Taiwan Is Safe for Now

Robert Kagan makes a persuasive case [op-ed, March 12] that China is unlikely to attempt an outright invasion of Taiwan. Should it ever resort to violence in an attempt to bring the island’s 22 million inhabitants back into its orbit, Beijing would probably employ more limited means, such as a large-scale missile attack followed by an ultimatum.

But Kagan greatly exaggerates China’s ability to pull this attack off. As a result, his policy recommendations are excessive and ill-advised.

Citing a recent Pentagon analysis, Kagan argues that China could use several hundred short-range ballistic missiles in a surprise attack against Taiwanese air defenses, major command and control facilities, military airfields and ports. Having crippled Taiwan with such a preemptive blow, China would then establish air superiority over the island with its fighter jets, forcing Taipei to sue for peace.

Just why Kagan believes Taiwan would have to surrender under such hypothetical circumstances is unclear. It would still not be vulnerable to invasion. After all, Taiwan would retain a quarter-million troops in its active army, backed up by 1.5 million reservists; meanwhile, China has only enough amphibious shipping and air assault capacity to move about 20,000 troops across the strait at a time. Even with air superiority, it could not prevail. But leaving this issue aside, there are several key flaws in Kagan’s military analysis.

To begin, Chinese ballistic missiles are not, and will not soon be, accurate enough to hit small targets with dependability. Missiles of the M-9 class typically miss their targets by several hundred meters. Using them to attack air defense radars would be akin to a weekend golfer trying to hole a shot from the fairway. (Even if China scored a lucky hit or two, Taiwan has dozens of air defense systems that would survive.) China might try to take out a command post, disrupting Taiwan’s military communications system. But again, ballistic missiles are too inaccurate to hit such targets frequently.

If fired against Taiwan’s airfields, Chinese missiles would occasionally find their mark. But China would quickly exhaust its missile inventory in any systematic attack. For every 10 missiles fired at an airfield, only one might be lucky enough to strike the runway. Those that did so would land in random places, necessitating a very large number of direct hits to make the airfield unusable.

Even if China does deploy 800 short-range ballistic missiles near Taiwan by 2005, as the Pentagon and Kagan predict, it could require the entire inventory just to put Taiwan’s airfields out of action. Moreover, any such damage would be only temporary; airfields are not particularly difficult to repair.

China’s air force would not do much better in this mission. It is a very large but very mediocre military service. Few of its planes can drop precision-guided munitions or fly effectively at night or in poor weather.

If China used weapons of mass destruction, this entire calculus would change. But in so doing, China would virtually guarantee a U.S. military response. It would make it highly likely that the international community would impose tight economic sanctions against it for an extended period. And it would surely surrender, in the eyes of the Taiwanese people as well as global public opinion, any sympathy for its claim to a sovereign right to rule Taiwan.

So the sky is not falling, and the United States need not sell Taiwan every weapon system it might request. Most notably, at this sensitive moment in cross-strait relations, the United States should reject Kagan’s advice to sell Taiwan four advanced destroyers (which do not yet even possess a viable missile-defense capability).

Kagan is on reasonable ground in calling for some steps to improve U.S.-Taiwanese security collaboration. But limited measures, such as further hardening of critical Taiwanese military infrastructure and perhaps establishing certain military communications links between Taipei and Washington, may suffice for now.