Strategic surprise: With Dec. 2 Taiwan call, Trump challenges China’s breakout from containment

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

The Dec. 2, telephone conversation between Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan) President Tsai Ing-wen and U.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump very deliberately ushered in a new era in U.S. engagement in Asia, one designed to stop the rapid decline in U.S. credibility and capability in the region.

The perception that the U.S. could, and would, be a reliable treaty partner had eroded precipitously in recent years, and the Tsai-Trump telephone call — and the pointed follow-up message by Mr. Trump — was an iconic reversal of that perception, all the more for being demonstrated as a well-planned and carefully-executed signal.

President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.
President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.

That the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and many of the states of the region, including Australia, had not been prepared for a Trump victory in the Nov. 8, 2016, presidential election was evidenced by the lack of preparation for the well-planned and well-executed Tsai-Trump telephone call, which was meant solely as a shot designed to signal an end to the U.S. Barack Obama’s policies in Asia which had led Beijing to its confrontational physical surge into the South China Sea in recent years.

It is now a geostrategic reality that China as a geopolitical entity — in other words, not just the PRC as a government — has now broken out of several centuries of containment. That the outgoing Obama Administration in the U.S. had facilitated this through inept policies was recognized by the Trump team, which wished to address the situation.

The reality of the new global geostrategic architecture is now evident, and many in the Trump team recognizes this, and are attempting to formulate positions for the U.S. to recover its strategic capabilities and credibility. There are some, however, even in the Trump team, who persist in seeing the global architecture as it once was, only in need of shoring up.

But the Tsai-Trump telephone call recognized that a new approach to the PRC was necessary. That the PRC Government was so unprepared for the opening salvo was the major strategic surprise, followed closely by the confusion which the gesture caused in the outgoing Obama White House and State Dept.

As the Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis [“Philippine Move Means That All Indo-Pacific Strategic Policies Must Change, Particularly Those of the ROC”] on Oct. 24, 2016:

It is beyond doubt that, within the crude, dismissive words of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in Beijing on October 20, 2016, and earlier — saying that he had turned his country’s allegiance away from the United States and toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — there lay more than a kernel of logic and inevitability.
That the leader of a state so long dependent on the United States could, in terms of such unmistakable contempt, turn and walk into the arms of Beijing showed how far the prestige of Washington had fallen, and how impotent its mighty symbols appeared to those who once revered them.
All of this was forecast, and, in some form, anticipated. But to what now is the shape of the Asian and Pacific strategic architecture transforming, and how must the states of the region re-think their policies and alliances?

The Republic of China on Taiwan is now confronted with a unique and rapidly-moving threat to its strategic interests because the PRC has broken out of its geopolitical containment and has established a military dominance of its near-abroad space, particularly in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.

The removal of the Philippines from the U.S.-led alliance and quasi-alliance structure which had been containing the PRC has meant that the entire U.S.-led strategy has been perforated, placing the U.S., South Asia, Australasia, South-East Asia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea into a new strategic reality. This has automatically expanded significantly the PRC’s ability to constrain the ROC, unless Taipei can develop a new strategic framework.

The PRC has attempted to make as much strategic gain as it could during the “gift” to it of the Barack Obama Presidency of the U.S., which has been characterized by deepening U.S. military force structure weakness and a political as well as military inability to intervene in the PRC’s near-abroad areas of interest.

The incoming U.S. Trump Administration has demonstrated a willingness to break the pattern of relations with the PRC in a way not done since the U.S. Carter Administration unilaterally implemented the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979. The initial gestures by President-elect Donald Trump have served to create a breathing space and the prospect that new U.S. initiatives can be undertaken.

This is a limited time-frame window of opportunity for Taipei.

Beijing cannot for the moment respond directly against the U.S. without considerable risk, so the Trump gestures against Beijing (starting on Dec. 2, 2016) mean that the PRC has already begun to escalate intimidation gestures against the ROC. It should be stressed that the PRC had already begun provocations against the ROC after the U.S. elections and before the Tsai-Trump call. This was Beijing’s way of testing the response of the incoming Administration in the U.S.

On Nov. 26, 2016, two PRC People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Xian H-6 bombers, along with two escort aircraft, a Tupolev Tu-154 and Shaanxi Y-8, flew around the island of Taiwan from mainland China, taking off and landing from two separate PLAAF bases.

PRC provocations against the ROC — as a proxy for pushing against the U.S. — should be expected to continue to be progressively escalated by Beijing to determine at what level it will face unacceptable consequences from the U.S. This is classic probasila (reconnaissance to contact; gradually testing the reactions of an opponent).

The clear concern is that the U.S. will be forced at some stage to accept that there is a limit as to how much it can confront the PRC or escalate overt support for the ROC before the consequences or cost become unacceptable to Washington, or cause it to bolster its position while searching for a new strategic doctrine for the U.S. and its allies in the region. It seems clear from the apoplectic reaction to the Trump team’s willingness to re-write U.S. policies toward the PRC that U.S. meetings with regional allies would serve no purpose until the new Trump Administration takes office.

The PRC is entering a period of unprecedented pressures in which:

(a)   Continued easy geo-strategic gains against the U.S. will not occur without significant push-back;
(b)   New military and intelligence cooperation alliances are being built to compensate for the weaknesses in the U.S. force posture and political will;
(c)   Significant economic/social/population challenges are already damaging PRC strategic growth and stability and are likely to worsen; and
(d)   The PRC is entering a period of intensifying water challenges which will critically expose the country to an exponential growth in dependency on food imports.

At the same time, the PRC’s closest strategic military ally, Russia, is itself reluctant to allow its fortunes to be tied solely to the PRC, and is developing strategic military supply and energy relationships with states ringing the PRC (India, Vietnam, Japan, in particular, and to a significant degree the DPRK).

In essence, the PRC should find it increasingly expensive and difficult to maintain the pace of its strategic growth, and find itself faced with growing internal challenge. But the corollary of this is that internal challenges (and unrest) would likely cause Beijing to seek the distraction of foreign military adventures to galvanize domestic unity and support for the government.

None of this means that the U.S., or, for that matter, Japan (as the ROC’s other major regional ally) would acquiesce to an open, or unlimited, expansion of the ROC’s strategic operations. Both Washington and Tokyo — presumably even under the Trump Presidency — seem happy to see the ROC defended but limited in scope, largely out of concern for over-stimulating pushback from Beijing. Having said that, possibly for the first time since 1979, the U.S. now sees that the ROC can play a critical role in constraining PLA Navy (PLAN submarines and surface fleet elements) form easily breaking out into the Central Pacific via the Luzon Strait, south of Taiwan, or via the East China Sea to the north of the island.

Thus, the U.S. has a vested interest in supporting the long-gestating Indigenously-Designed Submarine (IDS) plan of the Republic of China Navy (ROCN), despite the confusion which this has caused within the U.S. Navy’s International Programs Office, given its reluctance to have the USN support a conventional (diesel-electric) submarine project. The modalities of that relationship are now evolving, and the Trump team is aware of the reality that former U.S. President George W. Bush’s commitment to the ROC to provide it with conventional submarines failed to reach fruition precisely because of internal USN obfuscation.

The USN opposition was based on the fact that the nuclear power proponents within the Navy have made it clear that they would resolutely sabotage any attempts by the U.S. to recommence the construction of diesel-electric (or conventional) submarines (SSKs), which might provide the “thin end of the wedge” in getting lower-cost SSKs into the U.S., taking some of the scarce funding for nuclear boats (SSNs or SSBNs). Any support for a ROCN IDS program would therefore be in terms of systems, sensors, and weapons, rather than in hull or propulsion areas.

Significantly, however, a variety of other states with submarine design skills have sensed that the unfettered rise of the PRC has now begun to face its first challenges in a decade — and that domestic PRC issues could also see it challenged in different ways — and are prepared to reconsider earlier positions which have kept the ROC from acquiring the technological support it needs. Moreover, the careful expansion of the ROCN under former Commander, Adm. Chen Yeong-Kang, bringing not only dramatically new, indigenously-built high-speed warships but also a careful policy of ROCN engagement with regional states through search and rescue and fisheries protection cooperation, has brought new respect for the ROC’s regional maritime capabilities.

What is undeniable in all of this is that the geostrategic architecture of the region has been changed, irreversibly for the foreseeable future, and that the U.S. is now moving toward a period when it will re-engage on more creative terms — befitting the new realities — following the haphazard decline of influence and performance under the Obama/Clinton “pivot to Asia”.