Helping Taiwan Help Itself

The military balance in the Taiwan Strait is shifting. With China breathing down its neck, the United States should make sure that Taiwan holds onto its edge.

On Monday, the Pentagon released the 2008 edition of its legislatively mandated Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People's Republic of China. While Pentagon analysts' estimate that Beijing's military spending last year was as high as $139 billion-a figure which represents 4.23 percent of the PRC's GDP and more than three times its publicly announced defense budget-occasioned some buzz in defense circles, overall the report passed unnoticed, especially when one contrasts the attention it received with the headlines generated by some of its predecessors. Even Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David Sedney, briefing journalists on the report, tried to downplay the document's significance, noting that "there's no one big dramatic change" and that "the real story is the continuing development, the continuing modernization, the continuing acquisition of capabilities and the corresponding and unfortunate lack of understanding, lack of transparency about the intentions of those and how they are going to be employed."

Actually, a comparison of the 2008 report and the six which preceded it show that whatever its effects on the global stage (see David Shambaugh's essay in the current issue of TNI), the PRC's defense buildup has already altered the military balance in the Taiwan Strait. In the 2002 report, for example, the Pentagon could still reassure itself with the knowledge that the air forces of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan not only have "enjoyed dominance of the airspace over the Taiwan Strait for many years," but still maintained "a qualitative edge over" the PLA Air Force (PLAAF). In contrast, the new report observes that the PLAAF and the PLA Navy now have approximately 2,250 operational combat aircraft, of which 490 are positioned within range of Taiwan and could conduct operations against the island without refueling. It also warns that "this number could be significantly increased through any combination of aircraft forward deployment, decreased ordnance loads, or altered mission profiles." Against the waves of fighters, ground attack planes, fighter-bombers and bombers-many of them fourth-generation aircraft-which Beijing could potentially send against it, Taipei only has some 390 fighters, most of which are American F-16s, French Mirage 2000s and Taiwan's own Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDFs), which rely on 1970s and 1980s technology.

The naval balance has also shifted. The ROC Navy has a total of 97 ships, more than half of which are missile-armed coastal patrol boats. With 232 ships, the PLA Navy is the largest force of principal combatants, submarines and amphibious warfare vessels in Asia. Together, its closest naval forces to Taiwan, the Dinghai-based East Fleet and the Zhan Jiang-based South Fleet, include a nuclear attack submarine, 32 diesel-powered attack submarines, 17 destroyers, 36 frigates, 47 amphibious assault ships and 35 missile patrol craft. Even more ominously, the PLA has progressively increased both the quality and the quantity of its short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) systems which, in the event of conflict, could, according to the Pentagon report, be deployed against air defense systems "to support a campaign to degrade Taiwan's defenses, neutralize Taiwan's military and political leadership, and possibly break the Taiwan people's will to fight."

What is the United States to make of this changed security situation? On the one hand, albeit with differing emphases, Washington has consistently opposed any unilateral changes in the status quo along the Taiwan Strait and supported a peaceful resolution of differences. On the other hand, there is no denying that Beijing's "peaceful rise" to the status of a global economic power has given it the resources to also become a major diplomatic and military force-and thus necessarily a concern for the world's sole superpower.

The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 stipulated some fundamental tenets of the balance which Washington has tried to strike, determining that while the United States might establish diplomatic relations with the PRC, it remained U.S. policy "to preserve and promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan" and that attempts to coerce the island constituted "a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States." To this end, Congress pledged "the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability."

Unfortunately, owing largely to the internal political dynamics of the country's remarkable democratic transformation during the last decade, Taipei's politicians have not always availed themselves of the offers made by Washington, especially during the Bush administration, but also under President Clinton. The long-ruling Kuomintang (KMT), the party of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, finding itself in the unaccustomed role of political opposition to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), more often than not blocked the special defense procurement budgets submitted by the government of President Chen Shui-bian for submarines, P-3C Orion planes and Patriot missile batteries which the United States, after a long hiatus, had offered to make available in 2001.