BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
As American politics is consumed with the prospect of (yet another) government shutdown, the People’s Republic of China has taken possession of the first batch of the highly advanced, Russian-built S-400 anti-aircraft missile defense system. For the uninitiated, the S-400 system is considered by many experts to be the best anti-aircraft system ever built. It can fire four missiles at once and can potentially track and destroy stealth fighters–including advanced American stealth planes, like the much-ballyhooed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The system can fire four missiles simultaneously at multiple targets, at varying altitudes and distances–as far out as 400 km (about 248 miles).
The S-400 batteries are being placed in China’s southeastern province of Fujian, according to the Asia Times Online. As they report, the issue at hand is that not only can these missile batteries be used for defensive purposes, but depending on the missile that is loaded into these launchers, the weapons can threaten the Senkaku Islands (which are contested by both the Chinese and the Japanese governments and have thus far been the source of much friction in the region), and more importantly, can vastly complicate Taiwan’s already-threatened defensive position.
China has gone through a political and economic transformation not just over the last 30 years, but also in the last five. Since Xi Jinping rose to power, a greater degree of militarism, nationalism, and centralization of power has occurred. Under Xi, “corrupt” political and military leaders have been arrested and tried for various “crimes” (in many cases, their only crimes were being potential rivals to Xi’s power). Hong Kong has experienced a retinue of political perturbations between the democratically-minded Hong Kongers and their Communist Party overlords. China’s military has undergone a historic modernization campaign. The Chinese economy has surprisingly weathered a series of economic storms fairly well to the point that the Chinese economy is stronger and more well-suited for global competition than at any other point over the last eight years. And, under Xi, China has switched from its “peaceful rise” strategy of wooing its dubious neighbors with soft power to threatening and cajoling them, in much the same way that the Chinese emperors of old did.
For decades, Taiwan has been a deep wound in the Chinese Communist Party’s psyche. During the heady days of the Cold War, the West viewed Taiwan as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” It was a source of power projection for the United States deep into China, thereby complicating the Chinese government’s attempts to expand their sphere of influence outward. Since those days, many changes have occurred in the United States as well as in Taiwan and China itself.
First, the United States has become untethered from its once-erstwhile Taiwanese allies. Since the great rapprochement between the United States and China under President Richard Nixon, Taiwan has been increasingly isolated on the world stage. Under President Jimmy Carter, the United States made the egregious error of kowtowing to China’s demands of recognizing the government in Beijing as the only legitimate government of China (and Taiwan) without allowing for Taiwan to fall back under China’s rule.
Second, the founding party of Taiwan’s independent government, the Guomindang (GMD), has morphed from a fiercely anti-Chinese Communist Party movement into a nominally friendly pro-China party, seeking greater ties with the mainland (which would ultimately lead to reunification).
Third, the Chinese, as noted above, have switched from a more pro-trade, conciliatory approach to Taiwan into a more forceful stance.
Currently, China is feeling its oats, as it were. Since the election of Donald Trump into office, the world has wrongly assumed that the United States was abandoning its traditional role as the guarantor of the international system. Now, the world looks around for a new guarantor of the international order. Many are looking to the economic juggernaut of Germany or the economic and military power of China. Within these shifting views of America’s role in the world, is an implicit assumption that a rising great power like China will be able to have its way in what it perceives as its sphere of influence. Since the end of the Chinese Civil War, the Beijing government has viewed Taiwan as a breakaway province–the place that their rivals in the Chinese Civil War had fled to after losing the war. To the Chinese, had it not been for the intervention and support from the West, Taiwan would have been taken by China by force. It has long been a policy of the Chinese government to reunite with Taiwan–so long as the Taiwanese accept Beijing (and therefore Communist) rule.
Keep in mind, also, that it is not just Chinese pride that is driving their aggression toward Taiwan. It is also the perception of China being encircled by the United States and its allies. Right now, the Trump Administration is necessarily engaged in a standoff with the Chinese ally of North Korea over their nuclear program. President Trump is doing this because the United States is obligated to defend South Korea and Japan–two targets of North Korea–as well as to defend the United States, which North Korean ruler, Kim Jong-un has consistently threatened with nuclear destruction. Even as China has sought to engage in the kabuki dance of publicly siding with the Trump Administration whilst maintaining cordial relations with North Korea, the Chinese government has been put in a position where it (wrongly) believes that it has no territorial integrity, so long as American forces continue acting freely in what China perceives as its own backyard. The purchase of the S-400 system; the embrace of the more provocative foreign policy under Xi, are part of a larger Chinese worldview that believes it is constantly threatened by outside forces seeking to dismember and subjugate China, as the old Western colonial empires did yesteryear.
Thus, so long as Taiwan remains independent, democratic, and oriented toward the West, the Chinese will continue their provocations toward their neighbors, believing that they have no strategic depth with which to defend their mainland. Of course, these archaic views are not realistic. The United States has no intention of attacking or invading China (unless China oversteps and attacks an American ally or the United States directly). In fact, in recent years, American military aid to Taiwan has been fairly low key–and in no way upsets the balance of power between the mainland and Taiwan. China wants Taiwan weak and isolated so that it can easily roll into Taiwan. They will not be happy until the United States disavows its support of Taiwan entirely, and allows the Chinese to continue expanding their military reach into the second island-chain beyond China’s coast. In so doing, the Chinese believe they will have an effective defensive perimeter that would keep the United States Navy outside of the economically dynamic Asia-Pacific, and allow China to fulfill its most fantastical irredentist objectives of rehabilitating the old Chinese Empire.
Contrary to what China’s leaders believe, most Asian states do not want to be made into vassal states of China’s new “All Under Heaven.” They prefer to balance against China with American military power; relying on China for economic trade and the United States for defense. While this is an entirely idiotic calculation for all parties, this is the reality we face.
The Taiwanese have politically evolved separately from their Chinese brothers on the mainland. A deeply rooted democratic culture, as well as a vibrant free market economy has arisen on the island. Any reunification with the mainland would slowly crush that pro-Western, democratic spirit. Many in the West view a reunification between Taiwan and China as an acceptable result, if only to avoid a catastrophic conflict with China (which does not view the Taiwanese issue with much rationality). They assume that a more amicable cross-strait relations would likely help to create a less caustic reunification, much the same way that Hong Kong’s return to China played out in 1997. But, as we’ve witnessed over the last few years, China has steadily undermined the English civil laws that have long-defined Hong Kong’s legal, political, and economic system. Beijing under Xi has fought desperately to erode the democratic freedoms most Hong Kongers enjoy and the legal certitude that Hong Kong inherited from the English. For President Xi and his fellow Communists, the democratic freedom and Western-style legal system that Hong Kong has is a direct threat to Beijing’s rule.
Hong Kong has been a key driver for China’s economic growth. What neither Xi nor his fellow Communist Party members in China recognize is that Hong Kong’s legal system is a major reason why so many international businesses and countries like doing business in Hong Kong. If that were to change (which it is changing), Hong Kong would lose its economic dynamism. Make no mistake, should a more peaceable, slower reunification with Taiwan occur, almost the exact same fate would befall Taiwan.
This would not only be a human tragedy for Taiwan, but it would also be a diminution of America’s credibility. Like it or not, the United States’ inability to make a decisive stand for or against Taiwanese independence has hemmed U.S. foreign policy in. If we supported Taiwan fully–and called for their recognition as an independent state–it would rankle the Chinese and complicate our relations with them. However, it would help to hone in American policy in the region. If we chose to deny Taiwanese statehood and make our policy commensurate with Beijing’s, it would at least ameliorate a potential conflict. Right now, our 40 year policy toward Taiwan is not only undermining our relations with Beijing, but it is also giving false hope to Taiwan, while at the same time threatening to harm American credibility.
Very few believe that the United States would risk a war with China over Taiwan. Yet, we are obligated to act in defense of Taiwan, should China attack. Personally, I find it reprehensible that we would abandon a democracy like Taiwan to their fate–particularly since the Taiwanese have an advanced military and have only to receive the right amount of military aid to deter a Chinese invasion. The arrival of the S-400 system is part of a larger Chinese modernization effort aimed at having the capability to overwhelm whatever defenses Taiwan has. Fact is, the United States has been derelict in providing the right countermeasures that Taiwan would need to believably deter China from greater aggressive action.
For all of the discussion about the S-400 “Triumf” system, American war planners have proven in Syria that the ubiquitous Tomahawk cruise missiles are more than capable of penetrating the defensive layers of the S-400 system, and can hit their targets unimpeded. In 2015, the United States Navy embarked on an effort to modernize their EA-18 Growler fleet, to make them capable of “weapons quality track” of enemy “emitters.” In other words, despite the newfangled technology in the S-400 system, old school systems, like cruise missiles and slightly upgraded EA-18 Growlers can be used to suppress and overcome those Russian-built defenses whilst threatening Chinese targets.
The more serious concern that the S-400 raises is in its capabilities to track targets as far using methods can penetrate American stealth technology. This is made even more dangerous by the fact that China claims to have tested its newly built quantum radar that they plan on integrating with the S-400. Even still, there are relatively low-cost ways for American systems to complicate China’s perceived new advantages enough to avoid the kind of hostile action that many believe China is planning against Taiwan as early as 2020.
Whether the United States manages to craft a more sensible policy toward not only Taiwan, but all of the Asia-Pacific, the fact remains that the United States is treaty-bound to help defend Taiwan from attack. Whatever advantages the Chinese believe they’ve built over the last several years–from amphibious warfare capabilities to the aforementioned S-400–the fact remains that their new systems are mostly untested and can be mitigated with existing American technology.
My recommendation would be to give Taiwan scores of cruise missiles (or to encourage the Taiwanese to build massive amounts of their own cruise missiles), coupled with the EA-18 Growlers (as well as the E-2D Hawkeyes that support the Growlers) that would be needed to suppress and overcome the Chinese S-400 threat. Taiwan has a handful of Hawkeyes and would need considerable amounts of Growlers to make their S-400 countermeasures fully effective. The United States must make selling Taiwan these upgraded systems a major priority in its relations with Taiwan.
The point is to raise the costs on any potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan to such a level that they have no choice but to engage in more peaceable relations with Taiwan, thereby reducing the risk to America.