It’s Not Just Taiwan

Late last week and into the weekend China and the United States each had a carrier group training in the South China Sea. On Thursday the USS Nimitz carrier strike group entered the South China Sea to conduct exercises. Within a day of arriving, the Nimitz group was being shadowed by PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) vessels. China also dispatched the aircraft carrier Shandong and her escorts into the South China Sea shortly thereafter to conduct combat-oriented exercises. The move was undoubtedly in response to presence of the Nimitz group in a region which China increasingly claims as nothing less than territorial waters. The significance of the South China Sea to international trade is a main factor in the US 7th Fleet projecting a meaningful and consistent presence there.  

In a time where Western Pacific tensions are centered on Taiwan it is important to remind ourselves of the South China Sea’s importance to both the West and China. Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims there, its encroachment on islands claimed by its neighbors and the untapped natural resources beneath SCS waters make it clear China will not pump the brakes on its activities there. Add to the mixture the importance of the sea lanes there and it is clear that a crisis there, either by design or accident, could spiral out of control and lead to a major conflict.

Yet most Western and regional analysts continue pointing the finger at Taiwan as the main flash point in the region and the true objective of China’s designs. It hardly seems to be the case that China’s massive naval buildup in recent years is intended just to help bring about a successful conquest of Taiwan and nothing more. The Chinese strategic plan goes beyond Taiwan Strait and the island-nation south into the SCS and east to the First Island Chain. Eventually, the Chinese appetite will extend beyond these points and into the Indian Ocean and the waters of the Pacific beyond Philippines. Japan recognizes this to a degree, and it is assuredly one motivating factor present in Tokyo’s plans to enlarge the Japanese military.

The bottom line is that China’s strategic goals extend beyond Taiwan. The sooner the United States and its allies apply this to their plans for challenging China, the better. Long story short: It’s not only Taiwan we need to think seriously about.

Taiwan Seeks Germany’s Help To Maintain ‘Regional Order’

With a delegation of German lawmakers spending the week in Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen is has requested Germany’s assistance in maintaining the ‘regional order.’ The appeal came in a meeting today between Tsai and the Germans, taking advantage of Berlin reevaluating its ties with China in an attempt to lessen German dependence on the PRC. Taiwan’s leader also commented that recent cases of ‘authoritarian expansionism’ prove democracies must come together.

Tsai is clearly taking a page from the Ukraine playbook and is moving to rally Western democracies around Taiwan as tensions between the island-nation and China have risen dangerously over the last seven months. A reasonable step under the circumstances, yet also one that will not bring about comparable results for a variety of reasons. Foremost is the reality that many Western nations, especially those in Europe, lack the military power and diplomatic clout to play a significant part in maintaining the ‘regional order’ in the Western Pacific.  Put another way, these nations offer little which can be used to help deter China from moving aggressively beyond its borders.

Using Germany as an example, the Deutsche Marine is a navy intended for regional operations. It cannot operate more than one or two warships beyond North Atlantic on its own. In a coalition , Germany can provide a decent number of warships to a coalition task force. But again, being able to operate and possibly fight in the Western Pacific is a bridge too far for the Deutsche Marine. Transporting military equipment to Taiwan in a time of crisis would be no easier. Economically and diplomatically, Germany has few instruments it can bring to bear to help deter China from moving aggressively on Taiwan. As the recent signals out of Berlin indicate, the Germans are waking up to the unenviable position its presently in with regards to China and is determined to level the playing field. Until this begins to materialize, however, Germany is limited in what it can provide to help keep the peace and China at bay in the Western Pacific.  

With China In Mind Japan Revamps Security Policy And Increases Defense Budget

Japan’s decision to significantly alter its National Security Strategy and almost double defense spending seems to have taken much of the world by surprise. Personally, I find this reaction to be more of a shock. For most people who monitor the geopolitical and military balance in the Western Pacific its clear Japan has been on this path for years, stretching back to the early years of Shinzo Abe’s tenure. Tokyo has been strengthening the Self Defense Forces in uneven increments over the years in response to China’s growing military power and Beijing’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy demeanor. Now that the Japanese government has publicly stated its intentions to enhance the buildup and move towards a more offensive footing, the world is finally opening its eyes to the powder keg that could be brewing in the Western Pacific region.

At a press conference today, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was quick to point out that the revised policy is a major shift, it is not in opposition to Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. “Japan’s path as a peaceful nation will remain unchanged,” Kishida emphasized. Japan is certainly contending with an unstable and complex security environment at the present time. And looming in the distance is the prospect of a security dilemma holding the ability to undermine or severely damage Japan’s national security as well as its geopolitical prestige and power. The policy revisions are partly designed to prevent a security dilemma from appearing.

In the policy statements released by the Japanese government, defense spending priorities for the next decade and emphasize the increasing danger “posed by those seeking to unilaterally change the status quo by force.” This is a direct referral to China and to a lesser degree North Korea. And despite Japan being viewed as a more peaceful, borderline pacifist nation by many around the world, public opinion has been in favor of increased defense spending and security strategy for some time.

The US Navy Has To Do More To Be Prepared To Fight China

Sino-US relations continue to deteriorate and storm clouds continue to gather on the horizon on the Western Pacific. To the surprise of many, the US Navy is only now starting to accept the possibility of a new Pacific War breaking out in the near future. In the same manner of Rip Van winkle, the US Navy is emerging from its extended slumber and coming to terms with a changed world and evolving threats. The reasons for the slumber are numerous and spurred by non-similar root causes ranging from a two-decade long Global War on Terror, budgetary constraints, broken-down procurement, and ship building programs. Last but hardly least is the reckless complacency that the ensconced the Navy since the end of the Cold War.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is growing by leaps and bounds. China has put together a navy intended to not only spearhead an effort to reclaim Taiwan, but also to challenge the US Navy and American allies on seas east of the Second Island Chain. The modern-day PLAN is a blue water navy in nearly every respect, having become the greatest threat to American supremacy of the seas in decades.

As the US Navy moves to address its current deficiencies and face the threat posed by China’s navy, it needs to keep in mind the importance of sound training centered on fighting and winning a modern war at sea. Many officers and senior NCOs cut their teeth in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lessons and experiences drawn from these conflicts are inapplicable to fighting a modern-day war against a near-peer opponent.  In short, the lost art of naval warfare will need to be relearned service wide.

Designing an effective doctrine to fight and win a war against China has proved to be difficult too. This is a military-wide problem with every service branch focusing on its own role in a future war, not looking at the big picture. AirSea Battle became the grand strategy in 2010, only to be replaced five years later by Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC), which is the same basic doctrine. However, since 2015 scant attention has been paid to overhauling and updating the doctrine to contend with the growing power and reach of the PLAN and PLAAF.  With the Navy growing more concerned about the prospect of having to fight China at some point before 2025, doctrine development needs to become a major priority for leadership.

Russia-Ukraine War Military and Geopolitical Lessons Transferred To China/Western Pacific: Introduction

In the last few months as the Western Pacific has heated up and fighting in Ukraine continues, a number of prominent Western geopolitical and defense analysts, along with an equal number of their less-than-prominent OSINT counterparts have attempted to take a number of lessons learned in the Russia-Ukraine War and transfer them to the deteriorating situation in the Western Pacific. More precisely, onto China’s rise and recent shift to aggressive posturing as well as onto a hypothetical China-Taiwan conflict in the near future.

Geopolitically speaking, China in the Western Pacific and Russia/Ukraine are two completely different animals that share few similar parts. This is clear from the first comparison and has been discussed to death here, in academic IR journals and in government reports from around the world. There’s no point beating a dead horse, so to speak. However, there are other geopolitical aspects where the similarities and difference between the Western Pacific and Ukraine are not as clear, leaving them open to interpretation and theory from professionals and amateurs alike. This is the area that the geopolitical crowd has identified as best suited to take Russia/Ukraine lessons and transfer them to China/WestPac. A practice that’s become akin to fitting a round peg in a square hole.

On the military side of the equation the game is similar. Analysts and OSINT ‘experts’ are trying desperately to evaluate the lessons being learned in the Russia-Ukraine War and break them down to fit a hypothetical China-Taiwan conflict or China-US Great Power conflict taking place at some point in the next twelve months. In this area the differences between amateur and professional is unequivocal. On one hand, the professionals have a dearth of knowledge as well as experience to draw from when putting together a plausible model to support their theories. The amateurs (OSINT) are starved for experience and formal education of military matters. Most of these folks are veterans and knowledgeable in their respective fields, such as infantry or cyberwarfare. Their inability or reluctance to contextualize tactical lessons and apply their value to the strategic picture ends up being their undoing in many instances.  

In spite of the disparities between professional defense analysts and their OSINT counterparts, they share a common quirk. A startling number of people from each group have found themselves caught up in the moment, so to speak, and issuing bold prognostications about the future of warfare with conclusions reliant almost entirely upon the latest news releases from the Ukrainian battlefield. Irresponsible behavior at best, simple laziness at worst. Especially when one remembers that in the first months of the war, Western media outlets were receiving their information directly from the Ukrainian government and military and often reporting it word for word. The kill numbers being reported, in both men and material, were significantly inflated, as initial numbers usually are. Fog of war and all of that.

I intend to delve into some of the geopolitical and military lessons from Ukraine that are being translated both properly and improperly for use in the Western Pacific in the coming month. I’d give a more accurate timeline for when these posts will be published, but as many readers are aware, this act usually backfires on me. This time I’ll play it safe 😊 Besides, with the unstable and uncertain world we’re dealing with at present it’s probably best not to commit to a firm schedule. Lord only knows what crisis will pop up next, or where.