Obama's Cautious Approach to Reducing China-Taiwan Tensions
By Michael Pillsbury, June 2009
In recent Congressional testimony, Retired Admiral Eric McVadon, our former defense attache in Beijing, revealed that how one forecasts the future of China is often a function of one?s leaning, either toward ?China bashing? or ?panda hugging?. So far, optimism and pessimism about the progress in Beijing?s negotiations with Taiwan seem to be evenly balanced. Both these views seem to have created a healthy debate among President Obama's advisers.
Beijing has long stated that the fundamental issue Chinese-American relations remains the question of Taiwan, especially US arms sales and military support for Taiwan. But this issue is in the background today as Taiwan pursues cross-str ait detente. It is good that the Obama administration has already cautiously noted that a breakdown in currently successful Beijing-Taiwan talks could see tensions re-emerging. This cautious optimism seems realistic about both the fu ture security situation for Taiwan and the future of improving US military contacts with China. There are downside risks, however, and even the prospects for a new Cold War with China if the Taiwan issue is poorly managed by Beijing, Taipei and Washington. Unfortunately, before the May 2008 Taiwan Presidential elections, grim rhetoric from China appeared to signal a greater willingness by Beijing to use force. The rhetoric from China improved after the election of Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan?s President, but there have been no signs that China?s actual military dispositions have changed, and no offer so far of serious military steps to defuse the real problems.
The Obama administration has begun to make clear its cautious views about Taiwan security issues, and sounds a little more wary that the Bush Administration's optimistism for cooperation with Beijing. The most senior US authority dealing with Taiwan, Raymond Burghardt, described US policy in a meeting with the press there. Burghardt said the US was ?truly enthusiastic? about the detente, but he cautioned that tensions could reemerge if the negotiations break down.
Chinese Nationalism and Potential Miscalculations in the Use of Force
How rational would the People?s Republic of China?s (PRC) leadership be if cross strait talks break down? Could Chinese nationalism lead to miscalculation if the current negotiations break down? Optimists and pessimists may be found on both sides of these questions. There are many studies by former US officials warning that nationalism may make China prone to miscalculation about the use of force, or prefer to use military surprise and shock as part of diplomacy. Miscalculation could easily arise out of tensions and ambiguity over Taiwan. President Bill Clinton?s senior China official Dr. Susan Shirk suggests in a recent book China The Fragile Superpower that ?the real danger? lies not in China?s astonishing growth but in the ?deep insecurity of its leaders.? She warns that ?we face the very real possibility of unavoidable conflict with rising China.? Shirk argues that because of China?s political fragility and secretiveness, doubts remain about whether its leaders will be able to keep a steady hand on the tiller. She concludes: ?preve nting a war with a rising China is one of the most difficult foreign-policy challenges our country faces.? Chinese nationalism can be dangerous. Shirk describes accurately the negative image the US and China tend=2 0to have of each other. She warns that the way America approaches China?s rise can either reinforce its responsible personality or ?inflame its emotional one.?
President Clinton?s National Security Council (NSC) adviser for China, Robert Suettinger, makes a telling judgment in his book Beyond Tiananmen about how the new Chinese leadership would cope in a future crisis by asking whether the decision- making system which is ?opaque, non-communicative, distrustful, rigidly bureaucratic, inclined to deliver what they think the leaders want to hear, and strategically dogmatic, yet susceptible to political manipulation for personal gain ? will be up to the task of giving good advice?.
Beijing?s Increasingly Feasible Military Options
The US Defense Department has spelled out four possibilities as feasible options for Beijing if the current talks break down:
Maritime Quarantine or Blockade:
Although a traditional maritime quarantine or blockade would have greater impact on Taiwan, it w ould also tax PLA Navy capabilities. PLA doctrinal writings describe potential lower-cost solutions ? air blockades, missile attacks, and mining ? to obstruct harbors and approaches. Beijing could declare tha t ships en route to Taiwan must stop in mainland ports for inspections prior to transiting to Taiwan ports. China could also attempt the equivalent of a blockade by declaring exercise or missile closure areas in approaches to ports, in effect closing port access and diverting merchant traffic. China used this method during the 1995?96 missile firings and live-fire exercises.
Limited Force or ?No War? Options:
China might use a variety of disruptive, punitive, or lethal military actions in a limited campaign against Taiwan, likely in conjunction with overt and clandestine economic and political activities. Such a campaign could include computer network or limited kinetic attacks against Taiwan?s political, military, and economic infrastructure to induce fear in Taiwan and degrade the populace?s confidence in the Taiwan leadership. Similarly, PLA special operations forces infiltrated into Taiwan could conduct economic, political, or military sabotage and attacks against leadership targets.
Air and Missile Campaign:
Limited short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) attacks and precision strikes against air defense systems, including air bases, radar sites, missiles, space assets, and communications facilities could 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.
Publicly available Chinese documents describe different operational concepts for amphib ious invasion. The most prominent of these, the Joint Island Landing Campaign, envisions a complex operation relying on coordinated, interlocking campaigns for logistics, air and naval support, and electronic warfare. The objective would be to break through or circumvent shore defences, establish and build a beachhead, transport personnel and materiel to designated landing sites in the north or south of Taiwan?s western coastline, and launch attacks to split, seize, and occupy key targets and/or the entire island.
Optimistic Factors: Is Beijing Deterred from Military Action?
In my view, eight factors may deter China from taking military action against Taiwan and provide President Ma the opportunity to pursue his effort
1. China does not yet possess the military capability to accomplish with confidence its political objectives on the island, particularly when confronted with the prospect of US intervention. Moreover, an insurgency directed against the PRC presence could tie up PLA forces for years.
2. A military conflict in the Taiwan Stra it would also affect the interests of Japan and other nations in the region that advocate a peaceful resolution of the cross-strait dispute, and would likely result in a fundamental reordering of the East Asia n security architecture.
3. A war could severely retard Chinese economic development. Taiwan is China?s single largest source of foreign direct investment.
4. International sanctions could further damage Beijing?s economic development.
5. China?s leaders recognize that a conflict over Taiwan involving the United States would lead to a long-term hostile relationship between the two nations ? a result that would not be in China?s interests.
6. Large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated and difficult military operations.
7. An invasion of Taiwan would strain China?s untested armed forces and almost certainly invite international intervention.
8. Taiwan?s investments to harden infrastructure and strengthen defensive capabilities could also decrease Beijing?s ability to achieve its objectives.
Optimism from Obama?s Advisers about Beijing Reducing the Military Threat to Taiwan
An optimistic recommendation regarding Taiwan?s security was put forward in a report sponsored by the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that Pentagon policy chief Michele Flournoy led before joining the Obama administration. Hilllary Clinton nominee to be her chief adviser for Asia is associated with the study too.20The report notes the most delicate issue likely to arise in the foreseeable future regarding US arms sales to Taiwan is the island?s pending request for F-16C/D aircraft . ?The wisdom of such a sale is hotly debated both in Taiwan and in the United States,? the report states. The action that could defuse the issue would be meaningful steps by Beijing to reduce the military threat facing Taiwan, thus alleviating some of the pressure on Taipei to proceed with such a purchase. The problem of the aging Taiwan air force will still need to be addressed, but a reduction in the direct military confrontation could make other options appear more feasible.
Confusion about China?s Strategic Intent
China?s long-term intentions has become the subject of confusion. On March 11, US Navy Admiral Timothy Keating told the Senate Armed Services Committee, ?It?s conflicting to us and it?s confusing. And this goes to the root issue of what are, really, their intentions. What is their strategic intent? Where does China expect to be 10, 20, 50 years from now??
What seems to be clear is that the long-term shape of the Chinese?American strategic relationship will depend decisively on managing the Taiwan issue successfully. Both sides agree on this. Now the ball is in Beijing?s court. China needs to make sufficient concessions to Taiwan to reciprocate President Ma?s gestures in his first year in office, ensuring there will be no breakdown of the talks and no re-emergence of the threats about which the pessimists have been so worried. A necessary concession from Beijing will have to be an offer of specific military confidence-building measures that red uce the immediate Chinese military threat and continue the remarkable progress we have seen in the past year in defusing one of the world?s most sensitive potential war zones.