I’m Not Convinced

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.

17 thoughts on “I’m Not Convinced”

  1. Well-linked post, James.

    I’ve watched the attempts to quantify China’s threats to world order for several months now. And my army buddies’ concerns are the same as your Navy friends’.

    Your treatment of this subject lacks one thing, though: the same consideration that this piece lacks, that of the economic dependancy on American consumers that China has cultivated.

    Coastal southern China, from Shanghai to Shen Zhen is capitalist and export-dependant. The people of this region are much more cosmopolitan, having formed some accomodation with British, Dutch and Portuguese peoples over hundreds of years of trade and strife, than the average Beijing functionary.

    Northern China is where the anti-Guo Min Dang idealogues roost. While the southern half of the nation’s politic has largely “moved-on” the northern Communists still nurse a decrepid ideal of the Communist Mao, the Long March, and China’s dominance over world affairs.

    If it should come to blows, trade with America will stop. Nike factories and the producers of Jacklyn Smith Evening Wear collections will lay off millions of newly enfranchised migrants from inland. The collection of taxes will falter. The flow of agricultural products into the cities, so dependant on factory and port wages, will slow.

    I predict that, in order to avoid such an economic catastrophe, the Capitalist southern regions will choose to secede first. A civil war would then ensue that will create diverse opportunities for our Navy, Marines, Air Force and Psy-ops guys to capitalize on.

    China’d better think twice. The Nationalists could end up governing the South China export machine!


  2. China was able to get Bill Clinton elected, with a consequent slashing of the military, and several large technological transfers from the US to China in nuclear and warhead technology.

    China may be anticipating a similar future US electoral success. All it would take would be one more Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter style presidency and China would be set for the next century.

  3. The PRC only has a certain amount of tim before fleet strength becomes irrelevant because it will become cheap enough to drop orbital weapons on any amphibious assault force that tries to take a rich prize like Taiwan. At orbital drop speeds, you don’t need a whole lot of mass to take out one of those huge amphibious crafts and while GPS guidance won’t do against a moving target, I’m sure that there are plenty of intelligent targeting systems that Taiwan could develop to handle the problem.

    In other words, conventional invasion has an expiration date attached. I would guess it’s about 5 years after cheap launch becomes a reality. The US defense guarantee only has to hold until Taiwan can defend itself, Taiwan merges with the PRC based on mutual political evolution, the PRC splits and Taiwan unifies with the new coastal republic able to take care of itself, or the PRC becomes an entirely sane government and lets Taiwan go its own way.

  4. The other area that deserves attention is China’s population trends in several areas.

    China’s going to have a lot of frustrated unmarried men in a short period of time.

    Somewhere between 2030 and 204 China’s population will be older and more burdensome than America’s in every way one can think of.

    By 2030 India will have a far larger population than China.

    By 2020, has China’s current government not already collapsed, its leadership will be staring all these realities in the face. Like the Germans in 1914 they will realize that their power will soon wane and that if they wish to do something to change their world they have run out of time.

    At that point or sooner, they will have to look at whether they want Taiwan or something else. The something else that makes the most sense is Siberia. Particularly if America keeps up it’s efforts to isolate and surround China with allies and Russia remains as weak as it is now.

    From its consolidation in the 1870’s for a period of 75 years to its defeat in 1945 Germany was a rapidly growing power that constantly threatened the established world order as it found its place in the community of nations. Likewise the Soviet Union grew rapidly and then stagnated from 1917 for 72 years until it collapsed, exhausted, after threatening the established world order to find its place in the community of nations. China began its search in 1949. Since its revolution, China has threatened the established world order or has at least been perceived and feared to.

    The current Chinese government will be 75 years old in 2025 aging rapidly with a population demanding a higher standard of living, but with many other countries offering to be the new source of low cost labor for the world’s manufacturers. Something will happen then and it will have repercussions for much of the world. Though the matter will be largely out of our hands, the challenge will be to help it reach that age and pass through it as gracefully as did the Soviet Union and to help it recovers as successfully as Germany has.

  5. [ I would guess it’s about 5 years after cheap launch becomes a reality.]

    Cheap launch? Please explain.

  6. this is why we need to run a bigger trade deficit with China. Right now they own $6*10^11 of T-bills, so an invasion of Taiwan would cost them that much. The higher that number is the more leverage we have.

  7. It’s important to keep in mind that nations do not always act in their own best interests. Nor do they always undertake only actions which can be prosecuted to a successful conclusion. WWII is an excellent example of many nations picking fights they really could not win, on a fundamental level, despite that the result was still years of horrendous bloodshed. Similarly, there is essentially no chance of the Islamic world defeating the western world, yet many Islamists have been and are very intent on fighting a war with the west. There is absolutely no reason, other than the unshakeable rationality of the Chinese government, that China might not choose to attack Taiwan and plunge the region into a period of massive bloodshed and devastation despite an inevitable defeat of the Chinese by Taiwanese, American, Japanese, Austrialian et al forces.

    We would be wise to remember the irrationality of the world when considering how best to prepare ourselves for the future.

  8. Sage words, Robin.

    In the end it will come down to the rationality of the Chinese People, won’t it?

    They will support their conscription into Beijing’s irrational conflicts, or not.


  9. There is no need to stage a “big invasion” at all. Read this article describing a very plausible scenario for taking control of Taiwan before the US can intervene. Rocket and aerial bombardment, an electronic blockade, political warfare, airborne invasion and infiltration by special forces might do it.

    Afterwards, will the Taiwanese still want to fight to the death? They have much to lose. Taiwanese businesses made massive investments on the mainland, which would be taken hostage. Add the fact that modern Chinese Sukhoi fighters are at least equivalent to our 70s-era F-15s, that China can afford to trade a few conventionally-powered subs for an American SSN or amphibious assault ship, that their antiship missiles are perfectly deadly.

    Once there is a new government installed in Taipeh, resistance and intervention would appear both expensive and pointless.

    And much of the world will just want to return to “business as usual”, while the Chinese can promise that their reconquista of Taiwan will be just like that of Hong Kong.

  10. Nothing is ever that clean werner. China says “boo!” and everybody says “okay, you win?”

    Hong Kong’s handover was a multi-decade negotiated event. The communists have not proven they are able to hold on to Hong Kong. The incompetence of the communist government in Beijing is being glossed over, presumably by people suffering from chronic carbon monoxide poisoning or its equivalent.

  11. Werner, the scenario you describe is scary, because it is a real possibility. But when you wrote:

    “…[M]uch of the world will just want to return to ‘business as usual’, while the Chinese can promise that their reconquista of Taiwan will be just like that of Hong Kong.

    I winced. Unprincipaled real politik died with the Bush Doctrine. The deposition of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent embarrassment of his enablers in the UN and Europe should be the final nail in its coffin.

    You understate the difficulty of pacifying a pride people through force. Taking Taiwan, and holding it will be two different things. Remember Tank Man and the Tian an men protests in 1989? After looking at the linked picture, can you really imagine Beijing’s Communists butchering thousands of Taiwanese in front of the millions of digital cameras on the island, just to control a “renegade province?” A popular insurgency, coupled with peacefull protest will make the new prize ungovernable, and prove right the critics of China’s denial of its citizens’ human rights.

    In the face of this, your “much of the world” would have to be the unprincipaled enablers of a Communist, anti-democratic occupation. Old Europe’s elected officials, Mssrs. Chirac and Schröder, newly embarrassed for their enabling of the Iraqi ex-dictator, Hussein, are presiding over stagnant statist economies. They should soon be turned out by the voters, and no longer inclined to champion real politik with undemocratic, Communist regimes.

    Currently the PRC’s system of governance is antihumanitarian, and void of the moderation that representative democracy imposes. The Communist party monopolizes all public discourse by outlawing any trade unions, student unions, opposition political parties, and free press organs. Any popular dissent on military policy, trade policy, or freedom of expression and religion quickly meets the boot-heel of the octagenarians in Beijing. The National People’s Congress may offer a veil of democracy, but, like Saddam Hussein’s false parliament, it is cowed and coerced into rubber-stamping (see bottom linked paragraph) the central government’s dictates.

    Is this a government you’d like to live under?

    Let me suggest a less bellicose solution that any democrat, from Cologne to Hong Kong to San Diego can embrace. Three words: China Democracy Now.


  12. [ … Add the fact that modern Chinese Sukhoi fighters are at least equivalent to our 70s-era F-15s, that China can afford to trade a few conventionally-powered subs for an American SSN or amphibious assault ship, that their antiship missiles are perfectly deadly…. ]

    Compare to:

    [ …
    Missile Madness

    Charles R. Smith
    Thursday, Sept. 9, 2004

    Clinton Legacy Inside Russian Missiles

    For nearly three decades the U.S. Navy has depended on a missile designed in 1948. The MQM-8 Vandal was derived from the ramjet-powered Talos missile that protected the Navy during the Cold War.

    Story Continues Below

    The massive missile duplicated the performance of deadly Russian anti-ship missiles, flying faster than a rifle bullet for more than 50 miles at extremely low altitude.

    In 1991, the Navy canceled the replacement for the Vandal. The AQM-127 SLAT (Supersonic Low-Altitude Target) project was terminated because of climbing costs and long delays. The move left the Navy with a limited inventory of usable Vandal missiles to act as realistic targets.

    In 1992, the Clinton administration took over and three years passed before a replacement for the aging Vandal was selected. However, President Clinton decided to purchase a Russian-made missile for the U.S. Navy.

    The Clinton decision came after Vice President Al Gore tripped to Moscow in 1995 and shook hands with Russian leaders. As a result of U.S.-Russian politics, the Navy was stuck with the Zvezda-Strela MA-31 – a derivative of Zvezda’s Kh-31 NATO, code name “Krypton,” anti-ship missile.

    Yet the Russian Krypton was not ready. It required more money and lots of additional development to turn it into an operational weapon. Thus, the Clinton administration gave U.S. defense dollars to Moscow.

    In 1995, according to the official U.S. Navy documentation, McDonnell Douglas proceeded under Clinton administration orders to help Russia develop the Krypton missile as part of a U.S. Navy target drone project. The catch: The missile did not work, was highly dangerous to fire and needed improvement to meet the specifications.

    U.S. Improves Russian Missiles

    According to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, U.S. Navy and McDonnell Douglas engineers suggested a series of “P3I,” or “pre-planned product improvements,” to extend the range of the Krypton, improve its flight performance and enable jet fighters to safely fire the weapon without blowing up.

    “The MA-31 [Krypton] target will need P3I [pre-planned product improvements] in order to meet the range and ground/surface launch requirements for the Supersonic Sea Skimming Target program (SSST). The range of the MA-31 target in its FCT configuration is approximately 15 nm [nautical miles] at low altitude,” states the 1995 review document.

    According to the 1995 McDonnell Douglas review, one “extended range option” given to the Russian contractor Zvezda “adds an auxiliary fuel tank, a reduced drag nose cone, changes the fuel to JP-10 (which has a higher specific energy content than the Russian fuel), and modifies the ramjet nozzle. The extended range modification is intended to increase range to approximately 42 nm [nautical miles] at 10m [meter] altitude.”

    Another more crucial design improvement given to Russia involved “Ground Jettison Testing” done by the U.S. defense contractor against the Russian missile. According to a 1995 program review document, the Russian-built AKY-58M missile launcher for the Krypton was fatally flawed and could destroy the firing plane.

    “In three emergency jettison tests, the lanyard stayed with the launch rail instead of with the target. In all cases the booster would have been armed, and ignition could have occurred for any of several reasons,” stated the 1995 report.

    “MDAC [McDonnell Douglas] has determined that use of a longer lanyard and slower separation velocity would allow proper operation of the emergency jettison sequence. The problem has been turned over to the Russians for resolution,” states the 1995 review document … ]


    I think that NewsMax piece is a bit overexcited. It’s likely the Russians haven’t bothered with expensive design improvements to their export missiles.

    — David Davenport

  13. Steve, I do not doubt the awfulness of the Beijing regime. It is exactly my point: once Taiwan is under Chinese control, there is not much we or the Taiwanese can do about it. Tank Man is a hero, but nobody knows what became of him. If Gandhi had lived under such a regime, he would be just another unmarked grave. And an island can be sealed off pretty well.

    Beijing does not want to ruin Taiwan´s economy. They might try to calm things down and promise to rule their long lost brothers with a (comparatively) light hand: work, invest, research, keep your lifestyle (more or less), but submit to Beijing. Of course, dissenters are disappeared or flee the country. Once people realize that help is not coming, what will they do? “Free Tibet” t-shirts are still selling. It doesn´t make a difference.

    European politicians would be among the first to advice the Taiwanese not to rock the boat and accept the new order. Schroeder and Chirac are whores, but I am not sure they are embarrassed by it. Their successors will not call for divestment from China either. Why would they? In my experience, Europeans are 99% cynical or indifferent about the spread of democracy. Could the US, alone, afford to break with China, after moving all your manufacturing there?

  14. David, there is no reason to be complacent. I guess most soviet weapons looked better on paper than in reality, but they had made some remarkable progress by the late 90s, even if it bankrupted them. Since then, this stuff has been sold or licensed all over the world, and is continually improved upon. With the breakdown of the soviet union, weapons makers got access to modern technology – all the things we previously denied them, the stuff only a modern consumer society can produce. What you cannot make you can purchase or copy: electronics, machine tools, engineering software, advanced materials, all kinds of components. I am no expert, but it would be crazy to assume that any technological advantage is permanent.

  15. When I was in the PR China, my anfitrions showed a tremendous fear that the “Imperialists” are scheming to divide China. It is true that in the 19th Century China was carved up in spheres of influence (colonies), but since then the idea has disappeared in the West. Steve’s comment can be construed as an existing operational plan, the first I ever heard of, and surely will feed Chinese Communist paranoia. By the way, the secession of the South is feasible, as they hate the corrupt Communist mandarins sent to rule them from Peking.

  16. Jaimito, the south seceding could be the natural result of excessive repression and coercion from Beijing.

    Paranoid delusions, whether from N. Korean or Chinese Communists reveal more about the deluded than they do about real threats from the U.S. No “Imperialist” plan is required. All it takes is for the southern Chinese, tired of irrational wars and cloying central-planning, to stand up and demand change.

    Mao united 147 distinct cultures, each with its own language*, at the point of a gun. If China democratized, they could forestall regional secessions by giving a political voice to the disenfranchised in these disparate areas.

    But the Communist party would lose its primacy. Thus its paranoia.


    *Beijing calls these “dialects” in order to gloss over the national differences within “greater China.” And it forces Pu Tong Hua on every school child in an attempt to suppress any cultural differences. (Who’s the Imperialist here?)

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