- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2000

HONOLULU Military and civilian analysts, beginning with the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, agree that China does not yet have the power to enforce its repeated war threats against Taiwan. But no one is sure it will not miscalculate, with devastating results.

"China's awkward military blustering is a product of frustrated weakness, not strength," said James Nolt, an Asia specialist at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

China has made a series of war threats against Taiwan, especially since the issuance of a "white paper" in February threatening military action if Taiwan delays talks on reunification with the mainland.

In a typical remark last month, a commentary in the Liberation Army Daily said Taiwan independence "means war. Whoever ignores this … will push Taiwan into the abyss of war, bringing disaster on the Taiwanese people."

But U.S. military analysts believe the greatest danger is that Chinese leaders will come to believe their own rhetoric contrary to the considered assessments of other military thinkers and launch an attack that will end in disaster.

The other risk is that Taiwan or the United States, seeing that China does not have the clout to defeat Taiwan, will call Beijing's bluff. That could cause China to lash out even at the risk of a debacle.

Among China's military options are:

• Invasion, considered the only way China could be certain of conquering Taiwan.

• Attack by missiles, which would be more terrorist than military in nature, in an attempt to cow Taiwan into submission.

• Naval blockade, which would seek to choke Taiwan's trade-reliant economy.

Gauging the military balance across the Strait of Taiwan is an inexact art, at best. Geography clearly favors Taiwan, separated from the mainland by 100 miles of water. The numbers appear to favor China, but much of its armament is old and the state of training of its forces uncertain. Secrecy on both sides further clouds the issue.

The Federation of American Scientists has done an intriguing comparison of the Allied forces required for the invasion of Normandy from Britain in 1944, the largest amphibious operation in history, and what would be available for China's People's Liberation Army to invade Taiwan in 2000. The conclusion: The PLA almost certainly would be badly mauled.

To cite a few key figures: In 1944, the Allied assault force of 176,000 soldiers crossed the English Channel in 3,000 landing craft. Covered by 136 warships and 10,000 warplanes, they barely made it ashore against 50,000 Nazi troops with 400 aircraft and no navy. The Allies had clear air superiority and superior intelligence.

This year, the federation estimates, the Chinese could muster 15,000 soldiers to move in 300 landing craft, covered by 60 warships and 3,300 mostly obsolete warplanes flying far from home. They would face a defending force of 220,000 troops supported by 40 warships and 490 modern fighter planes flying in nearby air space.

Adm. Dennis Blair, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told Congress this year: "The PLA still lacks the capability to invade and control Taiwan. It maintains a quantitative edge in all branches of service, but does not have an adequate power-projection capability to quickly overcome Taiwan's more modern air force and inherent geographical advantages."

This assessment does not include military action by the United States to help defend Taiwan. Some Chinese military writers have suggested that the PLA would strike so quickly that the war would be over before the United States could react. Unless American political leaders in Washington are paralyzed, that appears to be a serious misjudgment, analysts say.

The United States would have strategic warning time of 15 to 30 days, according to officials with access to intelligence reports. The PLA would need all of that time to coil its forces, to load soldiers and equipment aboard ship and to communicate war plans to subordinate units. All would be detected by U.S. satellites, reconnaissance planes, submarines watching from close to China's shores and electronic surveillance.

The United States has forward-deployed forces in the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, whose home port is in Japan, submarines on patrol in the Western Pacific and a Marine division on Okinawa, all close to Taiwan.

The aircraft carrier USS Stennis, on station in the Indian Ocean, could reach Taiwan in 10 to 14 days. A nuclear-powered attack submarine could sail from a standing start in Pearl Harbor to the Strait of Taiwan in six days. B-52 and B-1 bombers could be over the strait in 24 hours.

For missile attacks, China has about 200 medium-range missiles loaded with 500-pound warheads that could do roughly the same damage in Taiwan as an earthquake, and undoubtedly inflict heavy casualties.

The outcome would depend on how willing the Taiwanese were to absorb the shock and to fight back. Moreover, once those missiles have been fired, China would need four years to replace them at the current production rate of about 50 a year.

A blockade of Taiwan's economy would be abetted by maritime insurance, with premiums that would most likely soar. Even so, many naval observers believe the Chinese do not have the staying power or the logistics to sustain a blockade against a Taiwanese navy equipped with 110 frigates and fast attack missile craft and an air force flying U.S.-built F-16s, some French-made Mirage 2000s and Taiwan's own new defense fighters.

Recent U.S. arms sales to Taiwan do not enter into the equation today, but rather will affect the military balance five years from now. This year's package included long-range radar, air-to-air missiles and air-to-ground missiles, but not destroyers equipped with the advanced Aegis air-defense system that had been requested by Taiwan.

Adm. Blair, asked at a recent Pentagon news conference when the Chinese would have modernized their forces sufficiently to prevail against Taiwan, was succinct: "[It] depends on what Taiwan and we do."

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