The dragon sharpens its claws

TAIPEI — It's the stuff of dark sci-fi scenarios; the war that nobody wants.

But the most recent Pentagon report on China's military power — released last week — shows how high the stakes have become, in the unlikely event the United States and China ever do come to blows.

China has the world's fastest-growing military. It is building state-of-the art fighter jets, destroyers, and anti-ship missiles worth billions of dollars. It's just confirmed it will build an aircraft carrier.

And according to the Pentagon, it's now fielding a new nuclear force able to "inflict significant damage on most large American cities."

Most disturbing, Chinese military officials have publicly threatened to use that capability against the United States — in a conflict over Taiwan.

"China doesn't just threaten war, it threatens nuclear war," said John Tkacik, a China expert and former U.S. diplomat, at a forum in Taipei last weekend. "This is the kind of thing that rattles cages in the U.S."

For now, Taiwan is the only plausible cause of military conflict between the world's superpower and the rising Asian giant.

Taiwan insists it's an independent state. Beijing sees it as Chinese territory that must one day end its democratic "holiday" and return to the fold.

The U.S. has a commitment, albeit an ambiguous one, to help defend Taiwan's democracy against Chinese aggression.

That means U.S. Marines, sailors and pilots could one day, perhaps suddenly, be sent to take on Asia's most lethal military, all for the sake of a small island which few Americans can distinguish from Thailand.

The good news: most experts agree that conflict will probably never happen.

U.S. diplomacy has helped keep the peace in the Taiwan Strait for 60 years. And tensions have eased in the past year with the election of a Taiwan president who is forging better relations with Beijing.

Chinese and Taiwanese media reported this week that the two sides' militaries will both attend a conference in Hawaii this summer.

Still, the pessimists at the Pentagon must plan for the worst. Their concerns are written down in black and white in the report.

The worry isn't a full-blown war, which would be a lopsided contest. Despite China's rapid rise, it remains far behind America in war-fighting capabilities, technology, logistical know-how and military budgets.

But that wouldn't necessarily matter in a conflict over Taiwan. In such a fight, China doesn't have to beat the U.S. It has to beat Taiwan, and raise the costs of U.S. involvement in the conflict to an unacceptably high level.

And so, says the Pentagon, China is developing capabilities designed to rapidly pound Taiwan into submission, and to deter U.S. forces from entering the game.

To do the first, it has engaged in a massive missile buildup on the coast across from Taiwan. That now includes as many as 1,150 short-range ballistic missiles, up from about 200 a decade ago.

To deal with the U.S. military, it's developing anti-satellite and cyber-warfare capabilities, to take out America's eyes and ears in a fight. And it's building submarines and nasty anti-ship missiles to fend off or sink the U.S. aircraft carriers that would steam toward Taiwan in a crisis.

This year's Pentagon report stated that, for the first time, Taiwan has lost air superiority over the Taiwan Strait.

While China still couldn't pull off a Normandy-style invasion of the island, the report says it could easily grab one of the small, Taiwan-controlled islands just off the Chinese coast.

China fumed at the Pentagon report. Taiwan's response was low-key: it called again on Beijing to remove its threatening missiles opposite the island.

Taipei says until those missiles go, it won't enter peace negotiations — despite the current rapprochement. "Nobody will allow the leadership in Taiwan to negotiate with Beijing at gunpoint," said Andrew Yang, a Taiwanese security expert.

A defense ministry spokesman told me the report underscored Taiwan's need for more advanced fighter jets to counter China.

"We have to take it very seriously," the spokesman said. "And we need the F-16s."

Washington is ignoring the island's request for 66 advanced F-16s. Earlier this month Taiwan's legislative speaker said flatly that the U.S. "doesn't want to give them to us." He blamed pressure from China.

Meanwhile, many U.S. observers have in turn criticized Taiwan for dithering over other defense needs.

At the Taipei forum, Pentagon consultant Michael Pillsbury said Taiwan should improve its ability to withstand a Chinese barrage.

Pillsbury and others have warned that Taiwan must prepare for the possibility of cross-strait relations turning sour again.

"Too many alarms are being sounded," Pillsbury concluded. "If you do have a breakdown in talks, and tensions rise again, you're going to wish you had paid more attention to hardening your defenses."

Other GlobalPost stories on military action in Asia:

Thailand: The war you've never heard of

Philippines: The resiliencey of Abu Sayaf

War games in paradise