Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:43 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:43 | SYDNEY

Can America defend Taiwan?


Sam Roggeveen


16 January 2008 10:05

The US is concerned about China's military build-up not because it fears that it is being usurped as the leading power in Asia — that day is still a long way off. But China's new capabilities do make it very difficult for the US to credibly maintain any commitment to defend Taiwan, and that in itself is a big blow to American regional status. The head of US Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating, visiting Beijing, put it this way:

"China's military is developing very impressively," Keating told journalists. "We are concerned about the development of long-range cruise and ballistic missiles, we are concerned about their anti-satellite technology (and) we are concerned about area denial weapons."

'Area denial' is the key phrase here. Translated from military-speak, it means making it difficult or impossible for the US to intervene if China went to war with Taiwan.

Submarines are key area denial weapons, so you might think Keating's concerns should be tempered somewhat by reports like this from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), showing that China's 55-strong submarine fleet conducted just six patrols in 2007. Indeed, although China has bought a lot of sophisticated weapons in the last decade, there is still a question mark over its ability to use it. But a careful reading of the FAS report shows that China's apparent lack of submarine activity can largely be put down to its mission:

Just what constitutes a Chinese "patrol" is secret, according to the U.S. Navy, but it probably refers to an extended voyage away from the homeport area (see here for further definitions). The seven (sic) Chinese patrols conducted in 2007 is but a fraction of the number of patrols conducted by the U.S. submarine force, which musters well over 100 patrols per year. But a comparison of U.S. and Chinese submarine patrol levels is not possible because the two navies have very different missions. China has no overseas military commitments and uses its submarine fleet almost exclusively as a coastal defense force, whereas the U.S. submarine force is constantly engaged in forward operations alone or with allies.

So China is evidently not in a rush to build an ocean-going submarine fleet to directly challenge the supremacy of the US Navy. But China's focus is on area denial, and a coastal submarine force serves that purpose quite well.