Chinese War Poker: Bluffs Or Solid Threats?

The United States Navy is going to steam into the Yellow Sea and blow up some Korean warships. But friendly, like, and for fun. Points will be scored, and trophies (of a sort) will be awarded. Younger people might think of it as an Xbox simulation with live ammunition.

These kinds of war games in the Northern Pacific and vicinity have been going on ever since Japan lost the war and the States has taken over funding their self defense. China, upon whom some of these waters in which the games occur impinge, has grumbled about the contests before, but never especially loudly.

But that’s changed according to the Wall Street Journal. Chinese military officials are saying such things as, “There’s a real danger [this war game] could get out of control—and that would be a real threat for China’s national security.”

These are harsh words in diplo-speak, words which are backed up with a Navy base within spittin’ distance of the war games. It wouldn’t be difficult for China to have one it’s older diesel attack submarines “accidentally” cruise through war-game waters, just to “see what happens.”

Similar ominous threats have arisen from other members of the Chinese military. But none—as yet—from the senior leadership of the Chinese oligarchy. This is significant, because, in a way, if the Communist party chiefs don’t say it’s happening, then it isn’t happening. However, the low-level spokesmen who have been talking must have been doing so by the express permission and direction of that leadership.

China, therefore, is bluffing: at least, there is a reasonable probability that this is so. They have seen Mr Obama’s bowing and blinking tour across the world, and they are testing which combinations of vague and non-specific threats will cause him to call off the war games. If he does—and who doesn’t believe it could happen?—China will have scored a major victory.

And then, it’s goodbye Taiwan. That beautiful island, origin of a substantial proportion of electronics, a delightful cuisine, a happy and free people, and independent country that China covets and would just kill to get, literally.

We—as in the USA—just sold some military doodads to Taiwan, but only a handful. Not only was this the right thing to do, but we had to do it because we signed a piece of paper swearing that we would.

Before the transaction, China trotted out the same batch of flunkies to speak of “destabilization” and “security”, but this had no effect. Mr Obama considered the possibilities, read the treaty, and went ahead with the sale. I like to think it was the lawyer in him.

The arms given to Taiwan are, on the scale of global war, the equivalent of an extra box of shotgun shells to a deer hunter. Nice, but not crucial. This is made clear in the Pentagon’s 2010 report on the Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic (pdf). About Taiwan, it summarizes:

China’s military build-up opposite the island continued unabated. The PLA is developing the capability to deter Taiwan independence or influence Taiwan to settle the dispute on Beijing’s terms while simultaneously attempting to deter, delay, or deny any possible U.S. support for the island in case of conflict. The balance of cross-Strait military forces continues to shift in the mainland’s favor.

A decade ago, the Red Masters of Beijing sufficed themselves on secondhand ships sold at Russian Navy rummage sales. Since then, they have been building their own assiduously. Just as we have as earnestly been paring back. In the Days of Reagan, our Navy had 600 ships. We’re now at half that and dwindling fast; perhaps soon at an accelerated pace, if Secretary Gate’s recent words have any meaning.

China now has, according to the Pentagon report, 274 ships. However, many of these are diesel, mere coastal patrol boats, or are otherwise past their prime. Taiwan has 109, similarly constituted; although they have no nuclear-powered vessels. The contrast with each country’s Air Force is about the same.

It’s likely the next war will start here, in the Taiwan strait. The real reason China wants Taiwan is not land or access to sea lanes (of which they have plenty), nor is it economic (China’s economy already dwarfs Taiwan’s). It’s because the communist masters in China still smart from the insult of Chiang Kai-Shek (蔣中正) escaping from Mao’s murderous clutches after the end of WWII.

Chiang took what meager forces he had left after the Soviets and Mao had ganged up against him, and set up on Taiwan. This would have been fine, except Chiang had the temerity to claim that China belonged to Taiwan. Worse for the Chinese, Chiang convinced the USA that this was so to the extent that the Taiwan-USA relationship was sealed with a treaty.

The treaty which led to the recent (and past) arms sales. Ah, history.

13 Comments

  1. There will be no China-Taiwan war. That is just silly. These taunts only existence are, as you rightly put, to check US govs and Korea nerves. A China Taiwan war would be even more agressive than any other Cold War proxy war, in a time where China depends upon the US (and vice versa) for their economy. If China ever invades Taiwan, they will be isolated in the world, and their economic rise will suddenly stagnate.

    And for what? For a grudge of more than 50 years ago? LOL, mr Briggs, never sign up for military intelligence 😀

  2. With war one should never say it will never happen. War happened for the most idiotic reason. I don’t see any resolution of the Taiwan situation any time soon. Which, if it ever get resolve it will be in the way that the taiwanese will have a special status, similar to the one that Hong Kong had when it was given back to China.

    Although I’m not sure that it is China that scares me the most. It has been a long while since China was the instigator in war. They have no deployment capacity of their army outside their own border.

    If China had to go to war, it would probably be with Russia. Tension have always been high between the two countries, even when Russia was communist. The reason would probably be over natural resources. Like Tom Clancy portrayed it in the book “The bear and the dragon”.

    But the most problematic is North Korea, which could help start a war that could implicate the USA and China.

  3. There is no real benefit in taking over Taiwan by force. China can just gradually buy up Taiwan and… America. No weapons and military equipment involved.

  4. Matt,

    I think I’m in line with Tai-Ming Cheung at the University of California on the PRC’s reasoning behind Taiwan.

    They don’t want Taiwan because of any particular strategic value (though control of the Strait of Malacca through Taiwan would be nice), but because the itinerant regime needs to justify its existence every chance it can get. The second it gives up Taiwan, then what of Tibet? What of the Western Border territories? What of Inner Mongolia?

    It’s a way of showing that their “serious” about their territorial claims.

    Luis,

    I wouldn’t say never. There’s enough saber rattling going on on a regular basis that there are legit scenarios where a war could begin. I doubt we’d ever see a land war with China– and it would be a disaster for all involved if we did– but a conflict? Definitely believable.

    JH,

    Buying up America! Sounds like Japan in the 1980s. Yellow Peril never ends?

  5. My goodness, Luis, you have a very convenient memory. Some wars have rekindled after hundreds of years. The human mind is not always rational, is almost never fully altruistic and is constantly seeking for advantage over perceived enemies. Only liberals fail to acknowledge this factor, and they live in perpetual denial. “Can’t we all just get along”, they ask? Quoth the raven, “Never more”!

  6. 49er,

    I don’t think it’s “liberals,” in this case, actually.

    Though I dislike the use of the term “liberal” here because it’s being used as little more than a silly epithet.

    In international relations, it’s often the “realist/neo-realist” school of thought that starts all discussions from the perspective that all international relations is done under a state of international anarchy. In other words, because there’s no Hobbesian sovereign at the top to keep people in line, nobody gets along.

    Unfortunately for realists, there are plenty of cases where states with diverging goals will come to peaceful solutions. There are also cases where states, despite no longer having an ostensible purpose for a former friendship or alliance, will continue it because it’s beneficial to do so regardless of the costs.

    Furthermore, I think it’s interesting to note that many so-called “liberal” foreign policymakers have historically been rather hawkish. If you look at the academic foreign policy world as well, many of the most hawkish, most aggressive thinkers are what you would sneer at as being “liberal.”

    However, where American “liberals” and American “conservatives” differ is where they see American power being best used. In my experience “Liberals” tend to be wary of China, “Conservatives” tend to more wary of the Arab world. Bush’s rhetoric toward China was remarkably restrained– almost soft in my opinion. But he took a much harder line on the Arab world. Obama has to a degree been the opposite (look at Clinton on Google-China). Interestingly, I think both fail to recognize that China isn’t a threat only because of its growth. China is a threat because it remains a regime that is constantly at threat from within. China’s political collapse would be a disaster of untold proportions.

  7. Ari, I hesitated before choosing that descriptive word and freely admit there are multiple and competing definitions. My target is the folk who think, say and believe that “All people are good”. Blather. I’m not good and neither are a bunch of other people with whom I’ve been associated. Some folk absolutely get along with others, even if it is to their disadvantage to do so. Others would stab a friend in the back for no gain or reason – because that’s what “scorpions” do. That was my intended point.

    Agree with you somewhat on China except I don’t know how to self-classify myself because I’m a bit leery of both worlds.

    Cheers

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