Can America Still Defend Taiwan?
During the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, President Bill Clinton dispatched aircraft carriers in defense of Taiwan’s right to elect a pro-independence presidential candidate, Lee Teng-Hui. Now that Taiwan has once again elected a new president with pro-independence leanings – Tsai Ing-wen – this question must be asked: Will America once again defend Taiwan if Beijing threatens anew its “renegade province”?
This is very real question as Beijing has already begun to rattle sabers, swords, and missiles and threaten economic reprisals. From the White House’s and Pentagon’s perspectives, the problem is not just a fear of escalation should American carriers once again be ordered to the Taiwan Strait. China has also now developed a whole new suite of “anti-access, area denial” weapons explicitly designed to kill the American fleet – and do so in quite splendid asymmetric warfare fashion.
The most famous of these asymmetric weapons is China’s game-changing DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile – Beijing openly calls it a “carrier killer.” If the hype over this missile is to be believed, it can be launched from over a thousand miles away, descend seamlessly from space, and hit an American carrier zigzagging at 30 knots.
There is also a bigger version of the DF-21D known as the DF-26 –dubbed the “Guam killer” for its longer range. In addition, there is China’s much-hyped hypersonic glide vehicle. It can achieve speeds of Mach 10 and higher and is highly maneuverable. These two attributes make it very difficult to track and neutralize the hypersonic vehicle with America’s Aegis battle management system.
As poster children of asymmetric warfare, there are also China’s new Type 022 Houbei-class attack craft. Packing an out-sized punch, these Australia-designed catamarans can deliver swarms of cruise missiles in salvo attacks and thereby complement any coordinated anti-ship ballistic missile and hypersonic glide vehicle attacks.
Any Ship Can Be A Minesweeper – Once
There are two other classes of weapons that were conspicuously missing from the Taiwan Strait in 1996 but which now directly threaten American carriers. The first is China’s large and diverse arsenal of sea mines. Perhaps the most notable is the rocket-rising mine; it can detect the unique acoustic or magnetic signature of a US carrier and deliver a warhead traveling at up to 70 knots from the ocean bottom.
The second set of weapons not hitherto present in the Taiwan Strait crisis is China’s growing fleet of conventional diesel electric submarines – soon to be the largest in the world. These ultimate passive-aggressive weapons are extremely quiet – and therefore exceedingly lethal.
Today, many of China’s Yuan-class subs are equipped with state-of-the-art German air-independent propulsion systems. Tomorrow, Lada-class subs that may be bought from the Russians feature even more advanced sound suppression technologies.
America Turns the Tables?
This is not to say that the US can no longer defend Taiwan. Already, there is increasing talk in Pentagon halls that the next Taiwan Strait crisis may best be fought with weapons like the Virginia class attack sub – rather than the flat tops that have served the navy well for more than 70 years but which are increasingly obsolete. Here, with the US holding a clear advantage in sub warfare, America’s sub fleet may be highly effective at eliminating a whole range of Chinese threat vectors from the Taiwan Strait.
In a strategy of “Offshore Control,” America’s subs could also be deployed along the numerous chokepoints of the First Island Chain. This a natural “containment boundary” stretches from China’s home islands through the mid-point of Taiwan down to the Philippines and Indonesia. The strategic goal of Offshore Control would be to turn the anti-access, area denial tables on China by keeping both its military and commercial ships out of the Pacific. In this way, the US could apply economic pressure on China to cease its aggression.
Such speculations about a war over Taiwan are, of course, uncomfortable to air publicly. China is, after all, America’s largest trading partner and holds several trillion dollars of US debt; and as with an economically inter-dependent Kaiser Germany and Great Britain on the eve of World War I, there is much talk about how war with China is impossible.
That said, Taiwan’s latest election juxtaposed against Beijing’s increasing aggressiveness in the region and its demonstrable lack of respect for democracy in Hong Kong have rightly reawakened concerns over a new Beijing-Taipei clash – with the US caught in the middle. There is now much to discuss about an island that has been all but forgotten over the last decade as cross-strait relations have dramatically improved and economic ties between Mainland China and Taiwan have tightened.
That those “good old days” may now be gone is a reality that should not be ignored. Not by presidents or Pentagon analysts. And certainly not by the 2016 presidential candidates, one of who will certainly find this cross-strait hot potato in his or her lap.