The center of the Cold War was Europe, and, by extension, the North Atlantic, which latter geographical feature lent its name to NATO. The Age of Atlanticism extended from Columbus’ voyage in 1492 to the end of NATO’s relevance in 1991, or almost exactly five hundred years.

The Pacific was always a Cold War backwater. After the US defeated Japanese sea power in the Pacific, there was no force to rival US dominance of the Pacific, even though the USSR had ports on the Pacific. This is related to the fact that although the East was once Red, the Cold War with China was always different from the Cold War with the USSR. In fact, in the midst of the Cold War China and the USSR fought a war, the Sino–Soviet border conflict of 1969 (like many recent wars, it was not called a war), the underlined the bitter divisions within the so-called “communist bloc.”

Now there is a power rising in the East — several of them, in fact — and as the Atlantic-centered world order of the post-WWII era passes into history, we enter into a Pacific-Centered World Order. While this Pacific-centered world order will not be as closely wedded to the Cold War as events in the Atlantic theater, but will not be utterly divorced from Cold War antecedents either.

While the Cold War with China (if there was one) was never quite the Cold War that was fought with the Soviet Union, it was nevertheless serious business, as Chinese support for North Korea and North Vietnam (later to be Vietnam simpliciter) demonstrated. And while Chinese support for national liberation movements in Southeast Asia mirrored Soviet support for national liberation movements in Africa and Latin America, the US had leverage against China: not only Japan, transformed from an enemy into an ally and soon afterward sporting the second largest economy in the world (a status since ceded to China), but most especially Taiwan.

The island of Taiwan is the fly in China’s ointment. Taiwan has been an irritant to China not unlike the way in which communist Cuba was been a near-offshore irritant to the US. Through the late Cold War, moreover, Taiwan had become wealthy, with a growing economy that set it apart from the moribund command economies largely found throughout the region, and its economic dynamism coupled with its position as a trading hub in East Asia gave Taiwan connections throughout the industrialized world.

I bring up Taiwan as one of the major unresolved points of conflict from the Cold War in the Pacific (I have elsewhere called the divided Korean peninsula an ember of the Cold War that periodically flares up) because of the recent talk about the “strategic pivot” of the US in the direction of the Asia-Pacific Region. Hilary Clinton wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in “America’s Pacific Century”:

As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point. Over the last 10 years, we have allocated immense resources to those two theaters. In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values. One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.

Clinton used the word “pivot” three times in the piece, and although she never actually used the phrase “strategic pivot,” she did use the phrase “strategic turn” three times in this piece. More interesting yet is that Clinton did not once mention Taiwan in this article. China is mentioned throughout the article, and in very moderate if not conciliatory terms. China is called an “emerging power” and a “partner” and even an “ally.”

The President, presumably the architect of these strategic turn, and who has emphasized from the beginning of his Presidency that he would orient US strategic posture toward the Pacific, gave a speech is Australia in November 2011 that underscored this emphasis.

The President’s full speech in Australia can be viewed at Changing fortunes dictate another presidential pivot and can be read in full at Remarks By President Obama to the Australian Parliament. “China” is mentioned only three times in the President’s speech, and Taiwan, as in Clinton’s article for Foreign Policy, is not mentioned at all. Here are a few quotes from the speech:

Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth — the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation. Asian immigrants helped build America, and millions of American families, including my own, cherish our ties to this region. From the bombing of Darwin to the liberation of Pacific islands, from the rice paddies of Southeast Asia to a cold Korean Peninsula, generations of Americans have served here, and died here — so democracies could take root; so economic miracles could lift hundreds of millions to prosperity. Americans have bled with you for this progress, and we will not allow it — we will never allow it to be reversed.

Here, we see the future. As the world’s fastest-growing region — and home to more than half the global economy — the Asia Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority, and that’s creating jobs and opportunity for the American people. With most of the world’s nuclear power and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress.

As President, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.

The strategic turn to Asia and the Pacific has been the topic of much comment. Obama’s Pacific Pivot by Joseph Nye (of “soft power” fame) has been quite widely distributed. The “Strategic Pivot” to Asia Now Committed, Pentagon Can Float Allegedly Deep Cuts by Thomas P. M. Barnett is an interesting analysis that ends with the provocative line, “These are delusions stacked upon delusions.”

I find myself rather surprised that Taiwan has been nearly ignored in this discussion. The administration has had nothing to say about Taiwan in the process of executing this strategic turn. A year ago, the U.S. – China Joint Statement (released 19 January 2011) includes a short but explicit passage about Taiwan:

6. Both sides underscored the importance of the Taiwan issue in U.S. – China relations. The Chinese side emphasized that the Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and expressed the hope that the U.S. side will honor its relevant commitments and appreciate and support the Chinese side’s position on this issue. The U.S. side stated that the United States follows its one China policy and abides by the principles of the three U.S.-China Joint Communiqués. The United States applauded the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and welcomed the new lines of communications developing between them. The United States supports the peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Strait and looks forward to efforts by both sides to increase dialogues and interactions in economic, political, and other fields, and to develop more positive and stable cross-Strait relations.

Since then, I haven’t been able to find anything. One must say that the strategic turn to the Pacific, where Taiwan was once a central issue, is deeply if not systematically ambiguous when it comes to Taiwan. The ambiguity is further driven home by on-again, off-again arms sales to Taiwan. Taiwan has been repeatedly rebuffed in its attempts to upgrade and update its fighters, as well as its attempt to acquire diesel-electric submarines from the US. More recently, however, it has been announced that Taiwan will purchase AH-64D Apache helicopters with Block III Longbow Fire Control Radar (FCR), becoming the first political entity outside the US with this particular hardware. This is what we call “mixed signals.” In other words, ambiguity.

In an interesting blog with a Taiwan defense focus, The Far-Eastern Sweet Potato, the author, J. Michael Cole, concludes his excellent essay, “Facing Reality in the Cross-Strait Balance of Power: What Can and What Can’t Be Done,” with this advice:

Rather than waste their time exploring the idea of waging a doomed guerrilla campaign against the PLA, thinkers should instead focus their energy on the means by which war in the Taiwan Strait can be rendered unthinkable. Unable to compete dollar-for-dollar with China, Taiwan has one option left: An asymmetrical deterrent backed by a modern Air Force.

This is a sober and sensible conclusion. The ambivalent of the US toward Taiwan in its strategic turn to the Pacific underlines the need for Taiwan to attend to its own interests, since those interests do not seem to figure prominently in US plans for Asia and the Pacific.

In its relative isolation and its need to pursue asymmetrical and nonconventional deterrence in the face of a powerful adversary, Taiwan’s strategic situation resembles the strategic situation of Iran, and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan. Recently in A Review of Iranian Capabilities I once again looked at a number of innovative and distinctive weapons systems that Iran has pursued in quest of backing up its threat of A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) in the Strait of Hormuz. Many of these possibilities would be open to Taiwan itself, even while A2/AD strategies are more commonly associated with China itself in the Taiwan Strait.

The obvious track for Taiwanese security would be to go nuclear, and given Taiwan’s relative wealth, advanced technology, and robust industrial plant this would be possible, but it would then lose whatever remaining goodwill it has with its sponsors at present. Ideally this would be done is utter secrecy until the deterrent was fully operational, at which time Taiwan could afford to alienate its sponsors, but the resulting damage to relations with the US would be so great that it is difficult to predict what the US would do in this circumstance. The more we consider the scenario, the more it looks like the above quote about a “doomed guerrilla campaign.”

The remaining strategy for Taiwan, then, is A2/AD in the Taiwan Strait. What happens when two A2/AD strategies collide? The answer to this question may determine the future of Taiwan.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One of the consistent Cold War nightmares feared in the West was a massive Warsaw Pact armored spearhead into Western Europe. I discussed this a few days ago in Choke Points and Grand Strategy in relation to the Fulda Gap, which is one of the few geographical opportunities for a massive armored assault from east to west in Germany. This scenario so captured the imagination of Cold War military planners that NATO was largely constructed to counter such a Soviet armored thrust — a brute force frontal invasion expected from a regime that made no attempt to disguise its brutality in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. NATO plans were dominated by this nightmare, and much of NATO strategic doctrine can be derived it. For example, NATO’s repeated refusal to pledge “no first use” of nuclear weapons was entirely a matter of knowing Soviet superiority in armor. The worry was that if NATO forces could not stop a conventional assault with conventional means, it would have to resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) on the battlefield. This was also (in part) the impetus for the development of the neutron bomb, which could have spared much bomb damage to Western Europe even while stopping massed Soviet armor pouring through the Fulda Gap.

Soviet mechanized armor rolled into Budapest in 1956; Cold War planners feared the same fate for West Germany.

It will be immediately understood, then, that the dreaded mechanized armor duel in and over Western Europe was never conceived by NATO as a symmetrical peer-to-peer engagement. NATO possessed TNW and would not say that it would not use this. Thus TNW, despite their tactical character, had a strategic role as well. This strategic deterrent to a conventional Soviet thrust into Western Europe was given credibility by the development of miniaturized TNW (notably the W-48 and the W-54) and even miniaturized delivery systems (The Davy Crockett). Perhaps just as importantly, NATO did not seek parity in mechanized armor, which would have also required parity in crews, which would in turn have required an even more massive US troop presence, or European tank crews.

Late Soviet military technology: the VA-111 Shkval supersonic torpedo, skill a formidable counter-measure to large, expensive ships.

We think of asymmetrical warfare when we think of terrorism and insurgency and revolution, but asymmetrical warfare has been central to conventional engagements between great powers, and was central to the Cold War. In addition to the asymmetry in mechanized armor in Western Europe, there were many other notable asymmetries. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact made no attempt to engage the US and NATO at peer-to-peer parity on the world’s oceans. The US maintained a carrier fleet that could patrol all the world’s oceans, while NATO allies Great Britain and France also operated aircraft carriers. Instead of attempting to achieve parity in carriers, the Soviet Union developed hypersonic torpedoes (VA-111 Shkval) and ship-to-ship missiles (SS-N-22 Moskit) that, if employed in sufficient numbers, might well have neutralized these carrier assets.

Russian made 'Sunburn' supersonic anti-ship missile.

There was also asymmetry in strategic nuclear arsenals. The Soviet Union eventually (though not yet at the time of the so-called “missile gap”) had far more land-based ICBMs that the US. The US accepted this, but for its own strategic security relied on the “tripod” of land-based ICBMs, the bombers of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) under Curtis LeMay, and, in the later stages of the Cold War, when it became technologically possible, nuclear submarines mounting sea-launched ballistic missiles. This last leg of the tripod is a tale of asymmetry and competition in itself, since the Soviet Union did not concede the submarine asymmetry, but invested considerable resources in at least trying to catch up with NATO superiority. It took the Soviets longer to build missile boats, and when they built them they were louder and therefore easier to track, but they did build them, and once their spies told them that NATO simply listened for their noisy missile boats, they improved the stealth profile their subs.

Members of a Strategic Air Command B-52 combat crew race for their always ready-and-waiting B-52 heavy bomber. Fifty percent of the SAC bomber and tanker force is on continuous ground alert, ready to be enroute to target within the warning time provided by the ballistic missile early warning system. One of the bomber's two hound dog missiles is shown in the foreground. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Before the Cold War, in the most catastrophic of all conventional wars, World War II, there were also significant asymmetries. The Germans (like the Soviets later, both being continental land powers) had superior land forces, and as a result they conquered continental Europe. But early in their preparations for war they neglected to build a four-engine heavy bomber. In effect, the Germans conceded the bomber to the British. Once the Nazis occupied the whole of Western Europe, Britain had no way to strike back at the Nazis other than to wage unrestricted bombing campaigns against the Germans. This they did, with devastating results (I have called this the possible war for the British at the time). By the time the Germans realized their mistake, it was too late to build a heavy bomber, although when the Germans began to develop jet aircraft, Hitler repeatedly insisted that it should be built as a small bomber rather than as a fighter. There was by this time substantial public feeling against the mass destruction of German cities, and Hitler thought he needed to do something about it. Ultimately, the task fell to the so-called “vengeance weapons,” the V-1 and the V-2.

V-2 single stage ballistic missile

V-2 single stage ballistic missile

Also during the Second World War, as the British were waging an unlimited air war against the Germans, the Germans were waging unlimited submarine war against the allies. Once the Bismark was sunk, and Dönitz later became Großadmiral, the German surface navy was essentially abandoned and all crews were assigned to U-boats. Since peer-to-peer submarine combat was neither effective nor feasible at this stage of technological development (thought it became feasible during the Cold War), the Allies, who had the technological and industrial means to seek submarine parity, did not seek parity, but instead sought the development of anti-submarine warfare (airplanes with radar turned out to be highly effective in this role, e.g., the B-24 Liberator Mk.VI).

From these numerous twentieth-century examples, it is obvious that asymmetrical warfare is not a strategy pursued exclusively by poor, poorly equipped, and disadvantaged forces who seek an advantage that cannot be obtained through conventional means, which in this context might be understood as symmetrical means, but has been consciously pursued by great powers. The instances of asymmetry cited above could be characterized as military equivalents to comparative advantage. During the Cold War, it was in the interest of NATO to leverage its comparative advantage in technology, employing its technology against Russian numbers and brute force. The Soviets knew they could not compete peer-to-peer on technology, so it sought to neutralize NATO’s technological advantage with massive mechanized armor assets as well as cheap and plentiful counter-measures to advanced and expensive weapons.

Soviet armor assets didn't help the USSR much in Afghanistan.

Understood in this context, there has been no “rise” in asymmetrical warfare, and we are now no more living in an age of unconventional, asymmetrical warfare than any previous age. Asymmetrical warfare is a perennial aspect of warfighting, and represents a gradient of war that will be always be a part of military calculation. If objectives cannot be obtained the simplest, most straightforward way, then an oblique way will be found, and it is likely that this indirect approach to one and the same objective will be unconventional and asymmetrical.

And there is much to be said for unconventional warfare. It could be argued that those who possess an obvious advantage (which is itself an asymmetrical situation) are likely to become unimaginative in their planning. I argued this point in Choke Points and Grand Strategy. Thus the more “advanced” party to a conflict might well end up relying on brute force, whereas those who perceive themselves to be at a disadvantage may seek an innovative way to attain an objective without a frontal assault relying on brute force.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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