A question of strategy
By Stanley Chan
Pentagon report on China's military buildup has, as in
previous years, generated heated debates on the validity
of the US military's assessment, and the unspoken
motivations of the US defense and foreign-policy
community. Critics have dismissed these assessments as
alarmist, as reflecting the paranoia of US hawks overly
fixated on the obsessions of their counterparts in
But if China possesses a "hollow
military", and the combined military strength of Taiwan
and the United States can stop China from conquering
Taiwan, why not just let Taiwan declare independence?
After all, if China can't conquer Taiwan, why deny 23
million Taiwanese their right of self-determination?
Many critics of the Pentagon's assessments (as
well as many who concur with the report's findings)
would reply with an emphatic "No" to such a suggestion.
A variety of reasons would be given, among them "it
would lead to bloody and brutal war", "it would
destabilize the Asia-Pacific", "it would poison US-China
relations for generations", etc.
It would seem
that China's military is not quite so hollow after all.
The above question, and the likely replies to
the question, touch upon elements missing in many
criticisms of the Pentagon's report, and which the
report itself only touches on indirectly. Missing from
these debates is any detailed discussion of Chinese
strategic thinking. There is an assumption that Chinese
leaders would not dare to use force while the military
balance is against them. This is a flawed and dangerous
Furthermore, these debates do not
include any analysis of the broader political context,
specifically of political will on the part of either
China, Taiwan, or the United States. A discussion of
political will is essential for putting the military
balance in context.
Why counting beans is not
When examining strategic writings by Mao
Zedong, which are still influential within the Chinese
strategic community, one discerns several important
themes. They are:
Political motivation is more
important than technology and material factors in
determining who ultimately wins the war.
The enemy's camp is often not
monolithic. Individuals and groups within the enemy camp
are often poorly motivated, and can be weaned away.
Given patience and time, an adversary with an
advantage in numbers and material resources can
eventually be defeated.
These themes have
been reflected in Beijing's strategies since 1949. For
example, despite an overwhelming material disadvantage
vis-à-vis the United States, Beijing intervened in the
Korean War to defend what it believed to be a core
national-security interest. They are also reflected in
Beijing's nuclear strategy. Beijing has never sought to
match either the Soviet or the US nuclear stockpile,
settling on a relatively small stockpile on the
assumption that the threat to destroy a handful of
cities in either the United States or the former Soviet
Union would provide effective deterrence.
does all this relate to the cross-Strait military
While various Chinese analysts
acknowledge some of the material advantages held by the
United States, they also cite the fact that the Taiwan
issue is not a core security interest for the US, and
that the US is casualty-averse. The US would never, they
therefore conclude, risk thousands, possibly tens of
thousands, of casualties to defend a country that most
Americans cannot point to on a map. When they view the
Taiwanese military, Chinese analysts are dismissive of
both its motivation and its competence, seeing it as no
more capable than the Nationalist Chinese armies they
defeated more than 50 years ago. Moreover, the island's
political and economic elite is seen as vulnerable to
seduction by the growing economic ties across the Taiwan
Strait. In the end, it is determined, Taiwan's elites
would never sacrifice their lives to defend an island
they never really considered home.
imbalance of political will
strategists, whatever material advantages Washington and
Taipei might have do not compensate for the lack of
political will. The leadership within both Taipei and
Washington can be co-opted and/or deterred.
Their arguments are not without merit. Critics
in Washington, and elsewhere, who pooh-pooh Chinese
military capabilities, and who complain that the above
views probably only represent a small faction of China's
military leadership, often are the embodiment of the
dismissive analyses by Chinese strategic analysts.
Whenever a high-profile report on the "China threat" is
produced, the critics are dismissive. But when forced by
events, such as US President George W Bush saying in
front of national TV that he would "do whatever it
takes" to defend Taiwan, the critics start screaming
"back off, we are getting in over our heads". In the
end, those who scream the loudest about China not being
a threat in reality are often quite fearful of China -
but don't want to admit it.
position can be explained by:
An ideological hostility toward the Pentagon, the
Republican Party, and various elements of the "military
A desire to avoid contentious issues within the
bilateral US-China relationship.
A general, and in some cases willful, ignorance of
Taiwan's modern history, and its unusual external and
internal political conditions.
The result of all
this is an unspoken lack of political will among many
US-based defense and foreign-policy analysts to defend
Taiwan. This lack of will at times leads them to dismiss
Chinese military capabilities in order to avoid a
confrontation over an issue they are at most indifferent
In this environment, strong political will
on China's part, combined with a lot of patience, makes
up for its limited military capabilities. China need not
match US or Taiwanese capabilities. Beijing merely needs
to create enough tension and fear among elements of the
US foreign-policy elite to get them to argue against
supporting Taiwan in any potential cross-Strait crisis.
In the end, the various analyses of the
cross-Strait military balance say less about the
military balance and more about how individual critics
view US-China relations, and right-of-center groups
within the US political establishment.
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