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Thinking Beyond the Taiwan Strait
Deterring China may start with Taiwan, but the U.S. must take a long-term view with a global perspective
By Michael Puttré
The silver lining of the Russo-Ukraine conflict, if there can be such a thing, is that it’s given the West early warning that the taboo against great-power war is gone. The long peace of the post-World War II era is over, and the world seems only one incident away from another general war. This dawning realization has also brought the potential for a U.S. conflict with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) into sharper focus.
President Xi Jinping can only be discomfited by the sudden spotlight on his oft-spoken (if generally softly rendered) ambitions to “resolve” the issue of Taiwan and establish Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea and other littoral regions washing the “first island chain.” The big stick of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is evidently not yet ready, and now the U.S. and its allies are taking heightened interest in the Chinese Communist Party’s military ambitions in preparation for its centenary celebration of itself in 2049. This was not the plan, and Xi has only his “no-limits” partner Vladimir Putin to thank for the unwelcome attention.
However, Taiwan and even the Indo-Pacific are only part of the equation. Given that the Chinese Communist Party probably will not survive a failed attack on Taiwan, the attempt will not be made unless it is absolutely certain to succeed. While the U.S. should take now whatever steps are necessary to supply Taiwan prior to an invasion attempt, and to support it and rally allies in the event of one, this should be only one aspect of how it prepares for the new world order and coexistence with China.
War in the Margins
Hal Brands, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a July 2022 report that the U.S. is preparing for the wrong kind of war: a short, decisive one focused on the Taiwan Strait. Rather, he said, such a war would most likely sprawl geographically and take much longer to resolve than both belligerents expect.
“Much of the current debate focuses on how the United States could weather the early hours, days, and weeks of a potential conflict,” Brands wrote, adding that this was understandable given the PLA’s weapons and its geographic advantage. “Most modern great-power clashes have been long wars, lasting months or years rather than days or weeks. And as great-power wars go long, they frequently get bigger, messier, and harder to untangle.”
This is all true. However, with both sides focusing on Taiwan so intently, the PRC may perceive that the risk of seizing the island by direct assault is too large to undertake, particularly if the U.S. appears committed to its defense. Rather than a long war that flares up around the world after an initial encounter in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. needs to consider conflicts with China that may occur globally even without a Taiwan clash.
The U.S. may indeed be able to deter the PRC from making an all-or-nothing wager on Taiwan, but it will still have to exist in a world where the PRC is able to flex its muscles in other ways and exude its charm. This is actually the best possible outcome, and even a desirable one, considering risks of nuclear escalation. Yet it will require a strategic focus and deftness that has been lacking in U.S. policy of late.
The emerging U.S. political and military consensus on ramping up munitions production and military deployments to the Pacific reflects awareness of—and even willingness to counter—the PRC’s threats against Taiwan. But it also showcases the tendency of Western democracies to pursue issues of the moment rather than long-term strategy. Given that the PRC evidently excels at the latter, how can the U.S. use its advantages of resilience, adaptability and position to remain competitive, if not dominant, for the rest of the 21st century?
There are two aspects to this question. First, what can be done in the short term to counter China? And second, what long-term military capabilities will the U.S. need to compete and hopefully coexist with China without abdicating its place at (or at least near) the head of the table?
What Have You Done for Me Lately?
The U.S. should attend to its alliances and partnerships globally in order to maintain its preeminent position as a world power and to forestall Chinese gains. Since China’s ambition is to be the preeminent world power, there are no corners of the world in which it is not interested. Many of these interests are economic in nature or involve access to raw materials. Others are simply opportunities to expand the PRC’s footprint in regions that may have strategic value in the future.
The U.S. has a network of sovereign or leased bases, along with basing agreements, around the world that give it global reach. It maintains military transport and refueling aircraft and support ship fleets that remain unparalleled in the world. This logistics network not only enables staging areas for military and humanitarian operations, it provides materials handling and depot services for ships and aircraft. This combination of facilities and equipment not only enables the U.S. to respond to crises as it chooses, but it is also indispensable in joint operations with allies, which mostly do not possess such capabilities in abundance.
The Chinese are trying to achieve this capability as well. Soft power and logistics go hand in hand. Air- and sea-transport capabilities not only enable forces to operate in far-flung corners of the world, but also allow a country to maintain a relationship with the base’s host, particularly when it is in need. If the U.S. is complacent, negligent or even arrogant in its dealings with allies and other countries on which it depends for resources or real estate, the PRC will be along presently with gifts and handshakes.
Blake Herzinger, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a U.S. Naval Reserve officer, co-authored a brief for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy stating that the PRC was likely to build on its current facility in Djibouti (essentially its only overseas naval base) to expand its ability to protect its interests in the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. The base on the Horn of Africa was established in 2017 to support the PLA navy’s contribution to international forces combating Somali pirates.
“In addition to housing intelligence collection equipment, the base was expanded to accommodate the PLAN’s aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships—capabilities that are unnecessary for combating piracy and were added well after the specter of that threat had receded,” Herzinger wrote. “The PLAN’s interest in acquiring operational footholds in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf regions suggests that the Djibouti base will not be the last.”
A recent Rand Corp. report said that China’s motives for securing overseas bases are tied more directly to protecting its own interests, particularly economic ones, than to provoking the U.S. At the same time, China’s efforts to acquire overseas bases support its ambitions as a rising military power on a global scale and could spark “peripheral wars” involving both superpowers. Such conflicts are not likely to remain peripheral for long.
The U.S. should be extremely careful about opposing Chinese efforts to establish bases because such opposition could itself cause instability. Rather, America should remain attentive to its existing and potential friends in a given region while developing capabilities to counter the threats posed by a PLA regional base. This entails expanded deployments of air defense, anti-ship and strike missile systems in addition to signals intelligence gathering.
A controversial aspect of the United States’ relationships with alliance partners and hosts of facilities and personnel is that they’re contingent on the U.S. human rights agenda, which is mainly driven by domestic politics. When campaigning for president, Joe Biden famously reprimanded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the latter’s alleged involvement in the murder of regime critic Jamal Khashoggi. The resulting cooling of U.S.-Saudi relations has potentially opened the door for greater Chinese involvement in the Middle East, with ramifications for diplomatic leverage, arms sales and basing of forces.
China very specifically makes its diplomatic initiatives with no such humanitarian strings attached (though economic strings are another matter). For example, China was quick to the scene with material and very visible assistance for the Pacific nation of Tonga when the island was hit by a volcanic eruption and tsunami in January 2022. China followed up in May with a visit by its foreign minister, who said, “China's diplomacy maintains the principle of mutual respect, the tradition of non-interference in internal affairs, and the goal of mutual benefit and win-win results.”
In the 21st-century competition for global influence, there are no “backyards” that can be taken for granted. If the PRC must be dissuaded from its notion that it is entitled to a backyard in the first island chain, the U.S. should remember that it cannot afford to neglect regions it has come to take for granted or see as irrelevant. Chinese diplomats and PLA assets are sure to fill the vacuum and nourish resentments toward the existing world order.
It's a Small World, But I Wouldn’t Want to Run It
One of the advantages of keeping the Taiwan Strait from boiling over is that staying focused on Taiwan constrains China’s ability to deploy its power overseas. The U.S. has an existing infrastructure of bases and facilities at its disposal. Furthermore, it has cooperated with regional militaries in exercises and even military operations since the end of World War II. The PLA is only in the nascent stages of following suit.
The world is still running on the juice of the Allied victory. Allies in the form of Soviet Russia and riven China preferred to withdraw into their own communist designs rather than participate meaningfully in the international economic and security system. In the interim between the end of World War II and the emergence of outward-looking regimes in Moscow and Beijing, the world built up a vast and overwhelmingly accepted economic, legal and security infrastructure for global commerce and interaction.
However, the existing world order has fueled China’s meteoric ascendency as a global industrial and economic power, largely with the acquiescence and even encouragement of the U.S. If anything, the PRC prefers to entwine itself into this existing order, reaping its benefits and cherry-picking its rules while displacing the U.S. as its ultimate arbiter, rather than trying to build one from scratch or construct an alternate reality, as the Soviet Union tried to do. The Belt and Road Initiative is more formidable in essence than existence; it can best be seen as a hedge against open ocean vulnerability by building more defensible land-based trade routes, an expensive and uncertain process.
The U.S. must look to the kinds of military forces it will need to maintain a world order that, despite overheated reports, would still prefer overall to move along the established and profitable lines that currently exist to the benefit of most.
America Rules the Waves, But for How Long?
In the meantime, the existing order leaves the PRC’s trade and resource lifelines vulnerable to U.S. action, particularly on the high seas. This vulnerability constricts China’s options with regard to Taiwan and the South China Sea, where it has been able to ignore the rules-based order successfully so far. Furthermore, America and its allies can punish the regime into nonexistence with a long-war approach in the aftermath of even a successful conquest of Taiwan, essentially eliminating Chinese trade by sea in a modern-day air and submarine campaign.
This absolute trump card could slip through America’s fingers, however, if it cannot get a grip on its lack of manufacturing capacity. The West, and the U.S. in particular, has convinced itself that an information and services economy is in every way preferable to an industrial one. This may have been true in the days before the most industrialized economy in the world became capable of putting a hypersonic missile on our production choke points. That time has come.
In a long-war sense, the most difficult problem the U.S. has to address is shipbuilding. In February, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said China now has a larger fleet than America, and it is deploying that fleet globally. The basing and port call agreements China’s diplomacy and economics are forging all over the world enable and support these deployments. Current U.S. plans project to have 350 ships deployed by 2045, with a smaller fleet in the interim as older hulls are retired. The PRC navy is expected to have about 500 warships by that time. While numbers are not everything, quantity has a quality all its own.
The situation is even more dire in the merchant marine. According to the Asia Times, “China built 44.2% of the world’s merchant fleet last year, followed by South Korea at 32.4% and Japan at 17.6%. In contrast, the data shows that the U.S. built only 0.053% of the world’s total merchant fleet in 2022.”
The PRC has a tremendous shipbuilding industry and merchant marine that could easily be pressed into military service. Cruisers, submarines, container ships, tankers: All have military utility. Naval analysts have pointed out that the PRC has 19 major shipyards to America’s seven. And just one of China’s facilities, Jiangnan Dao near Shanghai, reportedly has a capacity equal to all U.S. shipyards combined.
To make matters worse, the U.S. Navy has clogged its slipways with expensive, time-consuming and disappointing designs, such as the littoral combat ship and Zumwalt-class destroyers, in pursuit of exotic technologies that have proven essentially fruitless. The USS Gerald R. Ford, reportedly the most expensive ship ever built, is late and, not surprisingly, over budget. Nevertheless, carrier aviation and operations form the backbone of U.S. naval power projection and represent a bastion of sea superiority, for now.
Expanding U.S. shipbuilding capacity is not something that will be either politically popular or economically attractive. Nor will the changes that need to be made to Pentagon development and procurement culture. However, the U.S. does have the advantage of being friendly with a large number of nations that possess significant manufacturing and shipbuilding capacities. It is even allied with some.
While we wait for U.S. capacity to revive, the Department of Defense should avail itself of the capacity of its friends and allies through contracts. America generally avoids procuring ships, planes and tanks from foreign sources, although it happens. The littoral combat ship debacle has prompted the Navy to tap Italy for its replacement frigate design. It will be an Italy-produced hull with U.S. weapons and sensors. This is a model that could be used for any number of required types of ships, planes or other platforms that would otherwise be prevented by lack of domestic manufacturing capacity.
One of the benefits of sitting atop the world order is that you have many friends, allies and stakeholders willing to help you maintain your position if you are willing to give them a piece of the action. America should not forget to exude its own charm.