China versus Taiwan: Balance of Power or of Will?
Allen S. Whiting analyzes alternative scenarios of where the "balance of will" between China and Taiwan may lead
The esteemed Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) recently released a comprehensive and authoritative report on Chinese Military Power (New York, 2003), second only to Professor David Shambaugh’s excellent monograph, Modernizing China’s Military: Progress, Problems, and Prospects (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). These two works incorporate the knowledge and views of experts within and outside of government without incorporating classified information as such. Both studies underscore the present and prospective superiority of the U.S. balance of power over the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the coming decades. They also point to the potential damage PRC forces could inflict against an American intervention in the event of a PRC attack against Taiwan but they conclude that the mainland could not prevail.
However the CFR study warns, “For the next decade a focal point of Chinese military development will likely remain achieving the ability to influence Taiwan’s choices about its political future or, failing that, to prevent Taiwan from achieving formal independence...to achieve political goals such as forcing the resumption of political dialogue between the two sides on the mainland’s terms.” (CFR, p. 3, italics added) Although the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has the “ability to undertake intensive, short-duration air, missile, and naval attacks on Taiwan,” success “would be highly dependent on Taiwan’s political and military response” as well as actions by the U.S. and Japan.
Cast in these terms, Beijing’s perception of the subjective balance of will as between the PRC and Taipei may increase political-military pressure despite the objective balance of power with the U.S. As Yang Jiemian, vice president of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies put it recently, unification with Taiwan is “a sacred goal.” Successive leaders since 1949 cite the imperatives of territorial integrity and national sovereignty to remedy the “century of humiliation” when foreign powers exploited China’s weakness for spheres of influence and outright annexation. This defines Taiwan as an internal problem in which the United State has interfered. Less frequently mentioned, its acquisition advances the Chinese coast two hundred miles beyond the mainland to the open ocean.
Underlying the Taiwan claim is the leadership’s emotional sense of self as ruler of China. Refurbished history memorializes an alleged 5,000 years of Middle Kingdom rule in East Asia. Commitment to this modern national-racial identity makes unification with Taiwan a powerful psychological goal. Its constancy as a goal did not require consistent means of pursuit. Declared policy changed from forceful recovery of the island during the Mao era to negotiated reunion as “one country, two systems” under Deng and Jiang. Official rhetoric waxed and waned accordingly. Nevertheless dedication to Taiwan’s acquisition remains politically mandatory.
This mixture of objective and subjective factors is potentially volatile, depending on how the leadership perceives developments that threaten Taiwan’s permanent separation. Its perception reached a critical level in 1995-96, resulting in a limited show of force. No comparable tension has arisen since nor is any anticipated in the next few years. Presidential elections in Taiwan and the United States will provide Beijing with a fresh perspective on how the politics in both places will impact on negotiation prospects. Closer military cooperation between Taiwan and the United States together with steady improvement of the island’s military capability will be seen apprehensively. An additional factor will be Japan’s expanding support of U.S. military actions as identified in the 1995 Japan-U.S. Defense Guidelines and implemented in operations for Afghanistan and Iraq. These aspects will be fit into a longer range trend analysis for calculating the likelihood of political and military developments separating Taiwan permanently. Should Beijing see the window of opportunity as closing, political-military steps may be taken despite the objective imbalance of power against the PLA versus the U.S.
Western analyses of Chinese military doctrine emphasize the importance it places on “seizing the initiative” and achieving “shock effect.” Scenarios in conventional analyses accordingly focus primarily on the various means of PLA attack. Prior political-military measures receive less attention. However, concepts cited from traditional Chinese military doctrine apply to political as well as military warfare. Reliance on a war of nerves before war with weapons accords with classic texts that remain required reading in PLA academies. Beijing’s optimal strategy would win Taipei’s acquiescence to negotiate on mainland terms without an actual attack on the island. Failing this, force must be used. This strategy presents three interlocking goals: (1) prompt Taipei to “negotiate unity” before (2) U.S. military intervention can occur, without (3) sizeable destruction of property and people on Taiwan.
The political-military complications in planning this strategy are formidable. Miscalculation of several factors could not only confound success but result in war with the United States. Taiwanese reactions to the express threat of force and ultimatum are uncertain. Possible reactions inferred from 1995-96 include the flight of capital, a plummeting stock market, depletion of foreign reserves, and widespread apprehension. But this precedent may be misleading since the population has already been tested and experienced full recovery from all setbacks. Predicting the probable reaction to another threat must differentiate various groups, such as civilian from military, native Taiwanese from mainland derived generations, and business elites from mass public. This requires close analysis of scattered data over time. The dynamics of demography and economic development cumulatively change such data. New political coalitions arise from shifting personal allegiances with local factions prevailing over party loyalties. National consensus is difficult to achieve easily or quickly.
Initially a military or civilian junta could seize control of Taipei to announce acceptance of PRC demands. This coup might be mounted by officers who saw no chance of effective resistance before relief could arrive from U.S. forces. Civilians would fear widespread destruction and casualties. But cease fire orders might not secure the entire island for a PLA takeover. Announcement of a credible Taiwanese resistance down island with an appeal for U.S. help could preclude a true fait accompli. Yet immediate compliance with a PRC ultimatum is essential to preempt a U.S. intervention. This in turn would open the PLA to standoff air and sea attacks on ships, planes, and missile bases, all with minimal U.S. casualties. Escalation will inflict indeterminate costs on the mainland as well as on Taiwan.
This places a premium on risk management, a salient concern in China’s use of force since 1950. Certain aspects make this much more difficult than in any previous situation. The PLA projection of air, sea, and missile power is less easily controlled than past engagements limited to land or the immediate off-shore islands. Moreover the rapidity of interaction in high-tech warfare places an additional burden on command and communications, exacerbated by vulnerability to information warfare by a superior enemy. Last but not least is the unprecedented challenge posed by Washington’s explicit doctrine of preemption, enunciated and practiced by President George W. Bush.
These considerations constrain the pace and choice of successive steps gradually intensified to coerce compliance by Taiwan. In addition to shaping their influence on different audiences there, the impact on Japan and other East Asian regimes must be weighed if the United States is to be isolated from key allies and China’s potential use of force justified. As tension rises in the Taiwan Strait so will concern elsewhere over the stability of the region’s economic future with trade and investment at peril. In any event, mainland economic development will suffer a sharp setback of uncertain duration.
On balance, the risks and costs of irreversible political-military pressure on Taiwan would appear sufficiently daunting to argue for reliance on less coercive measures to somehow bring about substantive negotiations between the two sides. Yet the ultimate determinant will be whether passivity is perceived to risk Taiwan’s permanent separation as opposed to activity that might result in unification. On occasion Beijing has overestimated its capabilities together with miscalculation of its opponent’s response. Such human failings are standard in the mixture of uncertainty, subjectivity, and emotion that precede a major military undertaking. They preclude confident prediction of behavior where the protagonist places high priority on a political goal as necessary to self-esteem on the domestic or regional stage, or both. In this context, assigning probability to specific mainland steps is helpful but not sufficient. Allowance must be made for the contingency that seems irrational and unlikely from the outside yet accepted as rational and necessary in Beijing.
The CFR study closes with a short list of policy proposals that warrant close consideration for reducing the likelihood of failure in mutual perception and communication between Washington and Beijing. Some are already be under way as the Bush administration moves from an earlier posture of “strategic competition” to cooperation with China in the aftermath of September 11. Eventually, however, how Beijing foresees its relationship with Taipei will determine the stability of the Taiwan Strait in this decade.
Fei-ling Wang, “Self-Image and Strategic Intentions: National Confidence and Political Insecurity,” in Yong Deng and Fei-ling Wang eds., In the Eyes of the Dragon (Lanham, Maryland: Rowan and Littlefield, 1999).
Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, Department of Defense Report to Congress, 2002, p. 13.
Mark Burles and Abram N. Shulsky, Patterns in China’s Use of Force (Santa Monica: RAND,n.d.); David A Shalapk, David T. Orletsky, and Barry A. Wilson, Dire Strait? Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Confrontation and Options for U.S. Policy (Santa Monica: RAND, n.d.), gives a computer derived combat senario for “the near-term military balance between China and Taiwan” with U.S. intervention as an added factor.
Shambaugh, op. cit., ch. 3 covers contemporary developments in doctrine and training; for classic doctrine see Alastair Iain Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); Michael D. Swaine and Ashley J. Tellis, Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future (Santa Monica: RAND, 2000); Andrew Scobell, China and Strategic Culture (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute, May 2002).
Burles and Shulsky, op.cit., p 74, conclude, “Fundamentally, China would seek to create a fait accompli, thereby forcing the United States, if it wished to restore the status quo ante, to escalate the level of tension and violence.”
Qimao Chen, “The Taiwan Strait Crisis: Causes, Scenarios, and Solution,”in Martin J. Lasater and Peter Kien-hong Yu, Taiwan’s Security in the Post-Deng Xiaoping Era (Portland, Oregon: Frank Cass, 2000).
See Taiwan in the 20th Century, special issue of The China Quarterly, No. 165, March 2001, with Dung-Sheng Chen, “Taiwan’s Social Changes in the Patterns of Social Solidarity in the 20th Century,” and Yun-han Chu and Jih-wen Lin, “Political Development in 20th Century Taiwan: State-Building, Regime Transformation and the Construction of National Identity.”
Michael Swaine, Taiwan Foreign Political and Defense Policies: Features and Determinants (Santa Monica: 2001) details problems of reform and modernization in the military.
Allen S. Whiting, “China’s Use of Force, 1950-96, and Taiwan,” International Security, Fall 2001, vol. 26, no.2, pp. 103-31.
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Allen Whiting is Regents Professor Emeritus, University of Arizona. Professor Whiting is highly regarded as an interpreter of Asian and particularly Chinese politics and foreign policy. He served in several capacities in the U.S. Department of State and was an advisor on China to several U.S. administrations. Among his many publications is China Crosses the Yalu: The Decision to Enter the Korean War (Macmillan, 1960), a classic in its field, and The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence: India and Vietnam (Univ. of Michigan, 1975, 2nd ed., 2001).
Published: Friday, January 21, 2005