The 2011 DOD China Report and Taiwan’s Security

The Department of Defense’s annual report on China’s military power is an important resource. It draws on the best information available to the U.S. government, which is then assessed by excellent analysts. It contains a wealth of factual and interpretive material that has been reviewed through an institutionalized process. Particularly when its assessments of China’s capabilities and intentions change from one year to the next, it should be a signal to outsiders to take notice.

Each year, the report’s discussion of Taiwan’s security is particularly useful, and the 2011 version is no exception. Combining the judgments that remained the same as 2010 with those that are new produces three conclusions. First of all, China’s military modernization is continuing, even though the atmosphere of cross-Strait relations remains positive. Second, and as a result, Taiwan is becoming more vulnerable to PRC coercion in terms of capabilities and, perhaps, in intentions. Third, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are as justified as ever.

With an annual government report, each new version takes the previous year’s edition as its point of departure. Thus it should not be surprising that some statements in the 2011 report are similar or identical to those of 2010. But when there is a change in the treatment of an issue from one year to the next, it either means that the facts have changed or there was a decision to alter an interpretation. And even when the text remains the same, it can still be significant.

Let us look first at the assessments that have not changed. The new report says once again that one purpose of the PLA’s military build-up has been to deter “Taiwan moves toward independence,” and that Beijing will defer the use of force as long as a “long-term unification remains possible and the costs outweigh the benefits.” A reasonable implication of these findings is that if Taiwan is prepared to reassure China that its intentions are not malign and avoids steps that encourage PRC paranoia and miscalculation (not a trivial concern), it may well encourage Chinese restraint.

On other issues, the 2011 report’s judgments may not have hanged but their underlying implication is not good for Taiwan. First of all, it says that “the balance of military force continues to shift in Beijing’s favor.” Second, China has taken no steps to reduce its forces facing Taiwan. Third, Beijing still refuses to renounce the use of force because, the report says, it believes that this refusal facilitates achievement of its political objectives. Fourth, the PLA is acquiring new capabilities not just to deter independence but also to “eventually settle the dispute on Beijing’s terms.” Fifth, the PLA’s air defenses continue to improve. In particular, it has mobile systems which if deployed near the Taiwan Strait give its surface-to-air missiles “an offensive capability against Taiwan aircraft.” And finally, this year’s report suggests again that the PLA’s Second Artillery is acquiring new short- and medium-range ballistic missiles at a slower rate than before, but that the missiles are becoming more lethal and accurate. That is, the number is still growing and each new missile can do more damage to Taiwan than the older ones.

In a couple of areas, the 2011 report confirms existing trends but gives them greater stress. One subject that receives greater attention is the PLA’s continuing modernization, including an estimate that the share of modern systems within its inventory of planes, surface ships, submarines, and air defense installations is steadily expanding. The other is a sharper focus on China’s acquisition of capabilities to “deter, delay, and deny” American intervention in a Taiwan conflict. Neither trend is good for Taiwan.

Then there are the new formulations, a couple of which are positive. This year, the report says that the probability of a crisis is low. And in its review of the past year, it describes some of the efforts of the two sides of the Strait to reduce tensions and preserve a positive atmosphere. On the negative side, the report says that although an amphibious invasion is still difficult for the PLA, it is working to close that gap.

The new interpretations of the 2011 report are also significant. It predicts that between now and 2020, “the PLA is likely to steadily expand its military options for Taiwan.” It assesses that China’s more modern systems “threaten to negate those factors on which Taiwan has depended” for its defense (geography and higher quality). The report surmises that the increasingly robust military component of Beijing’s Taiwan strategy is “intended to create an impression on Taiwan that accommodation with China is ultimately in the island’s best interest.” The 2011 report also notes Taiwan has “failed to keep pace” with the PLA’s modernization because of its relatively low level of defensive spending.

Some observers may question this or that fact or interpretation in the 2011 DOD report. By and large, however, it confirms a trend that has been apparent for more than a decade. And its analysis and conclusions provoke a question: why has PLA military modernization continued even though Taiwan independence–the primary motivation for the build-up–has receded as a serious threat and cross-Strait tensions have declined? Is it because of bureaucratic reasons? Is Beijing afraid of a new DPP administration (whether that fear is justified or not)? Or is it because, as the report reaffirms, that Beijing wants to have the ability not just to deter what it fears (independence) but compel what it seeks (unification)? Of course, we cannot infer military intentions simply from the existence of capabilities. But the continuing contradiction between the improving cross-Strait political relationship and a military balance shifting in China’s favor is a cause for concern, both in Taipei and Washington.

It will be up to Taiwan to decide how to address the security challenge that China poses. Taipei has pursued a multi-prong strategy that includes reassurance about its own intentions, expanding cross-Strait cooperation to give China a greater stake in the status quo, and strengthening deterrence through its own efforts and by security ties with the United States. Striking the proper balance is not easy and is the subject of active debate. Each prong can contribute to Taiwan’s security, but each has costs and risks. For example, if Taiwan chooses to strengthen its defense forces, it must be willing to pay for it. (And if the DOD report is right, that the PLA build-up may negate Taiwan’s past defense advantages, then a reassessment of the island’s defense strategy may soon be in order.) More than anything, Taiwan needs to forge a better consensus on how to meet the Chinese military challenge.

If Beijing is serious about its goal of winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwan people, it may wish to reassess its own security strategy. It will not win hearts and minds by creating the impression, as the DOD report suggests it is doing, that intimidation is part of its policy repertoire. That will likely lose hearts and minds. Instead, Beijing should take new steps to reassure Taiwan leaders and the Taiwan public (just as Taiwan is prepared to reassure Beijing). Words are not enough; deeds are needed as well. And until China is prepared to reduce Taiwan’s sense of vulnerability in credible ways, the United States has every reason to sell arms to Taiwan, and China has no reason to complain.