15 Apr 2015

Asymmetric naval warfare in the Taiwan Strait

The recent landing in Taiwan by two USMC F/A-18C Hornet, allegedly due to a mechanical fault and the object of a prompt protest by Beijing, has served as a reminder of the Island’s key location. Sitting astride essential sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), halfway between Japan and South East Asia and between China and the open sea, Formosa remains as strategically located as ever, witness to the perennial importance, some would say tyranny, of geography. Taiwan is also uniquely located in terms of culture and intelligence gathering, as stressed by Ian Easton and Randall Schriver, who wrote “If knowledge is power, then no country in the world is better positioned to influence the course of political and security affairs in the Asia-Pacific region than Taiwan. The importance of Taiwan’s strategic location in the heart of East Asia and the Western Pacific for collecting information and monitoring regional events cannot be overstated. Nor can its unique ability to simultaneously access the linguistic and cultural landscapes of the Chinese, Japanese, and English speaking worlds”. Beijing’s dreams and ambitions will not be fulfilled while Formosa remains in hostile hands, her neutralization or “Finlandization” being the very least the PRC needs in order to become the mistress of her nearby seas. This, without entering the equally important and rather thorny question of national identity and the narrative that China will not be whole until she has regained that wayward province which has changed hands so many times, ending up in the most dangerous of all for any despotic ruler: those of her own people. Democratization may have made unification with China a distant proposition short of force or duress, but it is precisely because there is no clear majority in favor of this option, even among those in the Island who self-identify as Chinese in ethnic or cultural terms, that Beijing has little room to seek genuine peace in the Taiwan Strait. Peace, understood as much more than the mere absence of hostilities, would require the recognition of the people of Taiwan as a political subject, able to determine themselves their own future, including the degree to which they may or may not choose to hold certain political links to the PRC. Since this is anathema to Chinese leaders, and the country’s Han population at large, it is clear that we are facing a long, protracted confrontation, which may be more or less intense at times, and need not necessarily result in an open, conventional, conflict, but which will not simply go away. In that scenario, a key question is how best Taiwan can protect her de facto sovereignty so that she may preserve her freedom to decide her own future. Lately, a growing number of observers have put forward the view that the best alternative for Taipei is to rely on asymmetric warfare, rather than try to compete head on with Beijing in conventional terms. In square terms, James R. Holmes has made it clear that “Taiwan can no longer command the sea”. Hope is not lost though, since, he added “’sea denial’ lies within its modest means”. Not dissimilar to what Iran decided in the wake of her navy’s poor performance against operation Praying Mantis, prompting concern in US naval circles given the unsatisfactory results of the Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC02) war games, whose “results were disastrous for the U.S., with over a dozen ships destroyed and thousands killed or wounded as a result of asymmetric and unconventional naval warfare”. “The case of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy constitutes an example of a

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