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WISDOM IN A NUTSHELL Crisis in the Taiwan Strait Edited by James R. Lilley and


Crisis in the Taiwan Strait

Edited by James R. Lilley and Chuck Downs

National Defense University Press June 1997 ISBN 1579060005 347 pages is a business book summaries service. Every week, it sends out to subscribers a 9- to 12-page summary of a best-selling business book chosen from among the hundreds of books printed out in the United States every week. For more information, please go to

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This volume consists of an introduction and eleven essays on the military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait in 1996. The essays discuss the historical roots of the crisis, Chinese military objectives, the military balance between the mainland and Taiwan, the positions taken by other regional powers, and policies that might avert future crises.

James R. Lilley is a resident fellow at AEI. He served as U.S. ambassador to the People’s Republic of China from 1989 to 1991 and as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs from 1991 to 1993. Chuck Downs is deputy director for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Department of Defense. This summary is drawn from their introduction.

In March 1996 in the closing days before Taiwan’s first presidential election, the USS Nimitz carrier battle group, on duty in the Mediterranean, was redirected through Southeast Asia toward Taiwan. As a military maneuver, the action was complex but not exceptionally difficult. Yet because of its significance to regional politics and diplomacy and its long-range implications for the preservation of stability, the action could well be recorded as a watershed event in American security policy in Asia.

The first popular election of a chief executive in China’s long history was accompanied by a display of frustration from Beijing. China test-fired missiles into areas near Taiwan’s two busiest ports, into commercial shipping and transportation lanes. Naturally, concerns over the accuracy of Chinese missiles and questions regarding China’s larger intentions worried Taiwan’s citizens. Nevertheless, they turned out for the balloting and cast the majority of their votes for the candidate who had so displeased Beijing, Lee Teng-hui.

An uneasy standoff continues to separate the heirs to competing factions in the Chinese civil war. The people of Taiwan benefit in some ways from the military stalemate reached in 1949; their distinct status, for example, has allowed them to develop democratic institutions that bear little resemblance to the form of government in Beijing. But they face perils as well. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) views Taiwan as sovereign Chinese territory that has resisted central authority for almost fifty years. Beijing seeks reunification by peaceful means--but through force if necessary. Its behavior during the presidential election reminded the world that it poses a challenge to Taiwan’s security.

Tensions on both sides of the Taiwan Strait rose as Chinese missile exercises were staged to intimidate Taiwan’s voters. In Washington, members of the U.S. Congress, demonstrating sympathy for and solidarity with Taiwan’s emergent democracy, called on the Clinton administration to take steps to reassure Taiwan’s citizenry and to reassert American power in the western Pacific. The administration accomplished this by sending in the Nimitz carrier battle group. The first carrier on the scene, the USS Independence, and a number of its

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auxiliary vessels, had already been ordered to waters off Taiwan to monitor the missile exercises. Permanently stationed in Japan, the Independence would routinely monitor any major regional military exercise. Sending the second carrier, however, signaled American concern and resolve. When actions themselves are clear signals, little needs to be said about intentions. The Nimitz was redirected toward Taiwan, explained administration spokesmen at the Pentagon and the White House, "in an effort to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait."

International crises like the one in the Taiwan Strait can emerge and recede without sustained public attention to the issues involved. All too often, the causes, potential consequences, intense emotions, and estimated risks that are clear at the time of a crisis fade immediately afterward. Especially in situations like the crisis in the Taiwan Strait, where the risks to American interests were high but the level of general knowledge among the American public was low, crises can pass with little public debate. The absence of debate in turn can mean that the lessons for policy makers are never learned, the root causes are never addressed, and the ambiguities are never clarified.

The American Enterprise Institute accordingly asked eleven analysts to write papers assessing key aspects of the crisis in the Taiwan Strait.


continue to plague the Taipei-Beijing relationship, their historical bases, and their culmination in the current contest over international diplomatic recognition. "The present impasse may be protracted," she concludes, because, "like skilled chess players, the two sides calculate each move with an eye toward keeping the opponent in check. The mainland seeks to counter any Taiwan move that would strengthen its credentials for sovereignty. Taiwan tries to block any mainland move that would reduce the island to the status of a province of the PRC."

that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) "is presently ill- prepared to storm Taiwan." Nevertheless, because military commanders believe they may be called on to launch an attack against Taiwan, "urgent efforts are being made to rectify glaring weaknesses." Mr. Cheung concludes that the tools the PLA can exploit to flex its military might against Taiwan include missile firings, military exercises, and limited sea and air blockades. "Establishing a credible deterrence to Taiwan’s independence will be one of the PLA’s top priorities

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for the foreseeable future," he suggests, and accordingly, "more resources will be devoted to building the capabilities to mount a successful invasion of Taiwan."

spending on its military, observing that the PRC’s published figure of approximately US $8.4 billion marks the eighth year of double-digit growth. But a more accurate estimate of Chinese military spending, Bitzinger concludes, is in the range of $28-$50 billion. What China seeks to do with such a large investment in defense modernization is clearly of concern to Taiwan. "Improvements in China’s military force structure could be used to seize Taiwan by force, or, at the very least, intimidate Taipei politically, economically, and psychologically into accepting reunification on Beijing’s terms," Mr. Bitzinger notes. To accomplish that, however, would require the greater exploitation of foreign technology.

rationalizing its arms production and procurement policy. Mr. Gill points out that China has the potential to reach higher levels of operational capability quickly, primarily because of the assistance of Russian and Israeli suppliers. For the next ten years, China’s ability to undertake military action against Taiwan appears to Mr. Gill to be limited "to such activities as low-level military harassment and possibly stand-off missile attacks."

na might attempt to do with technological modernization from foreign sources is clearly very important. Harlan W. Jencks takes an admittedly hypothetical guess at what Chinese defense planners might dream of doing in the long range. "By 2010 or so," he posits, "China’s existing long-range nuclear forces not only may be more numerous, but their targeting may also have improved sufficiently that PLA missiles could target American carrier battle groups in the Western Pacific." The sort of carrier diplomacy carried out in March 1996 would then become more dangerous.

In addition to reviewing more traditional scenarios involving missile attacks, invasion, or assaults on Taiwan, Mr. Jencks raises the specter of a "cyber attack," an electronic assault "on computers and communications systems using logic bombs, viruses or other computer-based attacks that deny, destroy, disrupt, or manipulate defense and economic data." Taiwan’s modern economy is reliant on high-tech record

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keeping and management systems. It is therefore vulnerable to "information warfare," which Mr. Jencks points out "could conceivably change the nature of warfare in the next decade as fundamentally as did air power or even gunpowder."


ballistic missiles to intimidate Taiwan in July 1995 and March 1996 as "the most intensive use of nuclear-capable missiles for intimidation by any of the nuclear powers." While political intimidation was the primary objective for China, the missile exercises also highlighted an area of the PLA’s competence and a glaring hole in Taiwan’s defense. Furthermore, the missile firings illustrated the vulnerabilities of vital air and sea links surrounding Taiwan.

China’s strong suit, two other branches of the People’s Liberation Army have a potential role in conflict in the strait. Retired air force colonel Kenneth W. Allen notes that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force has become the third largest air force in the world, but PLAAF pilots do not train extensively for combat and the maintenance system is inadequate. Retired admiral Eric McVadon concludes that the Chinese exercises in the strait were not an invasion rehearsal, as many people at the time suggested. He observes that the PRC has not built an amphibious and logistic force to carry out an invasion of Taiwan and judges that the exercises in the strait did not employ the kinds of forces that would be necessary for such an invasion. In his assessment of the potential for conflict in the strait, Mr. McVadon’s analysis, like China’s, takes American capabilities into account. He points out that "PLA naval ships and aircraft are not able to conduct effective combat operations against the U.S. Navy." Beijing is fully aware that American carrier battle groups can "prevent the PLA from deploying from its naval bases" and from "accomplishing missions."

American strategy of emphasizing the ambiguity of its response leaves room for worry. Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang offers insights into the problems that are posed for Taiwan’s strategic planning. Mr. Huang recognizes Taiwan’s strategic significance to China as "the key to China’s maritime defense, its gateway to the high seas, and a chokepoint of Asia-Pacific sea lanes of communications." He

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describes the comparative strategic depth that the PRC maintains, compared with the relatively narrow field of responses Taiwan can pursue. China’s overwhelming military advantage over Taiwan, Mr. Huang writes, gives Beijing great freedom of choice in the timing, magnitude, and location of military actions. Taiwan’s strategy of "defensive defense," in contrast, rules out provocative or preemptive military actions against the mainland.

"How Taiwan maintains a sufficient edge both in hardware and in the quality of its officer corps is the key to Taiwan’s deterrence strategy," Mr. Huang points out. Yet Taiwan faces enormous difficulties in locating and purchasing weapons systems based on its own defense planning. Military plans, he asserts, are often altered because of differences between the desired systems and the systems Taiwan can obtain. The PRC’s pressure on arms-producing countries plays a role in determining what weapons systems will be provided by those countries to Taiwan. Diplomatic isolation makes Taiwan uncertain about its foreign military procurement program and possible international reactions to an armed conflict across the Taiwan Strait.

the Korean academic and defense community that Taiwan, as a mid-level military power with relatively transparent defense records, should participate in multilateral regional security dialogues because it cannot do more than contribute to regional stability. He recommends that, to help deter and defuse cross-strait tensions, the United States should maintain regular and frequent high-level contacts with Beijing. His chapter assesses the role of other regional powers, particularly Korea and Japan, in efforts to resolve tensions in the strait.

return to the carefully drafted, precisely worded American policies that sought to establish relations with the PRC while protecting Taiwan’s security. He explains how the PRC and the United States have both drifted from the original meaning of the fundamental communiqu s and the Taiwan Relations Act. The PRC, Mr. Waldron says, is using "salami tactics" to remove the bits it dislikes, slice by slice, while keeping the rest. He observes, for example, "that China would like to maintain the American commitment to Beijing--no official relations, no military forces protecting Taiwan--while

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discarding the Chinese undertaking--no threat to Taiwan." For its part, the United States is also muddling the original terms; many government and foreign policy experts believe that the basic problems were solved with "normalization" with the PRC. He identifies a "subterranean political struggle between those who saw Sino-American normalization as the beginning of the end for Taiwan, and those who drafted legislation and took diplomatic initiatives to ensure Taiwan’s continued survival."

Mr. Waldron observes that Taiwan’s democratization and the PRC’s turn toward repression since 1989 drive home the necessity of ensuring Taiwan’s security with every new step to enhance relations with the PRC. "When the PRC is testing military rather than peaceful means to deal with Taiwan," he advises, "it makes no sense for us to reaffirm the August 1982 communiqu or give assurances that arms sales to Taiwan will be curtailed. Rather, we should tell Beijing authoritatively that military preparations in the Taiwan area will unravel the whole PRC-U.S. relationship and that the use of force will continue to elicit a strong American response. That, after all, was the deal in the 1970s."


Crisis in the Taiwan Strait attempts to come to grips with all the complex factors in a troubling situation--essentially the same effort American policy makers have been making since the time of the Chinese civil war. America has tried to maintain regional peace and security. Taiwan has been assured of our support and China of our interest in peace. The United States does not seek a split between Taipei and Beijing; it seeks to guarantee peace. China will not commit to reunification through peaceful means alone, and Taiwan will not accept terms it finds repugnant for reunification. Time may heal this simmering crisis; progress has clearly been made in the past generation. Yet time is purchased by deterrence, and deterrence is accomplished by military power at great cost and considerable risk. Resolve is strong on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, and the depth of commitment to seemingly irreconcilable principles cannot be dismissed and will not readily be changed.

The events of March 1996 may be repeated, despite the fact that the crisis probably redounded to the detriment of its instigators. Understanding the instability of the situation in the strait and the probability of a similar situation arising in the future, the authors of this book have assessed the critical factors involved in the crisis. Their essays will inform a debate that is all too likely to be heard again.

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