Taiwan can't count on US Navy if tensions rise in the strait

A lot of noise was made in December after China sent its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, on a jaunt through the South China Sea.

The deployment, termed a "training exercise" by the mainland government, caused great concern in Taiwan and Japan, coming shortly after Beijing's controversial expansion of its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) to include islands administered by Japan and claimed by China.

The Liaoning, which is not fully operational yet, clipped Taiwan's own ADIZ and one of its escort ships was later involved in a near-collision with a US warship shadowing the battle group.

The very existence of a Chinese aircraft carrier has been giving politicians conniptions. The ability to project power through the use of its aircraft carriers has been a key part of US strategy, particularly in regard to Taiwan.

A key factor in the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996 was the deployment of two US carrier battle groups to the region, a fact that political and military leaders in Taiwan remember well.

It is perhaps this memory that made the appearance of a Chinese carrier so worrying. Politicians see China fielding aircraft carriers and wonder if it means China is preparing a navy that can keep the US out of the Taiwan Strait.

They are both right and wrong to be worried.

They are right in that naval control of the strait is obviously in the strategic advantage of China, but they are wrong to think that this is the Lioning's role. In reality, the strait was closed to the US Navy years ago.

Over the past 60 years three groups have given the US military a difficult fight: the Viet Cong and the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lesson China has taken away from this is simple: why go head-to-head with the US when cheap, simple tactics can accomplish the same thing?

And so the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has embraced the concept known as "area denial" by investing a considerable amount of resources into anti-ship missiles.

Aircraft carriers are, by necessity, massive and incredibly complicated machines. A US Nimitz-class carrier is 333 metres long. An entire carrier battle group travels with numerous escorts and support ships. Its deployment is not meant to be a secret, stealthy exercise.

They also make large targets.

To much less fanfare than the launch of its aircraft carrier, China has developed increasingly sophisticated anti-ship missiles, including the DF-21D, which the US intelligence community has dubbed "the world's first anti-ship ballistic missile".

Fired from a mobile launcher and guided by satellite, the DF-21D is theoretically capable of reaching the Taiwan Strait from anywhere in China. This is just one of the many new models of anti-ship missile and delivery platforms that have popped up in the past decade.

Much like a simple roadside bomb can take down a sophisticated tank, a small ship armed with a swarm of anti-ship missiles can easily ruin a modern aircraft carrier's day.

This is not to say that if it were to come down to an actual battle between the US and China, China would undoubtedly come out ahead.

The US still enjoys a considerable technological advantage over China in military areas. However, China doesn't need to sink a carrier to achieve its goals, just give the US pause.

No US carrier has been lost since World War II. Costing US$4.5 billion (S$5.6 billion) each, in modern times the US is not going to send one into an area where it might be in danger.

And China has succeeded in adding that element of risk to the Taiwan Strait. Through strategic resource allocation and improved defence technology, China has effectively shut the US out of the Taiwan Strait without a shot being fired.

What does this mean for Taiwan? While cross-strait relations have improved significantly under President Ma Ying-jeou, his unpopularity makes the chances of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) taking the presidency in 2016 likely.

The last time China's posturing led to the deployment of US carriers to the region was in 1996 during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, when then-President Lee Teng-hui was seen as moving Taiwan away from Beijing too quickly.

If the stridently anti-China DPP takes the presidency and provokes a Fourth Taiwan Straits Crisis, it must be prepared for any US military response to be much more timid than in the past.