November 1, 2005  

The Taiwan problem

Beijing arms for a fight it hopes to avoid

China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is in the midst of a remarkable modernization of its naval, air and ballistic missile forces. Although facing no imminent threat of American aggression, China has arguably legitimate concerns for protecting its sovereign territory and securing the sea lanes critical to its economic growth — the centerpiece of Chinese accomplishment in the last three decades.

China’s military buildup is primarily, if not exclusively, focused on what Beijing refers to as the Taiwan problem — a military mission it does not want to undertake, but which is legitimate in Chinese eyes and will be accomplished if necessary. This mission is to quickly overwhelm Taiwan’s military, cow the Taiwan government, and deter, delay or complicate effective U.S. intervention. Beijing would undertake this mission if it concludes it has no choice but to employ military forces to stop Taiwanese actions that it considers intolerable.

Almost all of mainland Chinese support that mission and, contrary to the views of most Americans and Taiwan citizens, do not see either this military buildup or the use of force if Taiwan moves to independence as reprehensible. Chinese leadership proclaims, as emphasized by passage last March of the Anti-Secession Law, that it will not be deterred in the use of force in these circumstances by fears of economic harm, loss of foreign trade and investment, damage to international reputation, loss of the 2008 Olympic Games, or risks to its infrastructure, population and military forces.

I do not see evidence that Beijing will use its forces in expansionist or aggressive ways beyond attempting reunification with Taiwan — which it considers an inalienable part of China. It seems, even with respect to the islands it claims in the South China Sea, to prefer nonmilitary means to assert and consolidate the sovereignty it espouses and to look after its regional interests. Indeed, China should strive to protect the ocean commerce essential to its economy, especially the flow of oil by both sea and pipeline from the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia.

China is more likely to turn to the task of deterring other countries or nonstate actors from attempting to interrupt the flow into China of oil, other forms of energy, and commodities to sustain its burgeoning economy and increasingly huge and affluent population.

For example, China might at that time feel the need to have a navy with a measure of organic air power so it might finally build or procure an aircraft carrier to provide air cover and reach when operating naval forces beyond the range of China-based aircraft.

On the other hand, China might change its intentions as its military capabilities and economic power grow.

The U.S. has the opportunity to influence China’s intentions. Perhaps the best way is for the U.S. to pursue a bilateral relationship that fosters development of an open, prosperous and progressive China. I do not underestimate the obstacles, and even paradoxes, to be confronted in pursuing such a complex policy. Nevertheless, because the U.S.-China relationship is arguably the most important in the world, such effort is appropriate — even required.

China is not itching for a fight. There is no expectation that the PLA could in the foreseeable future prevail in an all-out, head-to-head war against the U.S. military. The concept is instead to rapidly, in a matter of days, cause Taiwan to capitulate, with such capitulation abetted by U.S. failure to respond promptly and effectively. As has been often said, Beijing’s strategy is to present to Washington and the world a fait accompli concerning Taiwan.

The Chinese concept for the use of force has become increasingly clear and precisely directed: seeking a way to prevail in an attempt to regain Taiwan. The evidence has mounted in the force structure China has built and the clear statements in Chinese policy and strategic and doctrinal writings and statements.

The concept of taking on a superior force and defeating it through surprise, and with asymmetric means, pervades Chinese military publications. The U.S. is the only such force to be contemplated, but equally significant is that these methods are contemplated only in the situation where China is faced with U.S. forces aimed at thwarting its essential (in Beijing’s view) efforts with respect to Taiwan. Such ominous words are often used by those who want to emphasize some sort of broader Chinese threat. However, those who wish to depict China primarily in that context tend to ignore that Beijing has, over the last decade, clearly demonstrated a desire to enhance its comprehensive national security by nonmilitary means, even seeming until this recent modernization surge to recognize that its military modernization proceeded haltingly while its use of diplomacy and growing economic power was succeeding far better comparatively — and without alarming its neighbors.


In this regard, a balanced look at even the Taiwan issue should take into account the prospect that economic ties between the mainland and Taiwan hold at least the promise of resolving the problem and making consideration of military force seem a foolish anachronism.

In short, China does not seek an opportunity to use force against Taiwan, the United States, or its neighbors — even despised Japan. Beijing has, nevertheless, developed a concept to use force, if it feels it must, to defeat Taiwan, deter or delay U.S. intervention, and at least cause Japan to think twice before introducing overt military assistance in a developing crisis.

China began some years ago to deploy inaccurate short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) with conventional warheads in provinces opposite Taiwan. Those CSS-6 and CSS-7 (also called Dongfeng or DF-15 and -11, or M-9 and M-11) missiles have grown and their accuracy has been improved so these 700 or so SRBMs, although each delivering only the explosive force of a large bomb, are militarily useful.

China also has developed a conventional-warhead version of the CSS-5 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), previously armed only with nuclear warheads, called the DF-21C. Being an MRBM with a much higher re-entry velocity than SRBMs, the DF-21C is virtually invulnerable to any missile defenses Taiwan might contemplate. China’s Second Artillery or Strategic Rocket Force could employ these DF-21Cs in an initial wave to neutralize missile defenses and give the hundreds of follow-on SRBMs and new, exceedingly accurate land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) virtually guaranteed successful impacts on their targets. This would be a triple blow, dedicated to Taiwan, composed of very accurate MRBMs SRBMs, and LACMs.

The PLA Navy has an arsenal of effective ship-borne, anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), including a small number of Russian supersonic SS-N-22s and several classes of ships with subsonic indigenous ASCMs. Added to this is a large and growing nuclear and conventional submarine force. The PLA Navy is also adding impressive fast missile boats to its already large fleet of these smaller vessels for use primarily against Taiwan. The PLA Navy, in the next few years, would be able to subdue Taiwan’s naval forces using only a few, if any, of its most capable surface combatant ships and submarines. China would also employ Special Forces, Fifth Column cells, and information warfare to add to the paralysis and chaos in Taiwan. With air defenses largely incapacitated, China could use its many aircraft in follow-up attacks.

Initial ground-force assaults need not be as massive as envisioned. Amphibious forces of the order of magnitude of two divisions, feasible with existing amphibious lift along with airborne forces, would secure lodgments at selected beaches, ports and airfields. These lodgments would permit rapid, unopposed flow of additional forces to consolidate the military effort.

So what is China’s concept for dealing with expected U.S. intervention? China’s choice of ballistic and cruise missiles as the centerpieces of its initial attack on Taiwan makes it difficult for the U.S. to counter the missiles directly. The Second Artillery is capable, using only SRBMs — and more so if MRBMs and LACMs are added — of saturating any defenses the U.S. and Taiwan could assemble. China, unfortunately, has sought and found a way to intimidate or attack Taiwan that could not be countered effectively — unless one envisions the immediate use of something as dramatic as U.S. ICBMs against China.

China’s savvy decision to use ballistic missiles as its weapon of choice to overcome the disadvantage of being an inferior force does not stop there. There is the threat to U.S. bases in the region, and heightened antagonism between China and Japan could make it somewhat less difficult for Beijing to make a decision to attack U.S. bases in Japan, particularly if Japan appears ready to provide expansive support or even combat forces.


There is yet another exceedingly important chapter being written in the ballistic-missile saga. China is trying to move rapidly to develop ballistic missiles that could hit ships at sea at MRBM ranges — in other words, to threaten carriers beyond the range at which they could engage Chinese forces or strike China. Among its other advantages for China, this method of attack avoids the daunting prospect of having to cope with the U.S. Navy submarine force. China also is working to perfect the means to locate and target U.S. carrier strike groups.

Although the ballistic-missile capability against ships lies a few years in the future, the PLA Navy is receiving from Russia the wherewithal for the second major layer of a concept to deter a U.S. intervention, or the means to confront approaching U.S. Navy forces. Russia is providing eight new Kilo-class submarines with an important capability absent in the four Kilos the PLA Navy possesses. These new, quiet and capable diesel-electric Kilo-class submarines carry the Russian SS-N-27B Sizzler anti-ship cruise missile. This ASCM is launched while submerged and travels more than 100 nautical miles to make a low-altitude, evasive, supersonic attack intended to defeat the U.S. Aegis defense system.

With more than 50 operational submarines, and with a substantial number of them new and quiet, China can put to sea more submarines than the U.S. Navy can locate and counter. Its older Ming and Romeo submarines are lethal if ignored, and could also disperse and dilute the efforts of U.S. anti-submarine warfare forces. Some of the large, diverse and rapidly growing fleet of capable Shang SSNs, and Kilo, Song, and Yuan SSs can remain undetected as they seek to interdict U.S. carrier strike groups. If the shooting has started, U.S. anti-submarine warfare forces could eventually take a toll against the Chinese submarine force, but the delay in sanitizing the area before entry of carrier strike groups is what the Chinese are counting on as adequate delay to present the world with the aforementioned Taiwan fait accompli.

An attack by the Kilo submarines, whether preceded by ballistic missiles or not, using the lethal SS-N-27Bs, would degrade air defenses, including carrier flight decks. This would open the way to the many subsonic, but potent and sea-skimming ASCMs carried by the large and growing fleet of modern nuclear and diesel-electric submarines. There also is the opportunity for the PLA Air Force to carry out air attacks several hundred miles from China with air-launched ASCMs using new aircraft from Russia (the Su-30MK2) and indigenous long-range B-6s (a new version with new missiles) and FB-7 maritime interdiction aircraft, also with new ASCMs.

Ultimately, clean-up attacks might be envisioned using similarly capable ASCMs from the several new and upgraded classes of destroyers and frigates. These new classes of warships are headed in firepower by the Sovremennyys (soon to increase in number from two to four) from Russia with supersonic, evasive SS-N-22s. With almost equal firepower of the subsonic sort, China has built or is building enough new and modernized destroyers and frigates to form several surface action groups, each capable of long-range ASCM attacks and good fleet air defenses using surface-to-air missile systems — the best SAM systems coming from Russia.

China is testing a mobile, solid-fueled ICBM, the DF-31, and building a new Jin-class ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN) to launch a version of that missile. These new missiles will augment the force of about 20 DF-5A ICBMs that already can reach the United States. Most observers believe China will build new forces and improve older forces to whatever degree is necessary to outpace U.S. deployments of a national missile defense.


Despite rash statements recently by PLA one-star Gen. Zhu Chenghu, we should not expect China readily to escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. Even with the augmented nuclear arsenal, China’s minimal deterrent is useful only when unused. It is the specter of its use that has a deterrent effect. Nevertheless, China’s greatly enhanced nuclear force will serve as a backdrop for Chinese decisions to confront U.S. forces that are coming to the defense of Taiwan. Beijing will almost certainly feel a bit more confident that it can act to protect its interests, knowing that the U.S. president always has to keep in mind that he is dealing with a nuclear power — not a Yugoslavia or Iraq. So, unfortunately, China’s leaders are likely to be emboldened by having a much-improved nuclear arsenal atop its conventional forces. The open question is the capability to coordinate it all. Beijing’s concept for overwhelming Taiwan and deterring or confronting U.S. forces is not questioned, but there is considerable question about China’s capability to coordinate its new forces in two major simultaneous operations to bring Taiwan to its knees and cause the U.S. to be tardy, indecisive or ineffective.

My guess is that China’s effort would largely succeed against Taiwan and fail against the U.S. — simply because the inexperienced Chinese military would not be able to cope with the complexities, unknowns and countermeasures it would face. However, this is a rather thin reed to count on as we contemplate an intervention in a Taiwan crisis.

With this new PLA, we face the prospect that China could give us, or will at least try to give us, considerable pause in determining whether and how to respond to a Chinese attack on Taiwan. China, precisely and effectively, has narrowly focused the modernization of its forces on this essential PLA mission while the U.S. has been focused on other missions around the world.

China will almost certainly beat us in the race to build ballistic missiles to hit ships and development of missile defenses to counter that. If we react quickly, maybe we will come up with other less direct ways to make its missile attacks ineffective. However, the obvious answer, at least over the short term, is to ensure that Beijing understands the ultimate consequences of starting such a conflict and to hope that understanding serves as an effective deterrent. Given Beijing’s obsession with the Taiwan issue, that prospect is not, however, reassuring. This ongoing PLA modernization surge has put a new face on the specter of cross-strait conflict, and the solution is surely not the capability by tiny Taiwan to strike huge China with some sort of offensive counterstrike cruise missiles. To think so ignores the strategic depth of China compared with Taiwan.

Beijing has sent a strong message concerning how serious it is about Taiwan. Chinese leaders think their arguments for such a force are compelling and should be readily understood — even accepted — by all. We have the difficult task of determining the nature of our response to Beijing — or at least our reaction — beyond readying our forces to cope with the specific new threats.

We would be mistaken to infer that China is, in general, hostile to the U.S., despite our differences on a number of issues. To do so would ignore many positive overtures and actions by Beijing in recent years, the many interests we have in common, and important areas where we agree. We should take fully into account that the U.S.-China relationship is arguably the most important in the world.

Perhaps our response need make only two points: In principle, we persist in our long-held position against the use of military forces against Taiwan; specifically, we believe it would be highly imprudent and ultimately harmful for China to use the PLA described in the concept above. If the day comes when China’s leaders are making a decision on whether to attack Taiwan, the existence of these new capabilities might make a less persuasive and emboldening argument for the attack if the potential harm to China is fully appreciated.

Retired Navy Rear Adm. Eric A. McVadon is a former defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and is now director of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis and a consultant on East Asia security affairs.