Taiwan recalibrates its strategy in the changing East Asian balance of power

Special to WorldTribune.com

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.

U.S. strategic planners correctly assumed at the Cold War’s end that, absent a breakthrough technology or doctrine, it would take decades for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to equal the U.S. Navy’s ocean dominance capabilities. The PRC made the same assessment. Its leaders correctly recognized that the People’s Liberation Army should not attempt that journey to replicate, or overtake, many aspects of the U.S. capability. It had to achieve victory by different means.

The People’s Liberation Army- Navy (PLAN), and the PLA generally, knew that a linear process of “catch up” with the U.S. would be too slow, and too expensive. The PRC needed to move away from like-for-like competition with the U.S. military capability, and to leapfrog the by-now historically predictable, or doctrinally and technologically entrenched, patterns of U.S. strategic maneuver.

President Ma Ying-jeou at the presidential palace in Taipei.  / Lam Yik Fei / N.Y. Times
President Ma Ying-jeou at the presidential palace in Taipei. / Lam Yik Fei / N.Y. Times

This, in a sense, was a strategic variation of the PRC’s successful evolution of “asymmetric warfare” doctrine on the battlefield. This doctrine determines that one should avoid fighting an adversary on the field of the adversary’s choosing, fighting to the adversary’s strength, or fighting in the manner of the adversary’s choice.

The PLA understood that it had to divide its areas of military competition with the U.S. and the U.S.’ allies. Its first priority, clearly, was protection of the Chinese mainland, and then dominance of its near-ocean spaces. Competition over the maritime commons would, of necessity, take longer, even though the PRC’s scramble for economic necessities — most particularly resources and markets — would take place in a global environment in which the U.S. not only had a strong military dominance, but which depended heavily on that open maritime architecture which the Western powers had evolved.

As a result, the PLA had, by 2014, been relatively successful in developing different land, sea, and air technologies and doctrines to overturn the military balance vis-à-vis the U.S. in the near-ocean geography adjacent to China. Beijing was well down the path of creating its own “Monroe Doctrine” in its near-ocean region. It also had made a strong start in beginning its broader maritime capabilities in force projection terms.

The transformed strategic framework in Asia has begun to exercise the minds of U.S., Japanese, and Australian military planners, in particular.

It should be no surprise, then, that the Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan) — its survival determined by its capability to balance the PRC — would move to the same line of reasoning which motivated Beijing to re think its near-ocean strategy. Taipei’s concern is not global power projection or extended sea line dominance; nor is it capable of (or interested in) a “Monroe Doctrine” exclusive suzerainty over the region. Its concern is existential survival, achieved by dominance in the air and sea battle space over and around Taiwan and the ROC’s smaller islands.

[Related: New movement in Taiwan advocates the Swiss option: Armed neutrality, Oct. 28.]

Imposing anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) on PLA forces — or at least denying the PLA from achieving its own A2/AD — is critical if the ROC is to have the strategic maneuvering room to deter the PRC an affordable military solution to resolve the six-plus decades since the Chinese civil war resulted in the creation of “two Chinas”.

Significantly, with a military option by the PRC credibly deterred by the ROC, many other avenues would open, or would be re-opened, not only for Taipei, but for the Western alliance to which the ROC belongs with the U.S., Japan, the Republic of Korea, the ASEAN states, and Australia (from a Pacific sense). A credible and secure Taiwan establishes a clear geopolitical line from Japan and the RoK south to Australia, down the “first island chain”. Absent a secure ROC, the PRC move toward becoming a deep Pacific maritime power becomes probable.

Despite this, because of successful PRC economic and military growth, the Pacific states — and even India — have been reluctant to trigger strong political antagonism from Beijing, and have refrained from retaining the close military and intelligence ties they once enjoyed with Taipei. That may be changing, now that the PRC’s military capabilities and intentions are overtly more ambitious, both in its near-ocean regions of the East and South China seas, and further into the Pacific and Indian oceans.

The ROC Government of President Ma Ying-jeou on Taiwan is also keen to avoid direct confrontation with the PRC. It has, in fact, made a policy of cooperation — particularly on trade and social issues — profoundly attractive to Beijing and rewarding to both sides of the Taiwan Strait. But that strategy itself could have been construed as a path toward eventual union of the “two Chinas” on Beijing’s exclusive terms unless the ROC maintained and expanded its capability to ensure its sovereignty.

In a sense, the ROC — Taiwan — is approaching a strategic watershed, just as the PRC, the U.S., and Asia in general are approaching a transformational point. It is significant that the Ma Kuomintang Government of the ROC has embraced the reality that Taiwan is no longer the “old” Republic of China which saw itself as a continental Asian power awaiting a “return to the mainland”.
Freed of the view of Taiwan-based ROC sustaining the old Kuomintang orientation of returning to conquer mainland China — an approach which dominated Taipei’s thinking while Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek lived — the modern, democratic ROC could begin to think of itself as a maritime, not a continental, power.

[Related: Beijing’s strategy to ‘buy’ Taiwan: Coerced unification without firing a shot, Feb. 19]

The ROC, after the civil war against the communists and the move to Taiwan, truly became a maritime state. Today, as President Ma has demonstrated, the answer to Taiwan’s security from the PRC, as well as its prosperity, lies in an effective maritime and airspace management framework. This required a “re-balancing” of the military structure of the ROC’s defenses; the U.S.-promoted “porcupine” strategy of Taiwanese defense, built heavily around the ROC Army, had to become more balanced, with greater attention to totally integrated naval, air, and anti-missile capabilities (and, increasingly, cyber) able to deter the PRC and assure Taipei some measure of preservation of sovereignty over geographic claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

The evolving ROC deterrence requires the same approach to sensors and missiles which the PRC has adopted, although mostly in a more confined geography. But it also requires a significant commitment to anti-ballistic missile (ABM) and anti-cruise missile capabilities and, even more importantly, a commitment to submarine warfare and stealth surface combatants to survive in what would be an intense, close-quarter naval environment. Given the ROC’s political isolation — the fruit of decades of successful PRC diplomacy — Taipei must also use its maritime assets to create its own cooperative bridges to its neighbors, including the PRC. This has begun, and trade and cooperation are the dominant strands of the Asian strategic framework, not only between the PRC and ROC, but also between the PRC and the U.S., Japan, and others.

Deterrence and preparation for conflict are merely underlying essentials to ensure that cooperation occurs on a trusted and equitable basis. Thus, deterrence and military preparedness are essentials. The PRC’s own economic sovereignty and negotiating abilities are dependent increasingly on its ability to demonstrate deterrence and military capability.

In order for the much smaller ROC to meet its fundamental deterrence/ sovereignty threshold, it must substantially upgrade its submarine force. This has long been recognized by the ROC Navy, which — along with the entire ROC Government — has until now, however, avoided taking action on the submarine project. The ROC leadership allowed itself to be influenced by the belief, based on a 2001 promise by U.S. President George W. Bush, that the U.S. would facilitate the sale of eight conventional submarines to the ROC Navy (ROCN) to replace or supplement the operational force of two Netherlands-built Hai Lung-class (Zwaardvis-class) boats (and two older ex-U.S. Guppy type boats used for training).
That dream is over, even as U.S. officials resume “talking submarines” to the Taiwanese. The ROCN knows that it can no longer wait for Washington to take the lead, or any key initiatives, on the submarine program.

As a result, the innovative Chief of the ROCN, Adm. Chen Yeong-Kang, has put the IDS — the Indigenously Designed Submarine — project at the forefront of his (and President Ma’s) ambitious plan to make the ROCN the viable strategic component of the ROC’s security. Clearly, the ROC will work to acquire foreign technologies for its submarine and surface warfare programs (indeed, all of its advanced defense programs), but Taipei will take the lead in its own defense.

Taiwan’s 2012 confrontation with Japan over the ownership of the Daioyutai/Senkaku island chain in the East China Sea has not dampened the prospect of Japanese technological support for the IDS. And Japan’s new cooperation with Australia over the possible provision of Japanese Soryu-class submarines to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has strengthened Tokyo’s resolve to be of assistance to Taipei. Even more importantly, Adm. Chen’s success in pushing through development of the new, indigenous 500-tonne disp. wave-piercing catamaran stealth corvette — the Tuo Jiang-class — for the ROCN has given the Ma Government confidence that it can economically meet its own ship needs. A substantially larger stealth/wave-piercing catamaran frigate class is now under development.

The first-of-class 60x14m, helicopter-capable Tuo Jiang corvette (12 are planned), pennant number 618, was scheduled for delivery before the end of 2014. Pre-acceptance sea trials of the water-jet propelled (two x MTU 16V diesel-powered) vessel by its builder, Lung Teh Shipbuilding Co., in October 2014, reportedly had it achieving speeds well in excess of the 38 knot design speed. [It is fitted with an Otobreda 76mm main gun, a Mk. 15 Phalanx CIWS, four Hsiung Feng II anti-ship missile launchers and, reportedly four Hsiung Feng III AShM launchers, Mk. 32 torpedo tubes, four 12.7mm machinegun mounts, and stern-deployed mines.] The ship is being built in Yilan county, in Taiwan’s north, and Defense & Foreign Affairs saw the vessel at the Suau ROCN base in late October 2014. The Tuo Jiang-class was being built under the 2011-authorized Hsun Hai (Swift Sea) program, initially budged at $820-million (NT$24.98-billion); the lead ship was named and launched on March 14, 2014.

The domestic construction of many of the next-generation ROCN warships (from corvettes to the planned 10-15 3,000 tonne disp. wave-piercing frigates and larger vessels), then, will be undertaken in Taiwan, giving the Government confidence that the IDS — a substantially more complex project — can also be undertaken. In any event, Adm. Chen and his colleagues know that there is no alternative but for the ROC to build its own submarines, although there is a lingering disappointment that Washington’s lack of decisiveness on assistance had delayed the project for so long. Taipei continues to work with Washington, but, by late 2014, the ROCN had realized that it could not depend on the U.S. to give any nods of approval. Once the ROCN — and the ROC Government — has committed, the U.S. private sector was expected to become heavily engaged in promoting the sale of submarine systems for the new project.

But the greatest confidence for proceeding with the local production of submarines may come from seeing how Japan has evolved the production of its own Soryu-class submarines, arguably the largest and quietest conventional submarines in the world. CSBC (formerly China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, privatized in December 2008), based in Kaohsiung in Taiwan’s south, would likely be the main focus of the heavier shipbuilding, with the State-owned Ocean Industries Research and Development Center responsible for design, the Ministry of Defense’s Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST) charged with systems and integration, and CSBC for construction.

The die now seems cast, then, in the transformation process of the ROC defenses. How the PRC reacts is yet to be seen, although Beijing has consistently opposed any foreign support for the modernization of any defense capabilities on Taiwan. The PRC’s recent revival of strenuous antagonism with Japan in the security realm steeled Tokyo’s resolve to both modernize and transform its own defense capabilities with relation to the PRC, but also to expand its regional security cooperation. Japan’s rapidly-expanding security cooperation with Australia also demonstrated Tokyo’s willingness to “go it alone” in the region, albeit with the full support of Washington.

Additionally, the transformation of U.S. governance as a result of the November 2014 mid-term Congressional elections provided the sense that U.S. strategic decisionmaking in the Pacific would undergo some changes. This would almost certainly, as with Japan’s recent surge of security activity, result in support for the ROC’s decisions to resurge in its ability to sustain sovereignty. And yet in all these activities in the ROC, Japan, the U.S., and Australia (and other activities by, for example, the Philippines and Vietnam to protect their South China Sea offshore claims), there has been a strong desire to avoid confrontation with the PRC.

Beijing clearly knows that its own ability to project capability into the region depends on its willingness to assert its own claims unambiguously. This it has done. The negotiations or maneuvering over the new strategic architecture, then, are now underway. The now-palpable end of the Barack Obama era in the U.S. — albeit without a clear picture of who will be elected in November 2016 as the next U.S. President — has begun to also clarify the situation.

Part of the “new Pacific negotiations” entail the role of the ROC. The prospect of a voluntary curtailment of ROC sovereignty and its “inevitable” subordination to the PRC has been put on hold. President Ma’s statements in October and November 2014, cautioning the PRC on the handling of Hong Kong protests against Beijing’s proposed limitations on Hong Kong’s special democratic dispensations has set the tone for Taiwan’s position, even after President Ma steps down from the ROC Presidency.

How the PRC handled the Hong Kong protests was seen by all Taiwanese as a clear indication of Beijing’s reliability on any undertakings it would give to Taiwan’s residents. The extent to which the manner of Beijing’s handling of the Hong Kong 2014 street protests has damaged Beijing strategically has yet to be seen. That Beijing needed to ensure that the Hong Kong freedoms were not sought by other Chinese regions was clear, but how it handled the issue also sent messages to the external communities.

This subtle changing of the tone of the security framework in the region, while not generating mainstream headlines, is profound. Even the Australian Government’s caution on the proposed PRC-dominated Asian infrastructure bank plays into the shift, as does the as-yet undetermined path of the new Indian Government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Meanwhile, the Republic of China has begun a strategic revival which seems likely to continue.

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