While we’re focused on Russia and Ukraine, recent events in Asia may have slipped under the radar. Taiwan is considering signing a major free trade agreement with China. Nationalized Chinese companies may soon be able to make major investments in sectors such as banking and transit.

That may seem underwhelming, but in naval literature, when we think of Chinese expansionism, the various Taiwan scenarios dominate the conversation. In the eight articles of the most recent China’s Near Seas Combat Capabilities journal published by the Naval War College, “Taiwan,” is used 109 times. Are we spending too much time thinking about and planning for a cross-strait conflict?

Taiwan isn’t the prime mover for PLAN development. Bryan McGrath and Timothy Walton neatly unpack this in “China’s Surface Fleet Trajectory: Implications for the U.S. Navy,” predicting the PLAN will continue towards “regionally dominant and globally capable navy in the next decade.” They’ve moved beyond Taiwan. Moreover, “the versatility (and thus utility) of the People’s Liberation Army’s A2/AD capabilities” is well above what’s required to impede US intervention in a cross-strait conflict. If not Taiwan, what then is China’s objective?

Trying to predict world events is extremely difficult as noted in a recent post by CDR Salamander. However, some thought experiments can be useful to help us consider the range of possibilities and their likelihoods. Let say at some point, the Communist Party and China, destabilized by internal problems, turn to an outward show of force. Is anyone going to stop them from beating on Vietnam over water rights or access to oil reserves? Doubtful. Would someone intervene in a conflict with Taiwan? Maybe. Probably? Either way, I’d bet that US intervention is much more likely in a China/Taiwan conflict than a China/Vietnam conflict. I think that China would make the same bet.

I’m just using Vietnam to illustrate that Taiwan is not the natural starting point when we broadly consider the use of China’s naval power. It’s hard to build a fleet to counter all the possibilities of conflict in Asia; perhaps the key, as noted by McGrath and Walton, is “to maximize cooperation with allied and partner states…’penning in’ the Chinese fleet.”


Posted by Jeffrey Withington in Navy
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  • Given the internal political trajectory of ROC relations with mainland, I would not be surprised to see a “Hong Kong-like” reconciliation. The US hasn’t done much since Clinton sent carriers into the straits in the 90’s. Bush promised diesel boats, but never delivered, and the current administration has been about as reluctant, if not more so.

    It appears the US has decided give up on Taiwan, but keep the rhetoric of support alive—it is the age old saw: “I’ll pay more attention to what you do, than what you say.” The closer one is to the booger man, the cheaper the talk of a distant friend, and closer more pressing concerns move to the front.

    • Jeff Withington

      I think “Hong Kong” may be too intimate of a reconciliation for Taiwan. But I think some sort of trade confederation may be where their relations are heading.

      • Lt. Withington, Perhaps you are right. And perhaps that relationship will be too close for us to share sensitive military technologies.

  • TokyoTengu

    While there is obviously a lot of CCP prestige involved with bringing Taiwan back into the fold, there is also a lot of benefits to the status quo and very little incentive on either side of the straight to seriously rock the boat.

    China, by skillful use of soft power and playing off historical antipathies, has managed to keep Seoul, Tokyo, Manila, and Hanoi from building closer defense relationships, unless that changes, The South China Sea is going to be a Chinese lake, much as the Caribbean is (or used to be) to the US.

  • B D Mc Cormick

    And we are cutting carriers and cruisers? Delaying submarine aquisition? Developing a small close to shore gun boat navy? Yes to all. It is not what are we thinking; it’s who and why are we doing this? Surrendering the priceless advantage paid for by the veterans of W W 2, Korea, Vietnam, an the Cold War. Discusting!

  • EWRoss

    Given President Obama’s record, I doubt that the U.S. would do much should China decide to use coercive or kenetic military force against Taiwan. But its not just the U.S. that helps deter Chinese agression in the Taiwan Strait. Should China take military action against Taiwan it would only cause Japan and South Korea to become much more agressive toward China. Unfortunately, Taiwan is selling itself piece by piece to China. All Beijing has to do is wait to achieve their ultimate goal. Three years from now, however, all this could change if a DPP government is elected in Taiwan and a Republican president is elected in the U.S. In the meantime what Americans should worry about is that the current administration is sending a signal to all our aversaries that we will avoid conflict at all costs.