China: Getting the Questions Right

December 1, 2000 Topic: Security Regions: Asia Tags: AcademiaBusinessNew Left

China: Getting the Questions Right

Mini Teaser: The usual questions about the China threat are increasingly unproductive. The authors suggest some new ones of their own.

by Author(s): Richard K. BettsThomas J. Christensen

If Americans view mainland democratization as genuine, such fears on
Taiwan are well placed. Would the United States risk war to prevent a
democratic Taiwan from becoming part of a larger democratic China?
The main reasons a president could currently use to mobilize
Americans around action in defense of Taiwan's democracy would simply
disappear. Many observers view democracy as Taiwan's biggest security
asset, because it increases U.S. support. They are right. But it is
not just democracy that provides Taiwan's security; it is the current
contrast between Taiwan's democracy and the mainland's

Can the Mainland Conquer Taiwan?

THE POSSIBILITY of war with China over Taiwan is arguably the most dangerous threat that U.S. security policy faces in the coming decade. No other flashpoint is more likely to bring the United States into combat with a major power, and no other contingency compels Washington to respond with such ambiguous commitment. U.S. policy regarding the defense of Taiwan is uncertain, and thus so is the understanding in Beijing and Taipei-and in Washington-over how strongly the United States might react in different circumstances. Because Taiwan is more independent than either Washington or Beijing might prefer, neither great power can fully control developments that might ignite a crisis. This is a classic recipe for surprise, miscalculation and uncontrolled escalation.

Traditional questions about Chinese intentions and capabilities miss the mark in analyzing the likelihood of war and the probable course war would take. A PRC attack on a Taiwan following the pursuit of formal independence from the Chinese nation would be viewed (quite sincerely) in Beijing as purely defensive, to preserve generally recognized territorial sovereignty. Many outside China would view the attack as a sign of belligerence. But military activity against an independence-minded Taiwan might have little relevance to Beijing's behavior on other issues, even for other sovereignty disputes such as those over the Senkaku or Spratly Islands.

The niceties of balance of power calculations could prove relatively unimportant in determining whether China would use force over Taiwan and whether it would do so effectively. U.S. efforts to create a stable balance across the Taiwan Strait might deter the use of force under certain circumstances, but certainly not all. Moreover, such efforts would miss the major point of cross-strait strategic interaction. China's military strategy in a conflict over Taiwan would likely be to punish and coerce rather than to control, tasks for which its military may be able to use force to great effect. The PLA's ability to mount a Normandy-style assault on the island is not the toughest question. Geography (the water barrier), together with U.S. supplies, would provide powerful means to Taiwan for blocking such an invasion, even without direct U.S. combat involvement.

A greater challenge would be a blockade by the PRC, which has a large number of submarines and mines. Taiwan's proximity to the mainland and its dependence on international trade and investment enhance the potential effect of blockades--or coercive campaigns involving ballistic and cruise missiles--even if the military impact would be modest. The PRC might thus be able to damage severely the island's economy regardless of the number of F-16s, AWACS aircraft and theater missile defense batteries the island can bring to bear. Moreover, to break a blockade by sweeping the seas would likely require a direct attack on Chinese vessels. If Chinese forces had not already targeted U.S. ships by that point, it would be up to Washington to decide to fire the first shots against a nuclear-armed country that was attempting to regain limited control of what it believes is its own territory.

Some think that the United States should give Taiwan military assistance or defend it directly even in the extreme case that it openly declares legal independence. Many assume that the United States could deter an attack from the mainland and that, if worse came to worst, the United States would prevail in a war should deterrence fail. These assumptions, unfortunately, are suspect. Before being deterred, Beijing would have to weigh the costs of inaction against action. The perceived cost of inaction against Taiwanese independence is very high. No leader can count on survival if labeled the next Li Hongzhang, the diplomat who ceded Taiwan to Japan in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki.

Many in Beijing believe that the United States lacks the national will to pursue a war against China to save Taiwan. If the prospect of casualties did not deter the United States from intervening, the reasoning goes, even low levels of casualties would frighten it into early withdrawal. Following this logic, China need not defeat the U.S. military in wartime or close the gap in military power in peacetime. Rather, the strategic requirement is much lower: to put a number of American soldiers, sailors and airmen at risk.

It is dangerous that so many Chinese seem to subscribe to this "Somalia analogy." Washington would probably not be deterred by fears of casualties if it decided that Taiwan was being bullied without serious provocation, any more than it was deterred from attacking Iraq in 1991 by high pre-war casualty estimates. Nor is it likely that, once the United States had made the momentous decision to gear up for combat against a power like China, it would quit easily after suffering a small number of casualties.

Thinking over the long term, however, it is hard to imagine how the United States could "win" a war to preserve Taiwan's independence against a resolute China. Too many analyses inside the Beltway stop at the operational level of analysis, assuming that tactical victories answer the strategic question. Sinking the Chinese navy and defeating an invasion attempt against the island would not be the end of the story. Unless the U.S. Air Force were to mount a massive and sustained assault against mainland targets, the PRC would maintain the capability to disrupt commerce, squeeze Taiwan, and keep U.S. personnel at risk. As one American naval officer put it, as a nation much larger than Iraq or Yugoslavia, "China is a cruise missile sponge." This will be doubly true once China builds more road-mobile, solid-fuel missiles and learns better ways to hide its military assets.

Moreover, strikes against the mainland would involve huge risks. Recall that for three years, while Chinese forces were killing U.S. soldiers in Korea, the Truman administration refrained from carrying combat to the mainland for fear of a wider war--and this at a time when China had no nuclear weapons and its Soviet allies had fewer than China now has. China maintains the capacity to strike the U.S. homeland with nuclear missiles, and to strike U.S. bases in the region with both conventional and nuclear missiles. China has or is feverishly obtaining increasingly sophisticated systems, including Russian SA-10 air defense batteries, stealth detection technologies, anti-ship missiles, land attack cruise missiles, accurate ballistic missiles, and new submarines. Any of these could give the United States and its regional allies pause before widening a campaign against the Chinese mainland.

And if the issue is a PRC blockade of Taiwan, who will bear the onus of starting a war between China and the United States? If a conventional engagement leaves U.S. naval forces in control of the Taiwan Strait, can anyone be confident that Beijing would not dream of using a nuclear weapon against the Seventh Fleet? And then what? Such a scenario of nuclear escalation seems fancifully alarmist to many in the post-Cold War era. But is it any more so than such concerns ever were when defense planning focused on crises with the Soviet Union? Is this an experiment a U.S. commander-in-chief should run?

Even if we dismiss entirely any nuclear danger, there are still considerable problems for the United States. If Chinese conventional capabilities do not deter American escalation, and if Chinese forces prove relatively ineffective against U.S. weaponry, a broader question remains: How long would the United States be willing to continue a war of attrition against a country of more than a billion people? How long would it be willing even to camp multiple aircraft carrier battle groups and minesweepers off the Chinese coast? What would American allies such as Japan--where crucial U.S. bases are located--do? Taiwan will always be just 100 miles from mainland China, and Chinese nationalism is extremely unlikely to wither under American bombardment. Indeed, it would probably harden. What, then, is the endgame? A negotiated deal that rejected Taiwanese independence but protected de facto autonomy would be tempting in this situation. In this limited but very real sense, the effort to defend an independent Taiwan wou ld have failed and China would be victorious, since occupation and direct control of Taiwan is not Beijing's stated strategic goal.

The point here is not that a U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan is meaningless. It could be a major factor in deterring more activist impulses in Beijing among those who might want to do more than just prevent a declaration of independence, or those who view current trends in cross-strait relations with much more pessimism than their colleagues. But we should not overestimate the U.S. ability to deter and defeat China in all circumstances.

Essay Types: Essay