Friday, July 15, 2005

A while back, Nadezhda of Chez Nadezhda and LAT asked me an excellent question regarding China and Taiwan that I have procrastinated on answering. Partly to give the matter some thought and partly because real-world obligations were pressing as they always do. Nadezhda's question in response to an earlier post of mine was as follows:

"I'd be interested in your thoughts on where you see Taiwan's spending should be boosted, and what implications that would have for US strategy and crisis management."

Unfortunately, this issue was pressed to the fore in grim fashion the other day by General Zhu Chenghu, a politically connected strategist and fast-rising star in the People's Liberation Army best known for his previous threat in 1996, uttered as a mere Colonel, to nuke Los Angeles. General Zhu was utilized by the senior Chinese leadership to enact a Khrushchev -like performance of rattling nuclear sabers at the United States over its support for Taiwan:

“If the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China's territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons...If the Americans are determined to interfere [then] we will be determined to respond...We . . . will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian. Of course the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds . . . of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese "

Dave at The Glittering Eye offered an important observation on the article in FT.com:

"The original Financial Times article is here and includes this:

'Gen Zhu was speaking at a function for foreign journalists organised, in part, by the Chinese government. He added that China's definition of its territory included warships and aircraft.'

Or, in other words, he's warning of a nuclear first-strike by China for targeting Chinese military assets wherever they are and whatever they're engaged in. Not for striking. And not as a response to a use of nuclear weaponry by the United States.

This is extremely troubling on a number of grounds. This threshold is extremely low. Targeting goes on all the time. Do you remember the U. S. plane forced down by the Chinese in 2001? If the United States followed the rubric being suggested by General Zhu, we would already have completely destroyed China with nuclear weapons (and, yes, that is within our capabilities)."

Do we have a Chinese Curtis LeMay on our hands or is China attempting say something else ?

We have a triangular relationship going on here that is potentially dangerous because each party has incompatible strategic objectives expressed in maximalist and minimalist possibilities.

CHINA: Has the maximalist objective of eventually coercing Taiwan into reunification with the Mainland on Beijing's terms. There is flexibility in the timetable and even on the terms but this outcome is considered absolutely non-negotiable by Beijing.

China's minimalist objective, also non-negotiable, is that Taiwan must refrain from formally declaring independence.

TAIWAN: Has the maximalist objective of forcing China to accept Taiwan as an independent, equal, sovereign, state. Again, no hard and fast timetable here and the door is open at least a crack toward reunification on favorable terms, but Taipei's eye is on independence.

Taiwan's minimalist objective is preserving their de facto independence from China's control. This is non-negotiable and it constantly prods Taiwanese leaders to demonstrate their freedom by periodically sticking their finger in Beijing's eye.

THE UNITED STATES: Has the maximalist objective of preserving the status quo on Taiwan as based on the original Shanghai communique cobbled together Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai - barring the two other partises making some kind of peaceful reuinon on terms generally favoring Taiwan.

The minimalist objective of the U.S. is to prevent the outbreak of war between China and Taiwan.

The only non-negotiable aspect of the American position- if you can call it that- is that an unprovoked attack by China on Taiwan is unacceptable and the U.S. has statutory defense obligations. What we would consider " unprovoked" or the precise nature of those " obligations" are is up for grabs.

The problem here for American policy makers is that they are holding the weakest cards of the three by their own strategic choice to play nursemaid to two irreconciliable powers. If the guarantee to Taiwan was an unambiguous nuclear umbrella - as it is with Japan, South Korea or NATO - the situation might have remained stable. But American ambiguity on this crucial point is encouraging the gamblers in both Beijing and Taipei to play both ends against the middle to our disadvantage.

To reprise my comments at the Glittering Eye today, the Chinese government has been signalling, for at least a decade, that their bright red line for war is a formal declaration of independence by Taiwan and that they will absolutely go to war regardless of the costs.
Having stoked the fires of nationalism to make-up for the decline of Marxism in public esteem in order to legitimize their rule, the CCP leadership sees such a declaration by Taiwan as:

a) A threat to China's territorial integrity and a likely inspiration for Tibet and Xinjiang to follow suit.

b) Something that could spur massive urban unrest and bring down the Communist Party if they fail to be perceived by the populace as taking strong action to prevent it or to punish Taipei.

That China would commit this kind of national suicide in any other context is belied by their blustery but ultimately ineffectual reaction to our bombing of their embassy in Belgrade ( which contrary to official reports I believe to have been fully intentional on our part and well-deserved for hostile Chinese SIGINT assistance to Serbia during the air war). I find China going nuclear over the Spratley's or a downed plane to be a specious scenario.

On the other hand, regarding Taiwan, the leaders of the CCP are much more serious and this should be taken into account by American policymakers. Whether Beijing would escalate to the extent threatened by General Zhu is debatable but what is not debatable is that the Chinese are desperate to indicate to the United States and Taipei that independence is regarded by China as a critical national defense interest.

To return to the original question posed by Nadezhda, to pursue their strategic objectives, Taiwan needs a defense establishment capable of deterring an amphibious invasion and formidible enough in its retaliatory powers to make a massive missile and air attack a high-cost affair for Beijing without even considering American intervention. This would require across the board investments in ballistic missiles, submarines, warplanes and if they can get away with it - nuclear weapons ( note: this would not be in America's interest - I'm simply explaining what capabilities Taiwan requires) Defensive tech like Aegis is nice but somewhat pointless given the sheer magnitude of what China can throw at Taiwan - the only significant variable here in Chinese calculations are what costs Taiwan can impose on China in return.

The Bush administration for its part needs to reevaluate our strategic objectives in regard to China and Taiwan. Far too much decision-making power has been voluntarily ceded to circumstances that can be created by others - thus encouraging China and Taiwan to be less responsible than if both parties were reacting only bilaterally to each other's moves. We need a clarification of our defense relationship with the Taiwanese so that neither China nor Taiwan miscalculates.

What about a Hammes-like 4GW defense?

Taiwan would (through independent development, through a deal with Pakistan, etc) aquire nuclear weapons, pre-position these weapons in China ("suitcase nukes for freedom"), give "strategic corporals" the ability to detonate these weapons independent of Taipei's command (so a quisling cannot subvert the defense), and wait.
As I commented over in Glittering Eye, why in the world would we risk possible nuclear war with China over an issue, Taiwan, where we agree WITH China that Taiwan is an inseperable part of the country. Please explain how it is any different than China threatening war with the U.S. should we use force to prevent Hawaii from seceding. You say that we have a defense agreement with Taiwan; O.K. then I suggest it be renegotiated. Taiwan is NOT an issue that is critical to the U.S. If Taiwan is deemed important, then I agree completely with Dan. Find a way to get Taiwan to go nuclear.


Defending democracy and freedom, as well as international security of Core states, is in the interests of the United States. Abandoning a more-free and more-connected to a less-free country and less-connected sends a warning to all nations that they are not safe, and that even Core states but have their own Leviathan army.

While we have to be careful not to repeat 1914, where the lesser good of protecting Belgium led to the greater evil of destroying Europe, a poor party dictatorship's conquest of a rich multiparty democracy would be a disaster.

One of the reasons we should up our conventional security relationship with Taiwan is that the rational alternative is a nuclear Taiwan. And while that may be more rational for Taipei than the current regime, nuclear pre-positioning is obviously dangerous.

-Dan tdaxp
I expect surprising things out of Taiwan during the next KMT government. They are no longer at war with the CCP. Since there is no war, why remain separate? Would the PRC do a grand deal for legalization of the KMT on the mainland in exchange for reunification? I think they might already have done it. All that is needed now is for the KMT to gain sufficient power in the ROC to hold up its end of the bargain.

That's a very provocative possibility. I'm not sure if the CCP is going to surrender its dominant/monopoly position but they might negotiate some kind of " coalition" arrangement with the KMT, which they prefer to native Taiwanese parties.
Brilliant point TM
The CCP aren't going to legitimise the KMT on the mainland. The potential deal, if (it's not necessarily a when) the KMT regain power in Taiwan, would be a fig-leaf overarching sovereignty with two arms, the PRC and RoC. It would involve compromise on both sides but would mostly likely solidify the status quo. The question is whether the CCP could "sell" the idea to a Chinese public that have grown to expect nothing less than full control. It could become part of a massive re-organisation of the relations between all of China's provinces and the central government, but Taiwan wouldn't, even under the KMT, accept being "just another province".

As for the post itself, Taiwan's defense establishment base their theories on defending the island for two weeks until the Americans arrive. Is that enough? Would the Americans be able to arrive that quickly and in sufficient numbers? And under what scenarios? I agree America should clarify its stance, but it can't and won't because ambiguity is the name of its game.
Barnabus: Please explain how it is any different than China threatening war with the U.S. should we use force to prevent Hawaii from seceding.

Wrong analogy. We are in physical control of Hawaii. China's threats against the US over Taiwan are like - during the Cold War - the East Germans threatening war against the US if Uncle Sam acted to stop an East German invasion of West Germany. Or, equivalently, North Korea threatening war against the US if Uncle Sam acts to stop a North Korean invasion of South Korea.
China has a native rule-set to deal with "captured parties." Frightfully, the KMT has a native rule-set to deal with being "captured."

A pro-Mao faction of the nationalists, the China Revolutionary Committee of the KMT, still exists on the mainland.

Does the CRCKMT have political power as we understand it? No, and that's not the point.

Like modern bribery in China, side payments serve to appease losers by paying them off in cash and patronage. For decades this is how the KMT ran Taiwan - as a corrupt capitalist state.

The Chinese Communist Party and the KMT may be prepared to work out a very similar deal, with the CCP diverting money and patronage to the KMT in exchange for the KMT diverting political support to the CCP.

Heck, the CCP could even "return" the CRCKMT to the KMT, like Beijing might "return" the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association to the Vatican.

The terms on a Beijing-Vatican raproachment would be allowing the Church to operate inside China in exchange for Beijing approving Rome's bishops. The KMT-CCP deal could be made the same way: KMT is allowed to operate as a political party in China, as long as Beijing appoves its political leadership.

Would this be a happy ending or a sad ending?

-Dan tdaxp
Simon wrote:

"As for the post itself, Taiwan's defense establishment base their theories on defending the island for two weeks until the Americans arrive. Is that enough?"

Quite frankly, no.

The point is not to repel a Chinese amphibious invasion, which I think Taiwan can do because amphibious invasions are exceedingly difficult to pull off under the best of circumstances. China does not have this kind of logistical capability yet anyway so much as the capacity to ravage Taiwanese cities by air.

The point is to prevent a Chinese attack from occurring in the first place , one that would undoubtedly devastate Taiwan's infrastructure and severely disrupt the global economy.

Even a short non-nuclear war, which China would certainly lose if PACOM intervened to assist Taiwan, would be a disaster for all concerned. The geoeconmic ripple effect alone could tip the global economy into a recession. Sino-American relations would be set back a half-century, Japan would almost certainly embark upon a major arms build-up in response and China would become, in the short-term, a pariah state.

( though I think losing a Sino-Taiwanese War would bring down the CCP in short order the way the Falklands War ruined Argentina's junta or the Russo-Japanese War sparked the Revolution of 1905)

Simon, I like your CCP-KMT analysis. Very sound.
though I think losing a Sino-Taiwanese War would bring down the CCP in short order the way the Falklands War ruined Argentina's junta or the Russo-Japanese War sparked the Revolution of 1905

Mark, what is your view on the possibility of China fracturing into its linguistic/cultural component parts if China "loses" Taiwan, like the fall of the Soviet Union after the loss of Eastern Europe?

-Dan tdaxp
Hi Dan,

Historically, China does not fragment on linguistic lines but on economic ones.

Jonathan Spence ( if I'm recalling correctly)detailed what he called " macroregions" in his The Search for Modern China that acted as the nodes for centrifugal forces against the Chinese state. Some of these overlapped with dialectical-cultural centers " Sichuan" and others had a more purely economic rationale.

Linguistic-dialectical differences are common in nations with a long North-South axis - Italy, old Yugoslavia have changes sometimes every ten miles of latitude which is destabilizing to a degree. What you do not get is agitation for separatism unless the speakers are fairly well compact ( Basques) or have additional cultural/sectarian/ethnic differences in play( Tamils, Shan,Kosovar Albanians, Southern Sudanese etc.).
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