A fair number of my friends are in the military. Every time I discuss international affairs they’re quick to point out that China is the one to watch. This is particularly true in the US Navy, where they’re very concerned with generating ways to counter any threat from the Middle Kingdom.
There’s certainly reason enough to take a good, hard look at what the Chinese could do, and what it would take to stop them if they try. Ever since 1949, China has claimed sovereignty over the island of Taiwan. They make no bones about their implacable desire to gain control of what they claim is a group of Chinese citizens in open rebellion against the one legal government. This news item details an official statement from the mainland Chinese government, warning Taiwan about their efforts at “creeping independence”.
This is patently absurd, since Taiwan has been under self rule for the past 56 years. Still, the Chinese are in a bind. The government there has based a great deal of the justification for its existence on bringing the wayward island back in to the fold. If they acknowledge the actual situation then that justification ceases to exist.
There’s no chance that China will be able to convince the people of Taiwan to give up democracy and submit to their authoritative rule by purely peaceful means. So they’ve been trying to come up with ways to take the island by force.
The biggest obstacle will be the US naval forces in the area, which will certainly come to the aid of a democracy if it’s attacked by mainland China. But, even if they manage to destroy or drive the Americans away, they’ll still have to contend with the defenses on the island. After more than five decades of preparation, they are very formidable.
Still, China is taking steps to prepare for what they see as an inevitable showdown. They’ve been increasing their defense budget lately, using most of the money to upgrade their existing weapons so that they can achieve something approaching parity with US weapon systems. This could be seen as merely trying to modernize their rather shabby and outmoded high-tech weapon systems, but they’ve also been purchasing equipment that would be useless for defense but vital for an amphibious assault. After all, it’s difficult to see what else they could do with giant hovercraft and other landing craft designed to place troops on hostile beaches.
What’s most distressing to my friends in the Navy is the purchase of two decommissioned aircraft carriers. (One of them was purchased by a Hong Kong front company, which said that they wanted to convert it into a floating casino.) While the flight deck of the first carrier is even now being used to train pilots, the Chinese have been studying the remaining hulk most diligently over the past few years. It’s entirely possible that the coming decade will see the construction of a Chinese carrier fleet, something that they could use to counter American forces.
This is certainly troubling, but for some reason I’m not that concerned just yet. While it’s true that China has been trying their best to increase military spending, and that they’re the country with the 2nd largest military budget, they still have a long way to go to catch up to the United States. Many people think that, should they try, the Chinese economy would erode and begin to collapse. Shades of the USSR when faced with Reagan’s defense budgets back in the 1980’s.
Even though they’re the people who are the most vocal about their concerns, the military isn’t the only branch of the government that’s trying to prepare for any possible conflict with China. As Lex has pointed out, the US has tried to find allies that share our goals and will help if such a conflict develops. Looking at it from a military standpoint, the Japanese have already taken steps to project power over the sea. The Chinese might be presently mulling over the idea of building a carrier fleet, the Japanese are already a few steps ahead.
The thing that seems to be puzzling many observers is the timing. Relations between Taiwan and China had thawed in recent months, why take such a belligerent and threatening tone?
I can’t say for sure, but I do note that Congress has been cutting back on the defense budget of late. Just last month it was announced that new shipbuilding for the US Navy would be scaled back. It could be that the Chinese see an opportunity opening up in a decade or so, when the fleet is stretched so thin that we wouldn’t be able to effectively interfere with a landing even if we wanted to.
In conclusion I’d have to say that China might just be a developing military threat, but it will be at least a decade before they’re a credible one. Near as I can figure it, it would appear that the Chinese government strategy is to keep getting ready for the big invasion of Taiwan, but wait until such a time as the United States is no longer willing to intervene. They don’t seem to realize that it will longer than a decade before that happens.