Deterring China’s ambitions at sea

Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has in the past couple of years regularly deployed military ships to the South China Sea to conduct exercises and dispatched military aircraft to cross into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Xi’s goal is to push US forces out of the area and force Taiwan to capitulate without firing a single shot.

Earlier this month, Washington responded in kind and conducted multiple carrier strike group exercises in the Philippine Sea, comprising 17 surface ships from six nations — the US, the UK, Japan, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Canada. The drills were held just southwest of Taiwan proper, in a display of force designed to compel Xi to exercise restraint.

With both sides facing off against each other, equally matched and equally determined, Washington’s goal is to prevent war from breaking out — the US needs to deter China to achieved its aim.

Conversely, Beijing’s goal is to force a change of the “status quo.” However, if the US stands firm and Taiwan does not capitulate, China will fail in its endeavor.

China’s propaganda machine went into fifth gear over the multination carrier exercises, excoriating the US and its allies for “ganging up against China.” However, Beijing’s loud protestations only serve to highlight China’s isolated position: Its aggressive attempts at steamrollering the “status quo” has made China no friends.

Meanwhile, Xi faces the threat of a financial crash, and the seemingly intractable problem of rampant corruption within government and the Chinese Communist Party, which continues to be haunted by the specter of a popular uprising. Xi has to survive by his wits until a one-on-one virtual meeting with US President Joe Biden, scheduled to take place at the end of the year. All he can do in the meantime is reduce the temperature by decreasing the number of incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ.

During the peak of aircraft incursions early this month, Minister of National Defense Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正) described the security situation in the Taiwan Strait as the most severe in more than four decades, adding that China would possess the ability to launch a large-scale attack on Taiwan four years from now.

However, Chiu’s threat assessment is weighted toward military concerns and predicated on China acting with blithe disregard for the costs of such an operation. Furthermore, at the earlier time of heightened tensions that Chiu was referring to, Taiwan was not facing a military crisis, but a political one: Washington was on the cusp of switching diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China.

Beijing is seeking to use force to challenge the international world order.

The international community must protect Taiwan from being militarily annexed by China. Washington has drawn a line in the sand over Taiwan’s security, and the US cannot renege on its promise to protect the nation, as it would otherwise risk losing the trust of its allies. Washington therefore has no option but to constrain Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions through deterrence.

Strategic conflict prevention involves a number of long-range elements, including intelligence, politics, foreign diplomacy and economics, in addition to the direct display of military force as a deterrent. China uses military exercises and aircraft incursions as a form of military coercion; the US and its allies responded by holding carrier exercises as a military deterrent.

Drawing upon the strategic thought of former US Army general Douglas MacArthur, the six-nation, 17-ship strong show of force in the Philippine Sea should rather be understood as seven-nation, 18-ship strong: Taiwan is the seventh nation in the alliance, as well as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the South China Sea.

From a political perspective, the six nations participating in the naval exercises were the main signatories of the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, which re-established peaceful relations between Japan and the Allied Powers. During a wartime scenario, Taiwan, as an unsinkable aircraft carrier, would effectively cut China’s navy in two, preventing forces in the north and the south from coordinating with one another.

No country would want to launch an attack on Chinese territory, but the alliance of democratic nations possesses the capability to win a decisive naval battle and can constrain China from invading Taiwan.

James Wang is a media commentator.

Translated by Edward Jones

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