06/26/2013 05:19 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

China, Taiwan and the 'Anti-Access' Challenge

U.S. security concerns about the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) are primarily driven by a possible crisis or conflict involving Taiwan. China's extensive military modernization over the past 15 years has been largely focused on deterring Taiwan from unilaterally declaring independence or (if necessary) compelling the leadership in Taipei to reverse such a decision. Beijing views the island as a breakaway province. After some future negotiated settlement, Taiwan may be allowed a level of autonomy similar to Hong Kong's, but any unilateral move toward formal independence is unacceptable and almost certain to precipitate a crisis. In recent years, this has been less of a pressing issue because Taiwan's pro-independence party has been out of power, and since 2008 levels of commerce and tourism between Taiwan and China have rapidly increased.

However, while relations have improved, the cross-Straits military balance has significantly shifted in favor of the PRC. It now possesses an extensive inventory of short-range ballistic missiles (over 1000 by most estimates) and increasingly modern fighter and strike aircraft. In the view of some defense analysts, the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) now possesses capabilities well-beyond the primary deterrence/compellence vis-à-vis Taiwan. There is growing consensus that, in the event of a crisis, China would be capable of gaining the critical objective of air superiority over the Taiwan Straits. By using its missile forces to overwhelm Taiwan's air defenses and destroy (or significantly degrade) Taiwan's air force on the ground, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) would be unchallenged in the absence of U.S. intervention.

More recently, it seems that Beijing's focus has shifted to address the challenge of a potential U.S. intervention. With the expansion of intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missile programs, U.S. forward bases in the region, such as Kadena on Okinawa, are increasingly under threat. Perhaps more troubling is the development and deployment of a new Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) or "carrier killer," which would target U.S. naval forces. These capabilities seem to go well beyond what seems necessary or sufficient for the deterrence of a unilateral declaration of independence by Taipei, and now hold at-risk a significant component of U.S. forces in the western Pacific likely to respond to a cross-Straits crisis.

China's modernization efforts have seemingly been designed to address the perceived lessons of the 1996 Taiwan Crisis. In March of that year, U.S. President Bill Clinton dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Straits in response to provocative missile tests by China. The tests were generally viewed as an attempt to intimidate Taiwan and undermine the reelection prospects of pro-independence leaders in Taipei. In the end, the tests failed to have the desired political effect and the crisis dissipated.

Considering the Taiwan Crisis in the context of the conventional strategic wisdom that emerged from analyses of the 1991 Gulf War and 1999 Kosovo air campaign, both of which highlighted the significant impact of U.S. precision-guided munitions (PGMs), it is possible to glean the formulation of a coherent approach by Chinese planners. In short, to succeed in a potential conflict with the United States, a state must be able to push U.S. forces beyond a point where its airpower and PGMs are effective against critical targets. This has been termed an "Anti-Access/Area Denial" strategy by defense experts in Washington. In essence, China's efforts have focused on blunting the U.S. ability to project power into its immediate region and transforming what had previously been a major U.S. advantage (relatively short-range strike aircraft launched from forward bases and aircraft carriers) into a potential liability.

The official position of the United States is to maintain a "One China" policy so long as neither party unilaterally attempts to alter the status quo, but Washington has effectively committed itself to defend Taiwan against unprovoked aggressive behavior by China. With the shift in the military balance in Taiwan Straits, some experts fear that a conflict may be more likely precisely because China may perceive a significant advantage. This is not to imply that Beijing is looking to prevail in a war in the traditional sense of the term. Rather, in the event of a crisis, China may seek to seize the initiative to achieve its political objectives (altering the status of Taiwan) with a limited use of military force and confront the United States with a new situation -- a fait accompli -- that would be perceived as too costly to reverse. The nature of a potential U.S. military response under such circumstances is obviously an open question, but clearly the potential for escalation is high.

U.S. military planners have begun to develop concepts to address the anti-access challenge, but it is essential that U.S. political leaders understand the high stakes and potential instability of the cross-Straits relationship. Any effective U.S. strategy must achieve a delicate balance as it seeks to deter provocative behavior by Beijing, reassure Taipei without encouraging any change to the status quo, and maintain (and if possible enhance) stability in the event of a crisis. These concerns should guide U.S. military and diplomatic policies if we hope to avoid a future Taiwan crisis that precipitates a major conflict between the world's largest powers.