The Biden Administration gave Xi Jinping exactly what he wanted at last week’s San Francisco summit, namely, a White House statement that “We obviously don’t support independence for Taiwan.” A top Chinese commentator hailed tis as “a big step forward on the Taiwan issue.”
Biden also got what he asked for: A Chinese promise to restore hotline communications between the Pentagon and the People’s Liberation Army, which China suspended in August 2022 after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
If that sounds like a lousy deal, it is, but it was the only deal the Biden Administration could get. The US military worries that an accident or misunderstanding close to China’s borders would lead to an engagement that the United States would lose. For the past several years, Washington has been dancing close to the tripwire of Taiwanese independence, while China has built a superior military position on its coast.
The US military has known for years that China’s surface-to-ship missiles make anything that floats within a thousand miles of its coast into a target. “The conventional arm of the PLARF [People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force] is the largest ground-based missile force in the world, with over 2,200 conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles and with enough antiship missiles to attack every U.S. surface combatant vessel in the South China Sea with enough firepower to overcome each ship’s missile defense,” wrote Maj. Christopher J. Mihal wrote in 2021. China also wields hypersonic missiles against which there is no conventional anti-missile defense.
“The [People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s] ground-based missile forces complement the air and sea-based precision strike capabilities of the PLAAF and PLAN,” the Pentagon’s November 29, 2022 report, ”Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” found. “The PLARF continues to grow its inventory of DF-26 IRBMs, which are designed to rapidly swap conventional and nuclear warheads. They are also capable of precision land-attack and anti-ship strikes in the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea from mainland China.”
Like its predecessors, who built obsolete battleships in the 1930s, the US Navy builds aircraft carriers that are as vulnerable to missiles today as battleships were vulnerable to carriers in the 1940s.
With local superiority, China has drawn a line in the sand. It used missiles and aircraft to demonstrate its ability to blockade Taiwan in August 2022. That was an exercise in what diplomats call “strategic ambiguity.” The Speaker of the House is second in line to the president. A presidential or VP visit to Taiwan would amount to US recognition of Taiwan as an independent, sovereign state; the Speaker’s visit is just below the threshold of diplomatic recognition. China effectively blockaded Taiwan for two days, closed the hotline to the Pentagon, and began harassing US military aircraft and vessels. The Pentagon counts 180 near-misses over the past two years.
That’s why the Pentagon wanted the hotline restored. It’s afraid an accident might lead to a misunderstanding, and a misunderstanding to a firefight. The Washington-Moscow hotline probably saved the world from nuclear war in 1983, when the Soviets interpreted the all-too-realistic Able Archer exercise as preparation for a preemptive strike. The point is that the Pentagon got the message from Beijing: We’ll go to war over Taiwan, so no more games. If we fought now, we’d lose.
We Republicans are supposed to lambast Biden for failing to stand up to Xi Jinping, but it wasn’t the White House that flinched, but the Pentagon. We have spent thirty years and tens of trillions of dollars building the wrong kind of military. We can’t match Chinese firepower in China’s theater. And we can’t even produce a hypersonic missile. Russia and China can. We should ask: What would Ronald Reagan do? And we know the answer. We need a new Strategic Defense Initiative, an all-country, no-limits effort to restore American technological superiority and lead the world once again in the next generation of weapons.
David P. Goldman is deputy editor and columnist at Asia Times and is the author, most recently, of “You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World”
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