Since the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis, when China tried to intimidate the island by testing missiles in waters near Taiwan and the United States responded by sending two carrier battle groups to the region, Beijing has built up its naval forces of conventionally powered submarines, corvettes, and frigates to influence events in “the first island chain” off its coast—and looks to extend its reach by 2050 to the Mariana Islands with nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers.
China “doesn’t need nuclear-powered submarines to operate around Taiwan,” said Bernard Cole, an expert on China and the Pacific at the National War College, speaking Wednesday at a forum at the Heritage Foundation.
Said Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, “The Chinese military is highly focused on Taiwan” on the operational level, and they realize that the island is vulnerable to blockade since it relies on imported food for its growing population, oil for its industries, and free sea lanes to export its technological products. “Taiwan is very dependent on the rest of the world,” he said.
But advances in aircraft and naval forces “are on the horizon” as China wants to make sure that in the East and South China Seas and the Yellow Sea that nothing happens of “which it does not approve.” For now, Cole said, China is not building underway replenishment ships or large-deck amphibious ships that could be used in an invasion of Taiwan. But with China’s robust shipbuilding industry, it could be a “matter of choice” not to go ahead with building those kinds of vessels.
Cole said this means that China is “determined not to let Taiwan become de jure independent.” The retired Navy captain added, “The pressure on Taiwan had been unremitting since 1949-50” when the Communists drove the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek from the mainland to the island. In short, Taiwan “lives within the jaws” of the Chinese push to upgrade its anti-access, area denial capabilities, Cheng added.
The forum on Taiwan’s Maritime Security comes in the 35th anniversary year of the United States’ diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China and the Taiwan Relations Act.
Cortez Cooper, a senior policy analyst at RAND said for now Taiwan must concentrate on continuing its outreach to China, establishing credible diplomacy in the region such as its East China Sea Peace initiative to resolve regional tensions over fisheries, territory, and hydrocarbon exploration and development, and ensuring defense in-depth until outside assistance can arrive.
While Taiwan adopted a strategic “goal of being able to buy time” if attacked, Cheng said that China has been moving steadily to isolate it from its neighbors. One way China is doing that is to punish nations that recognize the People’s Republic and then try to establish diplomatic ties with Taipei. He pointed to China’s reaction to Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon’s recent visit to the region. McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, stopped first in Taiwan; and when he set out for the mainland, the Chinese abruptly canceled all but one meeting and briefing that had been scheduled for his stop there.
Yet politically, Taiwan’s two most recent administrations have put “the emphasis on domestic affairs,” and one of its political parties in the upcoming 2016 presidential elections is pushing for independence. Among the pressing security issues facing Taiwan are how it will handle its transition to an all-volunteer military force, what actual hardware it needs, and what doctrinal changes need to be made to meet the new challenges to move rapidly in the battle-space and become more interoperable militarily with the United States, Cooper said.
Taiwan “needs to focus on a nontraditional approach” to issues with China, including demonstrating to other nations that it is not presenting a “unified front” with Beijing in regional disputes.
Cheng said Taiwan has the choice “to spend the money on defense or not” and “what it is going to spend that money on”—such as missile and air defense and anti-submarine warfare.
Cooper said China has signaled other nations in the region and spoken at security conferences that it is a power on the rise and the United States may not be a reliable partner in the future. Beijing points to the alliances the United States has with countries such as Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines “as increasingly a Cold War relic.”
“I think Beijing is very confident now,” Cooper said.
Cole said that in every crisis since 1949, “Beijing misjudged” what the United States intentions were and what it would do.
China may be doing the same thing in looking at what it calls the “Malaccan dilemma”—the United States’ ability to interdict oil shipments, particularly through those narrow straits to the mainland. Most supertankers have too great a depth to use those waters, Cole said.
But Cheng said the Chinese perception of what was at stake there and in other potential flashpoints was important. He cited the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade as an example. The United States said the bombing was accidental; the Chinese point to NATO claims of precision strikes in the Kosovo operations and say it was deliberate. “China has a different perspective on what we do.”
Although all three agreed that the United States has become better in the past year at explaining what is doing in the Pacific, Cheng said China has not deviated from its “its persistent and consistent message” to the United States concerning Taiwan: stop selling arms to Taipei, stop reconnaissance missions, and repeal parts of the National Defense Authorization Act covering American response to its defense.
“We have to make sure we are not outmaneuvered,” Cooper said.