Options for the People’s Republic of China following the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996

Captain Robert N. Hein is a career Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy.  He previously commanded the USS Gettysburg (CG-64) and the USS Nitze (DDG-94).  He can be found on Twitter @the_sailor_dog.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.  


“Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence, supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting, thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans.”  -Sun Tzu  

National Security Situation:  The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is vying to establish itself as the Asian Hegemon.  What caused this rapid shift in the PRC’s foreign Policy?  Why, after decades of growth, where the PRC was ascribed the long view, has it rapidly accelerated military growth, reorganization, and a diplomatic and economic expansion across the world stage in a scale not seen since Zheng He’s voyages of the 15th century?

Date Originally Written:  February 2, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  April 3, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is taken from the point of view of the PRC toward the U.S in the two decades following the third Taiwan Straight crisis of 1996.

Background:  In 1995, Taiwan’s president visited the U.S. to attend his graduate school reunion at Cornell.  His visit, coupled with the U.S. sale of F-16s to Taiwan, incensed the PRC at what they viewed as possible changes in the U.S. and Taiwan view of the One China Policy.  The PRC commenced a series of missile tests near Taiwan.  The U.S. responded by sending two aircraft carriers to the vicinity of the Strait of Taiwan[1].  The PRC realized they could do little to respond to U.S. actions and needed a way to ensure they never experienced this humiliation again.

Significance:  The law of unintended consequences often applies to national security.  While U.S. action in 1996 was a clear demonstration of U.S. resolve, the PRC’s response has been to pursue a series of actions to reduce and possibly prevent the ability of the U.S. to influence events in Asia.

Option #1:  After viewing the U.S. way of war against Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, whereby the U.S. consistently pushes its aircraft carriers close to the coast and launches strike fighters and tomahawk land attack missiles against targets ashore, the PRC must find a way to extend its borders out to sea into the ocean.  This can be accomplished by placing relatively cheap long-range anti-ship missile batteries along the shore, increasing the number of ships and submarines in the People’s Liberation Army Navy and, in a bold stroke, build islands in the South China Sea (SCS), and claim the surrounding waters as historical boundaries of the PRC.

Risk:  There is a real danger that the U.S. will react to the build-up of PRC forces and rebuild its navy to maintain global influence.  Previous U.S. administrations justified naval build ups to counter the Soviet threat however, by keeping activities below the threshold of armed conflict, we believe the U.S. will not be able to convince its public of the need for a large military buildup, especially following the years of conflict the U.S. has recently experience in the Middle East.  While Asian nations could turn to the U.S. out of fear, this can be mitigated through strong economic measures.  Asian nations may also attempt to challenge the PRC in the international courts, but the lack of enforcement measures in the international system removes this a real concern.

Gain:  Option #1 will prevent U.S. access to the waters they need to block the PRC from maneuvering against Taiwan.  Due to the proliferation of short-range fighters, and the lack of anti-surface capability of many U.S. warships, the ability of the U.S. to offer a timely response to a forcible re-unification of Taiwan could be prevented.

Option #2:  When we look back to Sun Tzu, and realize the best course of action is to attack the enemy’s strategy, we must determine what other strategy the enemy could impose.  While Option #1 will be effective in countering the U.S. ability to easily execute its traditional means of bombardment from the sea, another option is available to the U.S.; the long-range containment strategy used against the Soviet Union could possibly be executed with a long-range blockade.  By focusing on key choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab Al-Mandeb from the Red Sea, an adversary could block much-needed commodities such as oil and rare earth elements needed in the PRC defense industry.  Just as the PRC invoked the historical nine-dash line to establish autonomy in the SCS, revitalizing the historical one belt one road to connect Asia to Europe and Africa will easily stop any means of isolating or containing the PRC.  By continuing investment throughout the world, especially in economically disenfranchised areas, the PRC can prevent the types of alliances used by the U.S. during the Cold War to isolate the Soviet Union.

Risk:  If the PRC moves out too quickly, it spreads itself too thin internationally, and risks alienating the very countries with whom it hopes to partner.  The drain on resources over time will become increasingly difficult.  The PRC’s ability to be a free rider on U.S. security will winnow as other countries will expect the same from the PRC.

Gain:  The PRC establishes itself as a both a regional hegemon, and a global power.  The PRC asserts influence over the global economy and geopolitics to rival the U.S. in a multi-polar world.  Option #2 removes the ability of the U.S. to polarize the eastern hemisphere against the PRC.

Other Comments:  Through a rapid economic development program centered on an export economy in a globalizing world, the PRC has embarked on a multitude of options, covering the diplomatic, informational, military and economic spectrum.  It has employed both above options, which have caused the world to react, often favorably to the PRC.  The question for the PRC now is how to maintain the momentum, solidify their role in a changing world order, and not show their hand too quickly lest they implode.  The question for the U.S. is whether it will continue to pursue the U.S. way of war that has been studied so ably by the PRC, or pursue other options as it both cooperates and competes with the PRC on a rapidly evolving world stage.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Ross, Robert, International Security, Vol 25, No 2 (Fall 2000) p 87 The 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Confrontation

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