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Assessing the Threat: The Chinese Military and Taiwan’s Security

Assessing the Threat: The Chinese Military and Taiwan’s Security edited by Michael D. Swaine, Andrew N. D. Yang, and Evan S. Medeiros, with Oriana Skylar Mastro. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2007, 436 pp.

In the fall of 1949, as the victors of the Chinese Civil War were establishing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing, the vanquished nationalists had escaped to the island of Taiwan just off China’s coast. A final, decisive battle never occurred because of US intervention on behalf of the non-communist government in Taiwan. Nearly 60 years later, this dangerous vestige of the Cold War remains. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan; the 23 million people of Taiwan claim the right to self-determination; and the United States remains precariously balanced in the middle, deterring China from solving the issue by force and trying to keep Taiwan from provoking a Chinese attack that would ostensibly require a US response.

Over the past 30 years, China has experienced spectacular economic growth. However, many observers are alarmed that China is leveraging its economic gains to fuel a rapid military modernization program, leaving some to question its intentions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly towards Taiwan. More specifically, will China’s growing confidence in its military reach the point where the possibility of US intervention no longer deters an attack on Taiwan, upsetting the uneasy peace across the Taiwan Strait?

Much has been written about this subject, but few books are as comprehensive as Assessing the Threat. A collaboration of scholarly papers from some of the brightest China analysts, it is an objective, insightful, and thought-provoking analysis of the volatile situation in the Taiwan Strait. Contributors include senior China specialists from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Taiwan’s Council of Advanced Policy Studies, RAND, the CNA Corporation, the National War College, the Director of National Intelligence, the Defense Group, Inc., and the National Bureau of Asian Research, as well as accomplished scholars from the Institute for Defense Analyses and Harvard University. Each of the 11 papers that comprise Assessing the Threat examines the complicated environment surrounding Taiwan through three sets of variables: Chinese military capabilities compared with those of the United States and Taiwan, the ability to maintain stability and control escalation in a confrontation over Taiwan, and the influence of the broader security environment in Asia.

Assessing the Threat concludes that while the balance of power is not shifting in China’s favor, there are factors that provide significant cause for concern. By using the DoD definition of power projection, Roy Kamphausen and Justin Liang illustrate how the Chinese military is projecting its power and influence in Asia by “responding to crises, contributing to deterrence, and enhancing regional stability” (p. 114). Andrew Yang laments that enhancing Taiwan’s defensive capabilities in response to the growing Chinese threat is hampered by the Taipei government’s indecision and lack of strategic vision.

A common theme echoed by contributors throughout the volume is the authors’ grave concern that misunderstandings on both sides could adversely affect crisis control or the ability to limit a regional conflict from escalating. Kenneth Allen and Bernard Cole explore the assets and doctrine of the US, Chinese, and Taiwanese air forces and navies, respectively, and warn that the “fog of war” may produce uncertainties that could spread a confrontation in the Taiwan Strait to mainland China and other Asian countries. James Mulvenon’s discussion of information operations leads him to conclude that “the real danger of China’s emerging military capabilities is that they may embolden Beijing to make a fundamental miscalculation in a Taiwan scenario and consequently bring about a disastrous outcome for all parties” (p. 260). Lonnie Henley’s research on the Chinese concept of war control and crisis management indicates that many Chinese military theorists share a “naïve optimism about China’s ability . . . to manipulate the scale, scope, pace, intensity, and duration” of a crisis to improve the likelihood of its success (p. 104–5). Brad Roberts’ investigation of the nuclear dimension of a US–PRC conflict comes to an alarming conclusion that “both sides are confident in their potentially flawed assumptions and in their belief that ‘strong action will induce the enemy to exercise restraint’—both of which could lead to miscalculations in war” (p. 13).

Assessing the Threat offers several astute recommendations to reduce the threat of conflict over Taiwan, some of which are currently being implemented. The authors stress that US forces in the Pacific must continually improve their ability to “react swiftly and with sufficient force to deter or shut down a Chinese attack” (p. 22). The ongoing deployment of the newest and most sophisticated Air Force weapons systems throughout the theater, the multiservice military buildup of Guam, and the basing of the aircraft carrier George Washington in Japan are definitive upgrades to the US presence in Asia. Lastly, the authors propose that the United States and China improve mutual understanding through more military exchanges and establish rules of engagement for operations in the strait, which should enhance communication and make crisis signaling more discernable.

One would be hard pressed to find a more complete and intelligent analysis of the tense relationship between China, Taiwan, and the United States. The arguments in this outstanding book have been thoroughly researched and superbly written. Assessing the Threat is an invaluable reference for government and military leaders to understand the complexities involved in keeping this hot spot cold.

Maj Dewayne Creamer, USAF

Bangkok, Thailand

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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