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Asian Waters

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on March 16th, 2009

News of the past ten days raised questions about China’s long term naval strategy. This has long been to reach the blue waters that lie frustratingly close to China’s coast, but access to which is blocked entirely from north to south by neighboring countries and the islands they control, from Korea and Cheju island; Japan’s home islands plus Okinawa and the Sakashima chain which ends just sixty miles short of Taiwan; to Taiwan herself and then the Philippines, all of which form a north south barrier closed by the west to east barrier of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. A look at the map shows that in order to reach blue water, Chinese ships would have to pass through one or another potential choke-point--the La Pérouse Strait between Russia and Hokkaido, the Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and Hokkaido, the Basho channel between Taiwan and the Philippines, or one of the exits from the South China Sea, either the Sunda or Malacca Strait.

This geography means that a China that is intently building a new navy including advanced submarines and aircraft carriers has no good options for basing--because every potential base is checked by nearby islands or land. Thus, if the Chinese were to base at Qingdao in Shandong, they would face both Korea (which is building Aegis craft and has good submarines and air power) and Japan (which has a superb navy). In a conflict the sea routes critical to the Chinese would be dominated by land-based aircraft (or missiles) and ships venturing forth would suffer the fate of the British Repulse and Prince of Wales, sent to defend Singapore but sunk on December 10, 1941 by Japanese aircraft based in Saigon, Vietnam.

If the Chinese chose Shanghai as their base, a fleet venturing directly east would run into the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. Were it to change heading slightly south, it would hit Okinawa. Even more south and it would hit smaller Japanese islands and then Taiwan. The same is true of other potential base areas. Not one gives on the open sea.

Currently the Chinese are harassing U.S. ships carrying out surveillance of the island where China has finally decided to place her bet: Hainan, an island three hundred square miles smaller than Taiwan just off the southernmost point of continental China. These ships are civilian crewed and unarmed, but they carry advanced sonar and other equipment which is being used to monitor the huge new Chinese underground nuclear submarine pen in Hainan. Putting subs there is the best of a set of bad choices--for from Hainan the road to the blue ocean leads along the coast of Vietnam to the Straits of Malacca, which submarines can pass on the surface only, if at all. What makes Hainan neuralgic, then, is not simply that submarines are based there. It is that China is deeply frustrated at having to settle for such a poor base.

Indeed, the only use of sea power in Hainan is to dominate the South China Sea, China’s claims to which are disputed by nearly all other neighboring states. The South China Sea, moreover, is so small and close to land on all sides as to be controllable by land based air power, regardless of what naval forces are present.

So desperate is China becoming that she is now talking about seeking naval bases in Pakistan and Burma--a vast leap in ambition that can lead to no good, but that is in part the product of frustration.

What would be ideal bases for the Chinese navy? One is Singapore. Singapore is of course an independent country, so their agreement would be necessary and is unlikely for more than port visits, but in British colonial times some Chinese nationalists looked forward to an eventual Chinese annexation of the island and other areas of ethnic Chinese population in the area. Of course Singapore would not provide blue ocean access. It would, however, put China in the dominant position with respect to the Straits of Malacca.

The other possible base would be Taiwan. The east coast, where that country’s navy is currently building new bases, is ideal: the water is very deep, good for submarine operations, while the ocean beyond is blue: from near Hualien or Taidong, the Chinese could sail unimpeded to Hawaii and beyond,  They would escape Japanese control: indeed from their new position they could encircle the entire Japanese archipelago. 

But like the grapes in the fable of Aesop, this superb piece of geography is now and looks likely to remain beyond Chinese reach.

The face-off in the South China Sea--and one must ask who is behind it? China’s navy acting alone, or the Chinese government as well?--rendered an otherwise standard bout of discussion about the island’s future last week more worthy of attention than is usual.

Fundamentally, the question is whether Taiwan has a future as an independent country--the same question that, one way or another, has enjoyed an unusual degree of salience in policy discussions for the last half century, and particularly for the thirty eight years since 1971, when President Nixon and Henry Kissinger began the aborted attempt to “sacrifice” then-ally Taiwan to China in return for help against the then USSR.

For a long time acceptance was growing that Taiwan has somehow escaped best efforts by China and the United States to force her to terms, but that consensus has been challenged since the new President of Taiwan, Ma Yingjeou, has adoped a sunshine policy toward China, moving rapidly to lower tensions, improve relations, and establish direct links (One can now fly directly from Taiwan to twenty one cities in China and from China to eight in Taiwan), moves which have led some to expect that the new president might well preside over some sort of political integration of the two countries.

Were that the to happen, America’s traditional role of supporting Taiwan’s democracy and providing military back-up would come into question. A larger question would be raised as well: namely, would it be harmful to America and her allies (notably Japan) if China and Taiwan were to draw so close together that Taipei’s policy shifted to accordance with China. Conceivably, Chinese naval forces could then base in Taiwan--which would be a nightmare for Japan not least.

Robert Sutter, the former Library of Congress China expert now a professor, started the discussion on March 5, 2009  with a piece called “Cross-Strait Moderation and the United States - Policy  Adjustments Needed”  in the PacNet forum series published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. This was a rather technical piece, dealing with nuances of the relationship, but it seems to have struck a nerve because Sutter was not quite so optimistic about the new China-Taiwan relationship than others in the self-constituted policy community.

He drew a rebuke from Richard Bush and Alan Romberg, both retired officials long involved with the island and with China, in the form of a  column called “Cross-Strait Moderation and the United States” – A Response to Robert Sutter” . The issue came down to whether the U.S. interest was in balancing Taiwan and China (as Sutter suggests) or in continuing the policy of reconciliation in order to avoid any chance that China would take umbrage at official Taiwan independence. Bush and Romberg argue that, for her own reasons, China will not push Taiwan too far, so the need for a U.S. balancing role is diminished.

In fact the two articles are rather close: both operate within the framework of current U.S. policy and neither foresees any major change. For this reason they should be discussed in connection with what we have already said about geography and also about Japan. For a U.S.-Japanese alliance in which Taiwan is aligned to China will be an invitation to trouble. Japan would feel so threatened by such a development that  she would either pull together military forces sufficient to deal with it  (as she has done consistently in the past)--or fold, leaving Asian stability hostage to the vagaries of Chinese internal politics. Undoubtedly more essays along these lines will appear.

What view should we in fact take?

First, we should note that the basic issues with respect to Taiwan have not been resolved, in spite of the assumption by most writers that they have. Thus, for all her talk of a “one China” policy, which seems to include Taiwan under “China” and is certainly taken by China as meaning that, Washington has never agreed that any Chinese government held legal sovereignty over Taiwan. This position is rarely advertised but it has never been abandoned.

That being the case, one would think all options were open. Usually when sovereignty of a territory is in doubt, a plebiscite is held to determine what the people want. In the case of Taiwan, China objects strenuously to any such procedure, and the U.S. acquiesces--although our reason for doing so is simply to avoid a row with Beijing, not because we have agreed that the status of Taiwan is resolved.

Realistically, then, continued independence of Taiwan, such as has existed for the past sixty years, is likely to continue, becoming, at some point, legally recognized by the international community.

Yet that perfectly reasonable option is regularly treated with fear, although countries become independent all the time. Bush and Romberg, speaking of the dangers to Beijing if it fails to cooperate with Taiwan president Ma on the basic security issues posed to the island by China’s military buildup.

“While Beijing should not fear the give-and-take of a robust democratic system in Taiwan, what it should fear is that its failure to cooperate with Ma on these issues will bring back to power a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that is potentially in a ‘fundamentalist’’ mode that some in the party still favor and that would carry with it the potential for a replay of 2002-2008. [When tensions between China and Taiwan were widely thought to have been increased by the pro-independence attitude of its government]  It is the possibility of that outcome that is the most powerful instrument to encourage PRC moderation and flexibility.”

These sentences reflect the wide consensus in Washington that actual independence for Taiwan is out of the question. Note how dismissive the writers are of those Taiwanese who voted against the long-time rulers, the Kuomintang, who came originally from China and imposed rule militarily.

Calling Taiwan independence is "fundamentalism" and declaring it somehow off the table makes no sense. It is in fact one of only two viable possibilities for Taiwan’s future. The other is that China becomes fully democratic and Taiwan votes in an un-coerced  manner to join it.

What we see here is the tremendous  reluctance Washington feels about to facing the consequences of its own policies. In the 1970s President Nixon and Henry Kissinger sought to “sacrifice” Taiwan (Kissinger’s phrase i.e. force her to join China) in order to cement an anti-Soviet alliance. That failed when finally attempted by President Carter in 1979. In the course of this diplomacy, all moderate or compromise positions were abandoned. We could not have two Chinas--though realistically, that might have been brought off--nor could we have “One China One Taiwan.” That left us with a policy that Taiwan could do whatever she wanted, provided it was approved by China. We thus ruled out what the Taiwanese would vote for if not in fear of China: namely, independence. In other words, the middle was excluded and all that remained as options for the long term were merger with China, which Taiwan would not accept, or independence for Taiwan, which China would not accept. The result is endless management of an inherently volatile situation created not by Taiwan or even by China, but rather by the United States.

Likewise, Washington shows a tremendous reluctance to accept that China may in fact be preparing for military action against Taiwan. Personally I think that would be so dangerous that I rate its probability as low. But then again, I was wrong about Tiananmen (I did not believe the Chinese government would be so stupid as to order its army to kill unarmed students) and I have trouble explaining why Chinese naval vessels continue to harass our navy--right now near Hainan, but recall the still-obscure details of the Kitty Hawk encounter, the downing of the PC-3 reconnaissance aircraft, etc. and one senses a disquieting Chinese complacency about using force, an approach from Beijing that does not fully take into account the possible dire consequences.

This American disbelief that China might use force is seen in our surprise at the harassment of our reconnaissance ships near Hainan. We also see it in the view of Taiwan.

In the latest inside-the-beltway discussion, mentioned above, the PRCS relentless progress towards major military power is scarcely mentioned. The many ways she targets Taiwan, not least with more than a thousand ballistic missiles, is not factored in. The idea is that PRC has come to understand that military action against Taiwan is not feasible (and indeed they may have, let us hope, but we must not count on that).

This is ironic, given that the usual explanation for the PRC military buildup is precisely the need to be able to take Taiwan.

Where are we left? Clearly China’s navy is frustrated as it seeks to find some pathway to the high seas. She expresses that frustration not least in hostile acts towards U.S. forces in the region, acts that are not in her interest. Beijing knows that Taiwan would be the ideal base for her navy, but the island is beyond reach and looks set to remain so even under the new government, which has made friendship with China its top priority. Friendship is one thing; basing rights another; merger yet another. One suspects the people of Taiwan will not stand for two or three while warmly embracing one. Meanwhile, because Taiwan must be able to defend herself, military modernization there will continue, giving the island an ever more high-technology force and enough missiles and highly destructive warheads to constitute a genuine deterrent. Whatever we call it, the status quo will continue to be frozen, if anything harder and harder when it comes to fundamentals, with each passing year.

Nor will the demand for Taiwan independence disappear from the political scene. Right now Taiwan’s president is the son of a Chinese military family that fled Communism with Chiang Kai-shek. He is probably the last of his kind. Whether Kuomintang or DPP, Taiwan political parties are now almost totally indigenous and seek their country’s interests, regardless of China.  No rising generation of pro-China Taiwanese having recent Chinese ancestry is following Ma. Self-identification is overwhelmingly Taiwanese. So if China wants to solve this problem, they will have to make a series of huge compromises and in the next four to eight years, while Ma is in office.

That seems unlikely. China has responded cooly to Ma’s initial overtures, showing their usual pattern of pocketing concessions without reciprocation and then asking for more. Ma cannot go to the electorate with a record of being outwitted by China. So he will have to change course, and put his hope somewhere other than in China.

Under such conditions, the one possibly breakable link in the island chains that keep China’s navy close to her coast, Taiwan, looks to remain intact and tight. What the United States will make of this we shall see, once the current flutter over Ma’s sunshine approach to China calms. But we can be sure of one thing. The continued independence and military strength of Taiwan will be welcomed, quietly to be sure but strongly, by all her neighbors, except China--and most of all in Japan.

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