Sino-U.S. Military Ties Face Land Mines
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — The pomp and pageantry of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the White House last week carried hopes of restored military dialogue with China, but land mines exist that could cripple closer relations.
The most prominent is U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Taiwan has roughly $13 billion worth of equipment in the pipeline and outstanding requests for 66 F-16C/D fighter jets and eight diesel-electric submarines. But China has called the release of new F-16s a “red line” that cannot be crossed.
There also is the pending release of price and availability data for a retrofit package for Taiwan’s older F-16A/B fighters. The release is expected within the next few weeks, with congressional notifications later in the year. China will clearly do everything it can to block the release.
Cozier relations between China and the U.S. has raised fears in Taiwan’s defense establishment that Washington will abandon the island democracy in favor of better ties with China. Local defense officials are concerned the U.S. will adhere to agreed-upon reductions in arms sales to Taiwan under the 1982 Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué.
Dean Cheng, a China defense expert at the Heritage Foundation, said the action would be “calamitous and ill-considered.” Cheng cites guarantees of U.S. support outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act that override the 1982 communiqué.
Taiwan conducted a series of military exercises during Hu’s visit to the U.S., including a missile test that flopped. On Jan. 18, the military allowed journalists to enter the Jiupeng Missile Testing Range for the first time since 2002. The test included virtually every air defense missile in Taiwan’s arsenal.
However, if the missile test was intended to send China and the U.S. a message about Taiwan’s commitment to a strong defense, then it backfired. Six of the 19 missiles fired during the exercise failed to find their targets.
Adding insult to injury, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who attended the test, expressed disappointment in the military and then took the time to have his photograph taken with each member of the missile exercise team.
Ma’s comment, along with the missile malfunctions, hurt military morale and boosted Chinese confidence it could win a war with Taiwan, said a Taiwan military official. Ma’s comments could have waited until after the final report on the test was issued, he said.
Ma has been under criticism for pushing too quickly to build relations with China. Many in Taiwan fear improved cross-Strait ties will box Taiwan into agreements that will allow for de facto unification.
Taiwan and the U.S. also have to deal with an increasingly powerful Chinese military. In December, China revealed the existence of the J-20 stealth fighter. Chinese media reports are calling it a fifth-generation fighter, but Taiwan defense officials last week said the J-20 is most likely a 4.5 at best. China does not have the engines, avionics and composite materials to build a fifth-generation fighter yet, said a Taiwan Air Force official.
Another concern for the U.S. and other regional powers is China’s first aircraft carrier, which is being prepared for sea tests. Taiwan officials said the former Soviet carrier Varyag could be outfitted as a helicopter platform until China secures a carrier-based fighter for it. Reports out of China indicate Shenyang Aircraft is putting the finishing touches on the J-15 Flying Shark, based on Russia’s Su-33.
Another land mine in Sino-U.S. military ties is China’s development of the Dong Feng 21D anti-ship ballistic missile. Unconfirmed reports out of China indicate a test is being scheduled using The 11,000-ton Yuan Wang 4 space event support ship as a target.
Dubbed the “aircraft carrier killer” by Chinese officials, the DF-21D is part of China’s anti-access strategy to hobble the U.S. Navy’s ability to respond to a Taiwan crisis.
Ultimately, these developments in China have one primary mission: retaking Taiwan. The downside of losing Taiwan to China would be the placement of Chinese military bases on the island. The most feared would be a Chinese submarine base at Suao, a deepwater port on Taiwan’s east coast, and a fighter base at Hualian, its most secure underground jet shelter. Both would allow China to project power farther into the Pacific.
China has been desperate to break beyond the first island chain that restricts its strategic access to the Pacific. Toshi Yoshiharo and James Holmes, U.S. Naval Way College specialists on China, call the first island chain China’s “Great Wall at Sea.” Consolidating Taiwan into China’s strategic framework would not only challenge U.S. naval dominance of the Pacific, but also place Japan and South Korea in awkward positions, since both rely on oil and natural gas shipments through the Taiwan Strait from the Middle East.