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

Bob Hein China (People's Republic of China) Containment Deterrence Option Papers South China Sea Taiwan

South China Sea Options: The Road to Taiwan

“The Black Swan” is an officer and a strategist in the U.S. Army.  He has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.  He has been a company commander, and served at the battalion, brigade, division, and Army Command (ACOM) level staffs.  The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, organization, or group.


National Security Situation:  The Republic of China (Taiwan) exists in a singular position in world affairs.  Taiwan is viewed as a breakaway province by the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC), who controls the Chinese mainland.  However, Taiwan possesses its own government, economy, and institutions, and its nominal independence has been assured by the United States (U.S.) since 1949.  However, the PRC views any move toward actual independence as casus belli under its “One China” policy, which has been in place for decades.  Recognition or even acknowledgement of Taiwanese positions is a veritable geopolitical and diplomatic taboo.

The recent election of Donald Trump as president of the United States (POTUS) potentially undermines the previous order that has been in place since the Nixon Administration.  Campaigning as a change agent, and one to defy convention, President Trump has suggested the U.S. rethink the “One China” policy.  POTUS’ reception of overtures from Taiwan and hard rhetoric towards the PRC brings the question of Taiwan’s status and future to the forefront of geopolitics once again.

Date Originally Written:  January 28, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 16, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of Taiwan towards PRC claims in the South China Sea (SCS).

Background:  The communist victory during the Chinese Civil War caused the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-Shek, with 2 million of its supporters, to flee from the Chinese mainland to the island of Taiwan.  The gradual transition of the island to a democratic form of government, its industrialized, capitalist economy, and its reliance on western benefactors for defense established it as a bulwark of western influence in Asia.  As a result of Cold War rivalries and competing ideologies, the independence of Taiwan has been assured in all but name for more than 65 years by the U.S.  A series of crises, most recently in 1996, demonstrated the inability of the PRC to project military force against Taiwan, and the willingness of the U.S. to ensure Taiwan’s independence.  Today, though the PRC is internationally recognized as the government of China, and the “One China” policy is a globally accepted norm, Taiwan still maintains de facto independence.

Events since the onset of the 21st century have caused the balance of power to shift ever more in favor towards the PRC.  Impressive military expansion and diplomatic initiatives on the part of the PRC have emboldened it to challenge U.S. hegemony in Asia, and defy United Nations (UN) mandates.  The most overt of these initiatives has been the PRC’s assertion of sovereignty over the SCS, and the seeming unwillingness of the international community to overtly challenge PRC claims, beyond referring them to legal arbitration.  The emerging policies of the newly elected POTUS may further exacerbate the situation in the SCS, even as they may provide opportunities to assure the continued independence of Taiwan.

Significance:  Taiwan is a democracy, with a dynamic capitalist economy.  It has diplomatic and military ties to the U.S., and other countries, through arms sales and informal partnerships.  It is strategically positioned along major oceanic trade routes from Southwest Asia to Japan and South Korea.  The issue of Taiwanese independence is a global flash point due to PRC adherence to the “One China” policy.  If the U.S. were to abandon Taiwan, it would effectively terminate the notional independence of the island, and end any hopes of preventing the PRC from becoming the regional hegemon.

Option #1:  Taiwan rejects all PRC claims to the SCS, beyond its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and supports the rulings of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration, with the goal of gaining international support, especially from the new U.S. administration.

Risk:  The PRC maintains sovereignty over all Chinese affairs.  Such an act would undoubtedly result in a forceful response from the PRC.  The PRC may move militarily to isolate Taiwan and/or attempt to force a change in government through any means necessary.  Depending on the perceived international response, the PRC may resort to war in order to conquer Taiwan.

Gain:  Taiwan must break its diplomatic isolation if it is to survive as an independent state.  This means currying favor with the UN, regional powers such as Japan and South Korea, and other regional nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines.  Moreover, given the new POTUS’ perceived willingness to break from the “One China” policy, there is a chance to induce greater commitment from the U.S. by ensuring Taiwan’s policies match those of the U.S.

Option #2:  Taiwan maintains the status quo and adheres to the “One China” policy, even in the face of tough U.S. rhetoric.

Risk:  If the PRC’s ambitions are not curbed, the status quo will no longer be enough for PRC leaders.  The creation and subsequent defense of artificial islands in the SCS is a relatively low risk activity.  If the response of the international community is found wanting, then it will only embolden the PRC to seek bigger game.  The ultimate conquest of Taiwan, while by no means an easy task, is a logical step in fulfilling the PRC’s regional ambitions.  Conversely, standing with the PRC may infuriate the new POTUS, and result in the withdrawal of U.S. support.

Gain:  The PRC has successfully integrated other economic and governmental systems into its own system before, under the “One Party, Two Systems” policy.  While this led to a loss of political freedom for Macau and Hong Kong, the two former enclaves still maintain their capitalist systems, and enjoy very high standards of living.  Furthermore, Taiwan is culturally and economically closer to the PRC than to any other nation.

Other Comments:  Any conflict between the PRC and Taiwan would be devastating to the island.  The PRC is simply too large and too close.  However, Taiwan has been nominally independent for more than 65 years.  Its people are the descendants of the generations that fought the communists, and stood firm during the Cold War, events that are still in living memory.  Independence from the mainland is the legacy of the island, and is worth fighting for.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

None.

China (People's Republic of China) Option Papers South China Sea Taiwan The Black Swan