September 23, 2011

A power shift in Asia

Washington is obsessed with decline: the upshot of the worst economy since
the Great Depression, the prospect of massive defense cuts that could signal the
end of the American military’s imperial-like reach, the collapse of Arab regimes
with which the Pentagon and CIA closely cooperated. But nothing of late quite
captures what is going on in terms of a global power shift as much as the U.S.
refusal to sell Taiwan new F-16 fighter jets.

U.S. officials argue that upgrading
Taiwan’s Lockheed Martin F-16 A/B jets will make them nearly as capable as
the 66 new F-16 C/D models that the Taiwanese were seeking, and at a fraction of
the cost. But the upgrades reportedly do not include the new engines necessary
for added speed and will make it harder for the Taiwanese to retire their oldest
jets as they had hoped. Clearly, the decision signifies a painful compromise for
the Obama administration.

By 2020, the United States will not be able to defend Taiwan from a Chinese
air attack, a 2009 Rand
study found, even with America’s F-22s, two carrier strike groups in the
region and continued access to the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. Moreover, China
is at the point of deploying anti-ship ballistic missiles that threaten U.S.
surface warships, even as Taiwan’s F-16s, with or without upgrades, are
outmatched by China’s 300 to 400 Russian-designed Su-27 and Su-30 fighters.
Given that Taiwan is only 100 miles from China and the U.S. Navy and Air Force
must deploy to the Pacific from half a world away, the idea that Washington
could permanently guarantee Taipei’s de facto sovereignty has always been a
diminishing proposition. Vice President Biden’s recent extensive talks with his
Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping (who is poised to succeed President Hu Jintao),
may have reinforced the notion inside the administration that Taiwan is better
defended by a closer American-Chinese diplomatic understanding than by an arms

Notice what is happening, though. The administration is not acting
unreasonably. It is not altogether selling out to Beijing. Rather, it is
adjusting its sails as the gusts of Chinese power, both economic and military,
strengthen. Thus the decision to help Taiwan — but not too much — illustrates
how decline itself is an overrated concept.

Decline is rarely sudden: Rather, it transpires quietly over decades, even as
officialdom denies its existence and any contribution to it. The Royal Navy
began its decline in the 1890s, Princeton University professor Aaron L.
Friedberg writes in “The Weary Titan,” even as Britain went on to win two world
wars over the next half-century. And so, China is gradually enveloping Taiwan as
part of a transition toward military multipolarity in the western Pacific — away
from the veritable American naval lake that the Pacific has constituted since
the end of World War II. At the same time, however, the United States pushes
back against this trend: This month, Obama administration officials — with China
uppermost in their minds — updated
a defense pact with Australia,giving the United States greater access to
Australian military bases and ports near the confluence of the Pacific and
Indian oceans. The United States is making room in Asian waters for the Chinese
navy and air force, but only grudgingly.

Decline is also relative. So to talk of American decline without knowing the
destiny of a power like China is rash. What if China were to have a political
and economic upheaval with adverse repercussions for its defense budget? Then
history would turn out a lot more complicated than a simple Chinese rise and an
American fall.

Because we cannot know the future, all we can do is note the trend line. The
trend line suggests that China will annex Taiwan by, in effect, going around it:
by adjusting the correlation of forces in its favor so that China will never
have to fight for what it will soon possess. Not only does China have some more
than 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles focused on Taiwan, but there are 270
commercial flights per week between Taiwan and the mainland, even as close to a
third of Taiwan’s exports go to China. Such is independence melting away. And as
China’s strategic planners need to concentrate less on capturing Taiwan, they
will be free to focus on projecting power into the energy-rich South China Sea
and, later, into the adjoining Indian Ocean — hence America’s heightened
interest in its Australian allies.

This is a power shift. Subtle and indirect though it may be, it is a clearer
story line than what is occurring in the chaotic Middle East, a region less
prosperous and less dynamic than East Asia in economic and military terms, and
therefore less important. Taiwan tells us where we are, and very likely where
we’re going.

Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security
and the author of “Monsoon:
The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.”