Military might

Military might

Based on the latest RAND report, Tom Plate writes that U.S.-China relations and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's policy of improving relations with China and are more important than ever

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Los Angeles --- In the United States we refer to it as the Powell Doctrine. And it helps unravel a bit of mystery about what China is up to these days.

You remember good old Colin Powell, right? Before Barack Obama rode into the U.S. scene on his white horse, he was America's most admired black public political figure -- by far. As fate would have it, he never made it to the presidency, though he'd have been a good one, for sure. So it may be that this career army officer and former secretary of state will be mainly remembered for advancing the military doctrine now identified with his name, forever.

The Powell Doctrine seeks to limit the occasions when a nation might choose to go to war by defining with clarity and a measure of precision the conditions under which the war option might actually make sense. This notable intellectual framework, planked together after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, emphasized, among a list of criteria, the need for both overwhelming domestic support for any proposed war effort and the accumulation of overwhelming superior force over the opponent or opponents prior to attack. This was a key point: the buildup of force had to be so overwhelming that the outcome could not be in doubt, especially if it prompted the enemy to size up its chances, realize it had none, and pursue a settlement of the issues before suffering military humiliation.

The Powell Doctrine has never applied to any nation except the United States, because, until now, the overwhelming force standard could not be met by anyone else. However, this, according to a significant new report, is no longer the case. Currently, the case is that, at least with respect to the possible invasion of the independent, off-shore island of Taiwan, China can boast of its own "Powell Doctrine."

That is the unmistakable inference of "A Question of Balance: Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute," by David A. Shlapak, David T. Orletsky, Toy I. Reid, Murray Scot Tanner and Barry Wilson. Their report, just issued by the influential and authoritative RAND Corporation of Santa Monica, California, concludes that "while the relationship between Beijing and Taipei is more stable in 2009 than it has been in years, it is not clear that this honeymoon will last forever. China has not renounced its 'right' to use force to forestall Taiwan's 'independence,' nor discussed amending its anti-secession law, nor withdrawn any missiles from the hundreds it points at Taiwan." At the same time, the report also concludes, the cross-strait military balance is shifting in ways that are problematic for Taiwan's defense. The growing size and quality of China's missile arsenal, along with other advances in Chinese military capabilities, call into question the United States' and Taiwan's ability to defend the island against a large-scale Chinese attack.

This is RAND's nice way of putting it. The un-nice way: If China decided that the only way to annex Taiwan as a kind of Hong Kong is through invasion, what or who is to stop it? Over the years, the economically surging mainland has built up its short-range missile arsenal to the point where it could, in one terrific blinding strike, wipe out every Taiwan runway. And its air force now has the strength to neutralize Taiwan's, according to the RAND team.

The report is alarming but it is not alarmist. Prudently worded and carefully framed, it points out that attacking Taiwan would be a lot easier for China than sustaining a land invasion to occupy it. And it rightly points to the good work of Taiwan's current president, Ma Ying-jeou, elected just last year, to calm Beijing's fears about formal, assertive Taiwan separatism.

But skillful as he so far seems, Ma is walking the fine line. Few people in Taiwan would be joyous about formal integration into China, whether politely negotiated Hong Kong-style or through a smash-mouth military takeover. But Ma has been making progress; his effort aims to provide for Taiwan's economic gain without giving away the sovereignty store.

Whether the mainland government can remain full of saintly patience while Ma does his gradual thing is a big question, along with the credibility of American support for Taiwan and America's deterrence of China over exercising the military option. The RAND team points out that the Chinese military buildup is a big threat to the U.S. bases in Kadena, Japan and Okinawa. "The danger... is sufficiently grave that a credible case can be made that the air war for Taiwan could essentially be over before much of the [GOOD GUY] air forces have even fired a shot," write the RANDster.

In the old Cold War days, it was probably the case that every other RAND report could be taken as a Pentagon-financed argument for a yet-larger defense budget. But in modern times this blue-chip think tank has greatly diversified both its source of funding and the topics under investigation. It is no longer Pentagon West. This makes its new finding all the more noteworthy and believable -- and all the more reason to keep hoping that Ma's nice-nice offensive stays on track, as does the all-important Sino-U.S. relationship. China's leaders should also note that the Powell Doctrine requires the exhaustion of all options before war is chosen. The Taiwan situation remains well short of that.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.