Taiwan Communiqué No. 79, February 1998

Offense, defense, and diplomacy

US DOD concerned about Chinese military threat

On 11 December 1997, the top-ranking official at the Pentagon responsible for Asia warned that the United States must keep closer tabs on potentially threatening Chinese military modernization, particularly in view of recent reports that the PLA intends to take further steps to intimidate Taiwan.

"I think there actually are areas that we don't know about, that we think there's more to know about,'' Kurt Campbell, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs, said at a National Press Club forum on possible future Chinese threats.

Such unknown areas chiefly involved Beijing's military intentions but also included its interest in "asymmetrical" warfare, or taking advantage of perceived U.S. vulnerabilities, Campbell said. "Those are capabilities that take advantage of certain intense areas of effort in terms of missiles or satellites or information," he said. "Those are areas that I think we're going to have to watch very carefully as we move forward. I think it's something that we are putting a higher level of effort into, both in terms of our ability to gather information and to analyze it," he added.

Campbell said the U.S. approach to China should be "a mixture of strength and respect" while pushing for greater transparency in military matters. "If your strategy toward China has too much strength, then you find yourself veering toward confrontation and conflict which is in no one's interests. But ... if you have too much respect you find yourself kowtowing to the Middle Kingdom," he said.

Campbell spoke as the United States and China began their first-ever formal defense "consultative talks," a bid to foster better understanding and communication between the Chinese and U.S. military establishments. The two-day session at the Pentagon brought together Lt. Gen. Xiong Guangkai, deputy chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army, and Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe.

The PLA general became infamous in the beginning of 1996, when during the escalating crisis preceding the Taiwan Presidential elections, he made a threat of nuclear strikes on Los Angeles.

At the height of the confrontation, General Xiong made headlines in America when he told a US academic: "Americans care more about Los Angeles than Taiwan." The remarks were widely interpreted as a veiled threat of nuclear strikes on America's West Coast, and helped fuel the crisis in which Washington sent two aircraft carriers to the western Pacific to counter Chinese missile tests off Taiwan. "He is now indelibly engraved in the American consciousness as the man who wants to nuke Hollywood," joked former CIA director James Woolsey.

The visit is the first of what US officials hope will be an annual review of security issues and military-to-military relations. "These talks are designed to increase understanding, to increase transparency," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said. "They're based on the very simple premise that the world's most powerful nation and the world's most populous nation have to be able to deal with each other in an adult, mature way both in areas where they agree and areas where they disagree."

Richard Fisher, a Chinese military expert at the Heritage Foundation, a private research group in Washington, told the National Press Club forum that China was preparing to use missile, air and naval forces "if it deems necessary" to retake Taiwan and "to deter and if necessary engage" U.S. forces coming to Taiwan's defense.

Voicing doubt Beijing would attempt an outright invasion of Taiwan, Fisher said a more likely scenario involved large-scale missile strikes to "butter up" the island followed by a blockade by air and naval forces. "To be sure, the PLA (People's Liberation Army) will have to develop enormously to be able to accomplish these envisioned missions around Taiwan," Fisher said.

Without referring specifically to this assessment, Campbell said he wished to associate himself with "almost everything that Richard Fisher has said because I think he's perhaps our best analyst on Chinese military capabilities."

Israel and Russia aiding Chinese military

U.S. defense experts said in 13 December 1997, they believe that Russia and Israel are the main sources of advanced military technology for China's armed forces. In a forum discussion at the National Press Club, the experts, including former CIA Director James Woolsey and former Assistant Secretaries of State Winston Lord and Richard Solomon, agreed that China's military hardware is still based on 1950s technology.

But the panel also agreed that there are pockets of high technology within the armed forces that could pose a threat to the region and even to the United States.

Rick Fischer of the Heritage Foundation said one of the main concerns is that Israel has been a major source of U.S. advanced technology for China. The chief concern is that Israel sold China the existing prototypes and designs for the Lavi fighter, which was never put into production in Israel.

In the mid-1980s, the United States forced Israel to forgo production of the warplane when it halted all aid to the project on grounds that it would have swallowed too much money and deprived Israel's other military forces of much-needed weapons.

The Lavi, making use of U.S.-supplied technology based on the F-16 fighter, had many of the latest U.S. innovations, including flight-guidance technology and carbon-fiber structures. The experts believe the Lavi is the basis for a Chinese-designed strike fighter designated the J-10.

Mr. Fischer said another concern is a Chinese missile with a 1,000-mile range and a radar-guided warhead known as Radag. Radar-guided warheads are extremely accurate and can hit a circle 50 yards across at a distance of 1,000 miles. Mr. Fischer said the source of the radar-guided warhead could be Israel, because Israel had access to that technology from the United States. U.S. allies that receive U.S. technology are forbidden from transferring that technology to third countries without Washington's permission.

Another source of U.S. military information is Dassault, the French aviation firm. Russia is thought to be an even larger supplier of technology, which has helped China design aircraft and missiles.

The Chinese are also surreptitiously converting some American civilian technology such as computers to "dual use," employing them for military purposes that would be forbidden under American law.

The panel of experts believed that the Chinese People's Liberation Army is downsizing, from about 3 million men to about 2 million. But some of the downsized troops are being transferred to a new paramilitary police force, mainly used for internal security purposes.

Despite some of the disturbing military advances, especially in missiles, the panel of experts believed that China could not pose a credible military threat to the United States or Japan until 2005 at the earliest, and more like 2010.

PLA plans Taiwan intimidation

According to press reports in Hong Kong, the Chinese Central Military Commission held a meeting in the beginning of December 1997, in which it discussed weapon development for the 21st century, with the specific purpose of intimidating Taiwan.

Diplomatic sources in Beijing said the meeting ended on Thursday, 11 December 1997. Major speeches were reportedly delivered by President Jiang Zemin, also commission chairman, and vice-chairman General Zhang Wannian.

Sources said Mr Jiang's speech emphasized the importance of the Army adapting to changes in the "overall situation", saying resources and talents should be focused on developing "key weapon systems". An army source said General Zhang highlighted the need to strengthen "the construction of cross-century military equipment". The top brass also blatantly stated that military intimidation of Taiwan would be stepped up.

The reports specifically quoted PLA officers as saying that in order to curb "splittist" activities, the PLA should "raise the effectiveness of military intimidation" against Taiwan.

Dangerous diplomacy

In the beginning and middle of January 1998, three former US government officials came through Taipei — prompting one commentator in Taiwan to refer to the island's "...newfound status as an ex-US policy-maker transshipment center."

First came Joseph Nye (former assistant secretary of defense), then Richard Holbrooke (former assistant secretary of State), and then William Perry (former defense secretary) with a whole entourage.

Whether the visits were in some way coordinated or just coincidence remains a mystery. But The Economist correspondent Laurence Eyton and other Western correspondents in Taipei concluded that the foray of these former US officials amounted to dangerous diplomacy ("Shuttle diplomacy dangerous", China News, 25 January 1998).

The two main problems — according to the article — are:

  1. this represent a trial balloon by the foreign policy establishment in Washington to pressure Taiwan into negotiations with China. According to this analysis, some Clinton Administration officials have staked a lot on bettering relations with China at any cost, and look on Taiwan with a mixture of contempt and annoyance, because it simply gets in the way.

  2. The second problem is the quality of the people involved. None of the three seemed to have a profound understanding of Taiwan. A journalist in Taipei who had dinner with Holbrooke was shocked at how poor his knowledge of the situation was. Holbrooke apparently thought Taiwan was in favor of the Beijing-proposed "One country, two systems."

Mr. Perry didn't do too much better: he arrived in Taipei from beijing, and stated that Beijing was "...prepared to restart talks with Taiwan without preconditions." The China News article correctly concluded that this would have been a "stunning policy change and a huge concession to Taiwan" on Beijing's part, and chided Mr. Perry for simply not understanding what he was talking about.

Fortunately, the Taiwan government saw through the Beijing ploy, and concluded that the Beijing definition of "One China" is a pre-condition in itself.

However, the worst of the three was former Pentagon policy-maker Joseph Nye, who reportedly proposed that three way deal in which Beijing would somehow accept a "higher international profile" by Taiwan, and Taiwan would in return declare it would never declare independence and would lift its ban in direct links with China. In addition the US would make a commitment not to recognize Taiwan should it declare independence, and would urge other nations not to do so either.

Taiwan Communiqué comment: while the Taiwanese would welcome real help in solving the problem with China, these three gentlemen started out on the wrong foot. It would be good if they first talked extensively with democratically-elected representatives of the Taiwanese people. After all, it's their future we are talking about.

In particular Mr. Nye's proposals represent the worst kind of horse-trading and meddling in Taiwan's future, and should be rejected out of hand. It disregards the basic principles of self-determination and democracy which are enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and which constitute (we presume !!) the basis for US foreign policy.

The US and other nations need to emphasize once and for all that it is the right of the Taiwanese people to determine their own future, without interference, threats or intimidation from China. And if they, the people of Taiwan, wish to be accepted as an independent nation named "Taiwan", that choice should be respected and even applauded by the international community.

As we have emphasized time and again, the best way to solve the problem is for China to accept Taiwan as a friendly neighboring state. This is in the mutual interest of the two nations, and will enhance safety and stability in East Asia.

Book Review: Crisis in the Taiwan Straits

Edited by James R. Lilley and Chuck Downs, (Ft. McNair, Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1997), 347 pages.

Beijing's July 1995 and March 1996 missile tests broke the calm in the Taiwan Straits under which Taiwan had begun its journey to democratization and Beijing began its journey to economic reform.

Beijing's maneuvers refocused attention on what had become an Cold War backwater. Crisis invites scholars to review for the layman the history, diplomacy and tools to which few have paid attention. This collection of conference papers sheds an interesting light on the military tools available to both sides of the Straits.

The opening politico-historical essay by June Teufel Dreyer breaks no new ground, and neglects to analyze the effect of democratization and Taiwanization on the cross-Straits equation. The closing politico-historical essay by Waldron argues that the United States has become less protective of Taiwan and that the international community should rescue Taiwan. Neither essay argues that Taiwan is the master of its own fate.

But the bulk of the volume takes the crisis in the Taiwan Straits as an exercise in the application of military means. In the first part of his essay, Richard Fisher provides an excellent chronology and detailed description of Beijing's missile tests. Instead of describing a muscle-bound Hercules, however, the bulk of these papers describe Beijing's military machine as is all potential and little bite.

Journalist Tai Ming Cheung concludes the PLA is "presently ill-prepared to storm Taiwan." Dr. Bates Gill notes that Beijing's "range of potentially successful military action against Taiwan remains limited for the next ten years..." Military analyst Harlan Jencks mentions Beijing's "relatively primitive command, control communications and intelligence (C3I) systems". Ken Allen's review of the PLAAF and the Aviation Ministry speaks of enormous tactical, training and industrial problems. The McVadon essay, a professional look at naval issues, debunks a Normandy invasion scenario and concludes that the PRC Navy is in no position to handle Taiwan's forces, let alone American.

The most bracing essay in the volume is Harlan Jencks' piece "Wild Speculations on the Military Balance in the Taiwan Strait." He describes the problems of finding accurate information on both antagonists' military capability. He reviews published and Internet sources, cautioning against overly relying on any one source. He characterizes many sources as `bean-counters' who rely on equipment totals to substitute for policy, intent, and capability. He suggests that counting PRC ships known to be tethered and rusting isn't helpful.

Jencks argues that all the scenarios regarding how a military conflict might erupt all depend on some shaky assumptions. Beijing's problem, as most authors admit, is that much PRC equipment is poorly manufactured and embodies obsolete technology. Beijing's military doctrine suffers from poor tactics, inadequate organization and unrealistic training. As Jencks notes, these weaknesses require many observers to be creative in suggesting scenarios appropriate to Beijing's limitations for how it can overwhelm Taiwan.

The good news for Taiwan at present appears to be Beijing's weaknesses. The bad news is that Beijing's narrow range of military options may heighten the miscalculations which could lead to violent confrontation. Most authors agree that Beijing's military options are reduced to demonstrating its missile technology. This option is clumsy, imprecise, and threatening. Just the situation which conflict theory suggests misperception and lost opportunities thrive and countries stumble into war.

While most essays presume Beijing's antagonism is to Taiwan's democratization, Andrew Huang's essay makes a point worth pondering. Looking at naval issues and the geography of Asia, he notes that Taiwan is key to the defense of the Chinese mainland. This raises the specter that the democratization of Taiwan may be only be one of a number of concerns Beijing has about the consequences for itself of a potentially independent Taiwan. Beijing does not have a blue water navy and might assume that a Taiwan inside the tent would help keep foreign hands at bay.

The volume represents an uneven mix of analyses of the military situation in the Taiwan Straits. Certainly the volume is worth the Jencks, McVadon and Kenneth Allen articles. However, some of the others are flawed at best and some — like June Teufel Dreyer's — a rehash of old facts with gaping holes where new developments could have been mentioned.

Finally, it would welcome if a similar amount of time and energy would be spent in developing scenarios for peace in the Taiwan Straits, instead of war.

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