The challenge for 2023: Taiwan and North Korea

Jan 27, 2023
Globe (East Asia) China Japan.

It is self evident that the US: China relationship – with Taiwan at its core – will be the most pressing strategic issue for Australia in 2023.

But the volumes of military planning effort, think tank hours, media commentary and the like have added to the uncertainty rather than clarified the scene – beyond a consensus that China will not surrender its ambition to bring Taiwan into its fold. Overwhelmed by geopolitical attention to the Ukraine and Taiwan, significant North Korean nuclear weapon developments must be factored into any analysis of the Taiwan situation.

Much of the recent public debate has swirled around the prospects of a Chinese invasion across the Taiwan Straits and whether or not that would activate an automatic US military response to defend Taiwan – and the implications of this for Australia. This sharpened up after warnings by the former US IndoPacific commander (Admiral Davidson) that the US needed to prepare for the possibility of such a Chinese invasion by 2027. Much less attention has been given to other possible Chinese tactics to gain control over Taiwan: such as a blockade to strangle its vital defence-related imports as well as its critical international trade connections.

A valuable contribution, which takes the debate out of the closeted halls of security and intelligence, has been the publication by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) of “The First Battle of the Next War- Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan”. Its authors, drawn from US Naval War College and similar backgrounds, emphasised repeatedly that they (gamed over 20 times) were not suggesting that invasion was the most likely option Beijing would take. Some of the panellists at its launch were very sceptical about the so-called Davidson “window”. All agreed that a similar study about a blockade option would be valuable as this would likely throw up different recommendations for a deterrent response.

Given abundant caution about the utility of war gaming options – especially this one which is reportedly the first to rely totally on open access material, this lengthy report provides a trove of new public information, angles and ideas to improve wider public understanding of just how complex the Taiwan issue has become. This especially for Australia, with an extremely important decision pending on the acquisition of nuclear powered submarines (SSSn’s) which seemingly will leave us at least in the near future with Australian flagged vessels assumedly under an Australian commander but with a mixed RAN/USN crew with control of the nuclear propulsion, missile firing and key maintenance in US hands – providing a field day for cartoonists. Under Defence Minister Marles’ new doctrine of “interchangeability” and the absolutely necessary reliance on US intelligence and communications (especially for submarines to avoid fratricide!), we will almost certainly be locked into any US military operations over Taiwan and our traditional “strategic ambiguity” will be shredded whatever our current leaders profess now.

As the scant media attention mentioned, the report assessed that: “ In most scenarios, the United States/Taiwan/Japan defeated a conventional amphibious invasion by China and maintained an autonomous Taiwan. However, this defence came at high cost.” But interestingly, there was less pick up of its emphasis that: “There is one major assumption here: Taiwan must resist and not capitulate. If Taiwan surrenders before U.S. forces can be brought to bear, the rest is futile.”

Its key conclusions are:

1. Taiwanese forces must hold the line.

… the Taiwanese ground forces have severe weaknesses. Therefore, Taiwan must fill its ranks and conduct rigorous, combined arms training. Ground forces must become the center of Taiwan’s defence effort.

2. There is no “Ukraine model” for Taiwan.

……the “Ukraine model” cannot be replicated in Taiwan because China can isolate the island for weeks or even months. Taiwan must start the war with everything it needs. Further, delays and half measures by the United States would make the defence harder, increase U.S. casualties, allow China to create a stronger lodgment, and raise the risk of escalation.

3. The United States must be able to use its bases in Japan for combat operations.

…… While other allies (e.g., Australia and South Korea) are important in the broader competition with China and may play some role in the defence of Taiwan, Japan is the linchpin. Without the use of U.S. bases in Japan, U.S. fighter/attack aircraft cannot effectively participate in the war.

4. The US must be able to strike the Chinese fleet rapidly and en masse from outside the Chinese defensive zone.

To cherry pick some of the wealth of other points from the report which have direct relevance to other elements of the Taiwan situation:

A consistent stream of concern about the strength of Taiwan’s commitment to the fight if China did seek to invade. Its military which has undergone a massively disruptive reorganisation over recent years from a roughly 200,000 strong mixed volunteer and conscripted force to a very depleted all volunteer 100,000 – which are not well trained or even armed and equipped. Its forces are nowhere near as prepared as the Ukrainian forces were before the Russian invasion. There also are concerns about the extent of Beijing’s infiltration of the Taiwan armed forces. Surprisingly, there was little worry about the potential for wider 5th column preparation within the civilian population.

Though delays in the defence supply chain into Taiwan were noted its view was that the huge arms supply effort to the Ukraine is not affecting supplies to Taiwan. But concerns about getting supplies into Taiwan after an invasion started meant that all major supplies and ammunition etc would need to be on the ground in advance.

Unlike in Ukraine, US forces would have to be in action on front line from the outset of any invasion as landing anything more than a single brigade would prove extremely difficult. Prepositioning US forces in Taiwan however could provide Beijing with a claim of casus belli to justify an invasion. There would also be very serious questions whether the US would initiate attacks on Chinese missile and air force bases in mainland PRC because of the nuclear angle.

The huge volume of potential Chinese missile attacks would be the major threat rather than their quality – with the vaunted hypersonics from both sides only playing a limited role. There were also the familiar USAF:USN arguments about aircraft carriers versus bombers. Most games lost two US carriers to Chinese missiles early while bombers could fire missiles from outside the latter’s range but needed close air support from US air bases in Japan. And a USAF view that US Army’s main role would be airfield defence!

Based on extensive discussions with Asian interlocutors, it provides a more stark assessment of the support from regional countries on which the US could depend in the event of any Chinese invasion than we commonly get from official US (and Australian) sources. In sum, Japan is the single most important ally but even there, there are some significant issues which need to be resolved now before the US could operate freely from its bases in Japan. It surmises that the ROK would be constrained from direct participation because of the level of threat from the DPRK and its own complex relationship with China (but see more below). And at most only a limited amount of US forces in the ROK could be deployed elsewhere against China. Its assessment of any Australian involvement is uncertain. For the rest in the region it assumes that no ASEAN country would permit the US to base military operations against China – not even the Philippines.

Surprisingly, a feature of the above and the welter of commentary – official as well as arm chair – has been the failure to integrate North Korean into the crystal ball gazing about Taiwan. South Koreans have long acknowledged the centrality of China to the eventual resolution of the North Korean threat and feared that this could be jeopardised in any confrontation between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan. An all too obvious option for Beijing in any military confrontation with the US would be to play the North Korea card – either by pulling back from any restraints it might have imposed on Pyongyang in its policy towards the South or even encouraging and facilitating it to raise the level of military threat on Seoul. Similarly against Japan, especially if its airbases have become so central to the US effort against China over Taiwan. All of which would focus both Seoul and Tokyo on the priority they would attach to the DPRK threat and complicate significantly the US defence of Taiwan.

In a recent Foreign Affairs (“The New North Korean Threat”), Sue Mi Terry argues that the US needs to address Pyongyang’s nuclear advances now. Terry claims that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was: “among the more overlooked geopolitical developments in 2022… as it logged nearly 100 missile tests, a record for the country; several involved weapons of extraordinary range and potency. In November, the regime launched a Hwasong-17, an intercontinental ballistic missile that can carry multiple warheads and is capable of reaching the United States. A month later,… Kim Jong Un personally oversaw the test of a powerful solid-fuel rocket engine—a crucial new capability.”

Terry explains that despite the seriousness of this increased threat , the US under President Biden has been more preoccupied with both the Ukraine and China and seemingly lost its focus on the DPRK. There was some (albeit slender) hope that former President Trump’s idiosyncratic attempts at dialogue with Kim Jong Un might have opened a constructive dialogue but that has long vanished. The election of President Yoon heralded a tougher ROK line with the North and a closer relationship with the US but has seen the North become more strident.

The DPRK has been developing a tactical nuclear potential for launch into the ROK and outlined for the first time a doctrine for its pre-emptive use. It has also declared that it “will never give up” its nuclear weapons and that its weapons program is “irreversible” and “non-negotiable” – asserting that North Korea will never again discuss denuclearisation with the United States. In turn, this has shaken the Yoon government which has begun to pressure Washington for a reconsideration of its own nuclear capability either by a return to basing some US nuclear weapons in the ROK or even some ROK involvement in their potential use. Not surprisingly, neither have been welcomed by Washington and have added some tension to the US/ROK relationship. CNN reported recently that the public mood in the ROK has changed from 10 years ago when talk of a nuclear capability was only a fringe idea to now polls showing a majority of South Koreans support their country having its own nuclear weapons program. Some prominent academics who once shunned the idea have switched sides.

China, of course, would view such a ROK move with great concern – as also would Japan as it could well have substantial knock on implications. And for the US , all of this has serious implications for any military operations it may launch to defend Taiwan with domestic repercussions for the 2024 Presidential elections looming. And for Australia as we consider our own strategic position – not only in North Asia – as we allow ourselves to become locked into US strategic ambitions with our SSN procurement.

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