Another Unthinkable Scenario
Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2001
THE elemental lesson to be learned from Sept. 11 is that nothing is unthinkable, although many possibilities are unthought, particularly by peaceful nations. So perhaps now Americans should think about the possibility of a swift, because remarkably brutal, conquest of Taiwan by the People's Republic of China. It is U.S. strategic doctrine that the armed forces should be sufficient to successfully fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously. Forces sufficient for one are being deployed to Southwest Asia. A second such conflict could erupt in Southeast Asia, explains professor Richard L. Russell of the National Defense University. His "devil's advocate analysis" -- written before Sept. 11 -- appears in Parameters, the U.S. Army War College quarterly.
America's sanguine assumption is that China lacks the necessary force-projection capabilities. It is deficient in amphibious ships and other means of delivering troops by water, particularly given that Taiwan's pilots and aircraft (F-16s and Mirage 2000s) are superior to China's.
But China could confound that assumption using surprise, a "force multiplier." China could use amphibious assaults only as diversions to draw Taiwanese ground forces away from the primary invasion points -- air bases. And China could employ unprecedented ruthlessness -- tactical nuclear weapons and chemical weapons.
Such surprise and ruthlessness may seem far-fetched -- as far-fetched as the idea of using commercial aircraft as bombs to level skyscrapers would have seemed a month ago, had anyone imagined it. However, Russell notes that Pearl Harbor, Germany's attack on the Soviet Union, North Korea's invasion of South Korea, China's intervention in Korea and the 1973 Yom Kippur War were all surprises.
Besides, Russell says, a nation contemplating aggression considers the dangers of peace as well as of war. China sees that time is on the side of Taiwan's improvement of its economic strength, political links to the world and military capacity for self-defense -- particularly if Taiwan acquires defenses against ballistic missiles.
Russell says China could secretively increase sealift and air transport capacity and paratrooper training for a conflict that would begin with a bolt-out-of-the-blue barrage of hundreds of missiles to "decapitate" Taiwan's military by striking command-and-control facilities. China has an estimated inventory of 240 missiles capable of striking Taiwan from the mainland.
Missile warheads loaded with persistent and nonpersistent chemical agents could incapacitate Taiwan's air and air defense forces. Hence Chinese fighter aircraft could escort transport aircraft that would deliver paratroopers. Their drops onto Taiwan's air bases would be timed to coincide with the evaporation of nonpersistent chemical agents that had disabled those bases. Once the bases were secured by Chinese paratroopers, Chinese transports could land more troops.
By striking hard and fast, even with tactical nuclear weapons, China could hope to conquer Taiwan before there could be any U.S. military buildup in the region. And Westerners might be projecting their values on China by assuming that China regards nuclear weapons exclusively as means of deterrence and weapons of last, desperate resort.
There is evidence that Chinese military doctrine, unlike America's, holds that nuclear weapons can be applicable even in wars in which less than national survival is at stake. And Russell writes that the Chinese might argue that the use of weapons of mass destruction would set no international precedent because they would be employed against a province in an "internal affair."
The crackdown at Tiananmen Square demonstrated Beijing's readiness to use violence for political objectives against Chinese who challenge it. As for the price China would pay for international disapproval of such ruthlessness, Beijing may be willing to pay the price, because it would be transitory: Just 12 years after the Tiananmen Square violence was telecast to the world, China was awarded the 2008 Olympics.
President Bush has modified the long-standing policy of "strategic ambiguity" enough to say that America would do "whatever it took" to defend Taiwan against attack. But China says it reserves the right to use force to keep the "renegade province" of Taiwan a part of one China. Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), a thinking person's Cassandra, warns that China may be understating its military spending, which it says increased 17.7 percent last year. He worries that Chinese preparations for aggression could be, like the terrorists in America before Sept. 11, "hiding in plain sight."
Russell wrote his scenario to emphasize that "improbable" is not a synonym for "impossible," and to induce "a sense of caution and humility about the limits of foresight in knowing the prospects for war." On Sept. 11 America received a violent lesson about those limits.
The aggression Russell describes is not unthinkable. Nothing is.