The Taiwan Problem, Alive and Kicking

Jan. 1, 2009

If “secessionist forces [cause] Taiwan’s secession from China, or … possibilities for a peaceful reunification [are] completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means.” —China’s 2005 anti-secession law.

(Staff map by Zaur Eylanbekov)

Beijing could not be more blunt. China has a right—even an obligation—to use force against Taiwan if it takes steps toward independence. It’s the law, says China’s communist regime.

Washington has long wrestled with this attitude toward Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province. The issue has grown in importance recently.

In October, the US approved the sale of $6.5 billion in new defensive weapons for Taiwan. Included in the package—which was first proposed eight years ago—are Patriot air defense missile batteries, Apache attack helicopters, Javelin anti-tank missiles, and parts for Taiwan’s F-16 fighters.

The package did not include 66 F-16s, which Taiwan has sought in a separate request.

China responded by condemning the sale, banning port calls by US warships, and canceling military exchanges. “We demand the US change its ways,” a Chinese general said in November. He claimed the exchanges would not resume until the US canceled the sale.

The US has its own law—the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. When Washington in 1978 switched diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to mainland China, Congress responded with the act. It pledges that the US will supply Taiwan with weapons necessary to defend itself, and that America will “maintain the capacity” to resist threats to Taiwan.

According to a Congressional Research Service report, the US (1) did not explicitly state the sovereign status of Taiwan in Joint Communiques of 1972, 1979, and 1982, (2) “acknowledged” the “one China” position of both sides of the Taiwan Strait, (3) has not recognized mainland China’s sovereignty over Taiwan, (4) has not recognized Taiwan as a sovereign country, and (5) has considered Taiwan’s status as undetermined.

The act, however, implies that America will come to Taiwan’s defense if the island is attacked. Many observers feel that the US would have no choice but to defend Taiwan from a Chinese armed assault.

The US has only one way to defend Taiwan: with a blend of airpower and sea power. Land-based fighters and bombers stationed at a handful of bases in the Western Pacific and carrier battle groups would bear the burden. USAF keeps a detachment of heavy bombers at Andersen AFB, Guam, at all times, and has fighters permanently assigned to bases in Japan and South Korea.

China prepares for this scenario. According to DOD’s 2008 report on Chinese military power, the “near-term focus on preparing for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait, including the possibility of US intervention, is an important driver of [Chinese] modernization.”

The bulk of China’s advanced weapons are based within striking distance of Taiwan. China keeps 490 combat aircraft within unrefueled combat range of Taiwan. Hundreds more could easily be moved to local bases. China has roughly 1,100 ballistic missiles trained on the island.

The cross-strait balance of power already favors mainland China, and the imbalance is growing worse. For example, Beijing’s forces add about 100 new missiles each year.

China’s military embraces anti-access strategies. Chinese ballistic missiles can hit every air base in Korea and Japan, and China also has numerous, highly accurate cruise missiles and advanced anti-ship missiles to threaten carrier battle groups.

A recent RAND analysis of China’s anti-access strategies quotes a senior People’s Liberation Army officer saying “concentrated and unexpected” attacks are the best way to strike enemy airfields.

US analysts are particularly concerned about the vulnerability of aircraft and buildings at Western Pacific bases. Aircraft parked in the open and many buildings are “soft” targets vulnerable to attack by ballistic missiles with submunition warheads.

Guam lies outside of China’s missile radius. However, the US would encounter great difficulty operating from Guam alone, noted a recent RAND study. Defending F-22s, for example, might find themselves vastly outnumbered in action over the strait.

USAF’s permanent bases may be vulnerable to attack, but their destruction at Chinese hands would be no sure thing. China would risk World War III if it blanketed an air base with ballistic missiles, killing scores of Americans and Japanese or South Korean citizens in the process. That is seen as a powerful deterrent.

The bases themselves may prove resilient. Even Chinese military analysts do not assume air bases hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland are easy to take out.

Still, a small number of large bases make for inviting targets, and military officials have called for USAF to broaden its base structure in the Far East.

DOD’s “lily pad” basing strategy calls for USAF to seek a wide range of bare bones facilities so that Air Force aircraft are not confined to existing garrisons.

To defend Taiwan, the US could conceivably fly from locations such as Palau, the Philippines, or Japan’s Ishigaki island. Officials note that, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, US forces quickly arranged to use bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan for operations in Afghanistan.

China’s military buildup creates risk. If China feels it could safely take Taiwan by force, a miscalculation could lead to a war that would be disastrous to all involved.

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