War, and how to avoid it, was the focus of President Biden’s attention during his closed-door summit meeting last Wednesday with Chinese State Chairman Xi Jinping (習近平) on the margins of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) “Chief Executives” conclave in San Francisco. Among the wars crowding President Biden’s mind at APEC were those in Ukraine and Gaza, the growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait, as well as China’s maritime “Gray Zone” aggression against the Philippines in the Spratly Islands. Biden was frustrated that Xi made little effort to hide Beijing’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or its lack of empathy with Israel. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen was quoted Friday, November 10, as protesting to her counterpart Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng (何立峰) that Washington expected Beijing “to crack down on private Chinese companies selling equipment to Russia to facilitate Moscow’s war with Kyiv.” Secretary Yellen was particularly incensed that she had given China secret intelligence on Chinese embargo-runners, but China did nothing to stop them.
Facing the smug and uncooperative Chinese leader last Wednesday, President Biden was acutely aware of how strained America’s geostrategic power had become.
The American President was perhaps more alarmed by China’s burgeoning nuclear weapons arsenal which numbered in the “low 200s” three years ago but — to the perplexity of the Pentagon — is now over 500. Last month, the US Defense Department — with struthian understatement — predicted China will have “over 1000” nuclear weapons by 2030.
How many “over 1000” is easier to predict: China had 200 in 2021 and 500 in May 2023. “Do the math!”
If US State Department “arms control” experts are stunned by the rapid numerical increase in China’s nuclear weapons, they are even more shocked by their improvement in quality, accuracy, and deliverability. This month, Japan’s Nikkei news agency ran an extended investigative report on how China’s nuclear weapons laboratories regularly run rings around American, European and Japanese precision machine-tool embargoes to import whatever they need to manufacture the most advanced nuclear warheads on earth. Also this month Foreign Affairs quarterly published a political analysis of China’s nuclear warfare strategies. All this publicity is a sure sign that US national security agencies are working overtime to get as much information as possible into the public domain about China’s threat. They will need broad public and congressional buy-in to make vitally important planning and funding decisions soon.
Whether President Biden felt any need to caution Chairman Xi of these undercurrents at last week’s APEC summit is beside the point. No amount of Chinese persuasion or reassurance would be sufficient to defuse American alarm at China’s new nuclear footprint.
How does this affect Taiwan? Ten days ago, during a third round of televised debates among five Republican presidential hopefuls in Miami, “China” was the overriding topic of discussion. “Taiwan” was mentioned eleven times during the debate’s give-and-take — and always in positive and very warm terms. Israel was mentioned 34 times with equal fervor; Ukraine came up 31 times, mostly in positive ways, but a noticeable hesitation reflected uncertainty over America’s strategic objectives there. And talk of these three countries, Taiwan, Israel, and Ukraine was confined mostly to foreign policy segments.
On the other hand, Republican presidential debaters mentioned “China” 87 times, in every context: economic, trade, debt, finance, human rights, fentanyl, crime, illegal immigration, espionage, loss of industrial jobs, the space race, freedom of navigation, defense and national security, and Chinese aid to Russia, Iran and North Korea. “China” was threaded throughout — it came up in every corner of the debate, from beginning to end.
There was a sense among these candidates that their presumed electoral adversary next year, President Biden, simply is not doing enough to prepare America for a coming showdown with China. And no doubt President Biden’s own national security team is under even heavier pressure to move with speed on the China threats that have gone unaddressed for so long.
Biden’s faces a complex task of slowing China’s advanced-technology military progress in a way that doesn’t accelerate China’s aggressiveness. And he must do this in a global strategic environment that is making evermore stressful demands on America’s and her allies’ own defense infrastructures and budgets. The intensity with which Secretary of State Antony Blinken besought Chinese foreign affairs commissar Wang Yi (王毅) last month to arrange for Chairman Xi’s attendance at the San Francisco APEC was an indication of the China-policy turmoil in the Biden Administration.
With all this crisis in the air, I was asked at the beginning of the month for comments on how the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, and the Philippines’ confrontations by China in the South China Sea, would impact Taiwan.
Ukraine’s army, predicted to last only a few days in February 2022, has battled the far larger and overwhelmingly better-armed Russian invasion force to a grinding-halt. Ukraine has endured and even prevailed for almost three years. The war has had the positive effect of heartening US defense planners with the prospect that large-scale Chinese aggression against Taiwan need not be easy or economical for Beijing. But it has had the negative effect of stretching American materiel reserves beyond the limit and delaying provision of defense equipment and services to Taiwan. The Ukraine War brought home the reality that America is not ready for a protracted conventional war in Europe or Asia — or the Middle East.
The Gaza War has rallied broad and bipartisan political support for Israel in Congress as well as in the Biden Administration. But it, too, has highlighted the fragility of the US defense-industrial base and the capacities of America’s military and naval forces to be present — if not necessarily to fight — in two battle theaters at opposite ends of the world.
Coincidentally with the Gaza War, the Chinese aircraft carrier group Shandong (CV-17) conducted a well-publicized ten-day (Oct. 26 – Nov. 6) sortie into the Philippine Sea east/southeast of Taiwan. On November 7, just as the Shandong Carrier Group departed the Philippine Sea to return to port, two US aircraft carrier strike groups, the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Carl Vinson, moved into the area accompanied by the Japanese Navy’s Helicopter Carrier JS Hyuga (日向) battle group. The joint US-Japan carrier flotillas remained off Taiwan as the APEC Summit in San Francisco began.
Dramatizing the high “operations tempo” of US naval forces afloat, the Gaza War obliged President Biden to deploy two separate carrier groups, the USS Eisenhower and the USS Gerald Ford, to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The USS Eisenhower Strike Group in the Red Sea was credited with successful missile defense operations against ballistic missile launches on Israel from Houthi rebel-controlled Yemen. The USS Ford conducted air strikes against Syria and Hezbollah, reportedly unconnected with the Gaza War — but no doubt intended to deter further Iran-backed aggression against Israel.
The Pentagon reported last month that China launched its third aircraft carrier, the Fujian (福建) CV-18 in June 2022. The Fujian is expected to be commissioned in 2024. A fourth Chinese aircraft carrier began construction in “late 2022.” The US Navy will have more unwelcome company in the Pacific all too soon.
The cumulative effect of the wars in Ukraine and Gaza must be “concentrating minds” in the top ranks of Biden’s national security team — they have taught Secretary Blinken, as he said last week, to “run and chew gum at the same time. The Indo-Pacific is the critical region for our future.”
The British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) reported last week that Washington is now alive to Taiwan’s vulnerabilities in land warfare. “Taiwanese ground troops are being dispatched to the US to train and US trainers are coming to Taipei to embed with Taiwan’s Marines and Special Forces.” Of course, this has been going on pretty much non-stop since November 9, 2020, at the latest. The successes that US Army special forces’ training achieved with Ukraine’s fighters have heartened American defense planners that Taiwan’s military is ready for similar training.
No doubt Chairman Xi himself is well-briefed on President Biden’s clandestine defense assistance and advice to Taiwan. During his meeting with Biden last Wednesday, he probably thought it best not to make a scene. But American leaders should not think for a moment that they have put anything over on him. As long as Taiwan is free and democratic, he will not be in a cooperative mood. And not even then.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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