Taking Asia by surprise: a response

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將  / 

Wed, Nov 28, 2012 - Page 8

There was indeed an element of surprise in Scott Bates’ op-ed “A new plan to take Asia by surprise” (Nov. 22, page 8), especially among those who have studied the politics of the Taiwan Strait over the years.

Given Taiwan’s predicament, innovative ways of thinking about how it can secure its democratic future are always welcome. However, Bates’ “Taiwan 21” proposal (the 21 either stands for 21st century or Taiwan’s total population minus 2 million, we don’t know), while ostensibly striving for such a lofty goal, comes well short of providing viable alternatives for Taiwan. The weaknesses of his argument are manifold; let’s walk through them one by one.

First, Bates recommends that Taiwan “make a solemn pledge that in the event of hostilities, [it] will never conduct any military action on the shores of China. Even if attacked by the Chinese, Taiwan would only defend itself.” To this end, he contends that Taiwan should eliminate all the surface-to-surface missiles in its arsenal.

From this, we can understand that Taiwan should forsake all means to ensure that the aggressor, China, cannot fire more ballistic and cruise missiles at the island.

The main reason why Taiwan has been developing surface-to-surface cruise missiles — mainly the Hsiung Feng family — is for them to be used as a counterforce. In other words, Taiwan’s cruise missiles would serve to strike back at missile bases, radar sites and the command-and-control nodes of China’s Second Artillery Corps to paralyze its warfighting capabilities.

It has already been made very clear that Taiwan will never initiate hostilities or attack non-military targets in China (those who argued otherwise were discredited long ago). Taiwan’s best deterrent option is not to turn the other cheek when attacked; it is to promise enough pain to make the Chinese leadership think twice before deciding to use force against a non-belligerent.

The author’s second recommendation is for the Taiwanese army to be cut in half, reducing its numbers from 130,000 to 65,000, and for it to be recast as a “self-defense force.” The mission of this force would “shift from trying to resist a land invasion to providing rescue, reconstruction and stabilization assistance in disaster situations,” Bates writes. This “repurposed force” could become Asia’s “premier disaster response team, replacing its tanks with airlift capability and logistical support able to move people and supplies to save lives,” he adds.

As a country with a long history of natural catastrophes — from massive earthquakes to powerful typhoons — Taiwan has ample experience dealing with humanitarian emergencies, which gives it the ability to develop first-rate search-and-rescue capabilities. Reconfiguring warfighting capabilities so they can meet humanitarian contingencies and committing to serve as a major player in the region are laudable goals, but there’s a problem, and it is one that anyone who has followed developments in the Taiwan Strait should be aware of: Beijing will not allow it.

Unless Bates’ “Taiwan 21” makes the Chinese leadership magically change its stance on Taiwan, Beijing will continue to prevent Taiwan from being a regional actor or joining multilateral organizations, especially when doing so would emphasize its independence and sovereignty — Bates’ purported ultimate goals.

This leads directly to his third recommendation, which calls for Taiwan to “shift from seeking diplomatic acknowledgment and recognition to developing solutions to the sovereignty questions in the South China Sea.” Taiwan should therefore be a generous provider of humanitarian assistance (which it can only do by joining multilateral organizations), but should not seek recognition. Bates then says Taiwan should launch more track-II initiatives on regional disputes, something it is doing already, but it can only do so much without recognition of its own sovereign rights, which again Beijing refuses to do.

Taipei should then launch a “‘democracy offensive’ aimed at nations in Asia where governments systematically deny their citizens fundamental human rights” and should do so by pledging US$1 billion over 10 years (why US$1 billion is never explained) to engage people and build civil societies across Asia. So Taiwan should spend about one-tenth of its current annual defense budget helping others, but should not seek recognition in return, nor should it ask that the systematic violation of its 23 million people by China be resolved. Altruism indeed requires selflessness, but certainly not to the extent of self-abnegation.

Finally, when its army has been cut in half and redesigned to serve humanitarian purposes, Bates says Taiwan should adopt a “hornet’s nest” strategy, which, among other things, includes “dramatically upgrading its air defenses and modernizing its navy for the purposes of denying any regional power the ability to gain air or naval superiority over Taiwan without suffering huge losses.” How it could achieve this, given the size of China’s navy and air force, is a mystery.

And there’s more to the grocery list: Taiwan, the author says, should “build or acquire the latest land-based air and missile defense systems, signals intelligence, aircraft, attack and minesweeper helicopters, upgraded Lafayette-class frigates, F-16s and Sea Dragon submarines” and also upgrade its F-16s (twice now) while deploying “a force of hundreds of armed drone aircraft.”

The contradictions are enough to make a general spin like a top. The Taiwanese army would be cut by half, and the main focus of its operations would now be humanitarian rescue — involving a major investment in airlift capabilities that Bates does not even begin to describe — but then, with its land army halved, it should embark on a major arms modernization program that would make Saudi Arabia and Israel look like Monday shoppers at the discount store. Taiwan cannot have it both ways.

Furthermore, dismantling its counterforce capabilities would give China free rein to fire as many missiles as it wants, Taiwan would have to acquire or develop huge numbers of extraordinarily expensive air defense systems.

Sure, with an infinite budget, it would be great if every Taiwanese had a PAC-3 in his backyard, but that is not going to happen. The six PAC-3 units it has purchased in the past decade have already put a severe strain on Taiwan’s defense budget. His fantasy calls for way more than that.

With the dozen or so modernization programs Bates recommends, plus the acquisition of “hundreds of attack drones,” Taiwan would be in financial debt for decades to come. Where Taiwan would find such money, Bates does not say, nor does he shed light on how Washington would respond to its acquisition of offensive drones, who Taiwan would get them from and at what cost (ironically, the cheapest attack drones are made in China).

Equally unconvincing is how a military whose main purpose is now to save lives through humanitarian intervention would be able to man and use the weapons systems he recommends be modernized or added to Taiwan’s arsenal. Any military officer who has served on a humanitarian mission (and Bates’ bio shows he has seen more than his share of those) will tell you that the training required to be able to accomplish such tasks differs markedly from that which is needed to prepare for war.

And yet, Taiwanese soldiers are expected to do both, as humanitarian workers and soldiers capable of withstanding an unrestricted assault by China. (Bates’ proposal is oddly reminiscent of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) redirecting of the armed forces toward relief operations, but surely this is nothing more than a coincidence.)

Taiwan needs the army to defend itself against a Chinese invasion; conversely, both the air force and navy would play major roles in any humanitarian mission abroad. With its finite capabilities, Taiwan cannot do both.

Taiwan already has the moral high ground in the Taiwan Strait, and its inability to provide humanitarian assistance is not because of a lack of resolution or intent. In almost every instance, Chinese obstruction has prevented it from providing its expertise to countries in need. Taiwan’s role as a promoter of human rights has faced the exact same obstructionism from Beijing.

Pulverizing the ability of the Taiwanese military to defend the nation — the ultimate outcome of Bates’ series of outlandish recommendations — will not convince China to abandon its claims on Taiwan. In fact, it will likely produce the opposite results and embolden it in its efforts to annex Taiwan, by force if necessary.

J. Michael Cole is a deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.