Int'l Herald Tribune

Is peace 'within reach' while China is arming?

By David Lague
International Herald Tribune
Friday, May 06, 2005

Hong Kong As his historic visit to China drew to a close, Taiwan's opposition leader, Lien Chan, declared on Monday that an end was in sight to more than five decades of hostility across the Taiwan Strait.

"Peace is no longer a pie in the sky," Lien said at a press briefing in Shanghai after he had renewed his Nationalist Party's proposal for a formal peace deal in talks with top mainland leaders. "It's within reach and it can be a win-win situation."

Lien said the Chinese leadership had responded positively to his suggestion, and he called on the government of Taiwan's pro-independence president, Chen Shui-bian, to begin peace negotiations with the mainland.

Perhaps Lien's optimism was understandable after an eight-day visit that included an emotional return to Xian, the city of his birth.

He was feted by China's top leaders and enthusiastic crowds of ordinary Chinese during his visit, the first by a leader of his party since the Communists forced the defeated Nationalist army to flee to Taiwan in 1949.

Certainly, a peace agreement that was acceptable to China and the island it regards as an integral part of its territory could be valuable in reducing tensions that have made the Taiwan Strait one of Asia's most dangerous flash points for more than five decades.

However, China's accelerating military buildup directed toward Taiwan strongly suggests that the threat of war will remain fundamental to Beijing's goal of gaining control of the island.

In all but one of the last 15 years, China has recorded double digit increases in official military spending.

Taking into account spending not included in the official budget, Western defense analysts estimate that Chinese defense outlays this year could be somewhere between $60 billion and $90 billion. Only the United States and Russia spend more on defense.

In a report on the modernization of the Chinese military published in March, Rick Fisher, a leading expert on China's military with the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, said that as recently as the early 1990s, the People's Liberation Army was a defensive force equipped with mostly obsolete equipment. Since then, the prolonged increases in spending meant the Chinese military had been transformed.

"Now, China is about to field a modern force capable of offensive operations involving land, air and sea forces which exploit multiple new information and precision strike technologies," he wrote.

And, defense analysts note, this buildup is heavily geared toward conflict with Taiwan and U.S. forces that Washington has promised would help defend the island from an unprovoked mainland attack.

Skeptics of China's ability to mount a successful attack on Taiwan point out the vast gap in capability between the People's Liberation Army and the U.S. military.

However, other analysts argue that the People's Liberation Army does not have to match U.S. global military power. China needs only to deploy enough forces in the immediate area of Taiwan to gain the advantage for long enough to seize the island or force Taipei to negotiate a settlement.

The United States, which would rely on its forces based in Japan and South Korea, along with aircraft carrier battle groups, to counter any Chinese attack on Taiwan, could find itself hard pressed to match the missiles, warships, strike aircraft, submarines and amphibious forces that the Chinese military could concentrate in a bid to win a short, sharp conflict. In missiles alone, China has already deployed an intimidating force.

According to Taiwan's Defense Ministry, the People's Liberation Army now has about 700 missiles in coastal provinces facing the island, and the ministry predicts that this number could rise to 1400 by 2014.

In discussing China's prospects for victory in a conflict over Taiwan, People's Liberation Army strategists stress in official journals that the element of surprise would be crucial to success under this scenario.

In essence, Chinese military thinking is aimed at a sudden, intense conflict that would overwhelm Taiwan's defenses or will to fight while keeping the United States at bay. China's capacity to prevail in this type of conflict might be enhanced if substantial U.S. forces remain tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan or some future flash point - perhaps the Korean Peninsula.

And, perhaps more than any other weapons system, China would rely on a modern, stealthy submarine fleet to gain a decisive military advantage over Taiwanese and U.S. naval forces.

Submarines have traditionally been the weapons of choice for smaller powers attempting to challenge the naval dominance of bigger rivals. This is because skillfully operated submarines force any adversary to expend disproportionate effort in detection and destruction.

Germany in the two world wars relied heavily on submarines to counter British and U.S. naval power, and the Soviet Union adopted a similar strategy in its efforts to compete with the stronger U.S. Navy throughout the cold war.

Similarly, Chinese military planners have been calling for a strong submarine force to offset the naval dominance of the United States and its allies in Asia.

As Chinese military spending soars, naval analysts see evidence of sharp buildup in the size and quality of China's submarine fleet. William Murray and Lyle Goldstein, researchers from the U.S. naval war college, expect that China will launch more than 20 new, stealthy nuclear and conventional submarines by the end of the decade.

Together with the 70 submarines now in service, the Chinese submarine fleet will be bigger in overall numbers than that of the United States although still technologically inferior.

For the U.S. Navy, just the suspicion that Chinese submarines armed with modern torpedoes and missiles were patrolling undetected in the approaches to Taiwan could be enough to keep aircraft carrier battle groups far away from the island.

The danger for surface ships is even more pronounced in the waters around Taiwan because high levels of background noise, strong currents and complex thermal layers would make it very difficult to detect even the older, less stealthy submarines in China's fleet.

While the power of China's submarine force is clearly expanding along with rest of the People's Liberation Army, few analysts believe Chinese forces are strong enough yet to prevail in a conflict over Taiwan.

However, that is expected to change within a decade according to some analysts if China's military expansion continues at its current rate. Then Taiwan might have no choice but to strike a peace deal on Beijing's terms.