Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, Robert Kaplan maintains that a “Greater China” is taking shape at sea, backed by a well-armed, increasingly ambitious People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Kaplan, an Atlantic Monthly columnist and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, urges Taipei and Washington to work together to make military action around Taiwan “prohibitively costly” for Beijing. Joint action would keep Taiwan from being swallowed up in a Greater China.
What does that mean in practice? For Taiwan’s Republic of China Navy (ROCN), ratcheting up the costs for China means balking Chinese efforts to shut the US Navy out of maritime Asia. In operational terms, it means denying the PLAN command of the waters off Taiwan. In effect, the Taiwanese fleet would hold open a portal from the Pacific into nearby waters, letting US Navy expeditionary forces reach the theater in wartime. It would amplify the hazards of naval war for Beijing while reducing them for Washington.
Greater prospects of success coupled with diminished risk would make it easier for a US president to order the US fleet into combat.
The ROCN must reinvent itself to execute such a strategy. The navy has traditionally considered itself a “sea-control” force able to vanquish China’s navy through fleet-on-fleet battles. As the victor, Taipei would then exercise near-total control over vital waters, buffering against a Chinese invasion force. This approach made sense while the PLAN remained an afterthought in Chinese military strategy, but that’s no longer true — as Kaplan points out.
The PLAN has designed its fleet to strike at US weaknesses, denying Washington the option of intervening in a cross-strait fracas. Think about stealthy diesel submarines. Undersea craft can lurk undetected offshore and they pack a wallop in the form of antiship missiles and wake-homing torpedoes — deadly “fish” that home in on the turbulence churned up by a target ship’s propellers. Chinese engineers are experimenting with antiship ballistic missiles able to hit ships underway.
And so on. The Chinese fleet is geared not to defeating the US Navy in a toe-to-toe fight but to “sea denial.” A sea-denial navy sees little need to control critical seas itself; it merely wants to keep a superior foe from using them.
Admiral Stansfield Turner explains that sea denial is “essentially guerrilla warfare at sea,” a mode of combat in which a lesser navy hits and runs to wear down a stronger opponent. If successful, Chinese sea denial would transform offshore waters into virtual no-go territory for an adversary like the US Pacific Fleet despite the US Navy’s overall superiority. Sea denial, then, provides a way for Beijing to accomplish its goals while conceding that its fleet remains inferior to its main antagonist.
The ROCN can take a page from Beijing’s book. If a weaker yet savvy PLAN can deny the US Navy access to Asian waters writ large, a weaker yet savvy ROCN can deny the PLAN access to the waters surrounding Taiwan. In hardware terms, this means playing down platforms designed for major fleet actions. For example, the navy’s premier warships are 30-year-old Kidd-class destroyers. These warships had their day, but they are less and less equal to the Chinese air threat.
Nor is there much chance of restoring outright Taiwanese naval supremacy in an age of annual double-digit increases in the Chinese military budget. Rather than attempt to maintain a balanced fleet able to defeat the PLAN, Taipei should move toward an unbalanced fleet designed for hit-and-run operations in Stansfield Turner’s sense. A sea-denial ROCN would emphasize large numbers of small, stealthy, relatively inexpensive surface combatants that punch above their weight.
To their credit, naval leaders acknowledge the value of fast patrol craft. However, the ROCN sea-denial fleet remains backward, while attempts to upgrade it suffer from cost overruns, poor design and slipshod construction. The Kuang Hua VI missile boats now entering service are of dubious quality. Chinese observers ridicule the Kuang Hua’s unwieldy superstructure and the non-stealthy fittings littering its decks. These features compromise the boat’s stealth while impairing its stability in rough seas — the worst of all worlds.
A 907-tonne missile corvette is reportedly under development. If built in sufficient numbers and dispersed around the island’s periphery — not concentrated in major seaports like the current ROCN fleet, which is vulnerable to pre-emptive attack — corvettes could sortie in wartime to harass PLAN vessels. A maritime guerrilla force would slow down a Chinese assault, protract the conflict and buy a precious commodity for Taipei and Washington — time.
James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara are associate professors of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are theirs alone and not those of the Taipei Times.
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