The Duck of Minerva

Counter-hegemonic strategies

26 September 2006

I would be remiss if I failed to link to Rob Farley’s interesting post on Chinese military procurement strategy. The Chinese, according to Defense News, have been testing a ground-based laser designed to temporary “bind” US satellites. Rob argues that this fits the Chinese strategy of developing capabilities designed to fight an asymmetric war against the United States.

China’s defense procurement, by and large, does not seem driven by this logic. Instead, China seems to be actively thinking about and planning for a war with the United States over Taiwan, a project which, among other things, must be regarded as quite sensible from the Chinese point of view. Instead of trying to equal US naval capabilities, the PLAN is working hard to develop the means to kill US carriers, thus largely nullifying the US naval advantage. In response to “network-centric” warfare that relies heavily on satellite communications, the Chinese are thinking about how to break the US system, rather than how to replicate it.

I find this deeply fascinating. Chinese procurement seems driven, more than anything else, by the need to create the operational capacity to seize Taiwan and fend off US intervention. This hardly seems a devastating insight, but it’s interesting given how little a US-PRC war over Taiwan, or even a PRC seizure of Taiwan, seems to make sense. There are a dozen reasons why fighting over Taiwan would be a terrible idea from the Chinese point of view, but the PRC nevertheless is procuring weapons and developing capabilities oriented around just such a war.

I’m not sure exactly why Rob doesn’t think this policy makes “sense.” Or it would be more accurate to say that “I understand why he thinks that, but he’s wrong.” The Chinese leadership believes — or at least finds it politically useful to act as if it believes — that Taiwan belong to them and would be theirs but for the “century of humiliations” visited upon China by the West (and Japan) and its occupation by the KMT. Taiwan represents, moreover, the only medium-term flashpoint likely to involve a conflict with the United States. I suppose this is another way of saying that Rob’s conclusion is right:

This is why, although I concur that there are many reasons we shouldn’t expect a war over Taiwan, I can’t be as sanguine as some about its probability.

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