Very methodically, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is putting in place the building blocks that will allow it to seize Taiwan by force. Defense Secretary William Cohen says the strategic balance in Asia is at risk. We agree.
The PLA’s strategy rests on four pillars, the first of which is the elimination of the United States as an intervening factor. Recently, the PLA Navy took delivery of its initial Russian Sovremenny-class destroyer. A second one will arrive in the fall, and there are ongoing negotiations for perhaps four more.
These ships were designed to be aircraft carrier “killers” as the PLA’s principal newspaper noted on March 22. More ominously, the PLA’s paper quietly confirmed that the SS-N-22 missiles carried aboard the Sovremenny can be “nuclear capable.” Each of the eight on-board missiles would then pack a nuclear punch approximating 20 times the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
In an environment that contains our Los Angeles-class submarine, a Chinese Sovremenny would have an exciting but short existence. However, it is our judgment that in the event of hostilities over Taiwan, China will declare these ships to be “Strategic Nuclear Assets” in defense of their homeland. When a Strategic Nuclear Asset is threatened, the world is on the edge of a nuclear exchange. China will count on this understanding among declared nuclear powers to ensure that the United States Navy stays well clear.
If the USN is ordered into harm’s way around Taiwan, it will face an ominous battle situation. On March 15 newspaper close to Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin bragged that the Sovremennys’ missiles, plus more missiles on the Russian SU-30MK strike aircraft being sold to China and the Israeli Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) scheduled to arrive in China this summer will give the PLA Navy the upper hand in the Western Pacific. The AWACS will be able to locate and target the Americans and the Russian missiles will kill them. It is unlikely anyone aboard an American carrier battle group would survive a nuclear surprise attack under these circumstances.
The PLA’s second pillar of its Taiwan strategy is what the Pentagon calls “precision strike,” missiles aimed at critical targets, mostly military. That would include Taiwan’s navy, particularly if it is tied up in port on the weekend. Military airfields, radars, command and control systems, and other strategic points would be targeted by the hundreds of modern, mobile ballistic missiles now rolling off PLA assembly lines. Jamestown Foundation analyst Richard Fisher recently noted the PLA is setting up a wall of Russian ground-to-air missile sites along the Chinese coast, blocking Taiwan’s highly capable Air Force from a pre-emptive strike.
Third, there is information warfare, sometimes known as cyberwarfare. In a 1998 report to Congress, the U.S. Department of Defense said, “The PLA has shown exceptional interest in information warfare and has begun programs to develop IW capabilities at the strategic, operational and tactical levels as part of its overall military modernization effort.” Taiwan’s critical civilian infrastructure nuclear power plants, refineries, telephone system, transport and finance systems would all be vulnerable to computer network attack from the mainland.
Finally, the PLA is working on special operations techniques that will make it unnecessary for them to conquer the entire island at once. Originally designed by the American Strategic Air Command in the 1950s to handle B-52s, CCK airbase in Central Taiwan has very long runways and extensive fortified hangers. In Western China, there is an exact duplicate of CCK airbase, 1 inch to 1 inch, against which PLA special operations troops have been conducting mock assaults. If the PLA can seize and hold a piece of territory on Taiwan, they could use it as a rallying point for a Quisling government.
If the PLA could gain the initiative through a surprise attack and American military paralysis, they would be at the mopping-up stage within 72 hours.
The PLA’s successful military conquest of Taiwan would be a disaster for the world democratic alliance as well as the people of Taiwan. Most importantly, we would lose the laboratory for Chinese democracy that Taiwan has become in recent years. Japan and South Korea would be isolated politically, economically and geographically in Northeast Asia and would inevitably re-examine the nuclear option. There are indications that China intends to turn its aggression on the South China Sea after it successfully absorbs Taiwan.
Tyrants around the world would be encouraged by the obvious defeat of the United States.
Under the terms of 1979’s Taiwan Relations Act, the administration and the Congress share responsibility for seeing that Taiwan can purchase the defensive weapons it needs to make the PLA’s job impossible. If the American government fails this challenge, it may not get a second chance.
Edward Timperlake and William C. Triplett II are the co-authors of “Red Dragon Rising,” Regnery 1999.