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Gregory R. Copley

Gregory R. Copley

Historian, author, and strategic analyst — and onetime industrialist — Gregory R. Copley, who was born in 1946, has for almost five decades worked at…

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The ROC Navy Faces a Critical Watershed as the East Asian Strategic Balance Changes

New strategic brinkmanship by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK); a now-clear determination by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to “more aggressively assert its territorial claims in regional waters”; the near-collapse of Japanese strategic cohesion during 2010; and the increasing signs of US political caution in North-East Asia, all point to a period of strategic concern for the Republic of China, particularly in its maritime responsibilities.

What is of particular concern is that the casus belli — the legitimate cause and act of war — thrown down by the DPRK with the March 26, 2010, sinking of the South Korean Po Hang-class corvette, ROKS Cheonan, highlighted the lack of readiness of the ROK, the US, and Japan to be able to handle any major regional crisis. This in turn highlights the extreme vulnerability of the Republic of China, given that the US is showing great reluctance to support the Republic of Korea, and would be even more reluctant to take major steps to support the ROC at this particular time.

As well, the sinking of the Cheonan highlighted the vulnerability of the ROK Navy to even fairly basic submarine attack, emphasizing the concern which all navies — including the US — must have for improving anti-submarine warfare (ASW).

As a result, the naval and maritime strategies, doctrine, and options of the Republic of China Navy (ROCN) face a period of great challenge, and the need for serious review. The ROCN has grown to become a highly-professional, technologically-advanced, world-class navy, but it must now function in a new ocean of uncertainty, and in the expectation that it will not have a reliable network of alliances.

The ROC is at a watershed, a pivotal point, in its history, and this transition point has been a long time in coming. Finally, however, both the ROC and its allies must face serious decisions, and, inevitably, the ROC Navy is very much at the heart of this great challenge.

The strategic circumstances surrounding the ROC have changed, even in ways which might not, at first glance appear to have been determined solely by the end of the Cold War in 1990-91. Some of the changes in the Republic of China’s overall strategic position were, of course, determined during the Cold War, first by the move in late 1971 by the United Nations to transfer the Chinese membership in the world body, of which Chiang Kai-shek’s ROC was a founder in 1945-46, from the ROC, and grant it to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Next came the initiative in 1972 of US Pres. Richard Nixon to open ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a means of breaking Beijing away from Moscow. Following that, US Pres. Jimmy Carter on January 1, 1979, recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole government of China, and unilaterally moved the US away from its alliance the ROC. Essentially, Carter unilaterally broke a binding alliance structure, a fact which should not go unnoticed by the United States’ many other allies around the world. Carter’s initiative to abandon the ROC was a move of appeasement toward the PRC, but, in many respects, it could have been seen as inevitable, given the strategic mass of the PRC in comparison with that of the ROC.

Even earlier, as well, the policy of the US John F. Kennedy Administration (1961 to 1963) was to restrain the Republic of China from taking advantage of the disarray at that time on the mainland. The Kennedy Administration policy at the time was to ensure that the ROC did not launch a military assault against the communist forces on the mainland, perhaps starting a major conflict in which the US could become embroiled at a time in which Washington was already engaged in brinkmanship with the USSR.

Later, although there have been many other factors as well, the deployment by the US William Clinton Administration of the two US Navy carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Straits in 1996, under orders from US Defense Secretary William Perry, was an important watershed in its own right. At that point, the US recognized that it did not have the capacity to repeat the projection of carrier power into the Straits in support of the ROC, even if it wished to, or unless the survival of the US itself was at stake.

By that time, it was already clear that US carrier battle groups could not be protected from hostile supersonic cruise missile attacks, and even later it became clear that the PRC could also use tactical ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads in specific anti-fleet modes, while the PRC — and, for that matter, Russian — Kilo- and Improved Kilo-class and submarines could comprehensively penetrate the defenses of US carrier battle groups.

But even with all these caveats, nothing has transformed the strategic situation of the ROC so much as the rising wealth of the PRC in the post-Cold War, post-Mao Zedong era. The economic growth of the PRC in the post-Cold War world has been matched in the past few years by the growing strategic, economic, and political stagnation of the United States. The PRC — with a 2009 GDP of $4.9-trillion — is becoming more strategically mobile, while the US, with a GDP in 2009 of $14.256-trillion, some three times larger, is in strategic consolidation or even, geopolitically, in strategic contraction.

What are some of the critical aspects of this transformed situation, insofar as they affect the maritime and naval strategies of the Republic of China?

1. The PRC’s defense budget, including its naval budget, has grown substantially, to the point where in every measure of funding, manpower, and even self-reliance, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) can comprehensively outmaneuver the ROCN. That part of the PRC defense budget which is known — and much of the PRC defense budget is, we know, obscured — was confirmed by the PRC Government in the beginning of March 2010 at 532.1-billion yuan, or US$78-billion, an increase of 7.5 percent over 2009, following the 2009 official growth in defense spending in the PRC was 14.9 percent.

2. As a result of the new wealth of the PRC — and as a result of the effective removal of US alliance support, other than some military supply, for the ROC — mainland China is now in a position to consider that the factors which once inhibited it from physically invading the ROC territory are now overcome. In other words, there is now nothing which could stop a PRC military adventure against the ROC, as messy and costly as it would be, in the event — albeit a low probability — that Beijing should decide on such an option.

3. The ROC Armed Forces, and particularly the Navy, suffer enormously from the fact that they cannot exercise regularly with foreign forces. Nothing depletes a force capability more seriously or rapidly than being unable to exercise against the highest level of potential threat, with other sophisticated armed forces.

4. The ROC Navy has essentially abandoned its potential for self-reliance in warship and major systems construction, and is therefore falling behind world standards in its surface and submarine capabilities in terms of quantity, quality, and self-reliance. This is in large part due to two factors:

(a) The leadership of the ROCN became afraid to recommend development of major vessels, particularly submarines, in shipyards on Taiwan because of the fear that contracting scandals of the type which plagued the purchase of the LaFayette-type frigates — the Kang Ding-class — from France in the 1990s would destroy careers; and

(b) The belief, based on a faulty understanding of US reality, that the US would fulfill Pres. George W. Bush’s promise to sell conventional submarines to the ROCN. It was my duty — merely as a private citizen in 2006 — to convey to the ROC Minister of Defense the reality that the US Navy would never obey the US President’s command to find these submarines on the world market and supply them to the ROC. Thus, the ROCN lost its self-reliance because of fears over career security on the one hand, fuelled by wishful thinking that the US would “save” them, on the other.

5. The ROCN has become gradually isolated from maritime mainstream thinking, and as a result the ability of ROC Armed Forces’ officers to speak foreign languages — particularly English — has declined over the past decades. This, along with budget and diplomatic constraints, makes it virtually impossible for the ROC to participate fully in global intelligence and strategic forums.

6. The ROC has absented itself from major maritime obligations, such as participation in remote counter-piracy operations and sea-lane security policies, even though the ROC was at one time a world leader in studying and understanding all matters relating to the security of Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs). Despite this, the ROC is, if anything, more dependent on global sea trade security to ensure the delivery of raw materials to the ROC economy. This is an economy which continues to grow, but without any meaningful security of supply. Moreover, the ROC has also virtually ceased competing on the global resource market.

7. The PRC has, in 2010, made it clear that will now begin contesting maritime areas which it had not had the resources to contest in the past. This is a direct challenge not only to the ROC’s dominions in the South China Sea, but to other states’ resources and sea lanes as well, including those of Japan, and potentially the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and so on.

8. The ROC has not undertaken any meaningful initiatives to rebuild, or build, credible — if discreet — military and intelligence relations with, for example, India, which is itself now increasingly challenged by PRC geopolitical expansion, both maritime and land-based.

9. The ROC is increasingly being put in the position where it will soon have no other option but to develop a strategic modus vivendi with the PRC. This will — de facto — create a broadened “confederation of China”, in which the ROC will take a position similar to, but perhaps more important than, Hong Kong. But at some point, the US will see that the ROC has nowhere to go except into an accommodation with the PRC, and at that time Washington will cut off delivery of advanced weapons systems to the ROC.

10. The ROC is now, then, in a position at which it must decide whether or not it wishes to pursue sovereignty in an absolute sense. If it wishes this, then it will need to:


(a) Resume defense industrial self-reliance to a far greater degree than is now the case;

(b) Resume an aggressive global intelligence and discreet diplomatic capability to build tacit or express alliances or capabilities; and

(c) Resume a more aggressive posture with regard to the control of access to essential raw materials, and the means to safeguard their delivery to Taiwan. In order to achieve this, the ROC would need immediately to begin rebuilding its strategic analytical capabilities, and the foreign language capabilities of its military officer corps.

The watershed now being confronted by the ROC in pursuing its sovereignty and maritime interests highlights challenges facing other regional and global trading powers, who need to ensure sea lane security from the Indian Ocean, northward to the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, given the prospect that the PRC now clearly intends to prosecute its strategic ambitions with regard to maritime control.

Questions still exist about the viability of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) to achieve these ambitions in the short-term, but absent any clear challenge from other regional powers, including India, and from the US, the PRC can prosecute its ambitions unopposed.

With this in mind, the issue of the sovereignty and intentions of the ROC become of significance to the global community, not just to the ROC itself.

Analysis by Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.

(c) 2010 International Strategic Studies Association, www.StrategicStudies.org

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