Int'l Herald Tribune

China confronts U.S. defense of Taiwan

By David Lague
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Beijing -- For almost six decades, U.S. military power has frustrated the ambitions of China's ruling Communist Party to unite Taiwan with the mainland.

With that U.S. security blanket in place, Beijing has been largely powerless to prevent the prosperous, self-governing island from becoming independent in all but name.

But an increasingly wealthy China is building a military force tailored specifically to challenge any attempt by the United States to intervene in a conflict over Taiwan, Western and Chinese military analysts say.

They said the People's Liberation Army is spending heavily on the hardware and technology it needs to keep the United States and its allies at bay if the leadership decides it must use force to defeat Taiwan or compel the island's leaders to negotiate.

Without attempting to match the overwhelming U.S. military might, the experts said, the Chinese Army has developed a strategy of "area denial," in which an array of precision weapons would be deployed in an attempt to keep U.S. forces, particularly aircraft carriers, at a distance for long enough that China could overwhelm Taiwan's defenses.

"The plans that China has to develop a submarine force, to develop long-range strike capability in its air force and deploy better ballistic missiles means it will be increasingly more difficult for the U.S. to guarantee the security of Taiwan," said Allan Behm, a security analyst in Canberra who once was a senior strategic planner for the Australian Defense Department.

If China's strategy were successful, U.S. forces could face defeat without suffering major military losses.

"A weakened initial U.S. response to a Chinese assault on Taiwan, for example, could result in the collapse of Taiwan's military resistance," said a Rand Corporation study for the U.S. Air Force published late last month. "The island might therefore capitulate before the United States could bring all its combat power to bear.

"If that were to happen, it seems unlikely that the United States would continue the conflict, even though U.S. military power would largely be intact."

One security analyst, Lin Chong-pin, former vice minister for defense in the Democratic Progressive Party government in Taiwan, also sees the military threat as the foundation of a "grand strategy" to absorb Taiwan without war by building increasingly important economic, cultural and political ties with the island while maintaining its rapid and overt military preparations.

"The ideal calculus for Beijing is that in the end, the U.S. just lets go," Lin said.

The Chinese Army's preoccupation with a U.S military intervention in a Taiwan conflict is not new.

Official Chinese military periodicals and journals have regularly carried articles analyzing the potential vulnerabilities of U.S. forces and the measures China could employ to defeat its stronger adversary.

Several military analysts on Taiwan have also been monitoring the modernization and doctrine of the Chinese Army. "I've been warning about this for years," Lin said. "The idea of the PLA is to deter the U.S. and seize Taiwan."

What has changed, analysts said, is that China's increasingly powerful military makes it more dangerous by the day for the United States if it decided to enter this type of conflict.

But some analysts warn that China could face dangerous consequences even if it succeeds in forcing Taiwan to submit while deterring U.S. intervention.

They argue that the ability and desire to protect Taiwan is the litmus test of Washington's commitment to remain the dominant power in Asia.

"If China can threaten the U.S. guarantee of security for Taiwan, it can also threaten the U.S. guarantee of security for Japan," Behm said.

"It would be incredibly destabilizing if Japan felt it had no choice but to develop nuclear weapons. China has to be very careful it doesn't force Japan to go in that direction."

In response to China's buildup, the Bush administration late last month delivered a forceful warning of the possible consequences if Beijing went to war over Taiwan.

In its annual report to Congress on China's military, published on May 26, the Pentagon said Beijing still lacked the power to take control of Taiwan, particularly if the United States intervened.

The report also suggested that Chinese forces could be tied up for years fighting an insurgency on Taiwan while China faced a range of economic and political repercussions, including a possible boycott of the 2008 Olympic games.

War over Taiwan could also spark civil unrest on the mainland, the Pentagon said.

The government in Beijing reacted angrily to the Pentagon report, with a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman describing it as a "brutal interference" in its internal affairs and insisting that China's military preparations were purely defensive.

At a security conference in Singapore this month, the army's deputy chief of staff, Lieutenant General Zhang Qinsheng, said Chinese defense spending was aimed at building limited military power. "China shall never fire the first shot," he said.

Most analysts agreed that it was the ability to exploit information technology - using a combination of computers, satellites, radar and other sensors to monitor a battlefield and control precision weapons - that underpins U.S. military power.

That allows U.S. forces to stand off and strike at distant targets, minimizing the danger of American casualties while paralyzing adversaries.

They note that the Chinese Army shares this view and has begun developing weapons that would negate this advantage.

"Effectively attacking that system will affect U.S. combat capabilities much more profoundly than would directly targeting combat platforms," the Rand study said.

China's successful destruction of one of its own defunct weather satellites with a ballistic missile on Jan. 11 was a clear demonstration of this improving capability, according to military experts.

There have also been reports in specialist defense publications that the army in September last year used a ground-based laser to temporarily blind a U.S. reconnaissance satellite tracking over China, although these reports have not been confirmed.

Measures like these combined with jamming of radars and communications along with attacks on computer networks could force the U.S. military to fight an old-fashioned war, analysts say. This could mean that aircraft and warships would be forced to operate without detailed, up-to-date knowledge of the positions and intention of China's forces, analysts say.

The Chinese Army is also developing its own surveillance and reconnaissance technology, analysts add, including satellites, airborne radar and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to guide precision weapons.

These weapons, including China's rapidly expanding missile force, could be used to attack ports, air bases, communication centers, logistics hubs and military headquarters in East Asia and the Pacific as part of a campaign to interfere with U.S. forces coming to assist Taiwan.

Another priority for China, according to various military analysts, is improving its capacity to attack U.S. warships, particularly aircraft carriers, which would be crucial for the defense of Taiwan.

"To prevent deployment of naval forces into western Pacific waters, PLA planners are focused on targeting surface ships at long ranges," the Pentagon report said.

Most recent studies of the Chinese military have noted that the increasingly deadly anti-ship missiles fired from Chinese warships and aircraft would be a major threat to U.S. forces steaming toward Taiwan in the event of hostilities.

It has been clear for more than a decade that China believes its expanding fleet of conventional and nuclear attack submarines could play a critical role in threatening U.S. aircraft carriers deploying to waters around Taiwan.

For the U.S. Navy, China's stealthy, modern submarines, including Russian-built Kilo-class versions, would be difficult to detect and counter, analysts say.