War over Taiwan undesirable, but not unthinkable

The Chinese frigate Hengshui joins Rim of the Pacific exercises at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, in June. Chinese and Western security analysts tasked with imagining a Taiwan conflict generally start out with a disclaimer: a war pitting the U.S. and China is unpredictable and a pretty bad idea under most circumstances.


By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 18, 2016

TOKYO — Chinese and Western security analysts tasked with imagining a Taiwan conflict generally start with a disclaimer — a war pitting the United States and China is unpredictable and a pretty bad idea under most circumstances.

A few scenarios begin with China developing an insurgency on Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province that must be reunited.

Others begin with miscalculations of the opposing side’s intentions.

While multinational conflict over China’s claims to the South China Sea has grabbed more attention in recent years, Taiwan’s status as an unrecognized sovereign state with U.S. support has never been far from the minds of Asia-Pacific military strategists.

President-elect Donald Trump’s talk with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and vague questioning of the “One China” policy that has underpinned U.S-China relations for decades brought Taiwan’s unsettled status back into the international spotlight.

“In a crisis, China may have a higher threshold for risk than the United States may be expecting, particularly when it comes to defending ‘core interests’ like territory and sovereignty claims,” wrote the authors of a December report on China’s military strategies by Rand Corp., a nonprofit policy think tank. “This could lead Chinese leaders to do something that they would not consider escalatory but that the United States might.”

There have been rumblings in Asia since Tsai and her pro-independence party swept into power in January.

The election win interrupted a cycle in which China offered Taiwan generous trade concessions and expanded economic opportunity in a bid to tie the island closer to the mainland.

Tsai’s unwillingness to support a “one China, different interpretations” declaration first proposed in 1992 led the mainland to quickly suspend communication with Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council.

China’s strategic hand

A Taiwanese declaration of independence would allow China to use “non-peaceful means” to secure Taiwan, according to China’s 2005 anti-secession law.

However, there seems to be little appetite on Taiwan for declaring independence.

Most polls indicate support for the status quo, in order to avoid conflict. Support for reunification generally hovers near 10 percent in domestic polls.

Any bid to forcibly annex Taiwan would depend on political and diplomatic support, according to Chinese and Western analysts.

China should “try to sway international opinion to isolate and attack our opponent,” to “seek legitimacy to justify our action,” according to Rand’s translation of a 2013 essay in the state-sponsored China Military Science publication.

Beijing would likely cast a Taiwan invasion as a defensive war, according to J. Michael Cole, a security analyst and former Canadian intelligence official who wrote a 2015 essay for The National Interest, a publication that advocates a realist and often muscular foreign policy.

“China would position itself not as the aggressor, but rather as the victim, ‘forced’ by external circumstances to go on the offensive, however begrudgingly, to protect its ‘vital’ or ‘core’ interests,” Cole wrote.

Cole and other analysts suggest China could use propaganda and allies on the island to manufacture provocation. China would then come to the “rescue” of its citizens.

Taiwan’s military strength doesn’t remotely match up with China’s, according to Cole and others. Its primary strategy remains to dissuade China from attacking in the first place, relying on defensive measures that would exact enough pain on China’s military if it did strike.

Taiwan would then rely on a promise of aid that the U.S. ambiguously declared in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

U.S. resolve and readiness could prove critical, should China ever view the time ripe to annex Taiwan.

“It may be relatively more inclined to consider the use of force if it believes that it could achieve its operational objectives before the United States could bring its forces fully to bear,” according to Rand’s U.S.-China Military Scorecard, a 430-page report and war simulation funded by the U.S. Air Force and published last year.

The latest study, one of four since 1996, evaluates the evolving balance of power as expected to shape up in 2017.

The military balance

The Scorecard, which gave the U.S. an overwhelming edge when it first published in 1996, now states that the 2017 balance is now trending in the other direction.

It refrains from declaring an outright winner because so many variables are involved but outlines ways each side could prevail through its advantages.

Kadena Air Base in Okinawa would play a critical role in blunting an invasion, with its fighter jets in the best position to reach Taiwan quickly, according to the Scorecard report.

It would also present China with a target for its advanced ballistic missiles, though at the potential cost of drawing Japan into war.

China’s primary advantage lies in its geography.

“While the United States is limited to a handful of bases, most of which are distant from the conflict area, China has roughly 40 bases from which it can conduct unrefueled operations over Taiwan,” according to the report.

For China to prevail, it would need simultaneous advantages in nearly all operational categories, the report said.

The U.S. maintains an advantage in penetrating Chinese airspace, fighting amphibious forces and categories. However, China’s improvements in missiles, cyberwarfare, anti-surface warfare and other areas increase risks to the United States.

All of these assumptions are made on the premise that the conflict does not spiral into a nuclear doomsday scenario.

Despite planning for the worst on both sides, there are some encouraging signs. Several Chinese military documents and writers are focused on keeping conflict small, while acknowledging the inherent difficulty in doing so.

People’s Liberation Army literature increasingly refers to concepts like escalation control, deterrence and crisis management, according to the Rand report.

Deterrence, through U.S. military presence and dialog with China, has always been central to U.S. strategy.

That must continue as China’s military grows stronger, Ian Easton wrote earlier this year. He is a research fellow for the Project 2049 Institute, a nonpartisan public policy organization focused on the Asia-Pacific region.

“More can and should be done by America and allies to convince [China] that a war in the Taiwan Strait (or anywhere else) would be fruitless and financially crippling,” he wrote.

“High-end scenarios, like defending Taiwan from invasion, should come first not because they are the most probable, but because they are the most consequential.”