Arming Ukraine: Lessons for Beijing

Posted on Friday, February 27, 2015 by kelseymb

(Image Source: Getty Images via The Hill)

By Kelsey Broderick

If the current cease-fire agreement between the rebels and the Ukrainian government fails, as is looking increasingly likely as fighting continues, the United States will have to make an important choice about how to move forward. One of the likely options is arming the Ukrainian government. At a press conference with Angela Merkel on February 9th, President Obama cautioned, "If, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I've asked my team to do is to look at all options"options which include delivering lethal arms to the Ukrainian government. Whether or not the United States goes forward with this option will have a profound impact on not only the Ukrainian conflict but also on those watching the drama unfold in Beijing. For Beijing, the outcome of the conflict in the Ukraine could have serious implications for its own ideas of sovereignty and contested territory.

China, Crimea and Core Interests
China has thus far resisted explicitly taking sides in the Ukrainian conflict. On 1 March 2014, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, "It is China's long-standing position not to interfere in others' internal affairs. We respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine." He was, however, quick to add, “There are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today." Qin was undoubtedly referring to Western support of a February 2014 coup that ousted the pro-Russian Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, and paved the way for a pro-West and pro-NATO replacement. This was seen as a direct threat to Russia’s core strategic interests, particularly with regard to Western encroachment on Russia’s borders. Russia responded to this threat by supporting a rebel takeover of Crimea, an area on Russia’s border with a majority Russian speaking population that contains offshore oil and gas reserves and one that houses Russia’s Black Sea Naval Base. 

Beijing also knows a thing or two about core strategic interests. These include not only Taiwan, but also territory in the East and South China Seas, both of which are also internationally contested areas home to large energy reserves.  In the South China Sea, China claims ownership of a large portion of the sea, including areas that overlap with the exclusive economic zone claims of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and others. In the East, China has laid claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, an island chain that is currently under control of Japan and lies near rich fishing grounds and oil and gas reserves.

China has repeatedly asserted that it has a historical claim on these areas and has refused to take part in international litigation regarding these claims. Furthermore, the government has made very clear it does not welcome any outside (or Western) involvement in the disputes. The United States, meanwhile, while not directly involved in any of these claims, has robust economic and security agreements with a number of the stake-holders in these disputes and has vowed to increase its presence in Asia. Beijing has undoubtedly drawn parallels between this new push by Washington and the spread of pro-Western sentiment in the Ukraine.

China’s decision not to take a stand on the conflict also reflects the continued and growing relationship between China and Russia. In May, China and Russia signed a $400 billion gas deal and in July, the two countries held a naval drill off the coast of Russia that was the largest drill the People’s Liberation Army had ever participated in. The two countries also share a mutual interest in fostering Eurasian security and hedging against the maritime alliances of the United States

US Response
A decision by the American government to become militarily involved in the dispute in Ukraine would effectively signal to Beijing that expansionist efforts or solutions to territorial disputes that rely on military strength instead of diplomacy will actually give rise to harsh consequences from the United States, particularly when the area in question is of importance to a U.S. ally. Increased U.S. engagement in the Crimea crisis would be particularly striking, as Crimea is not an area that is considered one of the United States’ core interests, much like the dispute in the East and South China Seas. In addition, Beijing might rethink a sudden or rash response to any perceived American encroachment once they see that a similar response would not simply cause America to ‘back off.’

If, on the other hand, the US decides not to pursue a hard line against Russia, then China may be inclined to deepen its friendship with Russia even more. Throwing their support behind Russia’s decision to pursue its core-interests would give China a strong ally if they choose to pursue action in the East or South China Seas. And a strong China allied with a strong Russia would appear as a formidable bloc opposite a weak United States.

China has consistently viewed the American pivot to Asia with suspicion. Xi Jinping has instead called for an ‘Asia for Asians,’ an idea that envisions the people of Asia running their own affairs and managing their own security. If the United States were to provide arms to the Ukrainian government it would send the message that regional disputes that disrupt the security and peace of a region as well as threaten U.S. allies are not actions that the United States will take lightly. China may therefore think twice about escalating conflict in the region under the assumption that they can bully weaker powers without any larger consequences. If Beijing sees that intransigence toward diplomacy and a refusal to stop aggression signals a strong response by the United States, they may be increasingly likely to search for a diplomatic and peaceful solution to their own core interests. And for U.S. allies, sending weapons would show that the U.S. pivot to Asia is not simply empty words.  

A Peculiar Panic: Russia’s S-400 SAM Sale to China

Posted on Tuesday, February 24, 2015 by Samuel J. Mun

(Image Source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin)

By Ian Easton

An excellent Defense News report came out late last year with word that Russia might soon sell its advanced S-400 surface to air missile (SAM) system to China. This has understandably caused something of a panic in Taiwan security circles. Yet the threat may not be as dire as forecast. And, if nothing else, the sale raises a number of interesting questions about the logic of Moscow’s thinking.

First, is it in Russia's strategic interest to have its most dangerous potential long-term adversary equipped with a system that could defend Beijing and reduce Russia's already waning nuclear advantage? Second, will Russia install protective “black boxes” on the export variant of its S-400 SAM so China can't steal and reverse engineer the technology? Will Russia otherwise reduce the export variant's effectiveness? Or will Russia install an electronic back door into the export variant to allow for a remote access “kill switch” in time of need? Finally, what might this deal tell us about Chinese military weakness in terms of indigenous SAM technology?

As for the threat to Taiwan (if indeed S-400s do become operational across the Strait in the coming few years) it must be noted that Chinese air defenses are not invulnerable today, nor will they be in the future. There are a number of risks a Chinese S-400 unit operating near Taiwan, which is officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), would face. In peacetime, S-400 air surveillance radar, if turned on, would be subject to immediate interception by Taiwanese signals intelligence (SIGINT) units on Tung-yin Island, Matsu Island, and the Penghu Islands. It would also be vulnerable to American and Japanese SIGINT units on Okinawa and the surrounding islands, not to mention allied intelligence gathering submarines parked off the Chinese coast, as well as both manned and unmanned aircraft patrolling the East China Sea. Once radar emissions have been captured, they can be studied for the purpose of countermeasure development.         

The effective range of the S-400 system is reportedly quite impressive (if one is to believe Russian claims),  but even with such an intrusive look into Taiwan’s territorial air space, China would not have SAM coverage over Taiwan’s air bases at most operational altitudes. And when in the threat envelope, Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) pilots could fly low under the system’s radar, which is limited by the curvature of the earth and can't penetrate Taiwan's extremely mountainous geography. In addition, it is often forgotten that Taiwan has had excellent SAM coverage over much of China’s Southeastern seaboard for well over a decade. China is trying to play catch-up with Taiwan and still not there yet.

During a full-scale conflict, Chinese S-400 SAMs across the Taiwan Strait would be vulnerable to attack by Taiwanese electronic jamming and cyber warfare units, anti-radiation drones, cruise missiles, special operations forces, and "wild weasel" type aircraft.  Assuming U.S. intervention, F-22 stealth fighters would also be able to hold Chinese SAMs at risk irrespective of how advanced they may be, and the S-400 would be no exception.  

This possible SAM sale therefore highlights the growing importance of Taiwan's indigenous self-defense programs, including its stealthy unmanned aerial vehicle program, its HF-2E cruise missile program, and its Wan Chien missile program. A Chinese S-400 battalion would be useless against all of these capabilities, and thus highly vulnerable to paralyzing strikes against its command posts and radar nets. Taiwan can still neutralize single nodes of failure in China even with a growing fighter gap working against it. 

Nonetheless, it would be imprudent to be overly sanguine. Chinese S-400s would indeed put pressure on ROCAF fighters conducting routine patrols in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). They would also offer China an improved defense against Taiwanese F-16s tasked with counterstrike missions during a conflict. To defend against future Chinese SAMs it is important for Taiwan to acquire new fifth generation fighters like the F-35 or a similar indigenous aircraft.  With or without Chinese S-400s, the Taiwan Strait military environment is fast becoming one of the most challenging in the world. ROCAF's pilots have most of the training they need to deny their communist Chinese adversaries air superiority. However, Taiwan must acquire more advanced fighters, missile defense systems, and cruise missiles to keep its defensive edge in this emerging environment.  
There is much Washington could do to help improve Taiwan’s air defenses. For starters, the U.S. should grant Taiwan full participation in the air force Red Flag exercises in Nevada and Alaska. American, Japanese and Taiwanese pilots need to war-game alongside each other and learn from each other.  Each partner air force brings something to the table the others don't have, and ultimately they could all be fighting alongside each other one day in the event that known contingencies were to occur. So it would be best for them to work out the kinks early.

Yet despite the urgent need for greater interoperability between democratic partner nations in East Asia, it appears the U.S. is going to continue bowing to Chinese pressure and keep Taiwan out of Red Flag. For this reason and many others, the Pacific Command is going to find itself sub-optimally prepared to face the emerging strategic environment in the Western Pacific. American policymakers and strategists could do better in supporting Taiwan. And Taiwan could do more to highlight its concerns regarding China’s military build-up. This is no time to panic.         

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