Sunday, January 21, 2007

Will Hutton on the Chinese Satellite-Killer

This article is a lot more sensible, no great achievement, than his piece on Mao and focusses its analysis of the effects of the satellite-killer correctly upon the struggle over Taiwan. However, there is a lot of missing or flawed analysis and he sees the satellite-killer in purely military on military terms missing the deterrent effect which I think might be more important.

"China is the second largest military power in the world; it spends more than Britain, Germany and France combined. And the spending is very targeted. China is building up the arsenal it would need to invade Taiwan and hold off an attempt by the Americans and Japanese to relieve it, igniting one of the world's great flash points. No other explanation is possible."

Firstly, that statement about the military budget relative to the European powers is very contentious and based upon a Department of Defense estimate that has been challenged by a RAND study which suggests that Chinese military spending is still lower than that of the United Kingdom alone. In a broader analysis it should be remembered that it is still not even remotely close to US spending.

Secondly, the risks to China of a war are such, a broader war with the exceptionally well armed US and Japan, that the provisions it is making for a war are best understood not as a systematic plan aimed at recovering Taiwan but as contingency planning and deterrence building. It needs to do everything it can to both keep its options open in case of a crisis such as a Taiwanese declaration of independence and make its military threat such that the Taiwanese don't do so.

The next couple of paragraphs are an account of the fact that China these days is more nationalistic than communist and that Taiwan has great symbolic and political importance. All this is entirely sensible.

"But time is running out. Within Taiwan the use of the local Minnan dialect has soared, displacing Mandarin. Only 3 per cent of Taiwanese now support any form of re-unification. Since 2000 the Democratic Progressive party, pledged to a fully-fledged independent Taiwanese state, has won two presidential elections. Beijing is increasingly concerned that the possibility of recovering of Taiwan is slipping away."

The importance of the Minnan dialect reemerging is easy to overstate. Most Chinese regions have their own dialects and it would offer no obstacle to reintegration into a unified state. All it really indicates is a desire, on the part of the Taiwanese, to emphasise their own identity but this is unsurprising with a military threat from the mainland.

"An invasion would be high-risk. There is only operational airspace over Taiwan for 300 fourth-generation fighters; Taiwan has 300. It would take 1,000 landing craft up to a fortnight to move 30 infantry divisions across the Taiwan Strait - all the time exposed to American and Japanese retaliation. But if the US's command and control satellite network could be knocked out, suddenly the risks would be dramatically reduced. On top, the US is increasingly focusing its military effort in the Middle East. All China needs is a fortnight."

This underestimates the military risk China would take with attacking Taiwan. The RAND study which offers the best analysis of how an invasion might play out highlights serious weaknesses in the Chinese plans, in particular a massive deficiency in pilot training, inferiority of its fighter aircraft compared to the USAF and a lack of sufficient landing craft which makes an invasion without complete air superiority close to impossible.

While US satellites being knocked out would cause serious damage to US awareness and communications it would not, I believe, stop them fighting; they still have radar and radios. Equally, the Middle East is a red herring in this discussion because the US only needs a small fraction of its, vastly superior, airforce to make a Chinese invasion close to impossible and the main shortage being created by the Middle Eastern struggle is in infantry.

As such, the satellite killers make a difference but not a critical one in terms of the military struggle. Their most important effect has to be in terms of affecting the US will to fight both by making the military struggle more difficult and threatening significant costs to the US civilian infrastructure in retaliation for any US bombing of the mainland if the Chinese start firing these missiles indiscriminately.

"China says it wants treaties - it claims to want a treaty to prevent the militarisation of space - while pursuing balance-of-power politics. It will block India and Japan winning seats on the UN Security Council, thereby guaranteeing the ongoing dysfunctionality of the UN. China is the rogue state par excellence, all the while claiming it is quite the opposite.

Its unintended ally is George W Bush. China can make its plea for international treaties knowing that the unilateralist US will refuse. Bush then plays Bismarkian politics in Asia, backing Japan - but with dwindling military power. Talk of building a defence mechanism against a Chinese attack on American satellites is for the birds; the expense, given Iraq, and technological complexity make it impossible.

The pass has been sold. China can do what it wants. If there is unrest within, the party will turn increasingly to nationalism and perhaps even war. It shows that every aspect of globalisation, from space to trade, has to be governed by international treaty and the rule of law. The US reaction to last week should not be a star-wars arms race, but to comprehend the new realities and to respond by multilateral engagement. It won't, so it is no longer scaremongering to warn of the small, but growing risk, of a devastating Asian war."

Any description of US military power as "dwindling" should raise alarm bells. The US army may have proved ineffective in post-war management in Iraq but its collosal firepower should not be underestimated and would be the important quality in a defence of Taiwan. What may be dwindling is the US willingness to fight wars in defence of Western interests and the credibility that it will do so.

Of course, satellite defence may well be pie in the sky thinking but given that the Chinese were attacking their own satellite, removing targetting difficulties, the missile might not be perfectly effective. A sensible response might well be just to built greater redudancy into the satellite network. I.e. build more satellites so that if some get knocked out the military capability survives.

The final paragraph is pure boilerplate. Multilateralism with what objective exactly if China is unwaveringly focussed on recovering Taiwan and we do not want to abandon the island to that fate?

This whole casting of the problem as one of careful Bismarkian manoevring seems flawed to me. The CCP, at the moment, is focussed on growth rather than national glory because it can deliver breackneck growth and, while it does, its people will put demands for administrative reform on the back burner. However, the problem comes when this growth slows or stops and when China is tempted to look to nationalistic fervour to ensure its legitimacy. The danger isn't China's leaders imitating Bismark; the danger is that they will imitate Galtieri. The best response appears clear, to make it obvious, in a way it was not to Galtieri, that if Taiwan is attacked the Western alliance will fight.


Anonymous said...

Why there are so many brainless China bashers? Is this the way they make livings?

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "...massive deficiency in pilot training, inferiority of its fighter aircraft...
Have a look-see here
and visit Defense Update and/ or Defense Technology on this multi-purpose aircraft, the J-10, now believed to be fully operational in quite a few Chinese squadrons. Further search will easily reveal even more.
The new craft itself is probably far better than the F-16 and a lot cheaper to maintain.
China's Migs and Sukhois too should not be underestimated.
The Australians consider China's air force and its planes and pilots a a very real threat
- and Taiwan is a bit closer than Australia.