In 1996 the USS Independence was part of two carrier battlegroups sent to the South China Sea to monitor Chinese military activity in the area. Photo: Reuters
In 1996 the USS Independence was part of two carrier battlegroups sent to the South China Sea to monitor Chinese military activity in the area. Photo: Reuters

The South China Sea — despite all of the controversy, so-called “historical claims” and the growing chances of blood being spilled over it — is the beating heart of Asia’s economy.

The rationale for such a statement is straightforward. This vital part of the global commons, home to some US$5.3 trillion in seaborne trade, is the world’s richest shipping route, carrying critical natural resources that power China, Japan, South Korea and many other Asian economies.

Economics demand that the South China Sea is a strategic waterway of the upmost importance. From massive island building and militarization of such features by Beijing, Washington’s freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS), to nations like Vietnam who are working to reinforce and militarize their own claims, what has been dubbed “Asia’s Cauldron” will certainly remain one of the Asia-Pacific’s great hotspots for years to come.

We have ample ways to respond, and removing your drone seems like just a slap on the wrist

Now this vital sea has an additional purpose — setting the stage for important signaling between the world’s two largest economies and militaries over an island nation that was thought by many to be relegated to the past as being a source of tension.

Indeed, the South China Sea is being used by China to send an important message to the United States and President-elect Donald Trump on the issue of Taiwan.

“Trump’s call to Taiwan was perceived as a slap in the face by the Chinese leadership and the Chinese people. Don’t mess with our perceived sovereignty over Taiwan, our own ‘red line,’ you cross at your peril,” according to a respected academic in Shanghai.

“We have ample ways to respond, and removing your drone is what, in my opinion, seems like just a slap on the wrist. I know many officials who wanted much a much more robust response,” said the academic in reference to the US underwater drone taken by a Chinese naval vessel in the South China Sea last week.

The drone incident was a clear marker that China will use all means necessary — and increasingly asymmetric measures selected for their difficulty to respond to — in an effort to demonstrate to America that Taiwan is clearly what Beijing commonly refers to as a “core interest.”

In China’s own version of a “red line,” before such a term was in vogue, Beijing has stated on countless occasions it would fight to defend its perceived sovereignty over Taiwan should the US or anyone else threaten it.

The story of Taiwan’s emergence as a flashpoint — while certainly not a headline driver for the last several years — is nothing new to those closely following Asian geopolitics.

As Chinese Communists took control of most of the mainland at the end of a long civil war in the late 1940s, Nationalist Chinese under Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island of Formosa, what we today call Taiwan.

Continuing on their “Republic of China” away from the mainland, Taiwan has transformed into a budding democracy and free market economy. It is the 10th largest trading partner of the US and has one of the largest economies in Asia.

Underpinning Taiwan’s success are tensions over the island democracy’s uncertain status. Since the 1970s, the US and China have essentially agreed to disagree. Under the “one-China” policy, Washington transferred its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. However, unofficial ties were kept intact with Taiwan as well as robust defense and economic links.

Robust democracy

But change is in the air in Washington, thanks to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Conservative foreign policy analysts, a distinguished group of leading China specialists advising Trump, want to see Taiwan once again play a bigger part in the Asia-Pacific community.

Unhappy that a robust democracy is treated as if it simply does not exist, many center-right leaning Asia hands in Washington are itching to see Taipei’s status elevated, perhaps reaching a level just a touch below full diplomatic recognition as a sovereign state.

Combined with the fact that many Republican national security experts have grown increasingly frustrated over China’s coercive actions that have slowly changed the status-quo in its favor throughout Asia, Taiwan provides an important opportunity to show Beijing that Washington has ample options to alter the balance of power, much to China’s angst.

But such a change in policy is causing great fear in Beijing according to various sources this author has spoken with who are close to the Chinese Communist Party and the military.

Fearful that America’s changing attitudes towards Taiwan could lead Taipei to consider what Beijing considers unthinkable — a move towards outright independence— Chinese planners have been carefully considering their response to President-elect Trump’s call with Taiwan’s president and along with tough rhetoric.

The response they have seemed to settle on, at least for now, is to capture a drone hundreds of miles beyond their coast, indeed, only 50 miles from the strategically important naval base at Subic Bay, beyond the limits of their hotly disputed nine-dash-line claim in the South China Sea.

Chemical weapons

Just because a great power, even a superpower, says it is willing to go to war over something that has been declared of vital importance does not mean it always happens.

Case in point: President Obama declaring the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria as a “red line.” While America did not go to war in a response to its crossing, there is every indication that China would respond very differently if it felt Taiwan was moving towards independence.

“I want to be very clear, Taiwan is not Syria. Taiwan is more like the right hand of [the] collective soul of the Chinese people — no one is going to cut it off without a bloody fight,” explained a retired Chinese People’s Liberation Army official who agreed to speak on the understanding his comments would be provided as background and his identity protected.

“What most western analysts don’t understand is that our President, Xi Jinping, as well as the Chinese leadership, have staked their reputation on the fact that Taiwan would someday return home under the Communist Party.

“At the very least, in the short to medium term, the status-quo must be preserved. If anything is done to undermine this fact, China will take steps to remind anyone we now have the power to respond, with tremendous power. China is not Iraq.”

So how could China respond, or at the very least defend its core interest in Taiwan? Let there be no doubt, what the Chinese official above refers to is a military that was essentially rebuilt to give the United States pause, and deter its entry into in a crisis over Taiwan.

While Chinese military planners clearly set upon a path to develop a more advanced military after the conclusion of the First Gulf War, an event much closer to home only helped to reinforce Beijing’s worst fears: that its armed forces were terribly obsolete.

The 1995-1996 crisis over Taiwan, when the United States sent two carrier battlegroups (CBGs) to deter China from action, only reinforced Beijing’s fears. In a 2013 monograph by Dr Andrew Erickson of the US Naval war College, Erickson gets to the heart of the matter: “The deployment of the USS Nimitz and USS Independence Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) in response to China’s missile tests and military exercises in the Taiwan Strait was a move that China could not counter at that time.”

Superior military power

Indeed, when faced with a superior military power with technologically advanced weapons, China would have no ability to compete for at least a decade or more. It is largely because of careful analysis of this crisis that Beijing would come to fear the power of America’s CBGs and their ability to negate almost any Chinese action.

The crisis would also guide China’s thinking on the development and acquisition of new weapons systems that could provide an asymmetric advantage and negate America’s technological edge in a reasonable timeframe.

In the years since, Chinese military planners began an important effort to blunt the advantages of American CBG’s. To do this, they looked to an existing technology they already possessed: missiles. While media reports of weapons with the ability to strike carriers are commonplace, there is a clear line from the 1995-1996 Taiwan crisis and China’s deployment over the last several years of a missile-centric anti-access/area-denial strategy.

“Taiwan, being a core interest of the People’s Republic, was something we found we could not defend back in the mid to late 1990s. Our political and military leadership was embarrassed over the way America could easily crush our forces if they so choose. We needed to find a way to compete,” explained a retired Chinese naval officer, again, speaking on background.

Another important example that demonstrates this line of thinking is from the testimony of Larry Wortzel to the US Congress in 2009,

“I was the Army Attaché in Beijing in 1995 to 1997-98, and the first time a senior Chinese military officer of the General Staff Department mentioned ballistic missiles attacking carriers was after our two carriers showed up, and he put his arm around my shoulder and said we’re going to sink your carriers with ballistic missiles.”

China would henceforth embark on a program to develop what is referred to as the DF-21D, the first deployed medium-range anti-ship ballistic missile (commonly referred to as an ASBM or a “carrier killer”) with the capability to strike a moving capital ship on the high seas. With a range of approximately 1500+km, such a weapon would be the first ballistic missile with the accuracy to — at least in theory — deliver a mission kill to a capital ship.

Such a missile, and follow on projects such as an even longer range variant of this weapon, cruise missiles, mines, ultra-quiet submarines and other weapons were created in large part over fears that America would once again use its massive military advantages against China over Taiwan — and that such action must be deterred.

What can be seen as a looming American policy shift over Taiwan, as important as this is, must be understood in the context of a much larger strategic recalibration that is taking place.

American policymakers working for Team Trump are clearly looking to push back against China’s aggressive actions throughout the Asia-Pacific. Taiwan is not the end of such a shift, but likely the opening act to help ensure the status-quo throughout the entire region is preserved.

While such a move should be applauded, Trump’s team must understand the limits of what Beijing can swallow before it takes decisive action. Any move that looks like outright support of independence could increase tensions dramatically, with China pushing back in the South China Sea, against important US allies like Japan in the East China Sea, or even in the cyber arena. President-elect Trump has every right to pursue stronger ties with Taiwan, but needs to proceed carefully and not over reach.

This is why now more than ever, Trump’s advisers would be wise to start detailing a much more comprehensive vision of relations with not only China, but the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.

“China has one question for Mr Trump: what do you want? What is your policy? Even if we don’t like it, it is better than a vacuum of knowledge. We don’t want to overreact.” explained the Chinese academic in Shanghai.

It seems certain we will find out soon enough.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former US President Richard M. Nixon, as well as Executive Editor of The National Interest. In the past, Kazianis has managed the foreign policy communications of The Heritage Foundation and served as Editor of The Diplomat.

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