Thursday, July 16, 2009

2012 will not be 1996 redux

In my piece “Why 2012 will be a deadly deadline” published earlier this week, I argued that 2012 would be a dangerous year in Taiwan’s history, mostly because of the risks that electoral retribution could undermine President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) efforts to pursue rapprochement with China. As I state in my op-ed, Beijing has made not secret of the fact that it sees cross-strait talks and a possible economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) as means to ultimate unification. Both Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) have openly stated their views on the matter, hard facts that moot the criticism of those who have expressed apprehensions about the lack of transparency in cross-strait dialogue.

The 2012 presidential election in Taiwan, therefore, will be a pivotal point in the nation’s history, as it will serve both as a public verdict on Ma’s pro-China policies and an opportunity for the opposition to halt a process that has dovetailed perfectly with Beijing’s designs on Taiwan — with or without Ma’s blessing. In my article, I point out that in the lead-up to the elections, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) will likely seek to exploit the threat of Chinese attack to its advantage: Vote for us and there will be no war; vote for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and China might attack. Ironically, the KMT could be right in raising such fears, because Beijing could very well resort to force if it perceives that the political pendulum is about to shift in the DPP’s favor.

This is where critics of this argument come in. One commentator has argued that my assumption that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would do a replay of 1996 — firing missiles off the waters of Taiwan to influence the Taiwanese electorate and compel voters not to vote for pro-independence Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and the DPP’s Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) — is flawed. Where the critics of my argument are wrong, I think, is in their failure to comprehend the tremendous changes that have occurred in China’s military posture in the 16 years between 1996 and 2012, during which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has seen double-digit growth in its budget for more than a decade. China’s declared defense expenditures at the time of the missile crisis in 1996 was about US$10 billion — the equivalent of Taiwan’s military budget today. In March 2007, Beijing announced it would increase its annual defense budget by 17.8 percent from the previous year, to US$45 billion. In March 2008, the submitted budget was about US$57.22 billion, followed by a nearly 15 percent rise announced in March 2009. The period 1996-2009 also experienced a shift in China’s military reorganization and modernization drive following the Gulf War of 1991. Assuming similar double-digit growth in PLA expenditure until 2012, we can expect a defense budget by that year to be in the neighborhood of US$80 billion. While this still falls quite short of the US defense expenditure, and recognizing that the PLA has yet to achieve parity with the US military, there is no question that China is becoming more assertive within the region, both as a result of its growing economic clout and military strength.

This is not to say that it would make light of a decision to risk war with the US over Taiwan. But there is no question that the PLA today — and in 2012 — is far more confident in its abilities to fight a war than it was in 1996, when the missile crisis was more bluff than real threat. By 2012 Beijing could miscalculate by believing it could win a quick war over Taiwan, that its extended power projection could deter the US from intervening in the country, or even reach the conclusion that an already overstretched US military cannot afford to fight on another front in the Asia-Pacific region. The latter point is often neglected by critics of the 2012 scenario, who only focus on the Order of Battle and quantifiable forces while neglecting military commitments. The US military budget, and the quality of its forces, will dwarf China’s for many years to come, but this does not change the fact that the US military is serving in every corner of the world, fighting a war on terrorism in Afghanistan, in the Horn of Africa and in Iraq, while providing support in countries such as the Philippines, Pakistan and Colombia. China, meanwhile, has very little military commitments, its borders are secure and up until recently it has not become embroiled in the “war” on terrorism. A substantial part of its military budget, therefore, is solely dedicated to a Taiwan contingency or can quickly be reconfigured to meet that requirement.

One critic — ostensibly in reference to my background as an intelligence officer — wrote that:

It must be said how often these kind of predictions have been made in the past decade without actually coming to pass, you need only think of Lee Teng-Hui’s warning about 2008, or the warnings of trouble ahead of each of the elections since ‘96, to see how often they are proved wrong. I know Mr. Cole won’t like me making this comparison, but this is all rather reminiscent of the on-going crisis surrounding the Iranian nuclear program, where pundits feel free to make regular predictions of the inevitability of military action against Iran, and never seem to learn from the failure of their predictions to come true. Just as with Iran, the most likely outcome is that in three years time we will be roughly where we are now.

The problem with this argument, as anyone who has studied threat analysis will know, is that it adopts the fallacy known as T=T-1 (T is time, and what was applicable yesterday continues to be so today). What the critic implies is that my assumptions about 2012 are a “a failure of intelligence.” In reality, however, “intelligence failures” are as frequently overassumptions (e.g., Iraq and WMDs) as they are T=T-1 fallacies (e.g., the Iranian Revolution, Iraqi invasion of Kuwait). In the context of the Taiwan Strait, threat assessments made on the T=T-1 assumption — or that 2012 will be the same as 1996 — are extremely dangerous and blind us to changing realities, not only in terms of military capabilities, but also in political differences. In 1996, China was nowhere near achieving annexation of Taiwan; today and by 2012, that long-held dream is within reach, and the US, weakened by military campaigns, record national debt and the economic crisis, is no longer the dominant power it was a few years ago. Other imponderables, such as rising Chinese nationalism, social unrest and new CCP leadership, also make comparisons with 1996 tenuous at best.

I do not believe for one second that China is bent on expanding its empire, which is why I fully disagree with reports such as the Indian Defense Review that argue that “China will attack India by 2012 to divert the attention of its own people from ‘unprecedented’ internal dissent, growing unemployment and financial problems that are threatening the hold of Communists in that country.” I have just finished reading Bobo Lo’s Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing and the New Geopolitics, which I will be reviewing in the Taipei Times over the weekend. Lo’s analysis convinces me more than ever that China has no interest in invading other countries, whether it be India or the Russian Far East, as its focus remains on domestic development. In that regard, the CPP has very much been the professional, rational actor. But I maintain that when it comes to Taiwan — which Beijing never ceased to regard as an “internal” problem along the lines of Tibet and Xinjiang — critics of my 2012 argument had fain avoid committing a second common mistake in intelligence analysis, and that is the assumption that the rational actor model applies in every case.

Even over Taiwan, China will never make light of a decision of going to war especially if this risks a confrontation with the US and Japan. This said, if China is to miscalculate, based on 16 years of solid military buildup — quantitative and qualitative —, a weakened US and cross-strait dynamics, 2012 will be it. I stand by my assessment regarding that year.


Thomas said...

I do agree with your last sentence. Once again though, I think what will keep that from coming to pass will be the weakness of the DPP. Once the economy starts to improve, so will the public's perception of the KMT's handling of the economy.

Interestingly enough, polls in the US show that the US public may be staring to lose patience with Obama's policies. That does not seem to be happening in Taiwan.

I quite tearfully think that if nobody can beat the KMT in 2012, the game is up. In other words, whether a war is fought then, or whether Ma wins and gives the house away, a tragedy is coming. :(

FOARP said...

I'm still not sold. Firstly China's commitment's are actually much heavier than you allow for, currently half the Chinese army is deployed in Xinjiang and Tibet, facing trouble along the borders of those regions as well as the interior of them. Of the remainder many will be retained in the interior or along the border regions - Taiwan will never receive China's undivided attention. Recall also the proclamations by Uyghur leaders (Ross Terrill included an example in his book The New Chinese Empire) that the moment war begins in the straits they will begin an uprising in Xinjiang. If China did decide to launch an invasion then, it would not be with the entirety of its strength, nor is the US as likely to be distracted in 2012 as it is now.

Even if you assume that all that will happen will be military threats, by all accounts the Taiwanese took the threats in 1996 extremely seriously, and most who I have spoken to credited the US as their saviours. I cannot think then that they did not take this threat seriously, or did not think that PRC victory would be likely if Taiwan fought unaided. The resulting backlash against PRC threats re-occurred in 2000 and in 2004, further strengthening the assumption that a similar backlash would occur if threats were made again. In fact the very reason why the PRC did not make threats in 2008 was because they had learned what the results of such threats might be. This then is not the T-1 fallacy, if it is a fallacy, it is a T-1/2/3 fallacy. In fact if you want to call it a fallacy, you might as well call it the T+3 fallacy, because I am merely presuming that the 2012 will be roughly the same as 2009.

Michael, I'll tell you what, I made the same bet with Michael Turton but he refused to take it so I'll make it with you: I'll bet £100 sterling (or its equivalent in a currency of your choosing) that in 2015 the official status of the ROC as a sovereign state separate to the PRC will still exist. If you want to take it my email address is

Dixteel said...

Hmm...FOARP, it is not like Chinese is committing their elite forces, high tech weapon systems etc in Tibet and Xinjiang. Those troops are mostly paramilitary police. They are only equiped with small fire arms and armor etc.

The forces commited in Taiwan Strait are very different. They are the air forces, 2nd Artillery (ballistic missiles), huge submarine forces, increasingly capable naval fleets and other systems. These are not just statistic number that makes things look scary. They are facts.

I cannot say for sure what will happen, because there are so many outside factors (what will happen in the US, Japan, China, Tibet, Xinjiang and now even Al Kada might make some move...etc) that need to be taken into account. But I think Mike is correct to be concerned with the possible threat of China, especially in 2012 time zone. Nothing might happen but the potential crisis is there.

As history shows, when one side is over confident and the other side over cowardly, that is when war might occur.

FOARP said...

One other factor which neither I nor Mike mentioned, but which may actually prove the most important one, is the thing which we still don't know: who will be running China in 2012? Hu/Wen are due to step down at the end of 2012 (another reason to think nothing will happen that year, but more likely the next), and whilst at the moment a lot of buzz surrounds Xi Jinping, that is enough in my mind to discount him as ever having a chance. If he is leader we might interpret his Mexican remarks as representing a more nationalistic tone, but the fact that he was so indiscreet is likely to count against him. On the Taiwan side, when he ran Fujian he did his best to promote investment from across the strait and there are no reports that I've seen of any especially ultra-nationalist attitudes in this area at least.

Finally, if China really is planning an invasion in 2012, the Chinese plan will already have been put in motion, as serious planning and preparation for an invasion would have to start now - but we have seen no unusual activity. Only the steady general building up of force, which is still not overwhelmingly preponderant in the straits area.

Dixteel said...


How about the activity between the clash of US and Chinese navy in south China sea? The incidents are not big, and both sides try to play it down. But definitely China is hiding something from the US.

They are increasing their military budget, building submarine bases, and a new naval base in Sri Lanka. They also have mocked Taiwan airfields for training excercise. They are also upgrading their missiles in quality and number. Their missiles accuracy have been increased considerably. They are also increasing their number of tranport ships and landing crafts. If those are not possible preparation, I don't know what is.

We can hide our head in the sand and pretend China is not doing any preparation, but I highly doubt that is a wise behavior.

FOARP said...

Dixsteel - incidents like those are similar to the ones that happened throughout the Cold war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, there are no specific signs pointing to an invasion.

MikeinTaipei said...

FOARP: Look at the Order of Battle and the kind of equipment the People’s Liberation Army has been purchasing — and deploying — in recent years. While part of that arsenal is not aimed at Taiwan per se, all the signs are there that the Chinese military is consolidating a strategy of area denial by raising the cost, ostensibly to the US, of even approaching the Taiwan Strait. Of course, given the Chinese leadership’s lack of candor, it’s impossible to say with certainty that this is indeed their strategy, but again, the type of weapons they’re getting undeniably points in that direction. This is not to say that an attack is imminent, but it certainly adds to Chinese perceptions that taking Taiwan by force is not infeasible.