Earlier today, Jason Miks, an editor at the Australia-based magazine The Diplomat, asked me to comment on US Admiral Robert Willard’s remarks last week on the pace of Chinese military modernization and its implication for Taiwanese security. Part of my comments appeared in his entry here. What follows is what I provided Mr. Miks with in its entirety.
US Admiral Robert Willard’s comments are nothing new. China is a rising power and power projection is part of that, as has occurred with other rising powers in the past.
What’s more difficult to rationalize, however, is how little attention Beijing seems to be paying to the message that this sends at a time when the region, the US and especially Taiwan are increasingly concerned about China in terms of its ability to act as a responsible stakeholder. The Google case, disputes over trade and possible currency manipulation (among others), have only exacerbated those fears.
From a Taiwan perspective, every sign of modernization and build-up undermines President Ma Ying-jeou’s efforts to sell his cross-strait policy of détente. It makes it increasingly difficult for him to say, with a straight face, that Nature, not the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is now Taiwan’s No. 1 enemy, a comment he made not long after the Typhoon Morakot disaster in southern Taiwan in August last year.
Also worrying — and I’ve written about this before — is the fact that growing cultural and business exchanges are making it easier for China to spy on Taiwan, which, coupled with increasingly modern capabilities, would make it easier for the People’s Liberation Army to identify key targets, or even engage in sabotage in Taiwan prior to a military strike.
There is no doubt that Taiwan’s defense apparatus has lost its edge over China, especially since the Ma administration has advocated a more “peaceful” approach toward the PRC by being less “provocative” and holding fewer — and smaller — military exercises simulating a Chinese invasion. The Taiwanese military is therefore less prepared, at a time when the People’s Liberation Army is becoming stronger. This shows us that while Ma and his advisers may believe in the benefits of their policy of détente vis-à-vis China, Beijing wants to keep all its options open and to be ready if the necessary option turns out to be force.
Of course, Beijing and security experts have made the case that the modernization of the PLA is not solely aimed at Taiwan, and to a certain extent that’s true. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), for example, or the SA-20 PMU-2 missile defense system it has purchased from Russia to defend key areas like cities and the Three Gorges Dam, for example, have applications that go beyond a Taiwan contingency. But the problem, from Taiwan’s perspective, is that all those systems also have applications in a Taiwan contingency. In other words, even dual-use systems that can be rationalized as being part of the natural growth of a rising power can apply to a Taiwan scenario. True, the village bully could use his brand new baseball bat to play baseball, but given his tendencies, can we entirely ignore the possibility that he could use that same item to beat neighboring weaklings with it?
Lastly, China could be using military expansion to send a political signal to Washington: As long as you keep selling weapons to Taiwan, we’ll continue expanding (it’s no coincidence that China successfully tested a missile defense system just as the US was about to announce the US$6.4 billion arms package to Taiwan, which includes the PAC-3 missile defense system). This growth could also be used as a means to signal that the cost to US intervention in a Taiwan scenario would be such that Washington should think twice about coming to Taiwan’s assistance; in other words, with each addition to its offensive system (and provided the US does not increase its own forces in the region), the cost-benefit analysts for decision-makers in Washington regarding the entry into a conflict in the Taiwan Strait becomes increasingly in favor of non-intervention. If you look at those systems, many are intended as “area denial” weapons, which would force US deployments to stay further away from the Taiwan Strait, while others are now capable of targeting US bases in places like Okinawa, which also has serious implications for the risk to US forces in the region and could accelerate moves to relocate those forces further away, such as in Guam, which would add to the deployment time should the US need to come to Taiwan’s assistance.