In any war between China on the one hand and Taiwan, Japan, the US and their allies on the other, Chinese vessels of all kinds will be prevented from significant access to the Pacific Ocean. The Chinese (and Russian) Pacific fleets will almost certainly be enclosed in their coastal waters.
This is because the First Island Chain running parallel to the mainland from Sakhalin Island in the north down through Japan, the Ryukyu islands, Taiwan, and on to the Philippine Islands and Indonesia, is a natural barrier now being fortified by the Japanese and Taiwanese militaries and the US Marines. The Commander of the US Marine Corps, General David Berger, recently announced that the Marines were changing their policies and missions in reaction to developments in Asia. He said a “new mission” for the Marines would be “island hopping” in the Indo-Pacific armed with anti-ship missiles to meet the growing China threat. (see The Times, London dispatch, Weekend Australian 6-7/11/21). Presumably, they would carry Tomahawk anti-ship missiles and be supported by US specifically designed shallow-hulled coastal patrol vessels, armed with the same Tomahawks, as well as Japanese submarines.
This would make transit through the Chain almost impossible for hostile surface ships and submarines. One of the difficulties for Chinese and Russian submarines is the difference between the relatively shallow waters of the seas between mainland China and the First Island Chain and the vast depths and trenches of the Pacific Ocean east of the Chain. Submarines would have to surface or near surface to transit the Chain either way, making them easily detectable and vulnerable.
This analysis appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Furthermore, at the southern end of the Chain, other US forces along with the navies of Australia, France, Britain and hopefully India and Indonesia could block Chinese and Russian naval and merchant shipping transiting the Malacca Strait and contiguous Indonesian waterways and passages. As a result, China could suffer a serious trade blockade.
As I argued in an earlier article in Quadrant (April 2021), Taiwan is a key link in the First Island Chain and its conquest by China would constitute an existential threat to Japan. Over many decades Japan has sought to preserve and strengthen the Chain as a protective instrument. If China took control of Taiwan it would gain access to the North Pacific and be able to surround Japan, which is a nation lacking geographical strategic depth. A China attack on Taiwan would lead to a Third Sino-Japanese War and the US would be obliged to support Japan (and therefore Taiwan) under the US-Japan Mutual Defense and Security Treaty. China’s recent threats to Taiwan have led to Japan announcing it would double its defence expenditure and invest heavily in new technology including robots and drones. Twenty years ago, China openly and seriously threatened Taiwan and, as a result, Japan immediately intensified its pressure on the US, imploring it to provide ABM (anti-ballistic missile) protection against China with the latest in US technology. The result was the 2004 US-Japan ABM Agreement which presumably also covered Taiwan (see below).
While many of us were discussing the possibilities of the “looming war over Taiwan”, the AUKUS agreement was announced on September 16, 2021. The major aspect of this agreement was the decision by the US, the UK and Australia to build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) for Australia. Initially, nothing much else was mentioned, at least not in the press.
The announcement caught many of our defence, foreign policy and strategic commentators off balance, which led to some very strange comments. For example, Greg Sheridan at first saw it as a great diplomatic coup following three years of secret negotiations of which he knew nothing. But a week or so later he was declaring the submarines to be a “fantasy” (Australian 7 October 2021). He argued that the nuclear-powered submarines would never be built and that without the submarines AUKUS was “nothing” and “will never happen” leaving Australia with “zero defence”. However, a few weeks later he was exhorting support for AUKUS because the agreement contained many things of great benefit to Australia. This last statement is true, as would be obvious to anyone who read, apart from anything else, the excellent twenty-four-page Defence Supplement in the Weekend Australian of October 30-31, 2021.
Another learned expert accustomed to telling ministers and governments what they should and should not be doing, and who was surprised by what had been negotiated over three years in Canberra right under his nose without his knowledge, was Dr Alan Dupont. He made some surprising comments in the Weekend Australian (9-10 October 2021). One was that the AUKUS agreement will have persuaded Xi Jinping that Australia had chosen the United States over China. He seemed to be saying that he thought Xi Jinping actually believed that Australia might renounce ANZUS (and therefore the British and the West) for China. Surely Dupont doesn’t think Xi is that naive. He said some similarly strange things about the Vietnam War and China’s invasion of Vietnam in 1979. Dupont thought that China taught Vietnam “a lesson” when it invaded Vietnam with 200,000 troops in 1979. However, the Vietnamese saw it differently. They believed they had scored a major victory, driving the invader out, smashing his divisions and inflicting 25,000 casualties, leading some people to ask, even today: How good is China’s army? On this point, recent analysis in defence think-tanks has pointed out that despite Xi’s substantial and continuing weapons modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it has entrenched structural, morale and command weaknesses which will critically limit operational co-ordination and flexibility in wartime. Like Xi himself, these analysts are now saying that if the PLA is to attain world-class military status, it will not be until around 2049.
When the dust settled after the AUKUS announcement, we were left to consider and debate, as outsiders lacking knowledge of secret Australian and foreign military matters, a number of issues relating to China, Taiwan, the US and Australia. These included Australian international military strategy, self-reliance in defence, ballistic missiles, submarines and Australia’s short-term capability gap, drones and robots, hypersonic missiles and China’s strategic mistakes. Let us look at some of these issues.
Australian international military strategy: It is said often by members of the commentariat, some of them former military officers, that Australia has no international strategy. But we do, and it has been around for a long time. It is called forward defence. It operates in the Indo-Pacific region and works necessarily in co-operation with our major allies, among them currently the US and Japan. This strategy is designed to keep our enemies at arm’s length from Australia and to protect our trade and air routes and maritime approaches. The alternative is continental defence. And it’s expected that all elements of society, especially the commercial, industrial and energy sectors, should strongly support it.
This strategy dates back to our foundation in 1788, following which Australia depended on the British navy for protection for more than 130 years from ocean-going predators including Germany, France, the Netherlands and Spain, all of whom were expansionary nations with colonies in our region. Later in the twentieth century Britain and the US protected us from Germany again and Russia. After the Second World War, the US became our major ally, along with, eventually, Japan. So, surely it can be said that just as we needed a major ally in 1788, we will still need one or two in 2088. Today, the precise operational strategic objective of our allied strategy has been the protection of the sea lanes of communication (SLOCS) running through the East China Sea, the South China Sea and the Indonesian waterways which carry our trade to China, Japan, South Korea, the US and Europe. It should be added here that even since the Second World War, Britain has consistently played a role in this strategy in a number of ways. The most important of these might be its membership and support of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (5PDA) linking the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore (that is, Britain and four former British colonies). This UK role has now been greatly augmented by AUKUS and hopefully the delivery of its promised provisions.
Despite this history there was a period in Australia in the late twentieth century following the Vietnam War when public discussions of regional strategic matters fell away. They were replaced in the 1980s and 1990s by exciting seminars dealing with the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). These, I think, were mainly run by the Australian military and concerned changes in “revolutionary” weapons, weapons platforms and other equipment. I attended a couple of these seminars, where strategy, certainly grand strategy, was not on the agenda.
It was in these circumstances and atmosphere that I was invited to take part on June 27, 2000, in a small, private dinner in the august Melbourne Club organised by the Department of Defence and the Australia Defence Association (ADA). The meeting was chaired by the Defence Minister at the time, John Moore, who was accompanied by a number of Defence mandarins. From memory, the ADA group included the national president, Michael O’Connor, its principal researcher, David Forbes, Dr Malcolm Kennedy, the editor of the Defender and myself, then editor of Asia Pacific Report.
As I remember, we were all asked what we thought Australia’s defence policy should be. In my reply I said I could have no valid opinion on what weapons and equipment Australia needed, but that it should have a clearly defined strategy and precise operational objective in the region which should tell us what to do—as outlined above. I added that if the Australian military was equipped with the weaponry and hardware required to meet that strategic objective in conjunction with our two major allies, it would most likely also be able to commit to “insurance operations” with the US in the Middle East and elsewhere. Other ADA members made similar comments. These, I understand, were well received, but little was said in that regard on the night.
As the years went by nothing seemed to happen, until Canberra suddenly announced in 2006 that it would build three Hobart-class air warfare destroyers (AWDs) and associated vessels including two helicopter landing dock (HLD) ships, in what was then the biggest defence program in Australian history. (Whether the Melbourne Club meeting and associated events had any influence on this we will never know. Nor do we know today what secret weaponry is being planned and developed in the US, UK, Australia and elsewhere.) The first AWD (above) was launched in 2016, ten years after it was announced and fifteen to eighteen years after it was first proposed. This is about the usual time-frame for projects of this type around the world.
Self-Reliance In Defence: There is a school of thought that Australia should strive to be self-reliant in defence without the need for allies, as they can be unreliable. That is, we should be able to defend the continent, its maritime approaches and trade routes ourselves without the aid of any allies. This, of course, is nonsense. But during the days of the Defend Australia Committee (DAC) in the 1960s, of which I was the founding national secretary, I heard some even more extreme views. One advocated strict continental defence, that is of the continent itself but not of the sea lanes and maritime approaches. This was argued mainly by a few isolationist and protectionist, but influential, Country Party people. However, Australia is not a self-sufficient nation, but a trading island which can be cut off from the world—as Japan attempted to do in the Second World War. Everything we do in the defence area must be designed and judged in the context of our alliances with the US, UK and Japan. Most countries are in similar positions, unable to defend themselves without allies. This is true, for instance, of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and most of South-East Asia. Even the US might feel uncomfortable without Japan, Canada and the UK as allies. This, of course, is not to say that we shouldn’t strive to maximise our sovereign military capabilities wherever possible.
By way of a brief digression, it might be of interest to historians that B.A. Santamaria, the president of the National Civic Council and one of the most influential political figures in Australia in the second half of the twentieth century, seriously toyed with a strong policy of defence self-reliance when thinking about ideas for his book The Defence of Australia in 1970. His policy proposal supported the US alliance, but since it was ultimately unreliable, Australia had to build a military capable of doing everything in its own defence. This included protecting its coastal waters, all its maritime approaches up to the South China Sea and beyond and from the Cocos Islands to the Solomons and its interests in Antarctica. He also thought of advocating nuclear strike aircraft. He was talked out of this by friends, which left the book up in the air. It contained some excellent analysis, but Santamaria was a pessimist with a crisis mentality, and the book ended up more like an attack on Australian political and military leaders, and allies, than a plan for the future.
In early 1971, he and some of the five Democratic Labor Party senators came up with a much better idea. This was that Australia should set out to build an arms industry with the aim of becoming a major arms supplier to the nations of South-East Asia and the Pacific. This he thought could start with small arms, munitions, patrol boats and trucks and expand over the next fifty years to almost anything including aircraft, armoured vehicles and guided missiles. He told me sometime in mid-1971 that he had taken the idea to the Liberal Party leadership including Prime Minister William McMahon, Andrew Peacock, the Minister for the Army, David Fairbairn when Minister for Defence and Malcolm Fraser and had received favourable responses. He asked if I could take up the matter with the leaders of South-East Asia during my regular travels as a journalist and as executive secretary of the Pacific Institute. This I did, starting in August 1971. The people I spoke with included the Indonesian generals Ali Moertopo and Soedjono Hoemardhani, the two personal sssistants to President Soeharto on almost everything and their civilian advisers; Juan Ponce Enrile and Rafael Ileto, both Philippine ministers of defence at various times; President Thieu’s senior military advisers in South Vietnam; Thanat Khoman, Foreign Minister of Thailand; Tan Sri Ghazali Shaffie, Malaysia’s political “czar” following the 1969 race riots; and Singapore’s chief of foreign intelligence and later President, S.R. Nathan. I spoke with most of them more than once and they all saw value in Santamaria’s proposal and said they looked forward to discussing it further with Australia. However, nothing much came of it, probably because the Liberal Party lost power and the DLP lost seats and influence in the December 1972 federal election. It’s fascinating to think what we might have had today had things gone differently.
China, Taiwan And ballistic missiles: For years it has been widely thought that if China attacks Taiwan it will do so with a barrage of hundreds of land- and sea-based ballistic missiles. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, China openly threatened Taiwan with 350 to 400 medium-range ballistic missiles (today it’s many more, perhaps 1500). This threat immediately led Japan to greatly intensify its pressure on the US to provide it, and presumably Taiwan if possible, with the sort of ABM defence the US had reportedly set up for Western Europe. By 2004 Japan and the US had signed an ABM agreement to provide protection using “sensitive US technologies”. Whatever else, the US continues to supply Taiwan with what it considers to be effective anti-invasion naval equipment. But apart from ABM defences, Taiwan and Japan themselves have some impressive attack missiles and other weapons at hand. Taiwan on its own could cause China a great deal of damage with its home-produced supersonic Yun Feng ground-launched cruise missile (below). It has a range of a thousand miles with a 500-pound warhead. Launched from Taiwan, it is reputedly capable of striking Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and any coastal city as well as the Three Gorges Dam. How many of these missiles Taiwan possesses is not known publicly. Japan has equally potent missiles and, of course, its formidable Self-Defence Force. It has the fourth-largest national defence force in the world backed by the third-largest national economy. It is clear that if China attacks Taiwan it will sufer enormous damage with no guarantee that it will ever occupy Taiwan. Indeed, it has been said that if China looked like occupying Taiwan, Japan would beat China to it with massive amphibious landings on the friendly beaches on the north-eastern corner of the island near Taipei. After fifty years of Japanese colonialism, Taiwan is a very Japanised society.
While on the subject of missile defence, we should look at the Australian need for ABM protection. In recent times, one of Australia’s most prominent strategists, Dr Paul Dibb, has written that we have a need for “extended deterrence” (Australian, 6.7.21 and 7.9.22). He said Australia should “consider acquiring a missile system capable of defending us against ballistic missile attack”. In other words, we need “extended deterrence” from the US against China’s and North Korea’s nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Moreover, he said that, like Japan, we should push the US hard for the latest in sensitive US technology, especially as the US bases at places like Pine Gap are now under threat (or do they already have US ABM protection?).
Submarines: Under AUKUS, Australia hopes to obtain more than eight nuclear-powered submarines, the first by about 2040. Following the announcement, some strange and confusing statements were made by some commentators. One of these was that Australia would suffer from what was called “capability gaps”. One of those was the gap between the life of our Collins-class submarines and the arrival of our first nuclear powered submarines (SSNs). Another was said to be the gap between the capabilities of China’s nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and our capabilities until 2040. Both these concerns seem to be overstated. In the first case, the gap is partly covered by extending the life of the Collins-class along with visits to Australian ports and strategic waterways by US and UK SSBNs, one of which might in time be leased or part-leased to Australia.
In the second case, we need to look at the capabilities of China’s currently six SSBNs (and other submarines). China’s current Type 094 Jin-class SSBNs (below) are extremely noisy and were easily detected during allied exercises in the East China Sea in 2021.They were said to be much noisier than Japan’s Taigei-class diesel/electric submarines. Even more revealing was a US Office of Naval Intelligence report that declared the 094 to be noisier than the Delta III SSBN first launched by the Soviet Union in 1976 (see CSIS Washington Paper, 4.8.21). So, by the time China’s 095 submarines, now in development, and others, reach the stealth levels of the proposed Australian SSNs, which should be at least the equal of the current US Virginia-class SSBNs, Australia will not have lost much. It should be remembered that one of the major missions of our SSNs would be following and countering China’s 095 SSBNs. There is another important point in assessing China’s capabilities: if the Type 094 is noisier than a 1976 Russian SSBN how potent are China’s seventy-odd ageing submarines?
An important inhibition in the operation of China’s submarines is what are called “doctrinal limitations” imposed by the government and supported by the navy. This doctrine involved the government (Xi Jinping) ordering that warheads, especially nuclear warheads, be stored separately from their delivery systems until needed. This a very challenging demand, especially for SSBN commanders. It has led to speculation that Xi distrusts his naval commanders, fearing that a rogue officer might turn a missile on Beijing. If this doctrine applies to SSBNs, does it also apply to the warheads attached to hundreds of missile systems, including ICBMs, in land-based silos and on mobile launchers? Another inhibition facing the Chinese navy is what the Global Times called “a very serious … lack of skilled submariners”. Finally, we should understand that China currently has, according to US naval sources (see for e.g. CSIS Washington paper 4.8.21 and figures vary) about seventy old diesel or conventional submarines, six Type 093 SSNs and six Type 094/095 SSBNs. To this they expect to add two improved Type 095 SSBNs by 2030 or a little later. China is not building a new SSBN every fifteen months, as was stated recently by one hysterical Australian commentator. By comparison, the US has about sixty-eight submarines of all kinds (the figures vary, as do China’s). Over forty of those are SSNs and SSBNs of the most extraordinary military capability and engineering magnificence if not genius. And those in the pipeline, including the Columbia-class SSBN, are even cleverer, stealthier and more powerful. Clearly the US is not, in this respect at least, in decline but very much the opposite.
Some experts claim that by 2050 submarines will be obsolete because they will then be visible and easy targets as technology will have made the oceans transparent from space. This may prove to be true of today’s submarines, but may not be true of tomorrow’s, depending on advances in submarine stealth and other technology, perhaps not yet even imagined.
Another threat to submarines is underwater drones and tripwires at chokepoints, including the many narrow passages along the First Island Chain. However, anti-drone technology is making rapid progress.
Hypersonic missiles and robotic vehicles: In late 2021, much was made of China’s launch of a long-range hypersonic missile which travelled around the world in an hour or so and narrowly missed its target in China. This reportedly surprised the Americans, who did not think China had progressed so far. It seems the Chinese believe these missiles give them a better and easier way of striking the US than with ICBMs or their equivalent. China may well be ahead of the world at the moment in respect of these missiles. However, hypersonic missiles have been under development in a number of countries for many years including the US, UK, Russia, India, Japan, Australia, France, Germany and North Korea. The US and Australia have had researchers working on hypersonic missile and anti-hypersonic-missile technology for at least the last fifteen years.
In Britain, not only are hypersonic missiles being developed, the UK in collaboration with European and US associates is well down the track, after many years, to putting a hypersonic commercial passenger aircraft into space. It would be a subsonic-cum-supersonic-cum-hypersonic vehicle. This aircraft, built as a successor to the Concorde, would be capable of carrying about 100 passengers from London to Sydney in two and a half hours over the North Pole. At one stage, they were hoping to get it to take off horizontally from a runway and into space by 2020, but now it’s 2030. (Google “Reaction Engines Ltd” and then go to “SABRE”. The SABRE—Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine—is a revolutionary hydrogen-fuelled engine that it is claimed will change the world of aviation just as Sir Frank Whittle’s jet engine did in the early 1950s. You will be fascinated.)
In contrast, China is still striving to safely launch its first home-built commercial airliner, the C919. It looks like a 100-plus-passenger, narrow-bodied Boeing 737. A prototype is in flight, but it is said the Chinese are having problems mastering engineering issues with safety ramifications. It has been scheduled to appear at air shows, but has yet to turn up.
In the world of robotic vehicles, including drones of various kinds and anti-drones that can strike down swarms of drones, you will find America’s hypersonic Lockheed Martin SR-72 (above) small UV “spaceship” which is designed to be capable of reaching any point of the globe within sixty minutes. From film I viewed it seemed to be at test or prototype stage. (Go to “The Fifty Military Vehicles of the Future” at the History10 website to see some of the robotic and other weapons the US and other countries have been developing.)
Two years ago, all of the above developments and other factors led one of Australia’s finest strategists, Dr Ross Babbage—then, if not still, a non-residential senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington—to say: “The Americans are coming back strongly. By 2024-2025, there is a real risk for the PLA that their military development will be obsolete.” (Reuter’s Washington Dispatch 6.5.20) Whether Dr Babbage still holds to that view, I don’t know. But when you look at the latest US Zumwalt-class destroyer alongside a Chinese destroyer or the second Chinese aircraft carrier, the gap in capability is obvious. And the coming Columbia-class US SSBN will further stretch that gap greatly.
China’s false claim to Taiwan: I want to briefly expand on what I said in the April 2021 edition of Quadrant about China’s claim to Taiwan. There it was pointed out that no mainland Chinese regime had ever ruled Taiwan. Some people have argued that Taiwan was colonised by China during the Manchu rule of the Qing Dynasty, the Manchus having driven down from the north, brutally conquering the Han Chinese Ming Dynasty in 1644. However, the Han, who rule China today, never considered the Manchus to be Chinese, just Manchurian barbarian tribes. In 1895, the Manchus ceded Taiwan to Japan in perpetuity, having lost the first Sino-Japanese War. Japan subsequently Japanised and modernised Taiwan into a prosperous state. When Japan lost the Second World War, the United Nations, which was formed at the 1945 San Francisco Conference, asked the mainland Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek to temporarily (which I forgot to say in the April 2021 Quadrant) administer the island until post-war negotiations could decide its future.
At the same conference in 1945, the UN asked Chiang Kai-shek’s government to temporarily administer all of Vietnam prior to post-war negotiations to settle its future. But the French immediately reacted and retook control of all of Vietnam with the help of British Indian troops who occupied Saigon and surrounding districts in the south.
The 1951-52 San Francisco Conference was unable to decide the future of Taiwan. It agreed to leave the matter to the United Nations, which it said should settle the issue under the conditions of the UN Charter which was based on the principle of self-determination. After the conference, Chiang Kai-shek, whose government had retreated to Taiwan after its defeat by Mao’s communists in 1949, simply continued on, claiming to be the legitimate ruler of all China. Mao’s Communist China never seriously challenged the UN decision and Xi Jinping won’t take it to the UN today, for obvious reasons.
So, no mainland-based Han Chinese regime has ever ruled Taiwan and consequently has no historical or any other claim to it. In truth, its motivation is not historical but regional and now global-strategic. The Chinese High Command knows that if it takes control of Taiwan it will have punched a devastating hole in the First Island Chain, giving its navy access to the North Pacific during any conflict, thereby enabling it to surround Japan and threaten South-East Asia, its sea and air lanes, and ultimately Australia and the Pacific Islands, where it is already involved in more than diplomatic activity. From the Solomons, for example, China could in the long run attempt to cut links between Australia and the US as Japan attempted in the Second World War.
Xi Xinping: This paper cannot conclude without a further comment on Xi Jinping. Xi is a product of the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution. During that decade all Chinese educational institutions were closed, and Xi went from fourteen to twenty-four years of age (below). The only education he received during this formative period was in CCP seminars studying little more than Marxism-Leninism and revolutionary Mao Zedong Thought. Xi and his Cultural Revolution associates and peers have no idea how to run a modern, open international banking system and economy. Xi is not an intellectual, but a very astute political operator who knows what he wants and how to navigate and manipulate the local political “geography” to get it.
It seems that Xi’s aim is to usher in some form of Cultural Revolution of his own against all forms of capitalism and Western consumerism while using the prosperity, economic and therefore military strength brought about by Deng Xiaoping’s opening to the West to attack the West and dominate the world—including Russia.
We know that all members of the CCP as well as students, teachers and others in school and tertiary institutions have to study every morning thirty minutes or so of Xi Jinping Thought. We also know that religious institutions, including Catholic ones, are obliged not only to study Xi Jinping Thought but to remove religious pictures and other icons of their faiths and replace them with images of Xi.
This sort of thing is gradually spreading throughout China. In late 2021, the Global Times, the CCP’s newspaper, carried an article complaining about a serious lack of skilled submariners to operate China’s seventy or so submarines, especially the six nuclear powered ones and the six nuclear armed ones. However, it said, this problem is being overcome because submariners were now being obliged to study Xi Jinping Thought every morning. How far does this run in the Chinese military? The infantry? Does it apply to all sailors, pilots and nuclear missile operators? Is it also now required of all government bankers and executives of government departments, industries and corporations? These are the people who have been among the great beneficiaries of Deng’s modernisation, globalisation and trade liberalisation (which also brought millions of people out of poverty). And then there is the extraordinary surveillance. The eminent Australian China analyst Rowan Callick has estimated that Xi has taken China back many years, perhaps three decades according to some. (see Rowan Callick’s “Why Xi is Dragging Down the Dragon”, The Australian, 27.10.20 and his “Xi Taking China Back to the Future”, The Strategist, 3.9.21).
- Most commentators and strategic analysts in Australia and elsewhere have failed to fully factor in Japan as a major player in the strategic balance of power in North-East Asia and in any conflict or war, including one involving Taiwan. Japan has the third-largest national economy and fourth-largest military in the world. Japan has said it will respond if China attacks Taiwan. Many of the same people who are ignoring the Japan factor in the Taiwan issue are arguing that China could blockade Taiwan and gradually strangle it rather than attack its shores and cause a war. But, again, Japan could respond from an advantageous position.
The Taiwan blockade scenario was recently raised during Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan when China surrounded Taiwan with six naval formations, three to the west and three to the east. This led some commentators to claim it showed how easy it would be for China to blockade Taiwan. However, this was in peacetime when freedom of navigation applied. In a serious, hostile wartime blockade attempt, the Japanese and US navies would sink the Chinese vessels east of Taiwan and the First Island Chain restrictions would operate. Additionally, the Japanese would almost certainly embark on large-scale amphibious landings on the friendly beaches in the north-east corner of Taiwan at Fulong.
- China makes too many strategic and other mistakes (Sun Tzu would be appalled). There are of course the relatively recent historical mistakes like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But there are a few from the last fifteen years: invading and militarising the South China Sea islands to which China has no legitimate claims; wolf-warrior diplomacy; the fourteen Demands of Australia; breaking the Hong Kong agreement; defying the World Trade Organisation, and so on. But by far China’s greatest, underlying mistake of the past twenty years has been, like Germany and Japan in the twentieth century, to want too much too soon.
- Quadrant has readers all round the world, among them Japanese and Taiwanese politicians, diplomats and strategic analysts. They read the Quadrant article of April 2021 and the result was striking. In mid-June 2021, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, said: “China was trying to expand itself beyond the first island chains, which includes Taiwan, into the wider Pacific” (The Australian, 12.6.21). On July 7, the Deputy Prime Minister of Japan, Taro Aso, said that Japan would join America in defending Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, treating such an attack as an “existential threat” that “could lead to an attack on Japan’s own territory”. On August 28 the Australian reported that Nobuo Kishi, the then Japanese Defence Minister, had called on the international community to pay greater attention to the “survival of Taiwan”. The report said that “rhetorical escalation came after Japan for the first time directly linked Taiwan’s security to its own in a defence white paper in July”. At about this time, the new Japanese Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, confirmed a doubling of Japanese defence spending. On December 3, the former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was quoted in a dispatch from the Times as having said: “Any armed invasion of Taiwan would present a serious threat to Japan. A Taiwan crisis would be a Japan crisis and therefore a crisis for the Japan-US Alliance. People in Beijing, President Xi in particular, should never misunderstand this.”
Following Taro Aso’s statement in July 2021, the Global Times reacted with anger and apparent surprise at the prospect of Japan defending Taiwan. Since then, nothing has been heard publicly from any Chinese authority about the matter.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has a few lessons for the China-Taiwan conflict.
Putin is a civilian and has never been a soldier. He was a middle-level KGB intelligence officer who spent most of his time in East European backwaters. When he came to survey the Ukrainian battleground before the invasion he seriously misread it, even ignoring a CIA warning that the window of opportunity for an invasion had almost closed because of the melting snow. We have seen the result. Xi Jinping is also a civilian and has never been a soldier. He was a Maoist ideologue and politician and still is. Everything he has said about Taiwan over the last decade about easily conquering Taiwan shows that he, too, has seriously misread his battleground. Looking across the Taiwan Strait he has not seen the wild stormy weather, treacherous currents, shallow waters and other factors that mean there are only four months of the year in which he could attempt a crossing, two early in the year and two at the end, and then on only two or three beaches, all well defended. In order to invade Taiwan successfully he would have to send one to two million men but, according to Chinese sources, they will not be battle-ready for at least five years. He has also not seen the long western shoreline of Taiwan, which is a two-mile-wide band of muddy, rock-filled and thoroughly mined sludge through which any invaders would have to wade in what would be the greatest amphibious operation in the history of mankind. The eastern side of the island features well-defended sheer cliffs. Most importantly of all, Xi seems to have not seen Japan and the First Island Chain on his battlefield map.
In recent weeks, some commentators who earlier thought months ago that Taiwan would fall easily and who have now changed their minds have been suggesting Beijing might attempt to take Taipei through a surprise and massive paratroop landing. But that also has great difficulties. Paratroop operations into enemy-held territory have such a long historical failure rate that militaries don’t recommend them today. If it is thought that an invasion of airborne troops might help, there is nowhere in Taiwan they could land securely and effectively. There are no behind-the-lines opportunities and they wouldn’t arrive as a surprise across the Taiwan Strait. (For detail on these and other difficulties and China’s growing airborne brigades see https://airpowerasia.com and similar websites.)