The Guns of August

TAIPEI, Taiwan, The China Post Editorial

Exactly 90 years ago, in August 1914, German armies swept across Europe and, by the end of the month, rolled into France, touching off the First World War.

The events of that pivotal month, chronicled by Barbara Tuchman (1912-89) in her famous Pulitzer Prize winning book The Guns of August (1962), attest that war is unnecessary, and inept leadership can turn a minor incident into a huge disaster. But ambitious politicians can’t see this, so history keeps repeating itself.

The same dangerous pre-war situation is arising in the Taiwan Strait, as China, the United States and Taiwan are amassing an unusually huge amount of troops and their deadliest weapons for unprecedented confrontational war games simultaneously. China is conducting land, sea and air military maneuvers on Dongshan Island in the Taiwan Strait. Codenamed “Liberation No. 2,” it was introduced in 1996 to warn against “Taiwan independence elements.” But this year its explicit aim is to “gain air supremacy,” according to Beijing’s mouthpiece the People’s Daily. It is “no longer the previous preventive military drill but rather an active, initiative and offensive military drill to impose military pressure on Taiwan.” The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would “immediately take the Penghu Islands if and when Taiwan proclaimed independence and attack aircraft carriers, cruise missiles, fighter jets and armed helicopters after war broke out and foreign countries intervened militarily.” Historically, Penghu was the staging post for the mainland’s expeditions against Taiwan. If the PLA captured it, “Taiwan’s air force and navy would be relegated to no more than a coast guard force.” Taiwan certainly cannot budge. Its resolve and capabilities are being demonstrated through the annual Hanguang exercise. For the first time, this year’s war games began with a computerized simulation of missile defense with American assistance, depicting missiles fired by the mainland being destroyed midair by Taiwan’s Patriot interceptors. Also for the first time since 1978, fighter jets practiced emergency landings on the freeway to refuel and reload missiles, simulating what they would do if the airfields were destroyed. There are also the anti-submarine, anti-amphibious landing and anti-airborne attack drills.

The U.S. “Operation Summer Pulse ‘04” is being held in western Pacific from mid-July through August. For the first time, seven of its 12 carrier strike groups rendezvous off China’s coast near Taiwan. Ostensibly, the American exercise is designed to test the new Fleet Response Plan, which aims to project naval forces faster and would deploy as many as six carrier strike groups anywhere in the world in 30 days. Taipei sees the Summer Pulse as demonstrating America’s resolve to defend the island democracy.

But Beijing views it as Washington’s scheme to encourage Taiwan’s separatism and suppress China’s rise, so it has heightened verbal histrionics against U.S. positions on Taiwan. While none of the three sides is preparing for a conflict, the military muscle-flexing does create opportunities for mischief, miscalculation and mistakes. Many fear a repeat of the Hainan incident of three years ago, in which a Chinese fighter accidentally clipped a U.S. surveillance plane, sending the Chinese jet into the sea, killing its pilot and forcing the U.S. aircraft to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island. This August, the mainland’s pilots might just do the same to Taiwan fighters, creating a crisis that the world’s sole superpower cannot prevent and the island’s society and economy cannot withstand.