Friday, February 23, 2007

Lin Chong-pin interview

Taiwanese security expert on China's missile test and East Asian security
Newsweek Web exclusive, Jan. 25, 2007

News that China had destroyed one of its own satellites with a missile last week sent shockwaves through capitals from Washington to Tokyo. But for security experts like Lin Chong-Pin, who have closely watched the rise of China’s military in recent decades, Beijing’s capability came as little surprise. Lin has studied the People’s Liberation Army as a scholar, and verbally sparred with China as a top Taiwanese government official. Now, he watches developments across the Taiwan Strait and in the region from his perch at a Taipei think tank. NEWSWEEK’S Jonathan Adams spoke with Lin about Beijing’s satellite-slaying test, the cross-strait military balance and China’s ambitions for regional domination. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why did China decide to go ahead with this antisatellite test?

Lin Chong-Pin: This didn’t happen overnight. I remember in the late ‘80s they were talking about “occupying the heights” in the future, which meant space … The technology has reached a stage at which it now can be tested.

How much of an impact would China’s antisatellite capability have on a Taiwan Strait conflict?

The very obvious implication is that a replay of the 1996 scenario would be questionable. That was when the U.S. sent two aircraft carrier groups to the Taiwan Strait [after China launched two missiles near Taiwan], resolving rising military tension. Now, because U.S. satellites are threatened, the operation of the aircraft carriers—for them to arrive and fire missiles at [Chinese military] installations—are being compromised.

To what extent?

When your eyes are knocked out, how can you shoot accurately? It’s a way to say, “You have to think twice before you decide to send aircraft carriers again.” So it’s throwing a monkey wrench into the decision-making in Washington, D.C., when there’s a crisis in the Taiwan Strait—to intervene or not intervene, that is the question.

How strong is the U.S. commitment to help defend Taiwan, in your view?

I think right now it still remains pretty strong. Washington has said officially that if there is a conflict not caused by Taipei’s provocation, then the U.S. is obliged to intervene. But when you compare the statements over the years, you can see that the resolve of partner states is gradually weakening. Of course we understand, [the U.S.] has a bleeding war abroad and a triple deficit at home. So you have to think twice about [intervening in a Taiwan conflict] in the future.

Could China be calculating that the United States might stay out of a Taiwan conflict?

That doesn’t seem to be the case. China’s new grand strategy is to squeeze out the leading influence of the United States in East Asia without war, but with economy and culture. The rapidly modernizing military capabilities of [China’s People’s Liberation Army] will serve as a backbone of Beijing’s extra-military instruments, like diplomacy.

There’s a very strong consensus among the leaders in Beijing [that] the most important thing for China now is to seize this window of opportunity, which has not occurred in centuries: “There’s no serious threat outside China, this is the time when we can make economic growth.” So they want to have a peaceful environment and achieve economic growth first.

How much has the cross-strait military balance tilted in China’s favor?

We can say that the naval qualitative crossover has already occurred. The [Taiwanese] Air Force is still there competing, it’s balancing, but if Taiwan does not try harder, it will be tipped over. And in ballistic missiles, there’s no comparison: They have them, we don’t.

Given these trends, what should Taiwan do?

Well, militarily speaking, it’s very simple: we should buy weapons. But it’s not that easy. Our economy is not doing well, and the prevailing sentiment of society does not support the purchase of expensive weapons. Young people don’t like military service. And most people do not even think about the military competition.

How likely is it that the cross-strait standoff will lead to war?

Less and less likely. Beijing’s highest priority on Taiwan is what I would call absorption without war. Beijing has an increasing number of instruments to do that, including economy, cultural exchanges, manipulation of media, strangulation of Taiwan’s international space and psychological warfare.

Additionally, if there was a war, Beijing would face the result of bloodshed in Taiwan and the damage to the economic infrastructure. After a conquest, Beijing would have to face a rebellious population … The military option is the last option. And even the military option has never been to strike the U.S. and destroy Taiwan. Rather, it’s to deter the U.S. from coming in, and to seize Taiwan—like grabbing a beautiful, smiling bride into your embrace. That’s the idea.

How successful has China's strategy been so far?

I’ll give you one example. Before, when Taiwanese leaders inched toward independence, either in rhetoric or in action, Beijing would go ballistic. Now, they do nothing. Then Washington comes out the very next day, jumps up and issues a warning to Taipei. This is what I call going through Washington to contain Taipei. And it’s working.

What about Japan? It’s also seeking a larger security role in the region. What direction do you see China-Japan relations taking?

In November 2004, [China-Japan] tensions rose because of the submarine intrusion [when a Chinese submarine entered Japanese waters]. In the very same month, Tokyo announced to the world that Japan’s trade with China surpassed that between Japan and the United States. It was a point of no return … Japan realized that its economic recovery after 10 years of slump in the 1990s was largely due to its trade with China. And the business community also put a lot of pressure on the government in Tokyo to improve relations. So political relations have already warmed up.

But pessimists say that China and Japan’s interests will inevitably clash.

Beijing knows very well they would lose a war with Japan. They know how good the Japanese Navy, and even its Air Force, are. So they’ll try to avoid military confrontation.

The United States intends to pull back some forces to Guam, and reduce its presence in South Korea and Japan. How will that affect regional security?

For now, I think Beijing prefers to see the presence of the U.S. military in this region, because Beijing is worried about Japan, and thinks the U.S. can restrain Japan. But as the U.S. voluntarily withdraws, because of a lack of capabilities or a lack of economic wherewithal, somebody will have to step in. Will it be Japan, China or both? I think by that time, they will work out something together, because it’s in their best interests … Growing economic interdependence will become more and more important as time goes on, and will constrain military confrontation. And the trend has already begun.

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