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This week on “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell talks with former senior CIA analysts Chris Johnson, president and CEO of China Strategies Group, and John Culver, former national intelligence officer for East Asia, about China-Taiwan relations in the wake of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taipei.
Culver describes China’s military response as both “unprecedented” and showing restraint, never escalating to a point where Taiwan had to make a use of force decision. He also discussed what a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would entail— a national mobilization that requiring not only the People’s Liberation Army but also the whole Chinese economy and society.
Johnson focuses on the concerns China has over legislation being considered in Congress that the PRC believes would erode the one-China policy.
China’s military response to Pelosi’s Taiwan visit: JOHN CULVER: “They didn’t take any action last week that would have compelled Taiwan to consider taking, you know, shooting at Chinese aircraft or vessels. And so that shows there were constraints here. So on one level, it was unprecedented, especially the number of exercise areas around Taiwan, the firing of ballistic missiles, aircraft crossing over the medium line of Taiwan’s ADIZ. But they didn’t compel Taiwan to make a use of force decision.”
China’s message to Taiwan: JOHN CULVER: “I don’t think we saw anything near the scale of what we’d see in the event of a real military assault on Taiwan, even a blockade scenario, let alone an invasion. Because if China were really going to finally drop everything and decide that they were going to compel unification, it would involve national mobilization, not only of the PLA, but the entire Chinese economy and society. So this is not a rehearsal of anything like that scale, but it did send a signal to the population, something that China is careful to do only when they want to, which is that they could have to set aside their expectations regarding economic growth and peaceful international relations and be ready to think about what they need to do for the motherland in wartime.”
China’s concerns about erosion of One-China policy by Congress: CHRIS JOHNSON: “I think the visits actually are probably only one half of the problem from China’s perspective. There’s also a slew of these bills working their way through Congress that would fundamentally erode, arguably, the underpinnings of the one-China policy, especially in terms of potentially declaring Taiwan a major non-NATO military ally. This is the Taiwan Policy Act that’s going through Congress right now, and probably more importantly from China’s perspective, would allow for the pre-positioning of ammunition and other supplies on Taiwan at the U.S. taxpayers expense. And we only have those arrangements with our closest allies in the region, as you know. So that just is not tolerable for Beijing.”
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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – CHRIS JOHNSON AND JOHN CULVER
PRODUCER: PAULINA SMOLINSKI
MICHAEL MORELL: Chris, John, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It’s great to have you on the show again. And it’s terrific to have you together. I’m really looking forward to the conversation, so welcome.
CHRIS JOHNSON: Thank you. Same here.
JOHN CULVER: Great to be with you, Michael.
MICHAEL MORELL: So we are going to jump right in here to a discussion about the Chinese response to Speaker Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan. We really want to unpack everything here. And Chris, I’m going to start with you. Why did the Chinese respond aggressively to the speaker’s visit? What are the factors that drove them to do that? I really want to understand the Chinese mindset here.
CHRIS JOHNSON: Sure. And it’s sort of a complicated at some level mindset and not complicated at all in another. I think there are really three primary factors. The first was Beijing and the Politburo’s perception that the United States, through what the Chinese have recently been referring to as ‘salami slicing tactics’, which is somewhat ironic given that the U.S. used to refer to their actions in the South China Sea as ‘salami slicing tactics.’ There’s a lot of salami being thrown around. That the U.S. has been steadily eroding its commitment to the one-China policy. That’s the main factor that the Chinese say, of course, is the foundation for the US-China relationship. So in other words, if the U.S. is signaling Beijing that at least de facto and probably increasingly China worries de jure at some point, the U.S. is abandoning the one-China policy. Then there really isn’t much else to talk about in terms of bilateral relations.
And moreover, in the past, when they assessed that the U.S. was heading in this direction, they been quick to take what we might call demonstrative action to warn the U.S. to correct its course. So, for example, we saw this on display the last time the Chinese launch missiles into the Taiwan Strait in the 1995-96 episode. And I’m sure we’ll talk a lot more about that today. But we saw it again early, much more recently, early in the Trump administration, when President Trump hinted publicly that he might just outright abandon the one-China policy ahead of his summit meeting with Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago early in the administration. And, of course, in that instance, Xi basically cut off all communications with Washington, including on North Korea, which was obviously a very hot topic at the time, until Trump basically genuflected and repeated the one-China catechism publicly.
I think what’s interesting about this most recent case, though, is that it’s an accumulation of actions by the U.S., not just these one offs as in those two previous episodes, including public discussion of abandoning our policy of strategic ambiguity concerning the defense of Taiwan and insistence on publicizing things such as FONOPs, which I’m sure John will talk more about, in the Strait and the presence of U.S. troops on Taiwan, for example, that we used to keep quiet. And a whole array of other actions that led them, I think, to conclude the message was necessary.
And I think that’s a natural follow on to the second factor, which was an awareness on the part of Xi Jinping and his Politburo colleagues that Pelosi’s visit may in fact just be a harbinger of things to come. In other words, although they certainly do not like Speaker Pelosi, given her long extended activism, I think on China, human rights issues, Tibet, things like that. This was more about her standing as the number three in the line of succession. Something that the Chinese actually harped on a lot in their formal responses to the visit. We also had, of course, 25 years between the last visit by a Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich in 1997, and Pelosi’s trip. But then Minority Leader McCarthy made clear in his public statements around the Pelosi visit that he would be very keen to undertake another visit soon after succeeding Pelosi should the midterm elections produce that result.
As we’re seeing today, just 12 days after Pelosi’s visit, we have another congressional delegation, this time led by Senator Markey of Massachusetts on the ground in Taipei. But I think the visits actually are probably only one half of the problem from China’s perspective. There’s also a slew of these bills working their way through Congress that would fundamentally erode, arguably, the underpinnings of the one-China policy, especially in terms of potentially declaring Taiwan a major non-NATO military ally. This is the Taiwan Policy Act that’s going through Congress right now, and probably more importantly from China’s perspective, would allow for the pre-positioning of ammunition and other supplies on Taiwan at the U.S. taxpayers expense. And we only have those arrangements with our closest allies in the region, as you know. So that just is not tolerable for Beijing. So my sense is that China did the exercises in that instance because they know this is only going to get worse. And they wanted to put the White House on notice that they’re willing to escalate.
And quickly, the third reason, obviously, has to do with the Politburo’s concerns about developments on Taiwan itself. They obviously will be holding municipal elections in late November, right around the same time as our midterm elections, that while they don’t have much policy significance in and of themselves, they could witness the virtual destruction, for lack of a better term, of the opposition party, the Guomindang, as a viable electoral enterprise. And of course the KMT is China’s preferred political party in Taiwan. That would mean more freedom of action for President Tsai Ing-wen’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which is, of course, the more independence oriented party on the island.
And like the U.S. then Taiwan, will hold its next presidential election in 2024. Tsai cannot run again, which makes Beijing nervous probably about what she might do in her lame duck time. And the possible implosion of the KMT obviously makes it very likely that her successor would be another DPP President. And from what we know about the available candidates there, they’re almost certain to be even more pro-independence than she is. So I think those three factors combined really drove this response.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, walk us through how the Chinese responded militarily. Outline what they did and of that, what was unprecedented.
JOHN CULVER: With the 1995-1996 military demonstrations over then President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the U.S. – it was sort of that on steroids. But the unprecedented things we saw were primarily the announcement by China of missile impact areas in the waters surrounding Taiwan. So in the mid nineties, they announced one closure area in 1995 and then two in 1996. This time we had seven, and they fired ballistic missiles into at least three of them, including one on the far eastern side of Taiwan, where the ballistic missiles flew over the island and indeed, Taipei.
Now, these were exo-atmospheric when they flew over Taipei, they were in space about 200 nautical miles up. But nonetheless, they had never done that. And the other really unprecedented thing in the missile domain was these are the kind of closure areas, and indeed, the Chinese referred to these as blockade drills. So one tactic China could employ in a more dire situation would be to announce a full economic blockade that would be enforced by the Chinese Navy and the Coast Guard, which we didn’t see last week, but would also be enforced by the threat that ballistic missiles will be fired. So any commercial vessels or military vessels that are seeking to break the blockade could be subject to sort of random missile bombardment.
We also saw a real increase in the flights on the Taiwan Strait by the Chinese Air Force and the Chinese Navy, which has its own fighter component, fighter aircraft component. We’ve all gotten used to seeing them fly into what’s called the extreme southwest corner of the ADIZ since 2019. That means flights into Taiwan’s air identification zone, which in the westernmost part runs right down the middle of the Taiwan Strait.
So the Chinese have been flying in to Taiwan’s ADIZ, if you will, air defense identification zone, pretty frequently since 2019. But they’ve always done it in the spot where it was furthest from- it was as far as you could be from the island of Taiwan and still be inside the ADIZ.
What they did during the most recent exercises was to fly much closer to the area right off Taiwan, like just north of the island and just south of the island. And at the speeds that these aircraft move at, if you’re at the center line, you’re 5 minutes from being over the island. So it puts a lot of stress on Taiwan’s air force and their surface to air missile units to monitor the situation.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, was there was there something that the Chinese did vis a vis Japan that was unprecedented here?
JOHN CULVER: Some of the missiles they fired over Taiwan that landed in that missile impact area to the east of the island, also fell into an area Japan claims as its exclusive economic zone. So it was really something that drove a domestic reaction in Japan. I’m not sure what international law says about missiles falling in your economic exclusive economic zone, although it gives Japan, which is a very adroit user of its EEZ’s to kind of claim extra territorial rights. It definitely had- it amplified the impact in Japan that these were close enough and the conclusion that was being drawn in Tokyo was- if China goes to war with Taiwan, it’s not going to be over there. It’s going to be right here.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, anything that they didn’t do that was interesting?
JOHN CULVER: Yeah. Compared to the mid-nineties, they did not stage large amphibious exercises opposite Taiwan. That was a key feature of their mid-nineties display.
The other thing they didn’t do is, and there was some dispute over this from the sources I can see on the Internet, mostly Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, which is very good and timely. And the Japanese government was also very timely with some of the information, for example, about the missiles falling in their EEZ. They didn’t fly inside Taiwan’s territorial waters nor sail vessels within sight, within Taiwan’s territorial waters.
And if I could kind of take that to a higher level, they didn’t take any action last week that would have compelled Taiwan to consider taking, you know, shooting at Chinese aircraft or vessels. And so that shows there were constraints here. So on one level, it was unprecedented, especially the number of exercise areas around Taiwan, the firing of ballistic missiles, aircraft crossing over the medium line of Taiwan’s ADIZ. But they didn’t compel Taiwan to make a use of force decision.
And before this exercise, some folks were concerned that in the event of another flare up, you would see Chinese aircraft go right over the island of Taiwan daring them to shoot. So on the one hand, it’s kind of sort of reassuring that they didn’t take that step. But it also means, you know, to mix metaphors, that the Chinese have some saved rounds. Where if there is additional behavior by Taiwan or the United States where they need to up the ante and and demonstrate something even more serious, those are the kind of steps you could see them taking.
MICHAEL MORELL: Chris, I’m going to ask John some more military questions here in a second. But in addition to the Chinese military reaction, did we see other Chinese reactions to the Pelosi visit outside the military realm?
CHRIS JOHNSON: Yeah, it’s interesting in that perhaps surprisingly, they really didn’t do a lot in those other domains. If we want to talk about sort of diplomatic or economic things or even in the sort of information space. There were obviously some things that happened. They did induce boycotts of certain Taiwan products, but it was very focused on agricultural products.
You know, some folks had suggested, ‘Well, then it’s not really that big a deal. They didn’t, you know, do anything with semiconductors, for example, or anything like that.’ But if you’re the DPP President Tsai’s party, you do care about that because that’s where your base is, is in those agricultural growing areas of Taiwan. And what they did do, I think in those spaces we could largely call performative.
So, for example, they did place these personal sanctions on Speaker Pelosi and her relatives, but didn’t really specify what those would entail. Some previous such sanctions, I think, had prohibited visits to China or Hong Kong or are doing business there. But, you know, that would probably have little meaningful impact on the Speaker as underscored by her basically laughing it off in her public commentary. Obviously, they also suspended all the major dialogues with the U.S., including those on sort of the few remaining areas where the two countries have been working together somewhat cooperatively, such as climate change. And I think the other one was counter-narcotics. And they suspended, of course, the main working level U.S.-China military to military dialogues.
But you could say that that’s almost been kind of F-5 on their computer, given how many times they’ve done that in the past for much lesser offenses, for example, arms sales and so on. You can argue, though, that the cut off basically eliminates any hope for moving forward with what the Biden administration has repeatedly, publicly signals its interest in, in terms of these discussions on what they call military and security guardrails. In other words, things that are designed to prevent things from going off the rails. And I think obviously, given what we’ve just seen, those are probably more necessary than ever.
I think probably this suspension may also put an end to some hopes that some of the administration, and I think on the Chinese side had that with the potential and likely probable face to face meeting between Biden and Xi in November, either at the G-20 meeting in Bali or the APEC summit in Thailand, or perhaps both, that that would have allowed for some of those kind of long now dormant working level discussions that traditionally precede an in-person summit to create the impetus for some kind of new, more sustainable dialogue mechanism that might have taken place after that meeting. So one indicator there I think will be to see how long the Chinese choose to keep these dialogues in the in the deep freeze.
And just per our discussion a moment ago on Japan, perhaps the more interesting thing to me was what we might call the informal use of the exercises to send diplomatic messages. So again, the landing of these five missiles in Japan’s exclusive economic zone was unprecedented, clearly meant to remind Tokyo that there are costs to supporting the U.S. and Taiwan in a future clash and that U.S. facilities certainly like the Kadena Airbase are within easy range of Chinese missiles. And I think on that score, the Pelosi visit arguably handed China the opportunity they’ve been looking for for probably the last couple of years to be able to signal Japan that Beijing is taking note of Tokyo’s shift from largely rhetorical or back up support in Taiwan scenarios to a more integrated and forward leaning posture.
So it was no surprise, for example, that a Japanese diet delegation led by a former defense minister just happened to be in Taipei just days before Pelosi’s arrival. That obviously stokes all of Beijing’s paranoia about Japanese militarism and so on, and especially now that the tragic assassination of former Prime Minister Abe means his ghost, if we want to call it that, will be hanging over even more prominently the Kishida government as it considers measures like revising Japan’s peace constitution, something that Abe obviously sought to do but was never able to achieve. And then just lastly, I think the missile firings around the east side of Taiwan send a pretty powerful signal to Southeast Asian countries about China’s ability to disrupt major maritime shipping channels in, say, the Strait of Luzon, for example.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, let me come back to you with a couple of questions. One is, how help to the Chinese is it to have been able to conduct these these military exercises? How helpful to them from a military training perspective?
JOHN CULVER: I would call it marginal probably. There were some some facets, though, that were probably very useful for them. This is the first large public exercise by a command entity called Eastern Theater Command, which was stood up six years ago and probably has done training. But this is the first time it’s stood up in something approaching kind of a crisis mode.
So, I don’t know if you’ve been to some U.S. military exercises. They teach what’s called battle rhythm. They show 24 hour operations and the effect that has on command staff and command staff effectiveness. It gives you a chance to move some muscles, in this case, mostly the Chinese Air Force, the rocket force, and in some aspects of the Navy. But it didn’t have any scale. And among the things they didn’t see, even though they called this a blockade drill, if China were going to do a real blockade or quarantine of Taiwan, it would primarily fall on the Navy and the Coast Guard. And we saw very limited naval involvement in these drills last week and no Coast Guard involvement. So it wasn’t a rehearsal for the real thing in that regard.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, that’s a great transition to the second question I had, which is from what we saw the Chinese do. Did we learn anything about how they might conduct a military operation to force Taiwan back into the fold?
JOHN CULVER: I think we got a pretty good example at limited scale of what a joint firepower strike would look like, either in a blockade scenario or in a more aggressive campaign that would include missiles targeting the island of Taiwan, and especially high priority military leadership or economic targets there. As you know, any military exercise by a foreign military, an adversary is a bonanza usually for all intelligence services, because they do things you don’t normally seen them do.
You know, they have to move to the field. They have to operate in something approaching wartime mode. They may activate a broader array of their sensor networks, so you’ll find that there’s a lot to go through afterward typically in these scenarios. I don’t think we saw anything near the scale of what we’d see in the event of a real military assault on Taiwan, even a blockade scenario, let alone an invasion.
Because if China were really going to finally drop everything and decide that they were going to compel unification, it would involve national mobilization, not only of the PLA, but the entire Chinese economy and society. So this is not a rehearsal of anything like that scale, but it did send a signal to the population, something that China is careful to do only when they want to, which is that they could have to set aside their expectations regarding economic growth and peaceful international relations and be ready to think about what they need to do for the motherland in wartime.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, because of the Pelosi visit, what do you think might be different in a year or more in terms of PLA operations near Taiwan? How China responds to U.S. Navy transits through the Taiwan Straits, freedom of navigation operations, say in the South China Sea or surveillance and reconnaissance operations off of China’s coast.
JOHN CULVER: The exercise that Chinese announced lasted from, I think the third of August to the eighth or the seventh our time. It is hard with the international dateline to figure out sometimes. But the thing is, the PLA activity didn’t stop. Chris earlier mentioned Senator Markey’s delegation landed in Taiwan yesterday. The Chinese then announced they were going to do additional drills.
And the thing is, with what we’re seeing, at least as far as I can tell from the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense is the same activity that continued after the exercise following Pelosi’s departure, which is there are aircraft flying over the middle of the center line, which is something the Chinese didn’t do prior to the Pelosi visit. And those have continued every day since the formal exercise was wrapped up. So it’s a case where they aren’t doing anything different than they were doing two days ago. But they’re announcing it. So they’re turning it into a signal.
I think we do live in a new normal now. I think things that Chinese had avoided that they then set precedents breaking last week. They’re going to keep doing, especially on the center line and then probably flights around the island. One thing that didn’t get a lot of attention, but was also discussed by Taiwan military sources openly was there were Chinese unmanned vehicles flying around the eastern side of the island.
So, all the way on the other side from where China sits, you had long range Chinese reconnaissance drones flying around. And I think we’re going to see just a heightened tempo of activity, not continuously, but similar to what they’ve done in the Senkaku since that issue heated up with Japan in 2012, where to this very day the Chinese are demonstrating a new normal where every month or so they will send Coast Guard ships inside the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands. And so I think that that’s a very good demonstration.
It’s been decades, 20 years since the PLA was what you might call a noisy demonstration force. When challenged over sovereignty, and we’ve seen this on the Indian border and in the South China Sea, they don’t just bang trash can lids and complain loudly. They change the status quo. And I think that’s what we’re seeing with Taiwan now.
MICHAEL MORELL: Chris, let me come back to you with a couple of questions on the political front. First will this episode have any effect, do you think, on the 20th Party Congress or China’s overall Taiwan policy or its overall approach to the U.S.?
CHRIS JOHNSON: I think it certainly has the potential to, as John was just saying, on the approach to the U.S., I do think they are trying to signal a new normal in the way they operate. They are trying to get our attention. And I think that’s been something that is really a takeaway or should be a takeaway for the U.S. administration in this is that why did they do what they just did? And we may come back to this at some point in talking about the administration’s reaction, but it was because they felt they weren’t being listened to or if they were being listened to, they were being ignored. That obviously is something that then would seem to cause them to feel, ‘well, maybe we have to do even more.’ So I think that’s important.
In terms of the 20th Party Congress, what was fascinating to me in the run up to Pelosi’s visit was what seemed, again, to use my earlier analogy, to be something akin to F-5 on a lot of people’s computers or laptops, which was this idea that Xi Jinping can’t afford right now to be humiliated or to look weak because he’s in the run up to the 20th Party Congress seeking this sort of unusual or atypical third term and maybe more in office. And therefore, because of that, there was this impression that he was sort of perhaps unpredictable. And that if Pelosi even when at all, he may not be able to control the desire to do something really demonstrative, kind of what John was suggesting earlier in terms of actual response.
So we saw this in some of the reactions from the Chinese public where they sort of reacted themselves to Beijing’s clear misplaying of its propaganda and saying, ‘well, we’re going to escort the flight down and we’re going to not allow this to happen and so on.’ And then when it did, the public was sort of like, ‘what’s going on there?’ And the point is that because Xi Jinping is so firmly in charge, especially of the military, he was in full control of the situation all along. And that’s an important thing to get right in terms of your analytic call. Is he really weak or under pressure or is he strong and in control? Because it gives you a sense of what you could do in response without escalation.
To give an example in that space, in that 1995-96 episode, it was exactly the opposite situation. Jiang Zemin, who was the president at the time, had not fully consolidated his control over the PLA. He literally was almost grabbed by the lapels by these cranky, revolutionary, credentialed generals who said we’re going to do something, even though they had real concerns about missiles potentially going awry and so on. We did not see that in this scenario. And in fact, just to draw that contrast, what we did see was Xi Jinping right as that was all going on, being escorted around by the top uniformed officer in the PLA, in a new display in the military museum in Beijing, highlighting up Xi’s many achievements and his control over the military. So I think that’s a very significant difference in that respect.
MICHAEL MORELL: Chris, why don’t we take on the Biden administration point right now. Do you have any insight into how they thought about the Pelosi trip before the trip? We heard the president say the U.S. military was opposed right now. Does the White House see an upside? Did they see this as a net negative? Did they try to talk her out of it? What’s your sense?
CHRIS JOHNSON: I think it’s at some level it’s impossible really for us to know exactly what went on. But I think what we can say is that if the administration did try to talk her out of the trip, and I think that’s an open question, their response seemed what I would call sort of both late and disjointed, late in the sense that when Speaker Pelosi initially postponed her trip in April after contracting COVID, you could make the case the White House then had four months to quietly persuade her that this was not a good idea. They apparently did not do that and then may have, depending on which media story you read, leaked the news that she was considering a new trip to the media, which immediately put the White House on the defensive in terms of perception management and so on.
The disjointed part of it, I think, of their response was Biden’s public comments, as you mentioned, that the military thought the trip was a bad idea, which I think was probably read both domestically and by foreign allies and partners, that somehow he needed to use that as a crutch of sorts to control someone from his own party when the Constitution makes clear that the president can make foreign policy. So it looked a bit disjointed.
Also, there seemed to have been a sort of painful back and forth that played out in the media in media leaks after the trip where the administration seemed to be trying to throw Pelosi under the bus for the trip, and then her side seemed to push back. So no one looked authoritative in a moment where the increase in tensions makes doing so incredibly important. I’m glad you raised the domestic political angle. I would say, again, we can’t really know what was going on in President Biden’s mind, but my sense would be that his reasons for not blocking the trip probably were three.
One, I think he has a genuine like for Speaker Pelosi, but more importantly, probably, as a 40 year veteran of the Senate himself, he probably is sympathetic to that idea that congressional leaders view that their institutional prerogatives grant them some role in foreign policy.
Second, obviously, it wouldn’t be a good look to have a major public spat between the number one and number two Democrats at a time where their prospects for the midterms might be modestly improving.
And three, I think he was concerned about looking soft on China in a way that would provide what we might call red meat to to Republicans.
So to your point, note that all three of these motives are exclusively in the domestic realm, which might lend some credibility or weight to Henry Kissinger’s comments around the time of the visit that for far too long U.S. policy toward China has primarily been being driven by the ever worsening domestic political narrative around China. And that approach also raises real questions then, I think, around whether or not President Biden is too weak politically to be able to conduct that pure realist, national interest focused foreign policy when the circumstances require it.
And then just quickly, as to whether the U.S. saw any upside to the trip, I think that could be reflected in their what I would call their ‘nothing to see here’ response to the exercises. By caricaturing China’s response as that of a sort of child throwing a tantrum or schoolyard bully. I think the administration may have been trying to kind of sharpen the comparison to Russia as part of its efforts to promote this narrative of a Russia China new axis with the goal of mobilizing domestic audiences for a policy of sort of a forward leaning strategic competition with China, while perhaps also trying to win hearts and minds, I guess you could say, among allied country officialdom and the general public. If that was some of the motivations for adopting the stance, it’s unclear to me how effective that may be or have been.
If, for example, China did what it did, as I mentioned earlier, because it wants it felt Washington wasn’t hearing it, a response that emphasizes ignoring China’s actions, in my mind would seem to incentivize them to kind of turn it up to 11 as John was suggesting. And I think likewise, there was some at least initial critical response from close allies like the Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong that pretty strongly hinted that the U.S. kind of foisted this crisis on us for no good reason at a time where in Australia’s case they’re trying to make some moves toward repairing their own relationship with Beijing.
MICHAEL MORELL: I want to kind of close here by looking out and talking about under what circumstances China might decide to use force against Taiwan and then whether their capabilities are such that they can do that now or do they need more time? And John, let me start with you on that question Are there improvements in their capabilities that the Chinese would want in place before they had to or chose to use force?
JOHN CULVER: The short answer yes. But then big, big caveat. If Taiwan, backed by especially the United States, took a step toward permanent separation tomorrow, China would go to war tomorrow. So it isn’t just a military calculation that there are a few more turns of the screw and tightening of the bolts and then the PLA is going to be ready.
And that will drive China’s decision. It will remain a political decision. And I think even for Xi Jinping, I think Chris characterized his consolidation of power pretty correctly. But even for Xi, Taiwan is a crisis to be avoided, not an opportunity to be seized. So if China can avoid a series of circumstances where they feel compelled to go to war, they will always want to further improve military capabilities to give them a higher sense of success. And the main things that are still lacking are net amphibious lift, the ability to manage large scale U.S. intervention, which they could never discount.
MICHAEL MORELL: What’s the first one again?
JOHN CULVER: Amphibious lift. It’s interesting. They’ve built a very modern military and a very large and modern navy, but they haven’t built the essential vessels that they would need, especially the more expendable, smaller ones that would ensure success in an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. If they have to move 150,000 troops across the Taiwan Strait. They can maybe do a fifth of that today.
So, unless you want to entertain notions that they’re going to get very creative with helicopters and aircraft and try to do things that most military experts think would be bad ideas, why try to do an airborne assault or use a lot of merchant ships which can look great on paper, but they still need a port. So, if you need to seize a beachhead, then you’re going to need flat bottomed amphibious assault vessels. And the number of dedicated LSTs that China has is actually declined over the last ten years. So they have left of that kind of dedicated and expendable lift than they did a decade ago.
What they have built are some really big ships, not just aircraft carriers, but helicopter carriers and big things called amphibious docks. But again, those are big, capable ships that are great if you want to impress people in the South China Sea, do you really want to lose it off a beach off the coast of Taiwan? Because that’s a very nonexpendable asset, any of those vessels. So I think you need to see something more along those lines.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, John, in addition to some capability building on the amphibious front, is there anything else that the Chinese would need to do to significantly increase their chances of being successful in a reunification by force scenario?
JOHN CULVER: We are on the right track. I mean, one of the things that’s worried long-time analysts like me of the PLA is that they’ve made very few wrong moves for the last 20 years. So they’ve built a lot of regional strike capability. They’ve effectively targeted every pillar of U.S. power projection in East Asia, from carrier battle groups to our bases in the region, our reliance on air power, our ability, our need to be able to control space and long-range communications. So the main thing they need is larger ability to have a highly assured amphibious landing capability and then the ability to gain air superiority over Taiwan, whether the U.S. intervenes or not.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then, Chris, back to you on sort of the politics of all this and the political decision making. John said if they had to go to war now, they would. Under what circumstances – a Taiwanese declaration of independence – under what circumstances would they go to war? Is it a declaration of independence? Is it a referendum on independence that passes? Is it an official change in our one China policy? What would force their hand at this point?
CHRIS JOHNSON: Right. I think certainly probably all of those that you just highlighted would be things that would in their mind feel that they would have to do something more than just demonstrative, as I mentioned earlier. I’d just refer back probably to the top of our discussion in terms of their motivations for this recent demonstration that we’ve just seen. And to put it in a bumper sticker form, as long as their perception remains that the U.S. is moving toward de facto support for Taiwan independence, they will be more inclined to warn the U.S. of the potential consequences of those actions through a continuation of what John referred to earlier as the new normal.
I do think I would just highlight as well, coming back to what I said earlier, what’s been interesting in this episode was that it was not one specific action. Lee Teng-hui gets a visit to the United States, the former Taiwan President, that kicked off the 1995-96 episode. Or President Trump making public commentary.
This was an accumulation of U.S. actions over time, many of which never came to fruition, right? Yes, there was a debate about abandoning strategic ambiguity, but it was basically quashed by President Biden, in my understanding. Thank goodness for that.
So, in other words, we’re getting into this weird space now where they may feel increasingly that they have to do something, barring a you know, if it’s short of a formal declaration of independence or a formal acknowledgement by the U.S. of something crazy like diplomatic relations. I say something crazy, but people like former Secretary Pompeo and other Republican potential presidential candidates have discussed this as a possibility in their public remarks and so on. And that all, I think, contributes to Beijing’s concerns.
We may find ourselves increasingly in that position where what we traditionally thought were the very few and very unlikely red lines that they absolutely would have to react to. Maybe it would be something different in the future. And I think that’s a very important distinction.
MICHAEL MORELL: We have we have 2 minutes left. So I’m going to give each of you a minute to answer a final question for me, which is, are you at all concerned that the anti-China politics here in the U.S. and the nationalism, the growing nationalism, that we see in China partly stoked by Xi himself, could lead to a war that no one really wants. John, why don’t you go first?
JOHN CULVER: Not as a direct cause, but certainly as an atmospheric, where if you have another event more serious from a Chinese perspective than a Pelosi visit or military action by China, more serious than their reaction to Pelosi’s visit, then you have to worry about a perfect storm scenario, where things less than a clear cut cost for China or a clear cut actions by China that the U.S. feels it needs to respond to militarily can operate in a different environment than we were used to say 20 years ago. Where you have a pretty by strong bipartisan consensus to be strong against China. And it’s that one of these episodes turns into something more like a Cuban missile crisis, if not, the U.S. China war, that it actually becomes not just a debatable crisis the U.S. says didn’t, you know, shouldn’t have risen to that level, but one that actually causes major risk of direct conflict.
CHRIS JOHNSON: Yeah, I agree with that. I would just come back to what we were talking about earlier where we did see some aspect of this on display on the Chinese side, where it was very clear that the party had misplayed its hand in terms of making a lot of heavy noise about somehow preventing Speaker Pelosi from visiting, that this was not allowed to happen. So we saw things, there are folks who track what appears on Weibo, Chinese social media very carefully. And there was a great line that someone had up there about, ‘the security guard at my compound, he’s asleep half the time but he does a better job of keeping people out who aren’t supposed to be in.’ So there was a day or two where it looked like they’d misplayed it. What also though was interesting was how quickly through the exercises and their very smart packaging of media and photo op and other things. They were able to get that back on track and make the Chinese people kind of feel like, ‘okay, we’ve shown them that we’re serious.’
It’s always very difficult, I think, in this space as well. Both whether you want to say that the sentiment in the U.S. is sort of anti-China or this nationalism stuff on China. There is always that ‘it could go out of control.’ So you sound a bit like Chicken Little, right, if you’re constantly focusing on that. Yet it could go out of control. These things are very, very difficult. More troubling from the U.S. side, just to close, would be the issue of all these bills some of which have really serious provisions that are going through Congress. In this environment we’re going into, we’re just going to see more and more of that activity. Typically you might say, ‘well, the cooler heads will prevail and that stuff will be edited out of the bills.’ I’m not so sure.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, Chris, thank you so much for joining us today. Fascinating discussion. Thank you.
First published on August 17, 2022 / 1:27 PM
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