Weekly Standard

To Start a War

By Richard D. Fisher Jr.

August 23, 1999

A deadly serious contest is being played out above the Taiwan Strait between the air forces of China and Taiwan, a contest that underscores both the immediate and the long- term risks of war over the future status of Taiwan. The building confrontation is proving similar to the clashes of 1958, which featured air battles and attacks on offshore islands occupied by Taiwan.

You wouldn't know it from any State Department briefing, but since at least July 13 - four days after Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui referred to Taiwan indirectly as a "state," infuriating Beijing - China's People's Liberation Army Air Force has been mounting aggressive sorties over the Taiwan Strait. According to Taiwanese sources, every day an average of 22 to 25 Chinese fighters venture up to the midpoint of the strait, and the Taiwanese, though not matching Beijing in the number of sorties, mount continuous defensive patrols.

In addition, China's air force has moved a unit of S-300 PMU long-range surface-to-air missiles to a base on the strait. The S-300PMU is a modern Russian-made anti-aircraft missile whose deadly range extends about two-thirds of the way across the strait. For Taiwan this mightily complicates the interception of Chinese aircraft.

This level of activity has been unseen in decades. After the crisis of 1958, sporadic air battles continued into the early 1960s, but since then, China's air force has hardly ever ventured beyond the coastline of the strait. Even in 1996, when Beijing fired missiles off Taiwan, its air force did not fly up to the middle of the Taiwan Strait, daring the Taiwan Air Force to give battle.

One incident reported on August 4 had Chinese Sukhoi Su-27 fighters locking their radar on two Taiwan Air Force Mirage 2000 fighters. This is usually a prelude to the launching of R-27 medium-range air-to-air missiles. With the strait barely 100 miles wide at its widest point, there is not a lot of space or time in which to make decisions about firing missiles. According to U.S. government sources, another similar incident may have happened on the weekend of August 7.

Should miscalculation lead to combat, the Taiwan Air Force might have the edge in most, but not all, encounters. The majority of the People's Liberation Army Air Force sorties are being flown in the J-7 fighters, an upgraded version of the single-engine Russian MiG-21C, which first flew in the late 1950s. It is usually armed with short-range infrared guided air-to-air missiles. The Chinese are also using a number of larger twin- engine J-8II interceptors, which are less maneuverable than the J-7 but have a longer range and a radar to guide medium-range missiles.

On top of this, the Chinese are using their new Russian Su-27, which at low fuel loading can outmaneuver the top-of-the-line U.S. F-15, and the F-16 that Taiwan is now acquiring. Furthermore, the Su-27 carries the R-73 helmet-sighted missile, which makes it the superior fighter for short-range fights over the Taiwan Strait. China has just started co-production of 200 more Su-27.

For now, Taiwan has one major advantage: its four E-2T airborne warning and control (AWACS) aircraft. The E-2T's almost 300 miles range radar gives Taiwan a superior picture of any evolving air and sea conflict when it is flying. But the AWACS are often unavailable, and they would be wiped out quickly in any major confrontation.

There is another ominous element to China's looming air superiority. Any serious air battle would be decided by early and massive strikes against Taiwan's air bases by China's growing number of short-range ballistic missiles. Sources in Taiwan note that China is now building tow brigades of 360 mile-range DF-15 missiles and one brigade of 180 mile-range M-11 missiles. China may now have 200 of these missiles in areas near Taiwan.

In another ominous move that recalls the 1958 crisis, it was reported on July 31 that China had seized a freighter carrying supplies to the Taiwan-occupied island of Matsu. Just a few miles from the Chinese coast, Matsu and the island of Quemoy were subjected to artillery barrages starting in 1958 and continuing sporadically into the early 1960s. At the time, saving these islands was a rallying cry for Taiwan's political supporters in the United States. More recently, they have been thought of as safe, both because they are fortified and equipped with supplies for a long siege and because the lack of confrontation over the islands for the last three decades has engendered an assumption that China would not threaten them. In the last month, however, in addition to the seizure of the supply ship, Chinese fighters have made a habit of flying large circles around the islands, to convey the message that this time, unlike the late 1950s, China intends to control the air over Quemoy and Matsu.

There is some debate among military sources in Washington and Taipei over whether China will begin a higher level of military pressure against Taiwan before the huge celebration planned for the October 1 anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Recent reporting in the Hong Kong Press suggests that outright attacks may follow the CCP festivities. But there is a window of opportunity: The weather in the Taiwan Strait usually holds until the end of October.

After July 9, the Clinton administration tilted against Taiwan, holding up the sale of additional E-2Ts and aircraft spare parts and delaying a Pentagon air-defense advisory mission. The rush to punish Taiwan for asserting its democratic prerogatives was opposed by the Defense Department, which apparently blocked an even longer list of military-related sanction son Taipei, and by Benjamin Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, who announced that he would black congressional approval of all U.S. arms sales until the aircraft and parts were back on track for Taiwan. The announcement of the sale of two E-2s came on July 31.

However, the Clinton administration is clearly unprepared to consider that Taiwan may need much more to defend itself against China. The administration acknowledged the looming aerial confrontation over the Taiwan Strait only when prompted to do so by the Washington Post on August 2. Then in a dramatic August 4 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Sen. Jesse Helms's new Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, assistant secretary of state for East Asia Stanley Roth disclosed that in the previous 48 hours, the United States had delivered six diplomatic demarcates, three warnings apiece to Taipei and Beijing, in an attempt to defuse their confrontation. It is slightly encouraging, if recent reports are correct, that the administration has had some tough diplomatic exchanges with China. But it remains discouraging that for defending its democracy and its airspace, Taiwan has been treated as if it were as guilty as Beijing.

At the same Senate hearing, James Woolsey, Clinton's first director of central intelligence, castigated as "appeasement" the China policy of his former boss. Woolsey and Reagan administration veterans Caspar Weinberger and Richard V. Allen firmly supported the Helms' bill, which would have the United States sell Taiwan a future generation of weapons and allow the Pentagon to advise Taipei on deterring conflict with China. The State Department strongly opposes the bill. And if the crisis were to escalate, it would indeed provide too little, too late.

Richard D. Fisher Jr. is an expert on China's military and the former director of the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation