Friday, 17 April 2015

On The Defence Of Taiwan

Following a discussion elsewhere recently, I thought I'd set to rethinking the question of how to defend Taiwan from a potential Chinese attack. As I see it, various strategies fall into one of two types; delay and deterrence.

For the first type, the underpinning assumption is that Taiwan would eventually be rescued by U.S. and possibly Japanese intervention. This assumption may or may not be valid. Given that assumption, a delay strategy would necessitate the targeting and weakening of Chinese military assets, including missile bases, ships and fighter aircraft in order to buy time for U.S. forces to intervene.

The second type of strategy - deterrence - makes no assumptions about U.S. intervention. Indeed, if it is instead assumed that the U.S. would not intervene on Taiwan's behalf, then a strategy of deterrence seems to be the only one that makes any sense given that the Taiwanese military is unlikely to win a war of attrition with the Chinese military.

How should the Taiwan government spend its' limited resources? Since the probability of (successful) U.S. intervention on Taiwan's behalf is unknown, it makes sense to acquire capabilities that could be used for either of the two types of strategy. If the U.S. does attempt to intervene in the event of a Chinese attack, then Taiwan would be in a position to try to buy time for them - whether successful or not. If U.S. politicians decide to cut Taiwan loose, and communicate this to the Chinese then Taiwan would nevertheless still have some means of attempting to deter any Chinese attack. Of course, it is very likely that there will be some substantial difference between those military assets Taiwan would need for the delay strategy and the military assets Taiwan would need for the deterrence strategy.

Of particular interest are diesel electric submarines and cruise missiles.

The stealthy characteristics of such boats make them excellent platforms for surprise attacks, as even with relatively advanced detection systems, locating them is notoriously difficult. Armed with cruise missiles, these boats could be deployed against Chinese vessels in the Taiwan Strait as part of a delay strategy, or else they could potentially be deployed in the littoral waters off China's eastern coast in order to strike at civilian/political targets in China's cities.

Two questions to be considered are whether cruise missile strikes on Chinese cities could do sufficient (perceived) damage to work as a deterrent, and whether in fact this could realistically be achieved with submarines and cruise missiles.

On the first question, the obvious answer is nuclear warheads, though it is unlikely that Taiwan would restart any such program. Perhaps more realistic would be the targeting of high-salience civilian buildings with great symbolic value, such as skyscrapers and government buildings. Other warhead types are possible besides conventional explosives and nukes. Assuming Taiwanese submarines could actually launch cruise missile strikes against such targets in China, would this actually work as a deterrent? It is hard to know.

On the second question, of whether this could be realistically achieved with submarines and cruise missiles,three objections occur to me, the first two of which were raised by others at the earlier discussion. The first is quantity; that it is unlikely that Taiwan would be able to develop the boats and missiles in sufficient quantity to do any serious damage. The second is timing; that the Chinese military would wait until they had located all Taiwanese boats before launching an attack on Taiwan. The third is distance; Shanghai lies approximately 1,000 km away from the Zuoying port in southern Taiwan where Taiwan's current submarines are based. Beijing is nearly 2,000 km away. Modern diesel electric submarines have limited endurance, with a submerged range of maybe 400 km. Taiwan's current cruise missiles have a range of less than 200 km.

The first objection, on quantity, could perhaps be overcome by simply spending more money which would almost certainly necessitate serious budget cuts elsewhere in government spending. But it would be very expensive, as it requires not simply building a large number of boats but expanding existing ports and building new ones in which to base them. The second objection, on timing, is a murky one in the sense that current anti-submarine warfare in noisy littoral waters searching for small and very quiet boats is extremely difficult - even with the best equipment. The third objection seems to me to be more serious. Either the endurance and range of any future Taiwanese diesel-electric submarines must be vastly improved, or the range of the cruise missiles must be improved. However, the latter option would be unattractive if it resulted in a significant increase in circular error probable. On a somewhat optimistic note, the French shipbuilder DCNS has recently built an advanced diesel-electric submarine with a much larger displacement than typical and a range of more than 10,000 km. So a much improved diesel-electric submarine is at least technically possible.


Perhaps however, this discussion is dangerously short-sighted. The conflict between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China (i.e. Taiwan) is basically an ideological one centered on notions of collective identity. Let's say that China launched an invasion of Taiwan which was eventually repelled by U.S. intervention - would that be the end of it? Of course not. Barring an ideological change within China itself, they would doubtless repeat the attempt again sooner or later.

Let us then consider the central ideological aspect of the conflict, and two ways in which Taiwan might seek an "ideological defence" against Chinese irredentism. The first way is the development of a collective identity specific to Taiwan, and defined in contrast to Taiwan's largely Chinese-origin culture, Taiwanese nationalism. This already exists in Taiwan, perhaps in its' strongest form here in the south of Taiwan. So far as I can tell, the argument for this is that in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and a coup d'etat of the government in Taipei, the Taiwanese will attempt to resist Chinese rule by means of organized protest with the Taiwanese identity serving as the focal point for such rallies. This doesn't exactly fill me with confidence, especially when it is recalled how the Chinese leadership ordered the Tiananmen Square protests to be brutally suppressed by the military back in 1989. It may be admitted that the internet and the ubiquity of trivially cheap photography/video may mean that it will be even more difficult to hide any violent suppression than it already was for the Chinese in 1989, yet government monitoring and censorship of the world wide web is a growing concern - not just in China, but also in erstwhile "liberal" countries such as the U.S. and the U.K.

A second way in which Taiwanese people might seek an "ideological defence" against Chinese irredentism is to shift focus away from notions of collective identity altogether and to instead reshape the economy of political power. As I have argued previously, a strategy of depoliticization, in which vital functions currently under the centralized control of the State, are relinquished to the free market would fundamentally alter Taiwan's political situation vis-a-vis China in several ways. First, it would remove the incalculable advantages of existing centralized control structures that China currently stands to inherit upon a successful invasion of Taiwan. Second, with the dissolving of State imposed compulsory education, any collective identity to be exploited for political ends would be fatally undermined. Unless a new centralized education system was reimposed at immense cost and political difficulty, the central Chinese aim of promoting Chinese nationalist identity in Taiwan would become almost impossible. Moreover, the Taiwanese might still feel themselves to be, and identify as Taiwanese, but this would no longer be a political instrument. Third, even if the Chinese did invade and take over Taiwan's government, then so long as the costs of re-establishing the current form of massively centralized State power remained prohibitively high, then there would be little to fear from unification with China anyway, as they would not be in a position to change anything.

A depoliticized Taiwan is an interesting option because it could act either as a deterrent to an invasion (large costs of re-establishing centralized political control), or as an incentive to a peaceful take-over (the Chinese get to save face by having Taiwan accept itself as a "province" of China, but without actually changing anything). If a strategy of depoliticization could save Taiwan's people from the political depredations of the Chinese State, then why not also the people in the existing provinces of China - many of whom have undergone much worse treatment at the hands of State authorities there than have people in Taiwan.

I have written on this topic of depoliticization many times previously, and though it is obviously and drastically unrealistic, it may nonetheless be Taiwan's best hope. Or it may not be; as always I look forward to well-put criticism, even though I am usually disappointed by its' absence.

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