Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Is it time to reconsider the Taiwan delusion?

Courtney at GSGF links approvingly (it seems...?) to Tom Donnelly, Mackenzie Eaglen, and Jamie Fly's newest piece in The National Review, in which the authors unsurprisingly deride Secretary Gates' recent announcement of program cuts and future end-strength reductions. It's just like another spin of the ol' Best of Max Boot record: we don't have enough troops and weapons for everything, which is just the same as not having enough for anything! Jason's already gotten into the fundamental stupidity of this approach, but Courtney avoids Boot's worst pitfalls by positing a specific threat for which we ought to be prepared: aggressive Chinese revisionism vis-a-vis Taiwan. If you dare...
China's hot desire for a tiny tiny fun, free choice little sister democrazy (that hasn't ever bothered anyone) speaks volumes about the idea of messing with defense budgets.
Presumably the argument here is that an American military with 47,000 fewer ground troops (and no EFVs or SLAMRAAMs) would be unable to defend Taiwan against Chinese invasion.

Well, I'm not quite sure how to tell you this, Courtney, but... If the Chinese want Taiwan back, they're going to take it. And there's really not a whole lot of anything we can or should do about this reality, whether the defense budget is $553 billion or $553 SQUILLION.

Here's a little taste of what a war with China would be like, courtesy of the research geeks at Popular Mechanics. (Focus particularly on the first 700 words.) It ain't pretty, and (contra Bill Gertz) that's not because we've got bad intel on China or because we aren't spending our money right. No, it's really a matter of geography: just the same as we wouldn't expect China to be able to stop an American invasion of Cuba, when we think about the whole thing as a practical matter, it's patently absurd to imagine that we could defend the island from the revanchist whim of its powerful neighbor. What's the capability gap that prevents us from mounting an effective defense? I'd start with an inability to instantly teleport air and missile defenses across thousands of miles of ocean and lack of forward-deployed coastal artillery that's roughly as capable as the laser cannons defending Hoth at the start of The Empire Strikes Back. Anybody know the life-cycle costs on that stuff?

Seriously though: we're not going to explicitly renounce our commitment to defending Taiwan, but it seems certain we'll never be able to execute anything but a minor delaying action against Chinese landing forces. And I know Courtney's answer will be different to my own on this question, but: why should we? Is it worth the death of perhaps tens of thousands of American sailors and airmen to make a hopeless if symbolic defense of one small bastion of democracy just a brief sail from the Chinese mainland? Wouldn't we all be better off doing exactly what we're doing, which is sustaining the One China policy, engaging with Beijing in ways that are meant to mitigate the rising power's more aggressive tendencies while supplying Taiwan with defensive weapon systems and insisting they take no overtly destabilizing actions (like declaring independence)? And if not, why not?

Of course we're not interested in inviting an invasion, and the limited support that we currently provide to Taipei ought to demonstrate our seriousness on that front. But as a force planning construct, it seems absolutely insane to countenance the loss of a carrier strike group or two to defend a geostrategically meaningless hunk of rock from the unwanted affections of our biggest creditor. There may be good reasons to go to war with China one day, but that day ain't now, and Taiwan ain't the good reason. If and when war does come, it seems unlikely to be contested by infantry BCTs and Marine Expeditionary Brigades -- rather it's far more likely to be a stand-off scuffle between F-22s and the much-talked-about new J-20, or some kind of as-yet-inconceivable showdown between swarming UAV fleets. So let's leave aside any nonsense about "China's hot desire for a tiny tiny fun, free-choice little sister democracy" mitigating in favor of larger, more expensive U.S. land forces. It's not serious.

Donnelly, Eaglen, and Fly conclude their National Review piece with what I imagine they intended as a punch-you-in-the-face moment of ground-truth profundity: "Cutting land forces now can only make the 'Long War' longer." No, I'll tell you what will "make the 'Long War' longer": getting into a whole bunch more manpower-intensive, strategically dubious wars of choice. And war with China over Taiwan satisfies at least one half of that equation.

12 comments:

  1. The only point of putting US troops in Taiwan would be as a Schelling-esque tripwire to ensure the spilling of US blood commits the US to making it WWIII against the Chinese, rather backing out, aka, there is no good reason to get US ground forces involved in a war over Taiwan.

    The RAND Corp.'s report on an air war over Taiwan should make it pretty damn clear that the deck is stacked in China's favor for controlling Taiwan. Whatever investments the US needs to make vs. China, they need to be on the sea, air, and space, and they should be designed with say, the South China Sea, South Korea, and Japan in mind, not Taiwan.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "is it worth the death of perhaps tens of thousands of American sailors and airmen to make a hopeless if symbolic defense of one small bastion of democracy just a brief sail from the Chinese mainland?"
    This question has been asked before - in French:
    Mourir pour Danzig, anyone?
    But if you are not ready to defend Taiwan, how about the Phillipines? South Corea? Japan?
    How long will it take Japan + South Corea to build nukes when they see that guarantees by the US are worthless? Maybe Europe will then consider Russia a better ally, too (unlikely but not totally out of question)?

    P.S. The real deterrence isn't the capability of the US to repell an invasion or not (though I think the chances are not that small), but the fact that a declaration of war by the US will bring the Chinese economy to it's knees: directly, when US ships put up a blockade of oil and other comoodities, indirectly when China can't sell anything to the US any more ...

    ReplyDelete
  3. P.P.S.
    "it seems absolutely insane to countenance the loss of a carrier strike group or two to defend a geostrategically meaningless hunk of rock from the unwanted affections of our biggest creditor."
    Au contraire. A war (begun by China) would allow the US to declare all debt held by China to be null and void and to insist on China accepting this in the peace settlement (in addition to or instead of freeing Taiwan again )...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Positroll - Do you really think we have to worry about a Chinese domino effect? Taiwan is a totally different beast: as you know, China thinks it is part of China. They don't view Japan and SK the same way and have heard no argument that they would be interested in ever attacking any other nations (save India - a whole other different story) in their neighborhood. Especially as most of those nations have none of the natural resources China's growing economy needs.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Sorry for the confusion Gulliver.

    The China/Def Budget mash up at GsGf was a bit more - uh - subtle - than advocating stymification of a collectivist invasion Taiwan as the end all be all.

    Yes China can do Taiwan in three days as Taiwanese wargames predict.
    http://www.mysinchew.com/node/42826

    Yet it's equally true such scenarios disinclude the idea of Great Satan intervening after days of air raids and missile strikes - with air power or even a pre emptive sortee versus collectivist D Day preparations.

    And it's equally true downsizing land forces could be considered a green light for China - or any number of wanna be/future regional puissants to act out in a variety of ways

    China makes a good case for continuing to maintain a military that can do two wars or 'surges' at the same incredible instant.

    ReplyDelete
  6. And it's equally true downsizing land forces could be considered a green light for China - or any number of wanna be/future regional puissants to act out in a variety of ways

    Why in the world do you believe this, beyond the assurances of Max Boot, Tom Donnelly, Mackenzie Eaglen, and Bill Gertz? What in the world does China care about the size of our ground forces, particularly when those forces are mostly preoccupied in central and southwest Asia?

    ReplyDelete
  7. I have to agree with Gulliver here. Think of how much stability we could buy with a ten million man standing army! It is absurdly self absorbed to believe that the only thing preventing world-wide regional aggression is the size of the American ground force. It is as if Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir* sits around and waits for American ground forces to drop below X before she invades England. When states consider their interests, the likelihood of American intervention and the size of that intervention are part of the calculus, maybe, put probably not the main decision factors.

    * I had to google this.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir*

    I didn't google this, but I feel fairly certain we're talking about Iceland.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hey gusy kicking off 2011 right.
    Very nice series of recent posts...

    ReplyDelete
  10. "Do you really think we have to worry about a Chinese domino effect?"
    I'm more worried about the moral implication. If the US is not ready to defend Taiwan [unless they do something really stupid like attacking China first] despite decades of promises, no one will ever again trust promises made by the US government.

    "have heard no argument that they would be interested in ever attacking any other nations"
    Depends on what your definition of "attacking" is. Will they try to invade Japan or Corea ? Very unlikely. Will they try to claim the whole of the "South China Sea", despite the Phillipnes, Japan and Taiwan having better claims ? You bet ...

    BTW, you didn't happen to hear about the Chinese-Japanese tensions, leading to China restricting the export of raw earth elements even more than planned? (I don't complain, though, my shares of an Australian rare earth miner trippled thanks to that) A repeat of such a scenario might easily lead to military confrontation, if China doesn't have to fear US involvement.

    If the other Asian countries think they can't rely on the US, they will only have 2 choices, none of which are in the interest of the US:
    - either they make sure they can fend of China on their own, i.e. Japanese nukes.
    - they become vassals of China.


    P.S. None of this is an argument for or against a certain number of US troops. As I said before, the decisive weapon the US has is the ability to kill the Chinese economy. As long as the US remains prepared to go to war over Taiwan and implement a naval blockade (maybe with some strategic bombing runs inside China by B2s on any pipelines that deliver oil to them; maybe also on the railway system etc), China can only lose.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Spin that about Gulliver - Why in the world would anyone NOT believe it.

    In a sweet bit of shameless self aggrandizement, please let it be known GrEaT sAtAn"S gIrLfRiEnD will undress Ink Spot's Reconsider Delusional Taiwan thingy and **SPOILER ALERT** It's gonna be off the hook!

    An especially sexyful smoking hot hollaback, highly worthy of Ink Spots popping my Grand Strategery cherry 

    ReplyDelete
  12. For the past fifty plus years we have used United States troops as a tripwire in South Korea. Never enough troops to stop the North Koreans, yet enough to let them know invasion would lead to a much bigger war. If there was a threat to Taiwan by the mainland it might be nice to have a Division we could post in Taiwan with other nations to serve as a tripwire. Once we reduce our troop levels we can not just increase them without using the already stressed National Guard. Troops need time to train into an effective force. Will we have the time when the next crises comes?

    ReplyDelete