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 race.
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.”