Adm. Harry Harris, Prof. Michael Beckley consider PRC’s designs on Taiwan.
By George Toshio Johnston, Senior Editor
When Russia finally invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 after months of a buildup on the latter’s eastern border, both Russia and most Western observers thought Ukraine would likely fall within days, if not weeks.
Governments in the West and in East Asia immediately realized that the parallels in that situation and the one between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China — aka Taiwan — might herald an invasion of the latter by the former.
Eight months later, the world has seen that Ukraine is not only still standing and fighting back, thanks to military aid from the West and the resolve of the Ukrainian people, but it also is possible that Russia’s miscalculations might put the trajectories of both it and its leader, President Vladimir Putin, into an unrecoverable tailspin.
In the interim, speculation about the possibility of an invasion of Taiwan by China has not tapered, despite Russia’s troubles with its own military action and the realization that a land invasion is unlike invading an island separated by 100 miles of ocean from the Chinese mainland.
As the Russia-Ukraine conflict went from concern to reality, tensions between the U.S. and the PRC have increased. Examples include:
- On Feb. 11, the White House releases an 18-page document titled “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States” (see tinyurl.com/37xz4cny), the objective of which is ensuring a free, open, connected, prosperous, secure and resilient Indo-Pacific undergirded by defense treaties with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand — and the advancement of the Major Defense Partnership with India
- An Aug. 2 visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi resulted in major saber-rattling by China and aggressive military maneuvers near Taiwan
- American military support for Taiwan, meantime, was reiterated by President Joe Biden on Sept. 18 on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” a repeat of remarks he made on May 23 at a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Japan
- On Oct. 7, the Biden administration unveiled curbs on the sale of high-end semiconductors and related technology to China
- China President Xi Jinping was re-elected on Oct. 23 to his third term as the head of the Chinese Communist Party
- The Justice Department on Oct. 24 announces charges against 13 people, including suspected Chinese intelligence officers, in what is described as “a relentless effort by Beijing to steal American secrets and technology.”
Meantime, Aug. 16 saw the publication of a book titled “Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China” by Hal Brands and Michael Beckley, and on Sept. 15, a webinar titled “The Impact of the War in Ukraine on the Indo-Pacific Region” — sponsored by Japan House Los Angeles and the RAND Corp. — took place.
Both book and webinar addressed the topic of a possible China-Taiwan conflict, a situation that would inevitably draw in other regional powers — Australia, India, Japan, South Korea — and the world’s premier military power, the United States.
The webinar was moderated by RAND Corp. senior political scientist Jeffrey W. Hornung and featured introductory remarks by Consul General of Japan to Los Angeles Kenzo Sone and Japan House Los Angeles President Yuko Kaifu. The panelists included Sasakawa Peace Foundation senior research fellow Taisuke Abiru; RAND Corp. senior policy researcher Dara Massicot; and RAND Corp. senior political scientist Dr. Michael Mazarr.
Its keynote speaker was retired Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. Harris, the son of a White American father, Harry B. Harris Sr., and a native Japanese mother, Fumiko Ohno, is a 40-year Navy veteran who, before retiring in 2018, was the first Asian American to hold a four-star rank in the Navy. The pinnacle of his storied career was serving as commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (now known as the Indo-Pacific Command), after which he served as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 2018-21.
“Danger Zone” co-writer Beckley is an associate professor of political science at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
His first book, 2018’s “Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower,” uses facts and trends to make the case some might see as contrarian, that the future of the 21st century will see the U.S. remaining as the world’s dominant economic, military and political power, with China’s trajectory faltering.
The son of Barbara and Dennis Beckley, his maternal grandmother was a cousin of Gordon Hirabayashi, whose legal fight against Japanese American incarceration during WWII reached the Supreme Court. While incarcerated in a WRA Center, three of his grandmother’s younger brothers served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during WWII. One of those brothers was killed in action.
In his opening remarks made during the webinar, Harris asserted his belief that America is “at an inflection point in history” regarding the importance of the Indo-Pacific when viewed through his “twin lenses of having commanded U.S. Pacific Command and my time in South Korea as the American ambassador.”
Before beginning his assessment of the current potential threat posed by the PRC vis-à-vis Taiwan, Harris took time to emphasize the problems posed by another bellicose player in East Asia. “Why is North Korea, far away in Northeast Asia, a challenge for the entire world? Well, the answer is simple. Kim Jong Un’s missiles point in every direction.
“Today, North Korea stands out as the only nation in this century to test nuclear weapons. North Korea — toxic, despotic, erratic — is ruled with an iron fist by a brutal dictator, a man who values his pursuit of power over the prosperity and welfare of his own people. The North’s unrelenting pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them and the North’s unmitigated aggression toward the South should concern us all.”
Calling it “the elephant in the room,” Harris then moved on to address what was unmentioned in the webinar’s title: the People’s Republic of China.
“The PRC doesn’t keep its word, from Xi with the British on Hong Kong to its human rights abuses against the Uighers, Tibetans and others, to its attempts at commercial espionage, and its quest to intimidate, isolate and finally dominate Taiwan,” Harris said.
“As I testified before the U.S. Senate when I was in uniform, I believe Beijing seeks hegemony not only in East Asia, but greater Eurasia and beyond. The PRC wants to set the rules for the region and indeed the world, which is why it’s essential that free nations exercise vigilance.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Beckley, who describes the scenario and trajectory currently facing the PRC as a “peaking power” problem, a historically dangerous set of circumstances that occurs when a nation that has been consistently and robustly rising over a long period of time slumps and ends up “falling short of their sky-high ambitions” for a number of intractable factors.
It’s a situation that could just as well describe Russia and its misadventures in Ukraine. Beckley explained that countries facing the downside of the peaking power scenario don’t drift silently and willingly into decline.
“These countries, they don’t mellow out. They tend to expand abroad in a big way, both economically and militarily because they’re trying to rejuvenate their slowing economies, they’re trying to beat back rivals that might exploit their newfound vulnerabilities. And they also just want to accomplish long-standing national missions before it’s too late,” Beckley told the Pacific Citizen.
“As all Chinese leaders have said, they want to take back Taiwan, they want to take control of roughly 80 percent of the South China Sea, they want to take over parts of India that are basically the size of Austria and they want to be a dominant power in the world. And these peaking powers don’t just give up those ambitions. They try to sort of batter their way through all the headwinds that they’re facing. And so, when I started looking at just historically where you’ve seen this, it doesn’t end well.”
All the talk of the “how” the U.S. and “the Quad” — a loose grouping of America, Australia, India and Japan that could, in theory, include more like-minded nations — not to mention AUKUS, a security treaty among Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. for the Indo-Pacific region, might respond to a PRC invasion of Taiwan begs the question: Why should the U.S. care if China successfully conquers Taiwan?
Said Harris: “Taiwan is democratic, an idea factory, an imagination nation and a global force for good. I’ve called for ending the 50-year U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity in favor of strategic clarity. The new Indo-Pacific strategy specifically supports an environment in which Taiwan’s future is determined peacefully by the Taiwanese.”
From Beckley’s perspective, he told the Pacific Citizen he could “understand people saying, ‘Well, you know, who cares?’ Same thing with Ukraine, there’s a lot of people who say, ‘Well, why do we care if Russia conquers Ukraine?’”
“President (Donald) Trump used to point at his huge desk in the Oval Office and say, ‘This is China.’ And then he pointed to the end of his little Sharpie and say, ‘This is Taiwan.’ And he said, ‘China and Taiwan — there’s not a f***ing thing we can do about it.’”
From Beckley’s viewpoint, however, Taiwan is “pound-for-pound, the most strategically important place in the world.”
“You know, if the main contest in the world is between the U.S. and China, then Taiwan matters a great deal because it’s an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the heart of East Asia, it’s at the crossroads of the Indian and Pacific Oceans where nearly half of the world’s trade passes through. It would be this perfect launching pad for further Chinese expansion.”
Regarding China’s territorial claims, Beckley said, “They don’t stop at Taiwan. They, in some ways, begin at Taiwan.”
As for a “when,” Harris said, “My successor in Indo-Pacific Command testified before Congress last year that the PRC could invade Taiwan in six years. That’s 2027. We ignore Adm. Davidson’s warning at our peril.”
That’s not to say a Chinese plan for an invasion of Taiwan is either imminent or inevitable. As former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson supposedly once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” something that Russia has learned over the eight months since its planned blitzkrieg on Ukraine turned into a quagmire.
Harris and Beckley gave their thoughts on what might China and its President Xi might be learning from Russia’s experience. One unintended consequence Harris pointed out was that the invasion threw “a giant monkey wrench into Xi’s plans” because one of his goals was to maintain “stability in the international order so that he has time to shape that order to his favor.”
Instead, Harris said, “The very things that he seeks to weaken — the West, the U.S., the UN, our alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia —are coming together with Ukraine as a catalyst.”
“You can be assured, however, that Xi Jinping is watching Ukraine closely and learning. He’s learning that control of the internet is vital. And I believe he’s wondering — he’s wondering if his army is as bad as Russia’s appears to be, if his generals are as inept as Russia’s appear to be, if his navy is as vulnerable as the Black Sea Fleet appears to be. And, he’s wondering if he could first replicate for himself, then overcome the amazing American logistics machine.”
Beckley wondered if the takeaway from Russia’s experiences might actually embolden China.
“The Chinese are very derisive of the Russians. They see themselves as much more capable and competent than the Russians,” he said. It’s not that they have learned that they should not attempt to conquer Taiwan — rather, it’s if you do it, “you’ve got to go big and brutal from the start.”
“Don’t allow that target to be resupplied by the international community, don’t allow their military to fight back, you just got to wipe them out in a massive first strike. And frankly, this is what Chinese military writings and doctrine have been calling for, for decades.
“Their war plan, their Plan A, has always been to carry out a sort of Pearl Harbor-style strike on Taiwanese bases to basically wipe out Taiwan’s offensive forces before they can get off the ground and as well as to do that on Okinawa on the basis of the American bases there, so that the U.S. is sort of crippled and has to then send enforcers from over the horizon.”
The U.S., however, has also learned some lessons. Beckley noted how, after Pelosi visited Taiwan, the PRC put on a “a show of force” to let the world know it could, if necessary, “blockade Taiwan.” For Harris, that show of force following the Pelosi visit had an unintended — or in a Machiavellian way, not-so-unintended — effect.
“We learned more from that than they did,” he said. “We know a lot more about Chinese strategy and tactics, communications capabilities and all of that then I think that they intended.” Harris also pointed out that in warfare, “experience matters.”
“The PRC hasn’t fought a fight since 1979. There, they had their asses handed to them by Vietnam,” Harris said. “So, they’re not tested. No one who served in combat for the PRC against Vietnam is in uniform today, or if they are, they’re only just a handful. … That’s a significant issue. They’ve had some skirmishes with India on the northern frontier, but that doesn’t count. So, they haven’t been tested.”
While the military capabilities of the PRC circa 1979 vs. its capabilities now may be vastly different, Beckley pointed out in “Unrivaled” that though China’s military is huge, it is also “surrounded by 19 countries,” many of which are hostile toward its recent actions — and that puts a drain on China’s capabilities, “something that we in the United States take for granted, like border security — and also internal unrest. So much of China’s military forces are devoted to those missions before they even start projecting power abroad.”
One of the unknown factors in a conflict is the resolve of the people living in a particular nation or region. When the U.S left Afghanistan, its military put up little fight against the Taliban. When Russia invaded Ukraine, it was a different story.
“The resolve of the Ukrainian people surprised not only Russia, but it also surprised us as well,” Harris said. “I have no doubts about Taiwan’s willingness to fight and die for their country.”