Schmitt & Thomas Donnelly
A sentimental desire for "one China" isn't Beijing's sole reason for seeking reunification with Taiwan. Armed with a hardheaded appreciation of power and strategic geography, the Chinese understand that their quest to become East Asia's dominant power depends on their ability to control the "first island chain"--a line running from the Aleutian Islands through Japan to the Philippines and parts of Indonesia. Given this, the Clinton administration's decision to deny the arms requested by Taiwan this year represents not just a defeat for that self-governing island, but a setback in the struggle to preserve American global leadership.
China's burgeoning ballistic and cruise missile strength is changing the military balance across the Taiwan Strait in a rapid and profound way. Within five years, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) will have a fleet of approximately 800 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and a growing number of cruise missiles, all accurate enough to make the kind of disarming strikes that have been integral to American military operations from the Persian Gulf War through last year's campaign for Kosovo.
The PLA has studied the American way of war closely--Chinese military and strategic journals are loaded with such analyses--and has learned a number of lessons. Many in the PLA believe that if China decided to attack, it could employ massive missile strikes to cripple Taiwan's capital, Taipei, in the same way that American forces used cruise missiles and "stealth" aircraft to render Belgrade defenseless.
The Chinese also recognize that missile strikes may not be enough to bring Taiwan to heel. As devastating as such strikes would be, their real importance would be to leave the country defenseless to subsequent attacks by bombers and fighter planes. Missile strikes would have a good chance of catching Taiwan's air force in its hangars and rendering Taiwan's military airfields useless for a significant period, offsetting the primary advantage Taiwan now holds over the PLA as well as complicating American resupply and reinforcement efforts. Since Taiwan's most modern aircraft are based at just three airfields, fewer than 50 missiles could cripple Taiwanese air operations. Other strikes would target Taiwan's command and control networks and air defense radars. These fixed sites, most of which are well-known to Chinese military intelligence, are extremely vulnerable. Such a preemptive attack also would leave the United States with few attractive military options to defend Taiwan.
Taiwanese leaders understand this threat well, as their arms requests demonstrate. In particular, the request for sophisticated warships equipped with Aegis radar and air defense missiles reflects an appreciation of the Chinese missile arsenal and the threat of an extended campaign of air and missile strikes. The value of the Aegis system is not only in its missile defense capabilities--which are limited and will never be sufficient to protect against the kind of saturation attacks that China will be capable of mounting--but in its ship-based mobility and survivability.
By contrast, the huge "Pave Paws" long-range radar system that the administration is offering as a substitute, while capable, is a stationary target. One should remember that the role of Pave Paws in the United States was to provide early warning of a Soviet nuclear attack to allow for a retaliatory strike, not to provide a useful defense. The reality is that the administration isn't offering Taiwan the kind of defense capabilities it needs most. Given the growing Chinese missile threat, it will take many years to redress the imbalance across the Taiwan Strait. However, had the United States sold Taiwan all that country had asked for recently, the sale would have moved the two countries close to parity.
The changing military balance is not only a matter of survival for Taiwan, it is a matter of grave consequence for America. A 1996 report in a Chinese military journal, the Navy, concluded that Taiwan is "the crucial point in the first chain of islands--located where these two important strategic areas [Northeast and Southeast Asia] meet--a pivotal point." It went on to say that "Taiwan is the most convenient place from which China can venture forth into distant seas." Another Chinese journal, Taiwan Affairs, concluded that "we can thus see that Taiwan occupies a unique and advantageous spot on the geostrategic map" in an article titled "Taiwan's Geostrategic Value Makes Reunification Essential."
Taiwan's centrality also makes it crucial to America's position as the guarantor of stability in East Asia. The U.S. Navy now protects Taiwan's shipping lanes, but the Navy's ability to operate in those waters would be put at grave risk by a Chinese occupation of Taiwan, or even by reunification with a China in competition with the United States.
This, in turn, quickly would erode the broader regional security system and call into question America's alliances and strategic partnerships in East Asia. Japan, Korea and our other friends and partners there already have doubts about our ability to manage a rising China.
The long-term competition with China promises to be the defining feature of 21st-century international politics. China's growing power and dissatisfaction with the current world order, captured in its endless complaints about American "hegemonism," make it the only likely candidate with the motive and the means to mount a great-power challenge to the United States. China looms as the barrier along the road from the current "unipolar moment" to an extended pax Americana.
But Taiwan is more than a piece of strategic real estate. Its democratic transformation stands as a confirmation of the genuine universality of American political ideals. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of Taiwan's emergence as a robust democracy. The change of government in Taiwan next month marks the first peaceful and democratic transfer of power in 5,000 years of recorded Chinese history. This is not only a mortal challenge to the communist regime in Beijing, it is a refutation of the noxious notion that there are "Asian values" fundamentally at odds with Western concepts of individual liberty and political rights.
The administration's decision on arms sales for Taiwan, especially when examined in conjunction with its all-out effort to gain permanent normal trade relations for China, thus looks increasingly like a fundamental leaning toward accommodation of Beijing and away from defense of Taiwan. Indeed, Beijing's low-key response to news of the sales suggests that it is little threatened by the weapons to be transferred. All that remains now is for the president to proclaim "peace in our time."
Gary Schmitt is the executive director and Tom Donnelly is the deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a Washington think tank that specializes in defense and foreign policy issues.