MeiZhongTai

Sunday, July 10, 2005

War in the Taiwan Straits: A Rebuttal (Part II)

After examining his update and the possibility of an invasion of Taiwan proper, let me go back and look at the body of his post.

Mr. Turton's Thesis:
Much of this commentary has the laudable goal of countering what is essentially a bit of propaganda. Yet, in doing so, these pieces tend to go overboard with naive assumptions about the rationality of government actors in NE Asia, naive assumptions about what China is, and naive assumptions about the ability of the US to project power in the region. Essentially, this writing overestimates the power of the US, Japan, and especially Taiwan, and deeply underestimates the ability of the PRC to conduct a limited and successful war in the Taiwan Strait while suppressing public opinion at home, should any contrary opinion arise.
He further elaborates on each point and I will hold off and address each specific point as he does...
In the event of a cross-strait conflict, would Taiwan's military fight? Maybe, and maybe not. The military rank and file are Taiwanese, but the officer class remains mainlander and therefore, in its heart, pro-China. I'd imagine there would be some outright defections if the Chinese actually moved, and there would be quite a lot of sabotage one way or another.
One of the commenters on Turton's site labeled this ethnic determinism, calling it
cheap stereotypes of "He's ethnically Taiwanese, so he's a proud defender of the motherland" or "He's ethnically mainland, so he's a Red Book-waving surrender-monkey."(source)
I also don't agree with ethnic determinism and feel it is quite unfair to say that just because of one's ethnicity (or more specifically, because of the nationality of one's parents) they are more or less likely to defend their country or surrender to aggression by the People's Republic. Based on the Iraq-related comments Mr. Turton has made lately, I am reminded of those opposed to the Iraq War saying that Americans would not be welcomed as liberators from their oppressive leader by the Iraqi people because no one likes to have their home country conquered by outsiders. The same applies in this situation. No one wants to be conquered, whatever their skin color or ethnic heritage.
The local military is riddled with PRC spies, and there has been a steady flow of retired military officers moving to China and selling local military secrets. When Chen Shui-bian became President, senior military leaders bluntly said that they would not defend the island if it declared independence.
I don't claim to know if there are any Chinese spies in the military but I am curious to hear more about this assertion and the basis of the claim. I have seen some reports of the odd soldier or civilian on either side of the strait being arrested and accused of spying for the other. Does the PRC have more or less spies in the ROC military than the ROC has in the PLA? Does anyone really know?

As to the senior military officers, the officers that sat atop the hierarchy in 2000 when President Chen was inaugurated are not the same ones that command it today. As is ROC tradition, the President has a significant role in the selection of general officers. I seriously doubt he will pick officers for senior positions unless he is confident in the general's willingness to fight.
A second problem is that the Taiwanese themselves do not want to fight China. A recent poll said about two-thirds of the young people would not fight if China came over.
I didn't see this poll, so I can't evaluate their method of sample selection, survey size, or wording of the question. Since half of Taiwan's young people are females and wouldn't be expected to serve anyways, it doesn't surprise me all that much though. Show me a (properly conducted) survey of graduates of the country's military academies or of able-bodied men doing their mandatory military service saying they won't fight and I will find it much more alarming.
A third problem is that the local armed forces are of questionable competence. Taiwan has been a pariah state for three decades now and the military has had almost no practice with foreign powers. Its tactical and technological ideas are often years out of date. The Taiwan military has four major branches, army, navy, air force, and logistics, and the last is extremely corrupt. My students, many of whom have served as conscripts in the military, often wryly joke that their job if attacked is to stand there and die.
I agree that Taiwan has been treated by the militaries of the world as an unwanted stepchild for many years. The military as a whole has participated in no significant military exercises with foreign powers in many years. If China was regularly participating in multi-national exercises with first-rate powers, this would be worrying by comparison. But China has not. (One exercise involving a two foreign warships doesn't count for much, especially when that foreign country is France.)

Turton writes:
I think there are many people who consciously or subconsciously imagine that Taiwan is some kind of East Asian version of Israel. Don't.
Agreed. Taiwan is not Israel. Taiwan's neighbors cannot march to invade it. This is important because power projection in East Asia, unlike the Middle East, cannot be attained by simply purchasing comfortable shoes. Israel was forced to react to a planned invasion with only a week or so notice in the 1967 War. It is completely inconceivable that Taiwan would ever face an invasion force (even one of the size Turton offers) with that little advanced notice.

Along the same line, a commenter on Turton's site added:
You forgot the quote from the US officers who visited here: "We came expecting Israel, we found Panama." And the Taiwanese couldn't complain because Panama is a diplomatic ally!
That oft-repeated quote is illustrative of one thing and one thing alone, the ignorance of that one officer. Taiwan is not Israel and it was naive of him to think it would be. Neither is Taiwan Panama. Taiwan is Taiwan and it must be appreciated in its individual circumstances.

His questions as to the interoperability of the alliance is best summed up in this sentence:
In short, the US-Japan-Taiwan alliance is like the WWII ABCD alliance, one that looks great on paper, but whose mutual fighting qualities are likely to disintegrate under the pressure of serious warfare from a determined opponent.
The ABCD alliance was made up of formidable powers who fought well individually but didn't coordinate their efforts as well as they could have. I don't know where this disintegration talk comes from considering the ABCD alliance emerged victorious from World War II. I do think it is fair to say that the allies that form together to defend the island of Taiwan will have interoperability problems just as the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq has had such problems and just as every previous alliance in the history of the world has had them. Will that prevent them from winning a war? No more than it did the ABCD powers in World War II. Should the militaries of those countries be working with one another to address those concerns in advance of such a conflict? They should and they are.

Next, Turton criticizes what he calls the
'don't worry be rational' theory of non-conflict
I agree with him that we cannot rely on the standard Structural Realist assumptions (that decisions are made by a unitary rational actor seeking to maximize national gains, especially in the realm of security) in the case of China. To quote from an earlier MeiZhongTai post:
While the national government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are the same entity, the needs and goals of the nation and that of the party are not the same. It is not hard to conceive of a scenario where the CCP takes action detrimental to the nation in order to save itself from challenges to its leadership.
Turton then offers:
Were China to move against Taiwan, a short war might be only a blip on the development radar. Europe does not support Taiwan or Taiwan independence, and has always been ready to sell the island out in exchange for favors from Beijing. Why would trade with Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South America cease if a war begins?
Firstly, who says the war will be short? Seems to me we are making a lot of assumptions in favor of China. War planners who think that every advantage will fall their way tend not to perform well in real conflict. A China expecting mass desertion and a short war will be quite surprised by what they find on this beautiful island.

Secondly, China's trade with Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South America would be dependent on their opponents not imposing a blockade of some kind, as would the 5.56 million barrels per day that China imports. More importantly though, China's top two trading partners are Japan and the US, and Taiwan is number seven (with the EU being considered as one trading bloc). Even if China was not subjected to a blockade, I suspect that significant losses of trade due to conflict and the loss of one's biggest trading partners would result in much more than a 'blip on the development radar.' Trade with all of the locations mentioned by Turton is a blip on the GDP screen compared to the combined economic forces of the US, Japan, and Taiwan. Additionally, Japan, the US, and Taiwan all rank in the top five as sources of FDI. (For a great country-by-country analysis of trade with, and investment in, China, see 'China's Foreign Trade and Investment' in China and World Economy (vol. 13 no.3), which is the source of the above data but sadly isn't available online.)
Does anyone really imagine that if there is a serious war the population of China will conduct mass protests against it?
No.
Should FDI slow, or the economy fail to grow, CCP leadership may well conclude that a war would become feasible as (1) the economy is tanking anyway and (2) the public needs a diversion from worsening economic conditions.
Agreed. I would argue that a challenge to the CCP leadership, most likely brought about by the end of China's rapid economic growth, is the event singularly most likely to spark a China-Taiwan conflict.
Can the US sustain any kind of war with China? We cannot even afford to pay for a conflict against insurgents in Iraq.
YES! Despite Turton's eagerness to declare the Iraq War a victory for the resistance, Coalition forces are performing quite well in Iraq and to date none of America's checks have bounced. I will refrain from further discussion of the Iraq conflict, however, because that is amply addressed by hundreds of other blogs and news sources. As to America's ability to sustain a conflict with China, allow me to offer a quote from Joseph Nye who sums the issue up well:
If anyone doubted the overwhelming nature of U.S. military power, Iraq settled the issue. With the United States representing nearly half of the world's military expenditures, no countervailing coalition can create a traditional military balance of power. [Source]

If that didn't convince you, read chapter three of America's Inadvertent Empire or Gregg Easterbrook's article 'American Power Moves Beyond the Mere Super.'

Turton then offers:
Indeed, since only Japan and America will be prosecuting a war against China over Taiwan, it seems quite likely the opposite would happen: that those two nations will find themselves isolated from world opinion, and fighting alone. Europe will almost certain support China in a serious conflict, the Bush Administration having driven a truck through our alliance systems.
While I admit that relying on France or Germany to aid us would be unwise, I am curious to hear an explanation why anyone can be so sure that Great Britain and/or Australia would not offer some assistance. Turton later clarified here what he meant by Europe supporting China:
By 'support' I mean that Europe would not take an adversarial position. Just as the US supported Franco in the Spanish War by not opposing him.
By that definition, Europe is supporting both America and China. I do, however, agree that most of continental Europe won't get involved on either side of a conflict between China and Taiwan. Additionally, Turton forgot to include Taiwan in his list of countries that would defend Taiwan but maybe that was intentional.
Many nations are dependent on the Chinese economy as major markets, and will not want to see those markets lost in wartime. They will continue to deal with the Chinese even in the event of war, and even if it means risking US wrath.
To summarize, the countries will follow the money to decide who to ally with... Look around the world and find which countries do more trade with China than America. You will arrive at a very short list. Subtract countries who are already committed to one side or the other (Taiwan for example) and the result is a very short list of mostly insignificant powers.

Conclusion

The ROC military is much more capable than Mr. Turton implies. That does not mean that Taiwan is Israel-like. It obviously has problems (great article on the subject here), but its problems pale in comparison to those of the People's Republic. America's military is likewise much more powerful than Mr. Turton implies.

A war between China and Taiwan or China and Japan would be close (assuming the war was fought at sea or on the islands, not in China) but a fight against the United States would not be close at all. A fight against the combined forces of those three nations would be over before it began.

Update: Mr. Turton has replied on his blog.
Instead of starting round three, I'll just say that it is unlikely we will ever agree on this one. One or two quick thoughts (more questions than answers):
  • I would classify the IDF as a fourth generation aircraft and point out that the Su-27 and Su-30 are just as "untested" as the IDF, but this is just semantics at this point. One thing that really has me thinking on the subject is Jing's comment in reply to my first post:
    The ROC airforce has... no concrete additional purchases in coming years.
    Is the ROCAF going to cede air superiority to China as it appears to be doing on naval superiority (by not purchasing the submarines and other ASW platforms they need)?

  • The cadet that he mentioned, who from what I understand is performing quite well at USMA, had joined the ROC Military Academy one year prior to her attending USMA. Could it be that things like marksmanship and land navigation are taught in the ROC Army to the same degree, but just not in the first year of one's cadetship?

  • On the mainlander issue, Turton offers:
    mainlander is not an ethnicity. It is a political identity created by the KMT out of a variety of ethnic groups who happened to come across in 1949.
    I'm not an ethnologist (is that what one would call an expert on ethnicity?) but aren't all ethnicities socio-political constructs?

  • With regard to the outcome of the type of conflicts we have been discussing and the US's willingness to intervenes, Turton offers:
    A lot will depend on whether the general population accepts that defending Taiwan is worth it. Perhaps we pro-Taiwan bloggers should be expending our energy on that.
    Agreed.