A friend recently asked me, “Hypothetically, what would it take to tip the tables, break the silence, and move from military escalation in East Asia into either war or peace?”
It was actually quite an easy question to answer. The same event could push the tide either way, though there’s no way of knowing in advance. It’s a rather simple event. But first, we need some background…
In every war, there’s always a straw that breaks the camel’s back, as it were. In WWI it was the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915. Interestingly, also on the 7th, but in December 1941, WWII was joined by the US when the Japanese bombed the naval fleet docked at Pearl Harbor on Oahu island in Hawaii. There’s always something that tips the tide.
In the current Pacific scenario, I speculate that everything could shift, merely if Taiwan commandeered the diesel-powered Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning. The Chinese purchased the archaic floating fortress from Russia, when it had the name Varyag, given in 1990. It was originally built in the Ukraine and named Riga at its first commissioning in 1988. Stripped of its goodies, the floating shell was purchased by the Chinese in 1998, to be no more than a floating museum.
I suppose Beijing forgot about the museum plans. After being stocked to the deck, followed by a test voyage that started almost 18 months ago, the Liaoning “museum” has been officially observing the sea since September 25, 2012.
But why would Taiwan even consider commandeering it? Why would it be worth the risk? And would Taiwan even be capable?
Within the last few years, Taiwan completed an arms deal with the United States. Taiwan wanted to purchase several new F-16’s, with the updated gadgetry, whistles, and the latest bells. Instead, for about the same amount of money, the US Military insisted on upgrading Taiwan’s current F-16’s. Taiwan wasn’t happy, especially since they could have doubled the size of their Air Force for the same amount of money it cost to upgrade the older jets. But the only other store to buy fighter jets from is Russia. And only America retails the F-16. So, the Taiwanese had no choice. It hurt Taipei, politically.
Every adult male in Taiwan is required to do time in the armed services. So, the entire population is savvy when it comes to military purchase stories in the newspaper. Especially after that arms deal, the USA was demoted in Taiwan’s culture from being a Friend to being a “friend”, with emphasis on the quotation marks. Taiwan’s Air Force was once larger than China’s, but not any more. The Sales Department in Washington didn’t seem to care. Ahh, salesmen.
Taiwan’s president, Ma, a Harvard grad, was elected for his second term this past summer, but he hasn’t started that term yet. He and Obama are in similar situations, though he’s, politically more of a Romney-McCain hybrid. Diplomatically, however Ma and Obama both tried the so-called “apology tour” approach with their critics. For Obama, that meant touring Europe. For President Ma, it involved bringing Beijing diplomats to Taiwan and making sure that EVERY Taiwan flag had been removed from the landscape. While many think this might only encourage an enemy, I believe Ma and Obama genuinely thought it might be an effective olive branch, a gift of peace.
In the last few months, however, China’s new passport sported a map of East Asia, with both mainland China AND Taiwan darkened, along with a nine-dash line circling many disputed islands in the South China Sea. Few things could slap President Ma in the face more than this. At last report, Taipei was discussing whether to deny entry to any person attempting to enter Taiwan with a passport containing the map showing Taiwan as a part of China.
As if that wasn’t enough, another page in the new passport reportedly contains a picture of the dearly loved Sun Moon Lake, also in Taiwan. Imagine Iran’s new passport having a picture of Mount Rushmore. Yeah… Not exactly the same “diplomacy” Ma extended. Like I say, serious slap in the face to Ma. And it doesn’t help his popularity any either, especially since his own “apology tour” didn’t sit well with the nation of Taiwanese veterans.
So, what’s this got to do with the price of rice? “It’s the economy, stupid!”
Taiwan’s economy isn’t so hot right about now, though it isn’t exactly in the dumps either. The best thing going for Taiwan, other than HTC sales and Apple engineering contracts, is the fluctuation caused by America’s QE2 and QE3… and QE4 and QE5… but that’s another story for another blog. If the Taiwanese could anticipate the Fed’s schedule, they would make out like bandits. But reading the tea leaves is a skill reserved for George Soros’ back pain. America’s “quantitative easing” doesn’t just hurt the American taxpayer, it hurts the Taiwan dollar also.
Why else is Taiwan’s economy in dire “straits”? Mainly because, as of this recent September, Taiwan has more than 1,600 Chinese missiles aimed at its shores, up 200 from last year! That doesn’t exactly free up the economy to rage like America’s 1950’s. The government doesn’t have the resources to focus on polishing their laws to be attractive to foreign business and getting the traffic lights timed for better flow. Their mainly focused on keeping Beijing from blowing up the roads and preparing for fallout if Beijing steps over the line. Things are getting tight.
Oh, and remember that Taiwan’s meagre budget was forced to “upgrade” its Air Force, rather than doubling its size. Taipei actually went over their budget because Washington “told” them what the price was, even though the States filtered other money back to Taiwan to compensate. Ahh, salesmen.
What would you do if you were in President Ma’s position? Would you wait for next year, when the number of missiles looking up your nose increases to 1,800, possibly more? Would you invite Beijing for another flagless stroll around the island? Maybe take them to Sun Moon Lake this time? Would you call Washington for help?
In a few years, China will be ready to launch their first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Taiwan’s Air Force isn’t getting any bigger, even after going over budget. China’s hand-me-down carrier “museum” from the former Soviets is serving as a test run. Air craft carriers aren’t exactly easy to manage. This is the Communists’ first floating air base. They don’t want to run aground in the Taiwan Strait with a nuclear reactor on board. Best make the mistakes on diesel power.
Sure, I’m speculating big time. But I’ll still say, seizing that aircraft carrier could look really attractive to President Ma these days. No one in Taiwan could ever again say that he’s “soft” on China. It would be very efficient use of their military budget. It might make Washington have a little more faith in Taiwan, atop everything else Taiwan has done to help America.
If Taiwan successfully grabbed the “museum”, Taipei could claim any jets on “display”—at least that might help grow their Air Force. It would be a trophy for intel gathering—CIA would love that… Lots of Chinese to “not” water-board. It’d also help extend the reach of Taiwan’s Air Force, not to mention truncate the length of China’s great army “arm”. Beijing would have to learn all over again when they launch the first air craft carrier officially “Made in China”, four years from now.
China really couldn’t complain, the Liaoning is only a “museum” after all. Washington couldn’t complain. They wouldn’t supply Taiwan with what it needed, so Taiwan “shopped” elsewhere. Besides, we all know the Pentagon loves any excuse to start a new war. It would be like offering tea to a Brit. No one would believe Washington objected, even if they did complain.
The Russians couldn’t complain either. It’d be a great excuse to sell another “museum” to Beijing… Or “Macau”, depending on how China wants to organise it on paper. And we wouldn’t hear any noise from Vietnam or the Philippines. And it’d wouldn’t be as easy for China to bully the neighbours if the Communists were minus one “museum” aircraft carrier to “show-boat” around in.
Oh… the neighbours… See, in March 2011, Taiwan accidentally gave more money to Japan’s tsunami relief effort than any other country—even more the United States. Taiwan really loves its neighbours. They were occupied by the Japanese in WWII… But they have no problem forgetting the past… they love their neighbors.
At one point, Taiwan tried to recognise Beijing’s government. They wanted to surrender the mainland, shrug, and say, “Okay, Communists, you can keep what you have.” But, Taiwan’s constitution wouldn’t let them. Even if it had, Beijing won’t accept anything but complete surrender… even at “any” cost.
Chinese culture involves a lot more posturing than we see in the Western world. A sudden power grab, like commandeering a diesel-powered “museum” aircraft carrier, could cause the Chinese to shrink back a lot more than the United States if… say… the US had two of its sky scrapers crashed into by private passenger planes… or if a naval base in Hawaii was bombed. (references to history) If someone attacks America, America gets mad, then America gets even. But, if you shake your fist in a room full of Chinese, they might be scared of you. If they aren’t scared, they’ll be so angry that they won’t be able to think strait. Chinese culture lends no room between the two extremes: fear and red-hot anger.
Seizing the diesel fortress might scare the dragon back into its cave. More than likely, though, Beijing would use the incident to justify an attack, which they have planning openly, but at least they won’t be as strong. Taiwan would also have the advantage of time.
China’s nuclear carrier isn’t finished yet. It’s still in the dock. War in the region would be the perfect time for anyone, say, the US, to “accidentally” lose control of some Tomahawk Cruise missiles, setting China’s naval Air Force plans back another decade. That might also compensate for the fact that Taiwan’s Air Force isn’t getting any bigger. Ahh, salesmen.
It still eludes me as to why China is being so provocative at this point in the game. They are incredibly vulnerable. But, men with ambitions for global domination are likely to be a few pickles shy of a full jar… a few egg rolls shy of a full picnic… a few noodles shy of a full bowl… or, in Beijing’s case, a few jets shy of a full “museum”.
And that’s the other thing. The Liaoning isn’t exactly a Nimitz-class “museum”. Though it’s 999 feet long, and a Nimitz is 1,092, the Liaoning “museum” displaces 55,000 tons while a Nimitz displaces 100,000.
And, for the $30 million [US] dollar question… Can Taiwan do it? Do not underestimate Taiwan’s surgical capability. Taiwan is the land of thick-thigh Aborigines, Monkey masters who kill better than they wrestle, and young men whose only opportunity to master a firearm is through a military career.
Backed by all the American tech they’ve stockpiled through the years, Taiwan could do it if they wanted. And there doesn’t seem to be anything but encouragement from policies of Beijing and Washington alike.
It wouldn’t be enough to sink the Liaoning—Taiwan would have to actually own it. That would either hold back the approaching war for at least another five years, or else make it start when the timing was least in Beijing’s favour. Either way, the loss of life would be significantly less than fighting the inevitable war on China’s timetable.
No matter what happens, there are no guarantees. If Taiwan waited patiently, they might see peace for a thousand years. If all the nations in the region make the best and boldest military decisions, every one of them could still lose. As a Christian, prayer is my weapon of choice. As my pastor said in my youth, “…pray? That’s like having an intercontinental ballistic missile!” Still, that doesn’t deter me from trying to read tea leaves, even without Soros’ back pain.
Let’s say all this wild theorising has even a “prayer” of coming to pass. If Taiwan lifted the “museum”, beat the Beijing dragon beyond the Great Wall, and kept their national flag flying above their volcanic beaches, what would happen to the Liaoning?
Beijing would want their floating “museum” back. It’s a very expensive “museum”, not to mention Asian pride. Possessing an aircraft carrier might make Taiwan a little less dependent on the Washington Sales Department. If it somehow sunk, Washington, not Beijing, would be implicated. But I don’t think that would happen… It’s not likely any of this would happen.
It’s interesting, though, isn’t it? “Stuff” always seem to start with some boat in the ocean. They said the Titanic was too big to sink. So… Naaah. No… There’s no way. There can’t be. I mean… No. No way. No.
- Abandoning Taiwan will only embolden China: US thinktank (wantchinatimes.com)
- Taiwan protests over new China passports (chinadailymail.com)
- Twelve reasons an invasion of Taiwan is untenable (chinadailymail.com)
- In passport row, Taiwan is stickin’ it to China (chinadailymail.com)