This Week at War

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

China growls at the Taiwan arms sale. Is this time different?

On Jan. 29, the Obama administration approved a $6.4 billion package of weapons sales to Taiwan. The Chinese government's reaction was all-too predictable: The next day, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador to China for a dressing-down and threatened "serious repercussions" if the U.S. government did not reverse its decision.

Beijing has had to live with U.S. support for Taiwan's defense ever since the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. Each arrival of another arms sale for Taiwan has resulted in an outraged response from the Chinese government. Tempers then cool and business, both political and commercial, soon returns to normal. Will this time be different?

China growls at the Taiwan arms sale. Is this time different?

On Jan. 29, the Obama administration approved a $6.4 billion package of weapons sales to Taiwan. The Chinese government’s reaction was all-too predictable: The next day, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador to China for a dressing-down and threatened "serious repercussions" if the U.S. government did not reverse its decision.

Beijing has had to live with U.S. support for Taiwan’s defense ever since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. Each arrival of another arms sale for Taiwan has resulted in an outraged response from the Chinese government. Tempers then cool and business, both political and commercial, soon returns to normal. Will this time be different?

The best bet is that it won’t. The Chinese government will most likely deliver its routine bluster and then allow the issue to fade away. Obama administration officials are likely hoping that the composition of this arms package — mostly defensive systems such as surface-to-air missiles, minesweepers, and communications equipment, but not new F-16 fighter-bombers  — will appear non threatening to China.

The Chinese government needs to save face and protect China’s reputation in the eyes of a domestic audience that is occasionally prone to nationalistic outbursts. But at the same time, the government has to maintain an export-driven economic policy that generates millions of new jobs each year. Failure to do so risks social instability. Thus, in spite of China’s anger over U.S. military support for Taiwan, no confrontation with the United States is likely to result.

Even so, some analysts wonder whether there might be a trend toward greater Chinese combativeness. John Pomfret of the Washington Post cataloged a range of worried views from both U.S. and European analysts. Writing at the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman asserted that China and the United States are on a collision course. Rachman notes that should the U.S. unemployment rate remain in the double digits, many Americans, not least nervous politicians, will wonder why the government stands by while China manipulates the yuan-dollar exchange rate, thus transferring jobs to China.

The United States went through this same story with Japan in the 1980s and early 1990s. But Japan was a pacifist ally and eventually fizzled as an economic challenger. China, by contrast, is a worrisome military competitor with rapidly expanding air and naval power in the Western Pacific. Others will note China’s support for repressive rogues such as North Korea, Burma, and Sudan, along with its failure to cooperate with the United States and Europe on blocking Iran’s nuclear program. Friction with Japan was confined to trade and eventually faded as an issue, but friction with China encompasses trade, U.S. financial vulnerability, the strategic balance in Asia, U.S. alliances, human rights, and nuclear proliferation.

Policymakers in both countries are eager to avoid conflict. But they also don’t control many of the variables in play, most notably the impulses of their populations. Even with the best of intentions, the friction may still burn.

Gates calls for expanded long-range striking power — but not until 2020

Pages 31 to 34 of the just-released 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) discuss how the U.S. Department of Defense plans to "deter and defeat aggression in anti-access environments," one of the report’s principal operational concerns. This section of the QDR describes the growth of military capabilities by potential adversaries that could prevent U.S. air and naval forces from entering contested areas during a crisis. The QDR’s second recommendation to address this concern is for the United States to expand future long-range strike capabilities. However, the Pentagon’s budget proposal, and its associated long-term aircraft investment plan, calls for the purchase of zero long-range strike aircraft by the U.S. Air Force through 2020. The aircraft investment plan’s discussion of the Navy’s contribution is vague, mentioning a research program for aircraft carrier-based drones, but offering few specifics on when this operational capability will actually arrive. The QDR identified a problem and recommended a solution. But the Pentagon’s budget demonstrates little urgency on the matter.

Additionally, the report explains how growing inventories of ballistic and cruise missiles could threaten forward U.S. air and naval bases in Asia and the Middle East. It also discusses how expanding fleets of quiet submarines, anti-ship guided missiles, and advanced sea mines could prevent U.S. aircraft carriers from bringing their short-range strike aircraft within range. Advanced air defense systems could make it too risky for older non stealthy U.S. aircraft to be effective.

The Pentagon plans to buy thousands of advanced, stealthy, but short-range, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. But if the Air Force’s overseas bases are closed due to missile bombardments and naval threats prevent the Navy’s aircraft carriers from approaching close enough, the only strike option remaining would be the Air Force’s 162 long-range bombers. Only 20 of these could persist against a challenging air defense system, and because of their value and commitment to nuclear missions, the Pentagon would not likely risk more than a few.

Given the QDR’s description of the problem, the current shortage of long-range strike platforms, and the call for expanded long-range strike capability, it is odd that the Pentagon budget seems to take such a leisurely approach to a remedy. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered additional studies of both the anti-access problem and what to do about long-range strike capabilities. U.S. allies and adversaries are no doubt watching the trends. Hopefully Gates won’t wait even longer before making some decisions on these problems.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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