What threat is causing China to build its first aircraft carrier (with a battle group of ships to go with it)? Answer: None. Its motives are two. First, it wants to erase the bad taste of a century of “humiliations” at the hands of various European powers and, by doing so, achieve universal respect as a powerful nation. Second, it wants to send a specific message to us, the Japanese and Taiwan: We’re in charge in East Asia, so don’t mess with us.
Not surprisingly, the recipients of the message see it as more than a move by China to build its self-esteem. Despite the Obama Administration’s discomfort with projecting American power, it is doing so in several places out of recognition of the reality that we live in a dangerous world. The U.S. will not easily or readily withdraw from its position as the major naval force and protector of the peace in the Western Pacific. Furthermore it has treaties with Japan and Taiwan that, in one way or another, bind us to the defense of both.
Japan has been revising its National Defense Program Guidelines to replace the original emphasis on defending against a possible Russian invasion with one that recognizes China’s muscle-flexing. Vice Defense Minister Jun Zumi recently told an interviewer, “We must put priority on strengthening our defense capability in the south and the west, looking toward China.” Not lost on Japan was China’s recent warning to the U.S. and South Korea not to hold joint naval exercises in the East China Sea. Specific Japanese plans call for its Self-Defense Forces to add six more submarines to its fleet of 16 and to build army bases on small islands to the south of Okinawa.
Taiwan, for several years, has taken seriously the steady increase in the number of missile-launching sites China has been building on the Fukien Province coast, facing it. Symbolically, the increases have been intended to underscore China’s oft-repeated message that it reserves the right to attack and invade Taiwan if the latter were to declare independence.
The Taiwan Relations Act, which became U.S. law in 1979, call for us to provide defensive armaments for Taiwan to help it deter and discourage an attack by Beijing’s forces. The arms sales have often been subject to delays or cuts in Taiwan’s shopping list. Determined to be more self-reliant, Taiwan is now building, for the first time, weapons that go beyond pure defense. Chao Shih-chang, deputy defense minister, has advised the legislature that mass production has begun of the Hsiungfeng 2E, a cruise missile which can hit targets well within the mainland of China. It is also producing a new anti-ship cruise missile, the Hsiungfeng-3. Could this be a message to the aircraft carrier builders?
Despite considerable expansion of Taiwan-Mainland China commercial relationships over the last two years, threats are threats and, wisely, are taken as more than mere chest-thumping by China’s neighbors.
Mr. Hannaford is a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.