosa) is little more than a breakaway province in need of punishment. Indeed, it was the site that the vanquished Chiang Kai-Shek and his fellow Chinese Nationalists fled to after having lost their civil war with Mao Tse-tung’s Communist Party in 1949. It has been a continual sore spot for the Chinese and a source of conflict. For its part, the United States, a long-time ally of Chiang Kai-Shek, going back to the Second World War, nominally supported the Chinese Nationalists who settled on Taiwan. In American General Douglas MacArthur’s words: Taiwan became America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” off the coast of China. Thus, the hope of resolving the situation was impossible–particularly in the context of the Cold War, in which Mao’s China was an integral part of the global Communist alliance until the 1970s.
Recently, Bill Gertz of the The Washington Free Beacon reported on Project 2049‘s newest book on Chinese military intentions toward Taiwan. Naturally, the Chinese have long believed that the continued American support for Taiwan is a strategic liability that risks preventing China’s rise. The Chinese seek to remedy that. For several years, the Chinese under President Hu Jintao attempted to win the Taiwanese over, by linking the island and the mainland together through trade and rehabilitating the old cultural links. The Chinese also intervened in the internal politics of the democratic Taiwan, by supporting Chiang Kai-Shek’s old Guomindang Party (GMD), which had become increasingly pro-China in the post-Cold War period.
Yet, this plan–part of the larger “Peaceful Rise” strategy concocted by Chinese leaders during the early 2000s–did not dissuade Taiwan from continuing to both act as an independent state whilst accepting weapons and tacit support from the United States. When Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012, there was a sea change in the way that China comported itself diplomatically. Virtually overnight, China sought to assert itself in territorial disputes with its neighbors; it began openly using trade warfare as a means of getting what it wants (as it attempted to do against Japan with the Rare Earth Mineral market monopoly that China enjoyed). Meanwhile, China has methodically invested and expanded its military capabilities to meet the standard requirements for a modern military force.
In fact, the Chinese military has specifically focused on beefing up its naval capabilities–particularly its amphibious landing capabilities. According to the Gertz article:
“The war plan calls for rapidly capturing the capital Taipei and destroying the government; seizing other major cities and clearing out surviving defenders; and occupying the entire country.
Military operations will emphasize speed and surprise to overwhelm coastal defenses and create so much destruction in the early phase that Taiwan would surrender before the U.S. military can deploy forces to the area.”
Gertz also notes:
“The step-by-step invasion process will involve three phases: blockade and bombing, amphibious landing, and combat operations on the island.”
This is in keeping with China’s overarching “Hundred-Year Marathon,” which calls for systematically undermining the West (specifically, the United States) in all measures short of war in order to overwhelm and destroy the West without ever firing a shot. The process has been likened to the Chinese strategy game of “Go” (which is the Chinese equivalent of Chess), where the object of the game is to completely encircle your enemy, thereby nullifying their ability to resist your will. For China, this is the completion of a process of rehabilitating Chinese national pride after a “century of humiliation” at the hands of Western imperial powers (they include the United States in that view as well). China has soaked up as many resources and capabilities from their trade with the West, which I have often felt was more like a sustained raid on the economic might of the United States and West. Then, the Chinese pivoted and began using the new economic might to shore up their turgid political system and to build up their war machine.
For several years, U.S. intelligence assessments on Chinese maritime capabilities specifically listed China’s expansion of their submarine threat as a direct threat to American naval ships operating in the South and East China Seas. The Chinese utilize old diesel-powered submarines (with very advanced engines provided by duplicitous European companies) that run at “ultra-quiet” speeds, meaning that most warships cannot detect their presence until the Chinese submarine is directly on the American warships. Ergo, the Chinese have a very good chance of firing a torpedo at the U.S. ships and scoring a direct hit, before the Americans (or our allies) had any idea the Chinese were there.
This is best illustrated in a 2006 incident, in which a Chinese diesel-powered submarine nestled in beside the American aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, and surfaced right beside them. It was a wake-up call, but there is only so much that can be done to counteract such quiet submarines. Now, obviously, farther out into the open sea, the American Navy has unquestioned dominance. However, closer to land–say, in the Taiwan Strait–this is where things become doubly complicated for American warships operating in defense of the island. Fact is, the United States Navy is overstretched; its systems are far too complicated and therefore expensive to mass produce and replace; and the capabilities of our Navy are increasingly being called into question–especially by the Chinese.
As for the Chinese grand strategy: I agree with China scholar, Michael Pillsbury’s assertion that there has been a general Chinese consensus among their upper echelon of leaders–going back to Mao–that they were engaged in 100-year struggle to topple the West and reassert the traditional Chinese hegemony. This explains why President Xi Jinping, the most militaristic leader since Mao (and the most consequential since Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor who got China to embrace capitalism), routinely refers to 2049 as the year that the ominous-sounding “China Dream” will be realized. If one were crafting a probable timeline, from 1949 until 2049, one would see how methodical the Chinese have been in enacting this displacement strategy.
Right now, America’s economy has been laid low and the fundamentals of the economy, while moderately strong (compared to the last eight years), are tenuous at best. The system is being overloaded with debt and loose monetary policy. American workers have been decimated by decades of unremitting Chinese economic warfare, short-sighted globalization (and greedy off-shoring by American companies), as well as displacement created by the influx of low-skilled/low-wage workers. Optimistic growth projections for America’s economy are at three percent (that’s if a tax cut is enacted before the year’s end, which is increasingly unlikely). Currently, American GDP growth is at 2.6 percent. That’s better than the previous eight years, but not by much–particularly when one compares that to China’s “poor” growth records (compared to their historic highs) of about 6.9 percent.
At least for the next decade, Chinese growth will continue to outpace America’s and their military will be the primary beneficiary of this growth. In other words, the most aggressive Chinese foreign policy fantasies will start becoming realities the wealthier and stronger China becomes. Now, the very interesting thing about what’s going on is that long-term trends in Chinese demographics and political instability just might end up working against the Chinese. But, for now, these trends are distant factors.
As the Gertz article indicates, the Chinese believe that war over Taiwan is inevitable and that they are reaching the pinnacle of their military power. Further, the Chinese are under the impression that America is inexorable decline, just as Russia is. Thus, the Chinese disbelieve in the credibility of the American deterrent in the Asia-Pacific and will continue their self-aggrandizement until the United States is forced to check those aggressions with force–something that will be costly and devastating for the entire world.
As for the book by Ian Watson, a Chinese Affairs analyst at Project 2049, it concludes with the rather baseless assumption that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would “almost certainly fail.” Let us hope that such confidence is warranted. Given how poorly the United States has fared these last 17 years in foreign policy (and the fact that the United States has, since the Carter Administration, thrown Taiwan under the proverbial bus)–to say nothing of the fact that the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act only requires the United States to give weapons to Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion of the island–I’d not put much stock in American security guarantees. At least the Chinese no longer do. For them, it’s do-or-die time. They want to have their territorial integrity locked up by the start of the next decade.
Lastly, regarding the inevitably Chinese defeat on Taiwan: don’t be so sure about this assumption. The Chinese have spent the last 60 years planning and preparing for an inevitable invasion of Taiwan, which is more than I can say for the United States military (which has been preoccupied with the Middle East and Russia in Eastern Europe). It’s also more than I can say for the Taiwanese military which, while well-armed, suffers with endemic–almost comical–levels of corruption and unpreparedness. When it comes to the inevitability of Chinese defeat over Taiwan, please read Tonio Andrade’s “The Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory Over the West.”
Without describing the entire book, I’ll simply say this: the Dutch East India Company held the island of Formosa (present-day Taiwan). They believed in their superiority, thanks to their technological and perceived cultural advantages over the Chinese, who were being torn apart by a terrifying civil war at the time (it was during the time of the Manchus). Yet, without warning, the Dutch colony on Formosa was attacked by the Chinese rebel leader, Koxinga, and his fleet of warships. They overwhelmed the Dutch defenses of the island and the superior Dutch military forces performed terribly: the squadron of warships that defended the island were dispersed, with the flagship being destroyed by poor seamanship (quite similar to the kind of poor seamanship that befell the U.S.S. John McCain recently).
Meanwhile, the two Dutch forts on the island were separated, thanks in large part to poor decision making by the military leadership on the island. Then, the Dutch Governor Coyet was forced to surrender the island to Koxinga after a prolonged siege. All of this could have been avoided, of course, since the Dutch Governor Coyet had been warning his superiors in Holland of an impending Chinese invasion of the island (which they disbelieved, due to a lack of Chinese capabilities and purported will) for more than a year. Every request for additional reinforcements as a show of force meant to deter Koxinga and his angry horde of piratical rebels was denied by the skeptical Dutch leadership.
Face it: this is a very likely scenario the Taiwanese (and the United States by extension) are staring down today. The United States needs to start concentrating the bulk of its efforts not on Russia, which is a has-been power, but on countering China’s rise. We also need to reassess our defense commitments, prioritize military modernization and procurement reform at the Pentagon to lower costs for systems (by being more judicious in what we allocate funds to develop and build). Also, the United States needs to goose its economy, because nothing strengthens American military and diplomatic power like a growing and healthy GDP.
Otherwise, in a few short years, the United States might wake up to a surprise attack more devastating than Pearl Harbor over Taiwan–and the United States just might lose such an engagement. Whoever wins, the resulting conflict would be costly and devastating on an order not experienced since the Second World War.