Fifteen years ago, the U.S. intelligence community judged that the People's Liberation Army of China was more than 20 years behind the West. In January, the PLA brought down a satellite with an ultra-sophisticated "kinetic kill vehicle" weapon. Today, no one views China's nuclear or missile capabilities as anything other than cutting-edge.
In the last five years, China has brought 20 state-of-the-art, super-quiet, diesel-electric submarines on line, increasing its fleet of modern subs to 55. Now there is speculation the Chinese are developing Polymer Electrolyte Membrane fuel cells that allow their subs to stay submerged far longer and eliminate any detectable mechanical noise. This would explain how a Chinese submarine was able to surprise the USS Kitty Hawk battle group last October by popping up in its midst and immediately disappearing without a trace. Apparently, the U.S. Navy can't track China's newest submarines.
U.S. intelligence predicted none of this. Last year, Assistant Defense Secretary Peter Rodman admitted, "We are caught by surprise by the appearance of new systems that suddenly appear fully developed." Former Clinton administration defense expert Kurt Campbell has noted, "You look back on those studies, and it's only been a decade, China has exceeded in every area military modernization that even the far-off estimates of the mid-1990s predicted."
With the Soviet Union's collapse in 1992, America cut its defense budget by more than 10 percent during the Clinton years while China boosted arms spending by 10 percent to 20 percent every year since 1992.
The Central Intelligence Agency calculates Beijing now spends 4.3 percent of its gross domestic product on the military. China's military sectors will get about $430 billion -- in purchasing power parity terms -- this year.
Even observers who remain generally complacent about China's military build-up admit "alarm" at China's recent anti-satellite test and its mischief in Darfur. But China's behavior toward Taiwan should sound the alarm bells just as loudly.
Yet, when the debate turns to Taiwan, some urge the U.S. to "chill." We must not be too eager to defend Taiwan, they argue, because the "legitimacy" of the mainland Communist Party would be "severely undermined" if the international community questioned its claim to the island.
But is supporting the Chinese "Communist Party's legitimacy" in America's interests? Must we stand by while the world's largest dictatorship bullies Asia's most vibrant democracy into a relationship Taiwan's people have consistently rejected? Must Taiwan's democracy be stifled in the interests of "peace" in the Asia Pacific region?
Henry Kissinger once noted an international system for which peace is the highest priority is "at the mercy of the most ruthless, since there [is] a maximum incentive to mollify the most aggressive state and to accept its demands, even when they [are] unreasonable." The inevitable result: "massive instability and insecurity." Western democracies learned this lesson the hard way in 1938 Munich and in 1990 Baghdad.
Humoring threats from dictatorships invariably results in catastrophic miscalculations. And Taiwan is not Beijing's only illicit territorial claim.
Last November, the Chinese ambassador in New Delhi informed a surprised Indian television audience that "the whole of what you call the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory." This February, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said "China will not accept any representations by Japan on the premise of territorial claim" over the Senkaku Islands. No Chinese live in Arunachal Pradesh, and Japan has administered the Senkakus for 112 years.
All Asia is watching to see if the U.S. is committed to President Bush's vision of "the global expansion of democracy." If Washington won't stand up for democracy in Taiwan, where would it? And how would Beijing know Washington was serious?
No responsible person wants war in the Taiwan Strait. But the best way to avoid war, to keep our legal commitment to defend Taiwan's democracy and to maintain Asia's stability is to demonstrate steadfast resolve against Beijing's territorial demands.
The United States may no longer be strong enough to defend
freedom beyond our shores. The "global expansion of democracy" may
not be feasible as we face a Chinese Superpower intent on
legitimizing illiberal forces lurking in the shadows of Asia's
fragile new democracies. If so, Washington should admit it, so our
allies and friends can start making other plans for their
John Tkacik a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.
First appeared in the Washington Times