US-China “Tipping Points”: Implications for Taiwan (Part I)

US-China “Tipping Points”: Implications for Taiwan (Part I)

US-China “Tipping Points”: Implications for Taiwan (Part I)

Christopher Yung is the Donald Bren Chair of Non-Western Strategic Thought at Marine Corps University, where he serves as Director and Professor of East Asian Studies. He is the author, editor, and contributor to numerous books, monographs, and articles on Chinese strategy.

During his re-confirmation hearing as Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, Jr. (USMC) stated to the Senate Armed Services Committee, “[i]f I look out to 2025, and I look at the demographics and the economic situation, I think China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” It is a reality that China’s economy is going to overcome the US economy in one to two decades, and the People’s Liberation of Army (PLA) is modernizing at a rapid pace. During an April 2017 testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, I testified that China’s developing military capabilities may be pushing the strategic situation across the Taiwan Strait, and in the Indo-Pacific region in general, toward a “tipping point.” In that light, the Global Taiwan Brief asked me to explore that theme.

Military Balance of Power in the Region and Across the Strait

It has become common place within American defense analysis circles to look at the pace of the PRC’s military modernization, to count the number of a particular or a group of weapons systems that have come online, and then extrapolate from this information what the military balance of power will look like over a specified period of time. For instance, in his book Asia’s Cauldron, Robert Kaplan concludes that by 2050 China is likely to have nine aircraft carriers, which would tip the balance in China’s favor, because the US Navy’s future carrier force, although apparently equal to that of China’s in 2050, would have additional responsibilities during global missions and therefore could not solely concentrate its carrier force on the Asia-Pacific region. Patrick Cronin of CNAS has projected that the PLA Navy (PLAN) will have a smaller version of the US Navy by 2030, including four aircraft carrier battle groups and a navy with 260 ships capable of conducting sea control and power projection missions.  

Twenty-two years ago, even I got in on the act when I undertook a study for the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) in which I assumed three levels of Chinese economic growth (8 percent, 4 percent, or no growth), estimated what China’s defense budget would be given those various growth rates, apportioned the defense budget over time, provided estimates of costs of various military platforms, and then projected the kinds of PLA force structure that the US military would likely face by 2000, 2010, and 2020. I concluded that even under pessimistic assumptions about economic growth, China could still have a regionally oriented navy between 2015 and 2020, at which point the United States would have to start to contend with a more boisterous Chinese military power. The Lowy Institute puts an exclamation point on these findings by noting that “it is tempting to extrapolate: perhaps it is only a matter of time before China replaces the United States as the predominant military power in Asia. If military power is primarily an outgrowth of economic power, and China is on track to become a USD $42 trillion economy by 2030 versus USD $24 trillion for the US (according to Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper), it seems we are near to calling time on American leadership in our region and inaugurating a Chinese-led order.”

The implications of these studies are that China is set to match, if not overtake, the United States in its regional military force structure within two-to-three decades. Consequently, this has political and strategic implications because if the regional military balance of power tips in China’s favor between 2030 and 2050, China in that time frame may be free to squeeze Taiwan into an unfavorable agreement over unification.

A dissenting viewpoint in the discussion on the military balance in Asia is Michael Beckley’s article in International Security, “The Emerging Balance in East Asia.” Beckley argues that in assessing the regional, or cross-Strait, balance of power an analyst has to look beyond force structure and extrapolation. Numbers comparison between two opposing forces is insufficient to understand the complexities of a strategic interaction. What is needed is a thorough understanding of the likely outcomes of specific tactical interactions between two militaries. Only then, can the defense analyst understand the nature of future military situations and therefore be in a position to predict imbalances and tipping points.

Tactical and Operational Advantages in a large scale Taiwan campaign

The most recent effort to examine the specifics of military confrontation across the Taiwan Strait is RAND’s “US-China Military Scorecard.” In this effort, analysts at RAND posited specific tactical situations (e.g., a Chinese attack on US air bases; US tactical air penetration of Chinese airspace; submarine versus submarine encounters; Chinese counter-space operations). RAND analysts then developed models to simulate all of these tactical encounters and then ran the models to see what the outcomes were. The RAND report concluded that while the United States possessed a number of operational and tactical advantages in certain key military areas (e.g., US submarines would continue to devastate PLAN amphibious transports and other PLAN surface combatants), the models seem to suggest that China has already begun to erode these advantages, and that over time the PLA’s military modernization would elevate the PLA to such an extent that the US would either barely possess an advantage, or will have lost an advantage in a key military area. Although the RAND analysis does not provide timelines, the analysis suggests that within a relatively short period of time the United States might be confronted with specific disadvantages which might make US intervention less likely (e.g., elimination or deprivation of US tactical aircraft access to allied bases; Chinese submarines posing a credible threat to US surface forces during a Taiwan conflict).  

Silver Bullets as “Tipping Points”

The RAND analysis also suggests that it might be just as useful to examine certain key discrete tactical interactions between the parties involved to determine if specific developments in key military areas would serve as “silver bullets,” thereby tipping the overall balance. An earlier RAND analysis by Shlapak et al., focused its research efforts on identifying these key “silver bullet” or “single points of failure” scenarios and evaluating how serious a threat these actually posed. Shlapak et al., for example, found that using ‘Monte Carlo’ modeling techniques, “depending on missile accuracy, between 90 and 240 SRBMs [short-range ballistic missiles]—a number well within the range of estimates of the number of launchers China will field in the near future—could, with proper warheads, cut every runway at Taiwan’s half-dozen main fighter bases and destroy essentially all of the aircraft parked on ramps in the open at those installations. By doing so, China could knock the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) out of the war long enough to launch large-scale raids on Taiwan intended to destroy any aircraft parked in shelters.”

Additionally, with the closure of Taiwan airbases and the attrition of Taiwan’s tactical aircraft in shelters, Shlapak and company simulated air-to-air encounters between the ROCAF’s most modern fighters against the PLAAF’s then recently acquired Su-27/J-11, Su-30, and J-10, in sizable numbers. They “assessed a cross-Strait battle for air superiority…[and found that their analysis]…indicates that China’s ability to suppress or close the ROCAF’s bases could give the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) an almost overwhelming numerical advantage that—coupled with the rough qualitative parity that now exists between the two sides—could allow China to attain air superiority over Taiwan and the Strait.”

Disturbingly, the RAND analysis suggests that as far as the cross-Strait situation between Taiwan and the PRC is concerned, the military balance has already been tipped or is on the verge of tipping. Of course defense analysts observe that US intervention remains a factor, and therefore hearkening back to the previously mentioned RAND “Military Scorecard” analysis, the PLA is not on the verge of invading Taiwan. Additionally, missing from this discussion is the political dimension of the strategic interactions between China, Taiwan, and the United States. Again, Beckley in his International Security article notes that a number of other factors including geography, political objectives, and strategic goals of the adversaries need to be factored into the equation in order to understand whether the parties have arrived at imbalances or tipping points. In short, “tipping points” cannot be fully understood until one assesses the political context in which military power can be employed. The next part of this article will look at the cultural and political dimensions of tipping points.

The main point: While some analysts argue that the military balance has already been tipped or is on the verge of tipping, “tipping points” cannot be fully understood until one assesses the political context in which military power can be employed.