Commentary Magazine


Topic: Taiwan Strait

Defense Spending and Defense Needs: Not in Sync

The Conservative party in Britain has pledged to adopt the American practice of carrying out a “strategic review” every four years. Based on the latest Quadrennial Defense Review, which came out today, I’m not sure why they would bother. The QDR is not terrible or wrong-headed; in fact, I think it’s fairly sensible on the whole. But it’s also not particularly interesting or surprising — which is pretty much what you would expect from a report produced by a large committee and overseen by the same defense secretary who has put into place many of the policies under review. I agree with Robert Haddick’s take in the Small Wars Journal:

Rather than reading a document about strategies for the future, I had the sense that I was reading a business corporation’s annual report covering the past fiscal year. I stopped counting how many times the QDR said, “the Department will continue to …” or something similar.

Haddick goes on to note that the QDR “hints at, but leaves unsaid, many necessary and sometimes painful changes the Pentagon will need to make. In this sense the QDR seems incomplete; it kicks several important cans down the road, leaving important decisions that should have been in the QDR for future reports.”

Some of the challenges left unaddressed by the QDR are spelled out in this study by Mackenzie Eaglen at the Heritage Foundation. She notes a number of disturbing long-term trends, including the fact that  “core” defense spending (excluding contingencies such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) is already just 3.9 percent of GDP and set to decline under the Obama blueprint. Defense spending, even with a current budget of $690 billion, is less than 18 percent of federal spending and has been rapidly declining as a share of the federal budget over time, while entitlement spending (currently 35 percent of the budget) continues to grow.

Within the defense budget, an ever-growing share of the spending is being consumed by personnel expenditures and current operations, which leaves not enough money to recapitalize aging equipment (the U.S. Air Force continues to operate transport aircraft and tankers that are over 40 years old) and an ever-shrinking storehouse of advanced weapons systems (the U.S. Navy has the smallest number of ships since 1916). She might have mentioned, but didn’t, that the U.S. doesn’t have enough soldiers to meet all its commitments. The Army was 710,000 strong at the end of the Cold War in 1991; today it’s down 553,000 personnel.

In other words, there is a fundamental mismatch between ends and means — between what we’re willing to spend on defense and what we need to meet our global commitments. And that’s not even taking into account all the new challenges laid out in the QDR relating to areas such as cyberspace and “anti-access” threats (e.g., long-range cruise missiles that can pick off our naval ships in the Persian Gulf or the Taiwan Strait). This QDR, like the preceding QDRs, is better at laying out the challenges than it is at suggesting realistic ways they can be met. It might at least have sounded a warning about some of these looming problems. Instead, it is largely a ratification of the status quo.

The Conservative party in Britain has pledged to adopt the American practice of carrying out a “strategic review” every four years. Based on the latest Quadrennial Defense Review, which came out today, I’m not sure why they would bother. The QDR is not terrible or wrong-headed; in fact, I think it’s fairly sensible on the whole. But it’s also not particularly interesting or surprising — which is pretty much what you would expect from a report produced by a large committee and overseen by the same defense secretary who has put into place many of the policies under review. I agree with Robert Haddick’s take in the Small Wars Journal:

Rather than reading a document about strategies for the future, I had the sense that I was reading a business corporation’s annual report covering the past fiscal year. I stopped counting how many times the QDR said, “the Department will continue to …” or something similar.

Haddick goes on to note that the QDR “hints at, but leaves unsaid, many necessary and sometimes painful changes the Pentagon will need to make. In this sense the QDR seems incomplete; it kicks several important cans down the road, leaving important decisions that should have been in the QDR for future reports.”

Some of the challenges left unaddressed by the QDR are spelled out in this study by Mackenzie Eaglen at the Heritage Foundation. She notes a number of disturbing long-term trends, including the fact that  “core” defense spending (excluding contingencies such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) is already just 3.9 percent of GDP and set to decline under the Obama blueprint. Defense spending, even with a current budget of $690 billion, is less than 18 percent of federal spending and has been rapidly declining as a share of the federal budget over time, while entitlement spending (currently 35 percent of the budget) continues to grow.

Within the defense budget, an ever-growing share of the spending is being consumed by personnel expenditures and current operations, which leaves not enough money to recapitalize aging equipment (the U.S. Air Force continues to operate transport aircraft and tankers that are over 40 years old) and an ever-shrinking storehouse of advanced weapons systems (the U.S. Navy has the smallest number of ships since 1916). She might have mentioned, but didn’t, that the U.S. doesn’t have enough soldiers to meet all its commitments. The Army was 710,000 strong at the end of the Cold War in 1991; today it’s down 553,000 personnel.

In other words, there is a fundamental mismatch between ends and means — between what we’re willing to spend on defense and what we need to meet our global commitments. And that’s not even taking into account all the new challenges laid out in the QDR relating to areas such as cyberspace and “anti-access” threats (e.g., long-range cruise missiles that can pick off our naval ships in the Persian Gulf or the Taiwan Strait). This QDR, like the preceding QDRs, is better at laying out the challenges than it is at suggesting realistic ways they can be met. It might at least have sounded a warning about some of these looming problems. Instead, it is largely a ratification of the status quo.

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Combat-Ready

I confess I haven’t listened to all 80 minutes of this interview with Nancy Pelosi. But my CONTENTIONS colleague Abe Greenwald tells me that, in addition to crediting Iranian munificence for the growing stability in Iraq, the Speaker made the following statement:

The undermining of our military strength is just staggering. We don’t have one combat-ready unit in the United States to go to protect our interests wherever they are threatened, or those of our friends .

I suppose this is further confirmation of the old chestnut about what goes around comes around: Back in 2000, conservatives were lambasting the Clinton administration for declining readiness levels (see, for instance, this Heritage paper) and promising “help is on the way.” Now it’s the turns of liberals. In both cases the attacks are partially fair, partially not.

The issue is that a unit’s combat readiness declines immediately after rotating out of a war zone. At that point, lots of soldiers and officers leave and lots of new ones come in. Worn-out equipment is repaired or discarded; new equipment arrives slowly. Gradually, the unit fills up and trains up in preparation for another deployment. Often it will not reach the highest level of combat readiness until just before the deployment. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most active-duty army and marine units are either deployed, preparing for deployment, or recovering from deployment. That doesn’t leave a lot of units sitting around at high levels of readiness in CONUS–the military abbreviation for Continental United States. But the units we are sending into combat are the most experienced and best-prepared we have ever sent to fight any war.

Traditionally the 82nd Airborne Division maintained one home-based brigade at the highest state of readiness at all times-ready to deploy anywhere in the world within 72 hours. Last year all four of the 82nd brigade’s deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, handing off the “ready brigade” mission to the 101st Air Assault Division, which has lots of its units deployed too. Three of the 82nd‘s brigades have now returned home to Fort Bragg and the division is supposed to re-assume the “readiness” function next year.

It would be nice to have more units standing by at a higher level of readiness, but that hardly means the U.S. is defenseless. In addition to our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have substantial numbers of ground forces deployed in Okinawa, South Korea, and Germany that in a pinch could be used to deal with another crisis. More importantly, we have lots of air and naval assets that are not engaged in the fight today. Pelosi did not refer specifically to army units; she said “combat-ready units.” By that standard, there are lots of air force squadrons and naval task forces that qualify. And they would in fact be our first line of defense against a crisis in, say, the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan strait, or Iran.

Anyway, just what is Pelosi’s point? Is she saying that she supports a large increase in the size of the active duty force? John McCain has called for increasing the overall size of our ground forces (army and marines) from today’s projected level of 750,000 to 900,000. Is Pelosi willing to support legislation along those lines? Or is she instead suggesting that, rather than substantially increase our forces, we downsize their missions? I suspect it’s the latter, and that her preferred option is to pull units out of Iraq, thereby losing the most significant war we’ve fought since Vietnam, in order to keep units in readiness for another contingency that may or may not materialize. But, if Vietnam teaches anything, it is that nothing is guaranteed to harm long-term readiness more than losing a war.

I confess I haven’t listened to all 80 minutes of this interview with Nancy Pelosi. But my CONTENTIONS colleague Abe Greenwald tells me that, in addition to crediting Iranian munificence for the growing stability in Iraq, the Speaker made the following statement:

The undermining of our military strength is just staggering. We don’t have one combat-ready unit in the United States to go to protect our interests wherever they are threatened, or those of our friends .

I suppose this is further confirmation of the old chestnut about what goes around comes around: Back in 2000, conservatives were lambasting the Clinton administration for declining readiness levels (see, for instance, this Heritage paper) and promising “help is on the way.” Now it’s the turns of liberals. In both cases the attacks are partially fair, partially not.

The issue is that a unit’s combat readiness declines immediately after rotating out of a war zone. At that point, lots of soldiers and officers leave and lots of new ones come in. Worn-out equipment is repaired or discarded; new equipment arrives slowly. Gradually, the unit fills up and trains up in preparation for another deployment. Often it will not reach the highest level of combat readiness until just before the deployment. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most active-duty army and marine units are either deployed, preparing for deployment, or recovering from deployment. That doesn’t leave a lot of units sitting around at high levels of readiness in CONUS–the military abbreviation for Continental United States. But the units we are sending into combat are the most experienced and best-prepared we have ever sent to fight any war.

Traditionally the 82nd Airborne Division maintained one home-based brigade at the highest state of readiness at all times-ready to deploy anywhere in the world within 72 hours. Last year all four of the 82nd brigade’s deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, handing off the “ready brigade” mission to the 101st Air Assault Division, which has lots of its units deployed too. Three of the 82nd‘s brigades have now returned home to Fort Bragg and the division is supposed to re-assume the “readiness” function next year.

It would be nice to have more units standing by at a higher level of readiness, but that hardly means the U.S. is defenseless. In addition to our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have substantial numbers of ground forces deployed in Okinawa, South Korea, and Germany that in a pinch could be used to deal with another crisis. More importantly, we have lots of air and naval assets that are not engaged in the fight today. Pelosi did not refer specifically to army units; she said “combat-ready units.” By that standard, there are lots of air force squadrons and naval task forces that qualify. And they would in fact be our first line of defense against a crisis in, say, the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan strait, or Iran.

Anyway, just what is Pelosi’s point? Is she saying that she supports a large increase in the size of the active duty force? John McCain has called for increasing the overall size of our ground forces (army and marines) from today’s projected level of 750,000 to 900,000. Is Pelosi willing to support legislation along those lines? Or is she instead suggesting that, rather than substantially increase our forces, we downsize their missions? I suspect it’s the latter, and that her preferred option is to pull units out of Iraq, thereby losing the most significant war we’ve fought since Vietnam, in order to keep units in readiness for another contingency that may or may not materialize. But, if Vietnam teaches anything, it is that nothing is guaranteed to harm long-term readiness more than losing a war.

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Our Next Message to Beijing

Today, the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed “serious concern and strong dissatisfaction” with a mistaken shipment of American military parts to Taiwan. It then urged the United States to report the details to Beijing so as to eliminate “severe consequences.” The Taiwanese had requested replacement battery packs for their American-made helicopters. Instead, they received four nose-cone fuse assemblies used to trigger nuclear weapons.

The sharp Chinese reaction came after yesterday’s Pentagon announcement that the Defense Logistics Agency had made the incorrect shipment to Taiwan in August 2006. The Taiwanese had noticed the mistake and contacted U.S. authorities in early 2007, yet it was only last Thursday before anyone in the Defense Department realized what had actually been sent. Defense Secretary Gates and President Bush were informed on Friday.

“Our policy on Taiwan arms sales has not changed,” said Ryan Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, yesterday. “This specific incident was an error in process only, and is not indicative of our policies, which remain unchanged.”

But should they remain unchanged? Many argue that, if we want to make sure there is no war in the Taiwan Strait, we should help the Taiwanese build a bomb or, better yet, just give them a few weapons in order to create a stable balance of terror with China. Moreover, some believe that the threat to arm Taiwan and Japan would be the most effective way to get Beijing to stop supporting the nuclear weapons programs of North Korea and Iran.

These proposals, despite apparent advantages, do not represent sound policy choices, at least at this moment. For one thing, both would be clear violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the global pact that in fact prevents the spread of nukes. Yet if we don’t disarm Kim Jong Il and stop Iran’s “atomic ayatollahs” now, we will undoubtedly see the rapid dispersion of nuclear weapons soon. As Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has noted, about forty nations have the capability to develop the bomb within a decade.

The primary reason that prevents them from doing so is the so-called “nuclear taboo,” which is reinforced by the nonproliferation treaty. Once weapons technology starts to spread to dangerous states, however, other nations will have no choice but to accumulate atomic arsenals to defend themselves. When that happens, the nonproliferation agreement will become a dead letter. Some analysts, like Kenneth Waltz, think the world could be more stable then, but I know it will be worse. Things cannot get better when tyrants, terrorists, and thugs will be able to bring on Armageddon.

So what should we now say to the angry Chinese? Today, we should confirm that the shipment to Taiwan was an error. Tomorrow, the message may be different. If the Chinese continue to prevent us from disarming North Korea and stopping Iran, we should say that our next transfer of warhead mechanisms to the Taiwanese will not be a mistake.

Today, the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed “serious concern and strong dissatisfaction” with a mistaken shipment of American military parts to Taiwan. It then urged the United States to report the details to Beijing so as to eliminate “severe consequences.” The Taiwanese had requested replacement battery packs for their American-made helicopters. Instead, they received four nose-cone fuse assemblies used to trigger nuclear weapons.

The sharp Chinese reaction came after yesterday’s Pentagon announcement that the Defense Logistics Agency had made the incorrect shipment to Taiwan in August 2006. The Taiwanese had noticed the mistake and contacted U.S. authorities in early 2007, yet it was only last Thursday before anyone in the Defense Department realized what had actually been sent. Defense Secretary Gates and President Bush were informed on Friday.

“Our policy on Taiwan arms sales has not changed,” said Ryan Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, yesterday. “This specific incident was an error in process only, and is not indicative of our policies, which remain unchanged.”

But should they remain unchanged? Many argue that, if we want to make sure there is no war in the Taiwan Strait, we should help the Taiwanese build a bomb or, better yet, just give them a few weapons in order to create a stable balance of terror with China. Moreover, some believe that the threat to arm Taiwan and Japan would be the most effective way to get Beijing to stop supporting the nuclear weapons programs of North Korea and Iran.

These proposals, despite apparent advantages, do not represent sound policy choices, at least at this moment. For one thing, both would be clear violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the global pact that in fact prevents the spread of nukes. Yet if we don’t disarm Kim Jong Il and stop Iran’s “atomic ayatollahs” now, we will undoubtedly see the rapid dispersion of nuclear weapons soon. As Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has noted, about forty nations have the capability to develop the bomb within a decade.

The primary reason that prevents them from doing so is the so-called “nuclear taboo,” which is reinforced by the nonproliferation treaty. Once weapons technology starts to spread to dangerous states, however, other nations will have no choice but to accumulate atomic arsenals to defend themselves. When that happens, the nonproliferation agreement will become a dead letter. Some analysts, like Kenneth Waltz, think the world could be more stable then, but I know it will be worse. Things cannot get better when tyrants, terrorists, and thugs will be able to bring on Armageddon.

So what should we now say to the angry Chinese? Today, we should confirm that the shipment to Taiwan was an error. Tomorrow, the message may be different. If the Chinese continue to prevent us from disarming North Korea and stopping Iran, we should say that our next transfer of warhead mechanisms to the Taiwanese will not be a mistake.

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Kitty Hawk Confrontation?

Alarming reports in the Navy Times and the Japanese Yomiuri Shimbun state that the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk battle group was confronted by Chinese warships as it transited the Taiwan Strait after being turned away from Hong Kong in November. According to the Navy Times:

The carrier strike group encountered Chinese destroyer Shenzhen and a Song-class sub in the strait on Nov. 23, causing the group to halt and ready for battle, as the Chinese vessels also stopped amid the 28-hour confrontation.

The Yomiuri account gives more detail:

The Kitty Hawk observed the Chinese submarine, and after a U.S. antisubmarine patrol aircraft confirmed the Chinese submarine was keeping pace with the U.S. carrier by reducing speed and stopping, the U.S. vessel launched an aircraft to watch for possible hostile behavior by the Chinese Navy.

The ultimate source of both accounts is the China Times, a respectable Taipei newspaper. The more detailed Chinese language version, written by three reporters, quotes one unidentified authoritative source. and another source for the story, and speculates on the origins and significance of the encounter.

What are we to make of this? If the report is true then we have a very serious problem. Rather than becoming friendly in response to American friendliness, the Chinese are (mis)-reading us as weak and trying to frighten us. But we also have an explanation for the sudden four day trip to Beijing by Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, just completed. The meeting was reportedly amicable, but shed no new light at all on the mysterious closure of Hong Kong last year.

Afterwards, the Admiral had some uncharacteristically feisty words for the Chinese. “We don’t need China’s permission to go through the Taiwan Strait. It is international water. We will exercise our free right of passage whenever and wherever we choose.” If the story is completely false, we have to ask who falsified it and for what reason. The China Times takes a pro-Beijing editorial stance. How this story would help Beijing is difficult to see.

My own reading is this: the story probably has some basis. I say this because it fits into a worrying pattern of increasingly erratic and hostile Chinese behavior towards American forces in Asia. I don’t pretend to know what the origins of this pattern are. But it represents a clear shift and a worrying one–and instead of making nice, we should be paying attention.

Alarming reports in the Navy Times and the Japanese Yomiuri Shimbun state that the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk battle group was confronted by Chinese warships as it transited the Taiwan Strait after being turned away from Hong Kong in November. According to the Navy Times:

The carrier strike group encountered Chinese destroyer Shenzhen and a Song-class sub in the strait on Nov. 23, causing the group to halt and ready for battle, as the Chinese vessels also stopped amid the 28-hour confrontation.

The Yomiuri account gives more detail:

The Kitty Hawk observed the Chinese submarine, and after a U.S. antisubmarine patrol aircraft confirmed the Chinese submarine was keeping pace with the U.S. carrier by reducing speed and stopping, the U.S. vessel launched an aircraft to watch for possible hostile behavior by the Chinese Navy.

The ultimate source of both accounts is the China Times, a respectable Taipei newspaper. The more detailed Chinese language version, written by three reporters, quotes one unidentified authoritative source. and another source for the story, and speculates on the origins and significance of the encounter.

What are we to make of this? If the report is true then we have a very serious problem. Rather than becoming friendly in response to American friendliness, the Chinese are (mis)-reading us as weak and trying to frighten us. But we also have an explanation for the sudden four day trip to Beijing by Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, just completed. The meeting was reportedly amicable, but shed no new light at all on the mysterious closure of Hong Kong last year.

Afterwards, the Admiral had some uncharacteristically feisty words for the Chinese. “We don’t need China’s permission to go through the Taiwan Strait. It is international water. We will exercise our free right of passage whenever and wherever we choose.” If the story is completely false, we have to ask who falsified it and for what reason. The China Times takes a pro-Beijing editorial stance. How this story would help Beijing is difficult to see.

My own reading is this: the story probably has some basis. I say this because it fits into a worrying pattern of increasingly erratic and hostile Chinese behavior towards American forces in Asia. I don’t pretend to know what the origins of this pattern are. But it represents a clear shift and a worrying one–and instead of making nice, we should be paying attention.

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The Other Russian Missile Story

Considering the profound reassurance George Bush found in the crucifix Vladimir Putin wore when the two met six years ago, yesterday’s Christmas missile tests in Russia seem like an especially blunt thumb in the President’s eye. But while that story grabs headlines, there’s another Russian missile story that should concern us just as much, if not more.

Today, Reuters UK reports that Russia will be selling an S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran. The report says: “S-300 missiles are longer-ranging than the TOR-M1 surface-to-air missiles which Russia, in a deal criticized by the West, earlier this year said it had delivered to the Islamic Republic under a $1 billion contract.”

When the TOR-M1 deal drew U.S. and Israeli criticism, Russia downplayed the weapon’s seriousness, saying the missiles were short-range and represented a purely defensive capability. But the S-300 is actually the most lethal missile of its kind. International Assessment and Strategy Center had this to say about S-300’s, (purchased from Russia) in Chinese skies: “Over the Taiwan Strait the later versions of the S-300 become “offensive” weapons in that they can attack targets in Taiwanese airspace, severely challenging that nation’s air defense.”

Reuters reports: “Russia’s drive to boost arms exports have raised tensions with the United States, which last year imposed sanctions on Russia’s state arms trader Rosoboronexport for cooperating with Iran, a move Moscow has called illegal.” There are currently no U.N. sanctions banning conventional weapons sales to Iran.

There are two very dangerous impulses of late: to treat Tehran as a reasonable player, and to treat Putin as, of all things, a stabilizer. The U.S. has all but lost yet another PR war on these two fronts. Erroneous public opinion is clearing the way for some frightening developments. But halting the next phase can’t wait on the world’s sympathy.

Considering the profound reassurance George Bush found in the crucifix Vladimir Putin wore when the two met six years ago, yesterday’s Christmas missile tests in Russia seem like an especially blunt thumb in the President’s eye. But while that story grabs headlines, there’s another Russian missile story that should concern us just as much, if not more.

Today, Reuters UK reports that Russia will be selling an S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran. The report says: “S-300 missiles are longer-ranging than the TOR-M1 surface-to-air missiles which Russia, in a deal criticized by the West, earlier this year said it had delivered to the Islamic Republic under a $1 billion contract.”

When the TOR-M1 deal drew U.S. and Israeli criticism, Russia downplayed the weapon’s seriousness, saying the missiles were short-range and represented a purely defensive capability. But the S-300 is actually the most lethal missile of its kind. International Assessment and Strategy Center had this to say about S-300’s, (purchased from Russia) in Chinese skies: “Over the Taiwan Strait the later versions of the S-300 become “offensive” weapons in that they can attack targets in Taiwanese airspace, severely challenging that nation’s air defense.”

Reuters reports: “Russia’s drive to boost arms exports have raised tensions with the United States, which last year imposed sanctions on Russia’s state arms trader Rosoboronexport for cooperating with Iran, a move Moscow has called illegal.” There are currently no U.N. sanctions banning conventional weapons sales to Iran.

There are two very dangerous impulses of late: to treat Tehran as a reasonable player, and to treat Putin as, of all things, a stabilizer. The U.S. has all but lost yet another PR war on these two fronts. Erroneous public opinion is clearing the way for some frightening developments. But halting the next phase can’t wait on the world’s sympathy.

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A Closer Look at China’s Port Closures

There is word from Washington that, together with the Chinese, the American government has agreed “to put behind them” the dispute that erupted when China abruptly closed Hong Kong to a number of American ships and aircraft.

The most important turn-away was the USS Kitty Hawk carrier battle group, which had been granted permission to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in Hong Kong. The U.S. government had flown the families of the crew to the former British dependent territory for the festivities. Then, without explanation, on November 22 that permission was withdrawn, along with permission for the frigate Reuben James to spend New Year’s in Hong Kong.

Faced with great U.S. unhappiness, China reversed herself again, saying the Kitty Hawk could come—but carrier battle groups cannot turn on a dime. By then the Kitty Hawk was well under way for Japan—via the Taiwan Strait.

It is all very well and good for the Chinese ambassador to tell President Bush that it was a “misunderstanding”—indeed, a lot of talk has been coming out of our capital that would make you think sudden port closures on the eve of long-planned visits were routine. But they are not. Closing Hong Kong is not an oversight; it is serious business.

A few questions must be answered before the United States can close the file on this case. Who is in charge of access to Hong Kong? Do people in Hong Kong decide? Does the Chinese Navy decide? Does the standing committee of the politburo of the Communist Party decide? To make the point absolutely clear: does the Party rule the gun—or, as looks increasingly to be the case, does the gun rule the Party?

If the military made the decision against civilian wishes, that would be important news, for the Chinese military recently has been showing more “assertiveness” (to put it delicately). If, on the other hand, the civilians initiated the action, then clearly we have to reconsider what exactly the Chinese authorities are envisioning as a future.

What worries me most in this whole situation is that we seem not to want to know what really happened. If we look too closely, we might find that the benign assumptions upon which our China policy rests do not fit with the facts.

There is word from Washington that, together with the Chinese, the American government has agreed “to put behind them” the dispute that erupted when China abruptly closed Hong Kong to a number of American ships and aircraft.

The most important turn-away was the USS Kitty Hawk carrier battle group, which had been granted permission to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in Hong Kong. The U.S. government had flown the families of the crew to the former British dependent territory for the festivities. Then, without explanation, on November 22 that permission was withdrawn, along with permission for the frigate Reuben James to spend New Year’s in Hong Kong.

Faced with great U.S. unhappiness, China reversed herself again, saying the Kitty Hawk could come—but carrier battle groups cannot turn on a dime. By then the Kitty Hawk was well under way for Japan—via the Taiwan Strait.

It is all very well and good for the Chinese ambassador to tell President Bush that it was a “misunderstanding”—indeed, a lot of talk has been coming out of our capital that would make you think sudden port closures on the eve of long-planned visits were routine. But they are not. Closing Hong Kong is not an oversight; it is serious business.

A few questions must be answered before the United States can close the file on this case. Who is in charge of access to Hong Kong? Do people in Hong Kong decide? Does the Chinese Navy decide? Does the standing committee of the politburo of the Communist Party decide? To make the point absolutely clear: does the Party rule the gun—or, as looks increasingly to be the case, does the gun rule the Party?

If the military made the decision against civilian wishes, that would be important news, for the Chinese military recently has been showing more “assertiveness” (to put it delicately). If, on the other hand, the civilians initiated the action, then clearly we have to reconsider what exactly the Chinese authorities are envisioning as a future.

What worries me most in this whole situation is that we seem not to want to know what really happened. If we look too closely, we might find that the benign assumptions upon which our China policy rests do not fit with the facts.

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China’s Attack Plan

Will China launch some major and dangerous move against Taiwan—a blockade? missile firings? worse?—next March, just five months ahead of the opening of the triumphant Beijing Olympics (motto: “one world, one dream”)?

Such madness seems inconceivable. Yet the pattern of Beijing’s diplomacy with respect to Taiwan’s referendum on its application to the United Nations is convincing me that some such action is possible, even likely.

China is intent on denying any international status to Taiwan, a democratic country of some 23 million people having a gross national product approaching four hundred billion dollars.

She was expelled from the UN in 1971 when China joined and has failed a dozen times to rejoin thereafter. Now she plans a referendum on how to word her next application. (I have explained these basic issues in an earlier posting.)

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Will China launch some major and dangerous move against Taiwan—a blockade? missile firings? worse?—next March, just five months ahead of the opening of the triumphant Beijing Olympics (motto: “one world, one dream”)?

Such madness seems inconceivable. Yet the pattern of Beijing’s diplomacy with respect to Taiwan’s referendum on its application to the United Nations is convincing me that some such action is possible, even likely.

China is intent on denying any international status to Taiwan, a democratic country of some 23 million people having a gross national product approaching four hundred billion dollars.

She was expelled from the UN in 1971 when China joined and has failed a dozen times to rejoin thereafter. Now she plans a referendum on how to word her next application. (I have explained these basic issues in an earlier posting.)

As China seeks to stanch leaks in the diplomatic embargo, it is becoming clear that Beijing has decided to make the referendum into a casus belli: into the “red line,” the provocation that cannot be tolerated and that must force her to turn to military coercion. She is preparing the ground carefully, lining up support for her position from the very countries that might back Taiwan.

Thus, for months last year the Chinese embassy hammered the relevant American Deputy Assistant Secretary of State with threats. The result: on August 27, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte stated unequivocally that “any kind of provocative steps” on Taiwan’s part were unacceptable.

Shortly thereafter, Chinese President Hu Jintao directly warned President Bush “that this year and the next will be a ‘highly dangerous period’ in the Taiwan Strait.” He referred, ominously, to China’s 2005 “Anti-Secession Law,” which requires the use of “nonpeaceful means” to counter “major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China.” Hu stated that the referendum would be just such a “major incident.”

Now France and Britain have, unwittingly I think, added their signatures to the international permission slip that China appears to be preparing. According to Reuters, on November 26, French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated “that France opposes Taiwan’s contentious plan to hold a referendum on UN membership next year.” Then, according to AFP, Foreign Secretary David Miliband made clear on December 5 Britain’s opposition to the referendum on pushing for UN membership, adding that any “reckless maneuvers” were to be “deplored.”

Without insistent Chinese prompting, one suspects, neither Negroponte nor Sarkozy nor Miliband would have spoken. Yet all did, in complete ignorance, one suspects, of the net China is weaving.

For who will protest or act if China does use the referendum as a pretext for military action next March? One would expect democratic powers such as the United States, France, and Britain to take the lead. But they have already stated their support for China’s political position (though not for force). My fear is that such statements of seeming acquiescence may persuade China that she could get away with a turn to force. Such miscalculation could in fact lead to war.

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Postmarks for Freedom

On Wednesday, People’s Daily, the self-described mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, announced that China had returned all mail to Taiwan that was postmarked with the slogan “Taiwan’s Entry into the UN.”

“Taiwan authority preaching ‘Taiwan independence’ through post services has infringed on Taiwan compatriots’ freedom of communication,” said Fan Liqing, spokeswoman for Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office. “This has seriously impaired the exchanges of letters between people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait as well as Taiwan people’s exchanges with other parts of the world.”

Ms. Fan has it backwards. It was Beijing—not Taipei—that disrupted the mails by refusing to deliver 158 letters. Unfortunately, her government’s tough tactic worked because Taiwan subsequently dropped the automatic use of the postmark, which was intended to boost the island’s campaign for worldwide recognition of its independent status. Taiwan Post, the island’s postal service, says it will now only use the controversial postmark upon customer request.

So Beijing has shown that it will block Taiwan’s mail. But will it block America’s? It’s unlikely that President Bush will ask the U.S. Postal Service to use the postmark that offends Beijing. As Arthur Waldron has written in contentions, Washington wrongly has taken China’s side in opposing Taiwan’s push for UN membership.

Yet Americans don’t have to wait for their leaders to act. They can customize their own postmarks. Today, we can even design our own stamps. This controversy has motivated my wife and me to customize our stamps with this slogan: “Support Taiwan.” I think it’s high time that people in the West, and especially Americans, show the world’s large autocracies what we think of their campaigns to intimidate small democracies. We can lick despots in many ways, even by licking our stamps.

On Wednesday, People’s Daily, the self-described mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, announced that China had returned all mail to Taiwan that was postmarked with the slogan “Taiwan’s Entry into the UN.”

“Taiwan authority preaching ‘Taiwan independence’ through post services has infringed on Taiwan compatriots’ freedom of communication,” said Fan Liqing, spokeswoman for Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office. “This has seriously impaired the exchanges of letters between people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait as well as Taiwan people’s exchanges with other parts of the world.”

Ms. Fan has it backwards. It was Beijing—not Taipei—that disrupted the mails by refusing to deliver 158 letters. Unfortunately, her government’s tough tactic worked because Taiwan subsequently dropped the automatic use of the postmark, which was intended to boost the island’s campaign for worldwide recognition of its independent status. Taiwan Post, the island’s postal service, says it will now only use the controversial postmark upon customer request.

So Beijing has shown that it will block Taiwan’s mail. But will it block America’s? It’s unlikely that President Bush will ask the U.S. Postal Service to use the postmark that offends Beijing. As Arthur Waldron has written in contentions, Washington wrongly has taken China’s side in opposing Taiwan’s push for UN membership.

Yet Americans don’t have to wait for their leaders to act. They can customize their own postmarks. Today, we can even design our own stamps. This controversy has motivated my wife and me to customize our stamps with this slogan: “Support Taiwan.” I think it’s high time that people in the West, and especially Americans, show the world’s large autocracies what we think of their campaigns to intimidate small democracies. We can lick despots in many ways, even by licking our stamps.

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Let Taiwan In

On Friday, the Taipei government announced that it had applied for U.N. membership under its commonly used name, Taiwan. Previous attempts to gain admission under the official designation of Republic of China have failed, due to opposition from Beijing.

The Mainland was quick to denounce Taipei’s most recent move. “We resolutely oppose it,” said Liu Jianchao, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman. “The Taiwan authorities’ attempt to split China will absolutely not succeed.” Beijing’s is not the only government that is peeved. I predict that the Bush administration will, as a means of expressing its irritation at President Chen Shui-bian’s attempt to assert his nation’s sovereignty, offer no support to Taiwan’s bid.

The United States has tried to keep the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. But now the democracy of 23 million people has expressed its desire to be recognized as a sovereign political entity. The issue for President Bush at this time is clear: is all his talk about freedom just rhetoric?

On Friday, the Taipei government announced that it had applied for U.N. membership under its commonly used name, Taiwan. Previous attempts to gain admission under the official designation of Republic of China have failed, due to opposition from Beijing.

The Mainland was quick to denounce Taipei’s most recent move. “We resolutely oppose it,” said Liu Jianchao, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman. “The Taiwan authorities’ attempt to split China will absolutely not succeed.” Beijing’s is not the only government that is peeved. I predict that the Bush administration will, as a means of expressing its irritation at President Chen Shui-bian’s attempt to assert his nation’s sovereignty, offer no support to Taiwan’s bid.

The United States has tried to keep the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. But now the democracy of 23 million people has expressed its desire to be recognized as a sovereign political entity. The issue for President Bush at this time is clear: is all his talk about freedom just rhetoric?

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Taiwan’s Missile Gap

Last week the Bush administration publicly suggested that Taiwan should halt plans to produce long-range missiles capable of hitting targets in mainland China. “The U.S. view is that the focus should be on defensive weapons, not on offensive weapons,” said Stephen Young, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de facto embassy on the island. The administration instead proposes to sell Taiwan the Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile system as part of a larger $18-billion package of American arms.

But Taiwan’s president Chen Shui-bian is not content with purely defensive missiles: he wants a real deterrent. Washington seems to forget that China has more than 900 missiles pointed at Taiwan and is, by all accounts, increasing the size of its offensive arsenal by about 50 missiles a year. Taiwan’s Patriot PAC-2 and Tien Kung surface-to-air missiles can reach China’s Fujian province, directly across the Taiwan Strait, though they would not be accurate if used against surface targets. Taiwan’s defense ministry says it is developing surface-to-surface missiles capable of hitting Chinese military bases. But it remains unclear if the U.S. will provide the Taiwanese with the sophisticated guidance systems necessary to operate them. Read More

Last week the Bush administration publicly suggested that Taiwan should halt plans to produce long-range missiles capable of hitting targets in mainland China. “The U.S. view is that the focus should be on defensive weapons, not on offensive weapons,” said Stephen Young, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de facto embassy on the island. The administration instead proposes to sell Taiwan the Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile system as part of a larger $18-billion package of American arms.

But Taiwan’s president Chen Shui-bian is not content with purely defensive missiles: he wants a real deterrent. Washington seems to forget that China has more than 900 missiles pointed at Taiwan and is, by all accounts, increasing the size of its offensive arsenal by about 50 missiles a year. Taiwan’s Patriot PAC-2 and Tien Kung surface-to-air missiles can reach China’s Fujian province, directly across the Taiwan Strait, though they would not be accurate if used against surface targets. Taiwan’s defense ministry says it is developing surface-to-surface missiles capable of hitting Chinese military bases. But it remains unclear if the U.S. will provide the Taiwanese with the sophisticated guidance systems necessary to operate them.

President Bush, who in 2001 promised that he would do “whatever it took” to defend the island, has slowly scaled back this commitment in the face of Chinese pressure. Yet at the same time, as Stephen Young’s comment suggests, he also wants to deny the Taiwanese their own credible deterrent against China. This position makes no sense and can’t be sustained.

The Taiwanese will either obtain a firm defense pledge from Washington or develop the means to defend themselves. In the late 1980’s, the Reagan administration was able to stop Taipei’s last known independent attempt to develop nuclear weapons because the Taiwanese had confidence in America’s commitment to defending them.

Will Taiwan feel the same way in the future? Not if the U.S. fails to affirm that commitment. Taipei will then have little choice but to develop a deterrent independently. As President Chen said last July, after North Korea test-fired a volley of missiles: “Peace cannot be achieved with wishful thinking. We can stop a war only by being well-prepared for a war and avoid a war by gaining the capability of winning a war.”

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