{short description of image}

China's Options Against Taiwan Are Limited . . .


By Gerald Segal, director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

August 19, 1999

Six weeks after Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui said that Taipei's relations with mainland China should be on a "special state-to-state basis," the rumbling of military thunder from the other side of the Taiwan Strait is growing louder. Chinese fighter aircraft are flying patrols in the center of the strait, while China seized a Taiwanese ship near the Taiwan-held island of Matsu. Hong Kong publications report on plans being hatched in Beijing for missile strikes on at least 150 civil and military targets in Taiwan, including nuclear power plants. Senior Chinese officials are quoted as saying they are prepared to take the U.S. to World War III if that is what it takes to regain Taiwan. Chinese officials are "unofficially" sounding out American visitors about what the U.S. might do in the event of a Chinese military strike.

But there are also good reasons to believe that this thunder will amount to little more than noise. It is true that China has military options that could cause great damage to Taiwan. China must calculate, however, that any serious military option will be met with at least the same kind of robust U.S. response--the deployment of two aircraft-carrier battle groups--that warned China in 1996 against escalating its missile tests in the open sea near Taiwan. As long as the U.S. remains firm, China is a weak power even on its own maritime frontier.

China certainly has no credible capability for a full-scale invasion. Taiwan itself could turn back an initial attempt, and it certainly could hold on long enough for the American fleet to arrive. Nor is it plausible to think China could seize offshore islands such as Quemoy or Matsu without considerable cost; the U.S. could hardly view such action as less serious than missile firings into empty sea. If China seized the islands, the U.S., the wider world and certainly East Asia would abandon the notion of Beijing as a peaceful international partner and would place more emphasis on effective military deterrence. Foreign investment in a "rogue" China would plummet.

China would also be making a major mistake if it thought that the U.S. had only simplistic military options such as deploying carrier battle groups. In order to be credible in defense of its Asian and global commitments, the U.S. military has worked hard to ensure that it has the means to deal with a wide range of contingencies.

The U.S., with its modern technology, especially in maritime and air warfare, has what in the jargon is known as "escalation dominance" over China. For instance, if China thought it could get away with seizing Taiwanese ships, the U.S. could blind Chinese radar so Taiwan could retaliate and pick up "lost" mainland ships. If China shot down Taiwan's aircraft, the island might well begin to get the best U.S. forward intelligence so it could shoot down Chinese aircraft to even the balance. If China wanted to move up the ladder of escalation and launch missile strikes, the U.S. could help Taiwan target Chinese sites or even use its current limited antimissile forces to pick off an incoming missile, thereby demonstrating American resolve.

As recently as 1996, Chinese military men were stunned by how little control they had of a modern naval and air battlefield, and the gap in favor of U.S. capacities has if anything grown larger in the intervening years. U.S. defense planners have already made it clear to their Chinese counterparts just how much more they know about Chinese deployments and capabilities and how feasible it would be to blind Chinese military systems.

Of course China might use some of its supposed 150 missiles aimed at Taiwan, but a strike on a civil nuclear power plant in Taiwan would be beyond strategic comprehension, since it would only succeed in branding China as a military and environmental outlaw. Taiwan may not be as resilient as Yugoslavia in resisting missile attacks on military sites, but unless China decided to take its missiles "downtown" into Taipei and knock out power and water, the Taiwanese public's morale would hold long enough for the U.S. to threaten retaliatory strikes against China. Washington's lack of alarm in the wake of China's Aug. 3 test-firing of a Dongfeng 31 intercontinental missile intended for use against the U.S. suggests just how bereft Beijing is of plausible orthodox military options.

Unorthodox or "asymmetrical" military attacks are not a plausible option for Beijing either. Taiwanese ships and aircraft might be hijacked, but in the current climate of tension that too would be seen an act of war. Beijing might attempt to use its much-touted potential for information warfare, and there are some indications that Taiwan's civil infrastructure is vulnerable to such "cyber-war." But Taiwanese have been pioneering cyber-warfare against Chinese civil targets for years, and their world-class computer industry has given them an effective counterforce capability if China wants to fight that kind of war.

There are also powerful political reasons for China to avoid military action. It could preclude a summit with U.S. President Bill Clinton at next month's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in New Zealand. And if China does not want to see Japan and other U.S. allies running even harder to deploy a theater missile defense system, it must keep its missile forces under wraps.

The strongest political argument against a military response is the damage that military threats could do to candidate James Soong in the Taiwanese presidential campaign. Mr. Soong, the most pro-Beijing candidate, leads the polls, but his rivals, Chen Shui-bian of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and Lien Chan of the ruling Kuomintang party, would benefit if Mr. Soong were seen as passive in the face of Chinese threats. A victory for Mr. Soong in March's election would give Beijing its best prospects for striking a deal with Taiwan since the beginning of the Lee Teng-hui era.

Still, it's possible that the Chinese leadership does not recognize how limited its powers really are, and thus may not be so sensible in eschewing military force. China may be treated with exaggerated respect by the outside world as a great power, but the reality of the Taiwan crisis is that this power cannot even impose its military or political will in its front yard and on the most sensitive of issues. Precisely because this reality is so frustrating to Chinese military and civilian nationalists, the logic of a relatively peaceful Taiwan Strait may not hold. Wars have started elsewhere when the narrow military and nationalist logic seemed even weaker. And the Chinese rage about the mistaken NATO bombing of the embassy in Belgrade reminds us of the visceral and illogical nature of modern Chinese nationalism.

So even if China sees at least the short-term logic of avoiding military action before March 2000, we must all hold our breath for what happens next. If Mr. Soong should lose and Taiwan continues its drift toward independence, China's fury will turn all the more nasty. Then that talk in Beijing of fighting World War III may seem much scarier.