China Checkmate for United States in Asia?

by Patrick J. Buchanan – February 12, 1999

Is China preparing for a clash with the United States over Taiwan? What other explanation is there for the ominous moves China is making on the far side of the Taiwan Strait?

On Jan. 26, The Washington Times reported that Beijing had conducted mock missile strikes on U.S. bases in Korea and Japan, using road-mobile CSS-5 missiles with a range of 1,300 miles and silo-based CSS-2 missiles with a range of 1,900 miles.

On Feb. 10, London’s Financial Times — citing “military analysts in Washington privy to a classified Pentagon report” — wrote: “The Chinese military has stationed 150 to 200 M-9 and M-11 missiles in its southern regions aimed at Taiwan. It plans to increase the number to 650 missiles over the next several years.”

That 650 figure is staggering. When China launched M-9s toward Taiwan in the 1995-96 confrontation that brought two U.S. carriers to the region, it had only 30 to 50 opposite the island.

The M-9 has a 1,000-pound payload and 370-mile range, the M-11 a shorter range but a larger payload. Both can hit Taiwan, both are nuclear-capable, and Taiwan is defenseless against both. How threatening are they? A close reading of “America’s Maginot Line” in December’s Atlantic Monthly might prove instructive.

“With 45 missiles,” writes Paul Bracken, “China could virtually close Taiwan’s ports, airfields, waterworks and power plants, and destroy the oil-storage facilities of a nation that needs continual replenishment from the outside world.”

By firing fewer than 50 M-9s and M-11s, China could paralyze the island, and again, China is building to 650 by 2005.

Bracken’s thesis is that U.S. bases in Asia, because they are naked to missile attack, are becoming as much hostages inhibiting U.S. action as centers of American power. Missile strikes against these “soft targets,” writes Bracken, could wreak havoc, destroying air fields, fuel dumps, and weapons and ammunition depots. Under missile fire, the bases could be rendered less than useless.

With neither Taiwan nor the United States possessing missile defenses, how would we protect the island from a Chinese missile barrage?

Retaliation by Taiwan with air strikes on China would bring an air-naval war in the strait that Taiwan could not win against a nation 50 times its size. Should the United States intervene with its 7th Fleet’s air and cruise missiles, this would be no rerun of the Gulf War. China has submarines, warships, ballistic and cruise missiles that can reach U.S. ships, and bombers with anti-ship weapons.

China is also developing laser weapons to blind U.S. satellites and radar satellites to see through clouds to keep U.S. ships in their gun sights. And by its mock missile attacks on U.S. bases, China is saying that any attack on its forces will bring missile strikes on U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in Asia.

As a world power, China is no match for America. But neither was Syria or the Islamic terrorists when they ran us out of Lebanon. Within 300 miles of its coast, Beijing can bring to bear a mighty and growing array of missile power that could visit enormous damage on U.S. forces in the Far East. We have but 100,000 men and women under arms out there; China has 20 times that number.

But what is Beijing’s motive? Why would it, by threatening Taiwan, risk disruption of trade ties that give China $60 billion in hard currency every year? China’s trade surplus with the United States in 1998 accounted for almost its entire economic growth. A Beijing-provoked crisis would end new investment and sever the trade ties that are responsible for China’s prosperity.

Clearly, China fears that a window of opportunity is closing. With North Korea building rockets, China may worry that Japan, South Korea and Taiwan may follow the example of India and Pakistan and develop independent nuclear deterrents.

That would checkmate China’s drive for hegemony in Asia.

China also views with alarm the belated U.S. effort to build a theater missile defense for its allies, including Taiwan, which could make China’s missile force less threatening. One recalls that the Soviet Union was as apprehensive about Ronald Reagan’s SDI as the U.S. establishment was mocking. China may feel she must act soon to settle the Taiwan issue, or the island will be gone forever.

When China’s Premier Zhu Rongji arrives in Washington this spring, the president should tell him to stop targeting Taiwan and U.S. forces or start looking elsewhere to sell his exports.

No one wants a war with China, but appeasement invites it.