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    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-39 – COL George Shatzer – SRAD Director’s Corner: Preserving Taiwan as Strategic Imperative

    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-39 – COL George Shatzer – SRAD Director’s Corner: Preserving Taiwan as Strategic Imperative

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    Audio by Kristen Taylor 

    U.S. Army War College Public Affairs

    In the fourth installment of the SRAD Director’s Corner, Shatzer focuses on the Taiwan/China relationship. He reviews The Trouble with Taiwan: History, the United States and a Rising China by Kerry Brown and Kalley Wu Tzu-hui and Taiwan Straits Standoff: 70 Years of PRC–Taiwan Cross-Strait Tensions by Bruce A. Elleman and shows how these books might help strategists better understand the contentious and violent history of cross-strait relations between Taiwan and China so they can deal with the problem today and in the future.

    Read the article:

    Episode Transcript: SRAD Director’s Corner: Taiwan as Strategic Imperative
    Stephanie Crider (Host)

    You’re listening to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production focused on national security affairs. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

    Decisive Point welcomes Colonel George Shatzer, director of the Strategic Research and Analysis Department in the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College. Schatzer is the author of SRAD Directors Corner. In this issue, he focuses on preserving Taiwan as strategic imperative.

    In your SRAD Directors Corner series, you review books of possible interest to contemporary military strategists—especially those serving in the US Army in joint positions. The Winter issue contains the fourth installment of this series, and the focus is on Taiwan. Thank you for joining us again.

    Col. George Shatzer

    Well, it’s great to be back, and I appreciate the opportunity to discuss these important issues.


    You profiled the security challenge from China in your first review article in the series. Well, that article mentioned Taiwan. It had a broader focus. Maybe you could briefly summarize the key points from that first article and then describe why you decided to narrow in on Taiwan, this time.


    The first article appeared in the spring edition of Parameters this year and reviewed The Long Game by Rush Doshi and The Strategy of Denial by Elbridge Colby. You are right that both books took a wider or grand strategic look at what the People’s Republic of China’s global ambitions are and what the United States should do about them.

    Doshi argues that the PRC has patiently planned for decades to overtake the United States as the world’s dominant power. He describes how the PRC has first sought to blunt the US’s control of affairs, regionally, and then attempted to build its own control over the region and then how the PRC has expanded those blunting and building efforts globally. Doshi speaks to all aspects of national power when he recommends how the US should essentially follow its own blunting and building strategy to curb the PRC’s growth.

    Colby, though, focuses on just military power in his book, but still from a strategic perspective, and doesn’t get deeply into any operational matters. He suggests the US overtly build an anti-hegemonic coalition to check PRC advances.

    Both authors, of course, mentioned Taiwan, but their books include far more than that.

    I always planned to come to Taiwan as its own topic in the article series. And with the events this past summer following US Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the violent PRC reaction, it was clearly the right time to do that.

    The potential for armed conflict between the US and the PRC might well be the highest it’s been since the Korean War era and the first Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1954 to 1955. This is no theoretical or purely academic problem, either. The PRC has attacked Taiwan and held territory several times in the past. The US has intervened many times, and the PRC has been very clear and vocal about its willingness to attack again. Even though some argue the true potential for war over Taiwan is low, it would still be a war between the world’s two most powerful nuclear armed states. Such a conflict would be a catastrophe and have devastating consequences for millions of people around the world. That’s a problem set that deserves very careful study and attention.


    Let’s talk more about the likelihood of a war over Taiwan. I take it from the article that you believe that a war is more likely today.


    That’s right. I’m very concerned, actually. I don’t say this explicitly in the article, but I believe the trajectory of the military situation around Taiwan has entered a dangerous new phase following what some have called the 4th Taiwan Strait crisis from this last summer. In earlier straight crises, the US took very concrete military and diplomatic steps to respond and intervene to warn off the PRC and prevent a larger conflict.

    In this year’s crisis, three factors appeared to have changed very substantially since the last crisis in 1995 and 96. First is Taiwan’s ability to defend itself. Taiwan military capacity has decreased significantly since 1996. Taiwan’s military is much smaller. It hasn’t kept pace in key areas of modern combat systems technology, and most of its conscripted service members are required to only serve four months. Yes, that’s months. The second factor is the massive growth in PRC military power. Today, most point to the 95-96 straight crisis in which the US deployed two naval carrier strike groups in response to PRC military actions as a major driver in convincing the PRC to modernize its military because it realized it had no real means to respond to the US carrier deployments. I first became seriously involved in examining the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army, or PLA forces, in 2008. From 1996 to 2008, the growth in PLA capability was remarkable. Subsequent growth in PLA capability since 2008 has been at least as significant, if not more so. Relative to Taiwan and US military capability since 1996, the PLA is vastly more capable and dangerous today. The third differences are pure C perceptions of itself and its perceptions of the United States. This is less clear cut than the other two factors, but I think it’s very likely that the PRC is much more confident in its military capability to seize Taiwan by force today.

    Additionally, the PRC has seen a much more muted response from the US to this year’s straight crisis. That might well have been a sensible way for the US to defuse tensions, but what signal did it send about US resolve to defend Taiwan? Yes, the US has made public statements reaffirming commitments to Taiwan security, but lacking a clear set of military moves, I’m concerned that the US may have fostered the PRC belief that the US might not back up its words with deeds. So, taken together, I’m generally worried that the PRC has a much greater capacity to at least isolate Taiwan by force and that the PRC believes it has much greater latitude to do so.


    What you’re describing, then, is a major break from past history with the Taiwan Strait crisis. This history is the focus of the first book you reviewed. What does this book offer for strategists today?


    Bruce Elleman is one of the foremost experts on Chinese warfare, especially maritime operations. But his book, Taiwan Straits Standoff, does a great job of examining each past crisis in all dimensions. Understanding history is key to understanding PRC perspectives on warfare and on Taiwan, so Elleman’s book is mandatory reading, in my view, for anyone engaged in this problem. The book was published prior to this year’s crisis, which is actually good in that the book provides a clean perspective on everything that’s come before. The short book is stuffed full, though, of valuable strategic insight about the importance of Taiwan, the past thinking of US policymakers, patterns of PRC military behavior, and even how Russia factors into the equation. I thought the most valuable aspect of the book was the discussion of the various problems the PRC has faced in trying to act against Taiwan in the past and the range of problems the PRC faces today.

    All of these are suggestive of strategic options the US could use today to frustrate PRC aims. To mention just one is the fixation that the PRC has about Taiwan, and how the US historically leveraged that, especially during the Korean War, to influence PRC behavior. Elleman also reminds us that for much of Cross Strait history, the PRC has viewed war with the United States over Taiwan as being pointless. The PRC has traditionally believed that they could gain control of Taiwan through propaganda and subversion. This “win without fighting” mindset is still fundamental to Chinese military thinking, and it holds great deterrent value. If the United States can encourage the PRC to cling to this idea, then maybe war can be avoided. Unfortunately, growth of PRC nationalism and impatience to “reunify” with Taiwan threatens to erode this barrier to conflict. It’s worth noting too, that Elleman recounts in great detail the US Army LED noncombatant evacuation operation from outlying Taiwan Islands in 1955. It was a massive operation. Eventually evacuating nearly 30,000 people, military, civilian from the threat of PRC attack. I mention this because many questioned what role the US Army could really play in a Taiwan conflict today.


    Speaking of nationalism in China and impatience over the Taiwan problem, the other book you reviewed brought a unique perspective to these questions. What was that?


    Correct, The Trouble with Taiwan by Kerry Brown and Kalley Wu Tzu Hui offered a fresh, compelling take on the PRC–Taiwan problem. The authors approached the issue through the lens of identity— how history, internal politics and a host of other factors shape the way peoples define themselves and others. In fact, the authors assert that identity is, today, the key driver of the PRC–Taiwan Rift and for the potential for war. They wade through some very complex cultural dynamics in a way that makes the core issues easy to understand for a Western audience.

    Put simply, the PRC views itself as the rightful and only legitimate leadership of the Chinese nation. And because the Chinese Communist Party has so clearly and forcefully proclaimed its historical and cultural right to control and re empower the Chinese nation, the status of Taiwan is deeply and symbolically now a key component of the party’s legitimacy. In effect, Taiwan is a test case for the party itself. If it were to give up on Taiwan or fail to gain control of it, this would call into question every other sovereignty claim the PRC makes to places such as the South China Sea, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Relinquishing or failing on these claims would mean breaking up the Chinese nation, something the party simply can’t permit.

    The authors further argue that because the PRC has grown wealthier and more powerful, it feels its status has increased. And because the PRC believes it is more capable of forcefully seizing Taiwan, the PRC’s desire for so-called reunification with Taiwan is now more urgent. The authors also stress that notions of China as a civilizational force and mother culture amplify a strong Confucian sense of the PRC being an elder sibling to Taiwan and, hence, deserving of its respect. So, for the PRC, its own identity as the elder prevents any possibility that Taiwan could be of equal status or be sovereign.

    For all these reasons, the authors conclude that this is an intractable problem where “to be fully China, to have the status it wants to rank as a great global power, the PRC needs Taiwan to be part of it.”


    What hope then, is there that the Taiwan dispute can be resolved peacefully?


    Brown and Wu Tzu Hui offer that Taiwan status as a democracy is actually a powerful defense because it means that Taiwan can always say it isn’t ruling out joining with the PRC. That reunification is a possibility because its people may elect to do just that. They also point out that the growing sense of a unique Taiwanese identity—as is distinct from a Chinese identity—while concerning to the PRC, also has a deterrent value.

    The PRC should be concerned that a firm Taiwan resistance to a PLA military operation to seize the island will result in a quagmire and undercut the party’s claim to legitimacy. I’m not sure how much these factors deter the PRC, though, especially for the long term or when tensions spike again. I do agree with the authors that the problem is intractable in the sense that there is no real way the Chinese Communist Party can give up its claim to Taiwan. Persistent competition with the PRC may well be the best the US can do, by maintaining a credible deterrent through forward posture and demonstrating the clear will to defend Taiwan. But like with the Soviet Union in the end of the 20th century Cold War, I think the only way the PRC threat to Taiwan ends is if the party in Beijing collapses or experiences a revolution that completely remakes it. That’s something that will only result from internal forces and popular action.


    You also point out that US will to defend Taiwan is not clear, at least in the minds of some.


    That’s true, unfortunately. Despite the US being very clear in its statements and actions about its commitment to Taiwan since 1955, I think most that question US will do so because they don’t understand the importance of Taiwan to the United States. In the article, I discussed various aspects of that importance, particularly the economic, geographic, and military advantages the PRC would gain from seizing control of Taiwan, enabling the PRC to dominate its neighbors in the rest of the region. But really, the risk even greater than the growth of PRC power would be the damage to US power and prestig—in the region and globally.

    If the US permitted the PRC to terminate a democratic nation of almost 24 million people, how could the US credibly claim that it would stand with any other democracy in the face of a similar threat? And if the US can’t be counted on to defend other democracies, why should they look to the US for leadership on anything?

    US power starts from the idea that its form of democratic government is superior to all others, especially authoritarian ones. If the US is unwilling to defend that ideal from predators, then it effectively cedes global leadership to any other power willing to seize it. That turn of events might not be an existential threat to the United States in the short term, but it would greatly undermine US influence, wealth, and security in the long run.


    Run how does the US prevent that outcome?


    Through a serious and unambiguous commitment to maintaining a credible capability of defeating military aggression against Taiwan, by working closely with Taiwan to do just that, and by convincing the PRC that military force will not work, that they must resort to a long game of trying to win without fighting.

    Fundamentally, the PRC must be made to fear that the risk of an operation to seizeT aiwan is simply too great, and then a failure in that operation will threaten the very existence of the Communist Party. I think only by holding at risk the party’s grasp of power in Beijing will they be deterred from acting against Taiwan. All this is much easier said than done, but it’s what we must do.


    Lots of food for thought here, like always, and plenty of resources to dig into. Thanks so much for your time.


    Well, thanks again for the opportunity to discuss this today.


    If you’d like to dive deeper into the contentious and violent history of the relationship between the PRC and Taiwan, and how it impacts today’s situation, read the article at Look for volume 52, issue 4.

    If you enjoyed this episode of Decisive Point and would like to hear more, you can find us on any major podcast platform.

    Author Information: Colonel George Shatzer is the director of the Strategic Research and Analysis Department in the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College.



    Date Taken: 12.01.2022
    Date Posted: 06.20.2023 15:08
    Category: Newscasts
    Audio ID: 74953
    Filename: 2306/DOD_109718215.mp3
    Length: 00:14:11
    Artist US Army War College Press
    Album Decisive Point – Season 3
    Track # 39
    Year 2022
    Genre Podcast
    Location: US

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