Strait Talk

March 30, 2009 Topic: Security

Strait Talk

China is expanding and modernizing its military. Taiwan’s is old and outmoded. We need to give our ally the tools it needs to defend itself.

Overshadowed by President Obama's announcement on Friday of a new Afghanistan strategy and the administration's final preparations for this week's G-20 summit in London was the publication of the Defense Department's congressionally-mandated report on the Military Power of the People's Republic of China 2009. Totaling seventy-four pages, the longest such paper to date is also perhaps the most candid in the series, reflecting both the Pentagon's increasing attention to trends in the Chinese military and the growing concerns of American policymakers and analysts to Beijing's lack of transparency about the objectives of its continuing drive to expand its power-projection capabilities.

Nowhere is the latter more in evidence than along the Taiwan Strait where the report concludes that "there have been no signs that Beijing's military dispositions opposite Taiwan have changed significantly." This comes despite the overtures that President Ma Ying-jeou of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan has made towards the government of People's Republic of China (PRC) since taking office last year, including the reestablishment of direct air, shipping and postal links for the first time since 1949. In fact, the report warns that despite Taiwan's efforts to modernize select capabilities and improve its overall contingency training, "The balance of forces continues to shift in the mainland's favor."

According to the Pentagon's estimate, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) now has between one thousand fifty and one thousand one hundred fifty CSS-6 and CSS-7 short-range ballistic missiles deployed against Taiwan, with more than one hundred new missiles added each year-the newer ones featuring improved ranges, accuracies, and payloads. In addition, the PRC now "bases 490 combat aircraft within un-refueled operational range of Taiwan, and has the airfield capacity to expand that number by hundreds." Thus, even as he was calling over the course of the last year for confidence-building measures across the Strait, PRC President Hu Jintao apparently authorized the forward deployment of an additional one hundred fighters and attack bombers. More than a question of quantity, it is a matter of quality. The newest versions of China's 4.5-generation fighter, the Chengdu J-10, not only feature advanced radar and combat optical systems, but also carry longer-range missiles which, according to Richard D. Fisher Jr., an authority on the PLA's modernization efforts, are superior to "even the best missiles the U.S. has sold to Taiwan."

The sober significance of these trends was made clear by retired Admiral Denis C. Blair when he delivered the Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last month. He stated:

Beijing has not renounced the use of force against the island, and China's leaders see maintaining the goal of unification as vital to regime legitimacy. Preparations for a possible Taiwan conflict continue to drive the modernization goals of [the PLA] and the Chinese defense-industrial complex.

To counter the growing military threat to its national security, the ROC's Ministry of National Defense's first-ever Quadrennial Defense Review, published earlier this month, adopts a two-pronged approach. First, it aims to focus on the creation of an all-volunteer, professional military, the cost savings of the slightly smaller force freeing up resources for modernization. Second, to preempt the PLA achieving air superiority, the Taiwanese are renewing their effort to purchase American-built advanced fifth-generation F-16 C/D fighters. From a military point of view, the request to purchase sixty-six "Block 50" F-16s makes perfect sense. Most of the ROC's air force consists of F-5 fighters that have been in service for more than three decades, while the balance consists of largely of F-16 A/B aircraft purchased more than a decade and a half ago. In its belated eagerness to secure the PRC's cooperation with its lackluster North Korea policy, the George W. Bush administration refused to even accept Taiwan's formal request for the sale in 2007, much less authorize it-despite our pledge in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) that "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."

Last week Congress weighed in again. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives unanimously passed and sent to the Senate Concurrent Resolution 55, which marked the thirtieth anniversary of the TRA by noting that, in the intervening years, the U.S.-Taiwan relationship

has strengthened with Taiwan's evolution into a free society and a full-fledged, multi-party democracy; the development of Taiwan's robust free-market economy; Taiwan's determined effort and collaboration with the United States to combat global terrorism . . . and the leadership role that Taiwan has demonstrated in addressing transnational and global challenges, including its active engagement in humanitarian relief measures, public health endeavors, environmental protection initiatives, and final market stabilization efforts.

The resolution went on to reaffirm Congress's "unwavering commitment" to the earlier legislation as "the cornerstone of relations between the United States and Taiwan" and included specific acknowledgment that "it is the policy of the United States to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character to maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan." The next day, a bipartisan group of thirty U.S. senators sent a letter to President Obama inviting him to join in recognizing the TRA's upcoming anniversary, as well as the role that the unprecedented legislation has played in providing an institutional framework and legal basis for "one of our strongest allies in Asia . . . a beacon of democracy and economic growth in a rapidly evolving and vital region for the United States."

What should the Obama administration do? Undoubtedly, the timing of the congressional pressure just days before an anticipated meeting in London between the president and his Chinese counterpart is awkward. But then again, the mainland's forces were acting even less diplomatically earlier this month when five Chinese vessels shadowed and blocked the USNS Impeccable, an unarmed, civilian-manned American oceanographic ship operating in international waters south of Hainan Island under the authority of the Military Sealift Command. The Impeccable drama unfolded just one week after another unarmed U.S. civilian ship, USNS Victorious, was harassed on the high seas by a Chinese patrol boat. Moreover, as the Pentagon report observed, there is an inherent contradiction between the PRC's declarations about the peaceful nature of its rise (heping jueqi) and its leaders' "excessive reliance on secrecy and/or deception" about the acquisition and fielding of military technologies that are transforming the security balance across the Asia-Pacific region.

During the campaign last year, Obama expressed support for the "one China" policy. Nonetheless, he also congratulated Taiwanese President Ma on his election and called for the PRC to respond to it "in a positive, constructive, and forward-leaning way" in order to "demonstrate to the people of Taiwan that the practical and non-confrontational approach that President-elect Ma promises to take . . . will be met with good faith and progress." Specifically, then-Senator Obama appealed to Beijing to reduce its military deployment along the Taiwan Strait. One year later, President Obama's own Defense Department has reported Beijing's answer. The president faces a tough combination of issues: reining in U.S. military commitments abroad, stimulating economic activity at home (Taipei's request to buy the F-16 C/D fighters alone would be worth nearly $5 billion to an American defense industry facing the prospect of major cuts in Pentagon procurement), and maintaining both the balance of power in East Asia and his own and America's credibility on the world stage. Obama could do far worse than to follow the letter and spirit of the TRA and permit an old ally to have the means to defend itself-and, in so doing, secure U.S. interests amid an otherwise disadvantageous shift.


J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.