FROM BOTTLE ROCKETS TO LIGHTNING BOLTS: China's Missile Revolution and PLA Strategy against U.S. Military Intervention

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InMarch 1996, China conducted military exercises and live missile firings in the Taiwan Strait as a response to the increasingly pro-independence stance of Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui. The United States responded in turn by maneuvering two aircraft carrier groups into the island's vicinity.China and theUnited States did not come to a standoff, and the issue ended peacefully, although not without ominous messages being received by all parties. China had signaled its willingness to use military force to check Taiwan's incipient independence ambitions, and theUnited States had conveyed its resolve to defend Taiwan against aggression from the mainland.1

The incident, which made the possibility of armed conflict between the United States and China palpable for the first time in decades, precipitated a crisis in China's security planning. The Chinese leadership understood that if it were dragged into a military conflict with the Americans to reverse a Taiwanese declaration of independence or a like provocation, it would have no chance of prevailing in what it believes to be both a domestic issue and its most important (and increasingly volatile) security concern. The subsequent and still ongoing surge in China's military modernization, force-posture restructuring, and doctrinal overhaul has thus been energetically focused on constructing the capability to fight and win a regional war over Taiwan with the world's strongest and most technologically advanced military. This does not mean that China is hostile to the United States or that it expects to fight a war with the United States in the near future. However, it does mean that it sees armed conflict with the United States over conflicting regional interests as a possible and very serious contingency and that it is determined to be ready to meet it.

Nevertheless, although American analyses of China's likely performance against Taiwan abound, to date there has been no attempt to define,map, and assess comprehensively China's likely operational strategy and its potential for success against U.S. forces. The main reason is that the literature on Chinese security policy has been generally skeptical of China's battlefield capabilities, leading many independent analysts to dismiss the military threat the People's Liberation Army (PLA)* poses to the American forces.2 Furthermore, American analysts have attributed this view to the PLA itself and therefore, rather unduly, posited its unwillingness to engage the United States in combat. Instead, the dominant view in American policy circles is that China is pursuing what has been called an "access-denial strategy,"aimed not at directly confrontingU.S. forces but at circumscribing, slowing down, and imperiling their access to the theater of operation so as ultimately to delay their intervention or render it ineffective.3

According to consecutive versions of the U.S. Defense Department's (DoD's) annual Military Power of the PRC report, "China's approach to dealing with [U.S. military intervention] centers on what DoD's 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review report refers to as disruptive capabilities: forces and operational concepts aimed at preventing an adversary fromdeploying military forces to forward operating locations, and/or rapidly destabilizing critical military balances."4 Similarly, the Congressional Research Service argues that "consistent with the goal of a short-duration conflict and a fait accompli, observers believe, China is constructing a force that can deter U.S. intervention, or failing that, delay the arrival or reduce the effectiveness of U.S. intervention forces."5 A scholar at the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concludes that "China's military preparations for potential conflict over Taiwan have focused on delaying or slowing the deployment of U.S. forces to the theater and potentially frustratingU.S.military operations around the island if a conflict erupts. …