PerryScope – Who is playing with fire?


AT THE VIRTUAL SUMMIT between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping last November 15, the two world leaders got themselves embroiled in some delicate matters.  Xi told Biden that U.S. support for Taiwanese independence would be dangerous.  “Taiwanese authorities have repeatedly tried to ‘rely on the U.S. for independence’,” Xi was quoted as saying by the state agency Xinhua.  “Some people in the U.S. intend to ‘use Taiwan to control China’.”  And finally, Xi warned Biden, saying, “This trend is very dangerous and is like playing with fire, and those who play with fire will get burned.”  Whoa!  What’s going on?

The meeting was supposed to discuss establishing “safeguards” against the conflict between the two rival superpowers, who have been playing a geopolitical chess game over the Taiwan Strait that separates Taiwan from China.  China claims sovereignty over Taiwan as a province and wants the two Chinas to be reunited under the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  But an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese believes that Taiwan is already independent by the name of Republic of China (ROC); therefore, there is no need for Taiwan to declare independence.  It is a fait accompli.  But China threatens to invade Taiwan if it declares independence. 

Strategic ambiguity

Biden stressed that the U.S. “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or to undermine peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”  Indeed, the U.S. has a long-standing policy that does not recognize Taiwan’s independence but supports the island’s defense.  And from this policy, “strategic ambiguity” is formulated, which is designed to dissuade Taiwan from a unilateral declaration of independence, and to dissuade China from unilaterally unifying Taiwan with China.  In other words, its main intent is to prevent the two Chinas from attacking each other.

For more than a decade, Taiwan has been trying to come up with a strategy on how the small island could withstand a Chinese attack, which is believed to be devastating to Taiwan’s survival as a nation.  But Taiwan is under the protection of the U.S. under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which states “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capabilities.” The TRA requires the United States to have a policy “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character,” and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”  However, it does not guarantee the U.S. will intervene militarily if China attacks or invades Taiwan. And that’s where the “strategic ambiguity” comes into play.  But Biden recently said that the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense if it came under attack by China.  Now, that’s not ambiguous.

Provocative incursions

In the past couple of years, China has been sending bombers and jet fighters across the Taiwan Strait, which forces Taiwan to scramble its jet fighters as they enter Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ).  But the provocative incursions have increased lately when China sent around 150 military flights over the Taiwan Strait.  And it’s proving to be costly for Taiwan to protect itself from China’s intimidating incursions.  But it’s something that has to be done because once Taiwan stops scrambling its jet fighters to confront the Chinese incursion into its ADIZ, it could lead to a full-blown invasion.  Then all hell will break loose!   

Meanwhile, Taiwan has quietly been building its defensive weaponry that includes rocket mobile launchers, truck mounted anti-ship missile launchers, cruise missiles, and other types of defensive weapons.  Taiwan is also dispersing and hardening its airfields, including basing some aircraft on highways during a crisis.  Taiwan also purchased dozens of U.S.-made reconnaissance planes that can fly over the Taiwan Strait to record what is going on across the 300-kilometer body of water that separates China from Taiwan.  

So, with all these provocations, who is playing with fire?  But before Xi starts accusing the U.S. of playing with fire, he should – nay, must – realize that the U.S. is prepared to go to war against China.  

In my column, “Why China wouldn’t go to war vs. U.S.” (April 26, 2013), I wrote: “But like any other war in modern times, oil — or the absence of oil — could determine the outcome of the war.  During World War II, the Allies launched precision bombing of oil fields and refineries in Germany, Austria, Romania, Norway, and other German-occupied countries.  The success of the Allies’ “Oil Campaign” contributed to the weakening of Germany’s defenses.  Thus, when D-Day came, Germany’s vaunted panzer divisions were rendered inutile. 

China’s Achilles’ heel

“China faces a similar problem.  She has less than 30 days of strategic oil reserves, which could be reduced to 10 days in time of war.  If the flow of imported oil from the Middle East and Africa were blocked at the Strait of Malacca, it would deprive China of 80% of her oil imports.   

“At the east end of the Strait of Malacca, Singapore controls the “bottleneck” – the narrowest point in the strait with a width of only 1.7 miles. And conveniently located there is Changi Naval Base where Singapore maintains a fleet of submarines, frigates, and missile gunboats.

“The backbone of the U.S.’s Asia-Pacific strategy is her military presence in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Philippines, and Australia. Of utmost importance is the U.S.’s ability to block the chokepoint at the Strait of Malacca, which connects the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea.

“Australia appears to play an important role in the U.S.’s Asia-Pacific strategy.  In 2011, Australia agreed to host 250 to 2,500 American Marines at Darwin, which is strategically positioned to control the Timor Sea, a possible new route for China’s oil imports in the event the Strait of Malacca and the Sunda Strait in Indonesia were blocked.”

Malacca Strait chokepoint

Until China finds a way to bring imported oil from the Middle East and Africa without passing through the Malacca Strait, she wouldn’t dare attack Taiwan.  Right now, only Russia exports oil to China without going through the Malacca Strait chokepoint.  Russia supplies China with oil across Siberia but that would only satisfy 15% of China’s oil imports.  

Before Xi decides to invade Taiwan, he must remember that China is bound to lose a war with the U.S.  Perhaps he should be thinking how he’s going to put out a fire that he starts when he provokes the U.S. into defending Taiwan.  It could burn China badly.