It’s Nice to Have Outside Verification

There’s been some discussion here about China’s continuing hostility, mainly because they want to gain control of Taiwan while Western states are reluctant to abandon a fellow democracy, however flawed, to a Communist regime. If you’re interested, you can check out the previous discussions here, here, here and here.

My position is that the Chinese military isn’t in any shape to take on the US Navy, and it won’t be for at least another twenty years. Even one carrier group in the area would devastate an invasion force moving towards Taiwan, and the Chinese really don’t have anything that has a good chance of countering that. Instead I saw all of this bluster and aggression as a way to gauge the reaction that the West would have to military action. If we indicate that we’re not interested in fighting for Taiwan then the landing craft would launch, otherwise not.

Some of the readers who left comments have a different take on things. They pointed out that the chances of an actual shooting war are becoming ever more remote since Chinese GDP relies on business with Western firms. Even if they had a fair chance of taking the island by force, they’d have to deal with the problems brought by an economy shattered by sanctions and embargoes.

Now is saying the same thing.

Good going, guys! You scooped the professionals.

17 thoughts on “It’s Nice to Have Outside Verification”

  1. I agree with Ralf that the Chinese sometimes seem irrational. But I think it not so much irrationality as the conflicting and inconsistent behavior which occurs because there are different factions within the Chinese leadership which have different interests and which favor different policies. And so the Chinese seem to lurch in one direction, then in another. My greatest fear is that some situation, particularly domestic unrest, will become so severe that an attack on Taiwan, with all its known and unknown costs and risks, seems like a good move to unite the country to prevent the collapse of the regime. Crisis stability is the main thing we should be worried about. The muted signals sent by Britain in the years before World War I are exactly what we should NOT be doing. (see this earlier post)

    What we are doing now, sending a message that we are serious about both the will and the means and the alliances needed to defend Taiwan, means we are maximizing the chance that deterrance will hold in a crisis, or that aggression will be swiftly beaten if deterrance fails in a crisis.

  2. I think the only real danger would be the same kind internal political dynamics that drove Argentina to invade the Falklands. If the mainland encounters a severe economic crises caused by the emerging freemarket colliding with the interest of the ruling communist aristocrats, the aristocrats might talk themselves into trying something desperate.

    Back in college I read up on some game theory that suggested that a nuclear power like China could get away with massively nuking a small state like Taiwan and then sitting back and daring the other nuclear powers to do something about it. The rest of the world would either have to escalate to nuclear war or accede to the destruction of the small state. I don’t find that to likely.

    Frankly, I think we have sold the communist enough rope to hang themselves with. They need the freemarket and trade to build their military and internal power but at the same time it undermines their power.

    They’re screwed.

  3. You are right when you say that the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) would take 20 years to be able to challenge the USN. But that is based on the PLA-N challenging the USN of today. Twenty years is more than a couple of lifetimes in weapons systems and technology and the USN is not resting on the existing technology. So as the PLA-N grows and develops so does the USN. But the rate of growth with technology increases as the technology grows meaning that the USN will be growing slightly faster than the PLA-N. This doesn’t take into account the experience and training of the USN over the PLA-N. It’s one thing to have carriers and quite another to employ them. Ask the Soviet Navy.
    Of course there are ways to mitigate the advantages. Building a navy and airforce that can provide superiority in the straits for a short period, followed by a period of contesting control may allow enough time for the PLA to put forces on the ground in Taiwan and supplies for a short campaign. But does that mean that the PLA can crush the Taiwan Army in that time? Probably not, we are not talking US and Iraq. Taiwan has the technology and weapons to inflict significant casualties on the PLA. Plus they know that it will be their swan song if they lose so the Taiwanese will not hold back and there will be strikes on the mainland as well.
    It is not a pretty scenario.
    I think overall the best that the PRC can hope for is a bluff which would force Taiwan to accept an Austrian or Czechoslovakian solution from the 1930’s.

  4. It seems a bit odd to me that Strategypage just mentioned China’s trade with the United States as being at risk. If we mined their ports (or maybe even just hinted we were doing it) ALL of China’s seaborne trade would stop, including oil tankers. And I assume Taiwan is capable of doing the same thing.

    We always talk as if Taiwan’s role is just to dig in and defend against a Chinese invasion, but I bet the Taiwanese aren’t planning it that way. They have modern planes, ships and subs capable of inflicting lots of damage on mainland targets.

  5. Taiwan is modernizing its navy. This will be a formidable surface force. The ROC Navy will be a major player in defending Taiwan against any invasion. They are also going to work with the USA to build 8 modern subs. I wonder if these will have mine-laying capability?

    Bottom line here is that the PRC’s capacity to compel Taiwan is weakening. That is good. Because it takes one more disaster scenario off the table if the PRC is deterred from attacking. They will have a hard enough time making the transition from Communism Lite to some kind of representative, liberal government, without the temptation of a “splendid little war” as a distraction. Any war against Taiwan would be neither splendid, nor little, nor likely to be successful.

    Strength prevents war. Weakness is provocative.

  6. Living in China, one gets a different picture.

    Every single Chinese citizen is aware that the leaders are willing to sacrifice 15-20 years of economic development if they need to take Taiwan by force.

    Don’t think that China is wholly incapable of taking Taiwan in the near future. Every ship and aircraft in China can be used for this operation, all that is required is a declaration of “emergency”.

    China’s military mondernization is happening fast. Their subs are good enough, and they will have plenty in another 5 years. The US can’t catch every ship and aircraft that goes across the strait. If the fleet is an extra 6 hours away, it will make a large difference. China won’t need long to destablize Taiwan.

    Whole books can be written on this, so I’ll leave my comments at that. Don’t get too cocky guys.

  7. I have seen accounts of Chinese citizens becoming violently enraged at even the most polite disagreement with Chinese policy regarding Taiwan, Tibet, etc. And yes, I mean literally, not figuratively, violent. What do you know about this, Mr. Rummel, and what clues might this give us to what the Chinese government might do?

    For many years Chinese children were educated to hate ‘foreign [capitalist] devils’ as the ruling elite found that fear and hatred of a foreign menace was an effective method of control. (See Natan Sharansky’s “The Case for Democracy”.) Now, perhaps, we have a ruling elite which was itself educated to believe the propaganda that an earlier generation of rules cynically implemented.

    I would be very interested in the thoughts of somebody who has actually studied China.

  8. J. Rummel,

    Coming late to the party, I would like to expand on a point raised by S. Love in the comments to your March 18 CB post referenced in the body of this post.

    I don’t think that a PLAN/PLA cross-Straights amphibian/airborne assault would be a preferred military option for the PRC. Here are its downsides (similar arguments against ‘lighting-strike’ airborne assault):

    — Risky; it might fail even in the absence of US Navy intervention. Failure bad for Politburo health (Galtieri).
    — Costly in terms of PLAN sinkings and PLA casualties.
    — Expensive in dollars/yuan.
    — Disruptive to Chinese economy, especially export and financial sectors, millions likely out of work.
    — Would intensify anti-China sentiment in Japan and ROK, and promote re-arming and nuclearization. Also, FWIW, an international public relations nightmare.
    — If successful, Taiwan is damaged goods.

    For a fictional window into how the Politburo and PLA general staff might view such a problem, I enjoyed Dragon Strike by Humphrey Hawksley & Simon Holberton (1999), unfortunately out of print. It’s about the Spratley Islands, not Taiwan, but its depiction of the subtlety with which the leadership plots its path is probably valid.

    If I were advising the Politburo, I would recommend creating a “Sudetenland” style crisis, and then respond by implementing a seaborne blockade of Taiwan, accompained by a Falklands-style Exclusion Zone, enforced by submarine.

    The blockade would be implemented by mine-laying submarines, with mines seeded near Taiwan’s harbors and in shipping lanes in the Exclusion Zone.

    I would announce this policy with deep regret, pointing out that it will be quickly reversed once the Taipei government accepts its provincial status and sets a timetable for Reunification. I would quietly make it known that provocations by Taiwan or the US, such as tit-for-tat interference with PRC shipping, would precipitate confiscation of Taiwan-owned assets on the mainland, and a conventional-warhead ballistic missile attack against Taiwan.

    Per Hawksley and Holbertson, this policy would have dramatic and forseeable effects in the futures markets. In the months prior to the announcement, I would have taken major positions through cutouts. The windfall could be sufficient to fund the operation.

    Anticipated results:

    — Insurers refuse to cover freighters steaming to and from Taiwan.
    — Some ships strike mines, and are damaged or sink with some loss of life. Commercial or military, so what. They were warned.
    — Taiwan’s exports plummet.
    — Convulsions in Taiwan’s economy, unemployment surges, stock market tumbles.
    — Taiwan’s pro-Mainland politicians are strengthened–they can negotiate with the PRC and find a solution.
    — Isolationist and ‘transnational progressivist’ forces in the US, Japan, and ROK lobby their governments to stay out of an internal Chinese matter.
    — An upsurge in pro-government patriotic feeling on the mainland (ref. Paul Stinchfield, immediately prior comment).
    — The mainland’s export economy runs on, largely unaffected.
    — There is no deadline for a resolution from the Politburo’s point of view. If the “crisis” drags on, that’s Taiwan’s and the US’ problem.

  9. AMac,
    A blockade of Taiwan? How would that be easier than taking the island by force?

    A bloackade would take much more time to put into place, and a LOT more resources to enforce. It wouldn’t happen. The US wouldn’t let it happen. Australia and some other counrties wouldn’t, either.

    Whether through force or by handing out flags to some merchant vessels, the surrounding countries would make sure the blockade would fail miserably. No, taking the island quickly has a MUCH higher chance of success.

    Also, China is Taiwan’s greatest trading partner. China lets Taiwan know it’s annoyed by increasing the trade restrictions between them. Taiwan feels it. It’s happened every couple years for the last 20 years or so. However, Taiwan will survive without China. It did for 40 years, and it can go a lot longer.

    Seriously, AMac, did it ever occur to you what blockades entail before talking about the results from a successful one?

  10. >Seriously, AMac, did it ever occur to you…


    Less flippantly, it depends on what you mean by “success” in this context. I’ve tried to paint a scenario in which PRC Politburo might think that, at a tolerable cost to themselves, they could place an intolerable burden on the ROC economy, and emphasize the fracture lines that already exist in the ROC polity.

    I haven’t paid attention to an international-law definition of “blockade,” because I don’t think it matters much in this context. If a porous blockade is “illegal,” it is hardly less so than a cross-Straights invasion. In either case, the PRC veto in the Security Council makes the question quite a minor one, in the short run.

    If you are talking about the practicality of producing and deploying (by submarine, aircraft, and trawler) sufficient numbers of mines in the vicinity of Taiwan’s Conex-handling deepwater ports to cause insurers to stop insuring or raise rates sky-high: I think that is a much more tractable problem, from the PLAN point of view, than is a full-scale invasion.

    I’d need to see citations before agreeing with you that sweeping or otherwise deactivating modern mines is a reasonably straightforward problem…I don’t think the USN would agree with that point of view.

  11. AMac,

    First, I apolgize for the nasty tone I took earlier.

    Second, I still think it’s much more difficult than what you’ve outlined.

    I’m actually not sure about dealing with the mines once they’re placed. I’ll check online and see what’s what. My instinct says that wouldn’t take but a few months to clear a really good minefield.

    But even placing them? As far as I know the legality is still all fuzzy. However, I seriously doubt Chinese-flagged aircraft and trawlers could start dropping mines and not get a quick and nasty retaliation… leading to larger issues.
    Submarines? Okay, so none of this would really make the news. But the chinese don’t have enough. Not enough for this, given the number Taiwan has. If they want to make a straight run for the island, fine. But long-term mining? They don’t have enough of an edge on TW, and certainly not on the US if it steps in.
    Also, Chinese-flagged military ships and planes haven’t gone more than a quarter-way across those straits in a good while. I think a shitstorm would quickly rise for ANY military unit going across, let alone to mine the harbors.

  12. Sean,

    Gracious apologies are all too rare, so yours is gladly accepted.

    My overall point is, obviously, to suggest one more thing that might be attractive when viewed through Politburo eyes. Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, “fighting the last war,” and all that.

    You object, correctly, that the plan I suggest would be hard to implement. But this pales when compared to an invasion.

    As I said, re. mining and invasion, I don’t think the Politburo cares about legality per se, only about whatever potential harm that international reaction might bring.

    You look symmetrically in a way that I wouldn’t agree with: e.g. comparing PLAN submarines to ROC navy subs. The situation is asymettrical, a contest between the capability of PLAN minelaying and that of ROC minelaying-denial and minesweeping. In the context of the Politburo achieving its war aims, or not.

    I agree with you that how many quiet diesel-electric subs PLAN has, and how readily they would be detected in littoral ROC waters (ASW, sea-bottom arrays, assistance from USN) in peacetime are key in evaluating this scenario.

    I suspect (but no citations) that modern mines are very capable indeed for an anti-shipping role like this.

  13. We need MORE stuff about robot crabs on here.

    Dude you are a little bit off, about robot spiders, but at least you reminded me about the robot crabs. But we ain’t there yet. This from DARPA:

    “Legged robotics will likely eventually dominate because they have a greater potential to deal with obstacles,” Rudolph said. “Legged robots are probably the next generation — if we can figure out how to build them.”

    And this: “The provocative fact is even apparently simple animals such as fiddler crabs are much more sophisticated, flexible and robust than our most advanced robots,” Dr Zeil said.

    Civilian technology seems to be moving ahead briskly on robot crab development. Military applications cannot be far behind.

  14. Speaking of ROBOT CRAB war machines, where the Hell is Anna Bunnyblog when you need her? I looked and her blog is inert. Any chance she can be persuaded to resume the madness? She had a post about robot crabs. But there is no “search this site” on her flippin’ blog. Hating that.

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