The “Central Position” Article


Back in December of 2012, Sharnoff’s Global Views (SGV) published an article I submitted regarding Taiwan’s strategic significance in the Western Pacific. In May, 2013, the article reappeared at SGV with a few minor revisions. Several days later, the article was reported on at Taiwan Focus.

The original intention of the article was to respond to some of the commentary which appears periodically in opinion and scholarly materials arguing that Taiwan is a strategic liability—i.e., that the Taiwan Strait is the only conceivable area in which the United States and China could come into armed conflict—and, therefore, U.S. Taiwan policy requires reconsideration and possibly revision.

However, one particular aspect of the article that I believe needs further explanation, since due to word limits I was unable to elaborate in the article, is the concept of the strategy of the central position, which I mention several times in passing. Exploring this concept and its potential effects on regional security from theoretical and speculative perspectives is the purpose of the present post.

Let me first start off by saying that I do not think the strategy of the central position, also known as the strategic central position, is perfectly applicable to the situation in the Western Pacific. Modern weapons would probably render a perfect fit impossible, although it could be argued that modern communications, radar, and other technologies may instead render the strategy of the central position more workable, at least in theory. The purpose here is to explore some key aspects of the strategy of the central position and allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about its applicability.[1]

The strategy of the central position originates conceptually in the defensive tactics of Frederick II (“the Great”) of Prussia during the War of Austrian Succession and, later (and especially), during the Seven Years’ War, in which Frederick’s outnumbered, gradually depleted, and increasingly exhausted army maneuvered between two (and sometimes more) foes with smaller individual forces; Frederick’s army could maneuver thus and react more quickly than those of its opponents—and, therefore, keep those forces from coalescing and forming a more formidable single force—due to Fredrick’s army’s operating on what Antoine-Henri, baron Jomini called interior lines. Because the distance between two or more points in a smaller or interior geometric shape are closer together than two or more points in a larger or exterior geometric shape, it takes less time—depending on organization and speed, of course—to trace (or, for an army, to march) along interior lines than exterior lines. Hence, due partly to geometric truths, Frederick’s army had a considerable advantage in speed and distance regardless of the other disadvantages with which it had to cope.

The strategy or tactical maneuver was used, albeit not entirely successfully, by Napoleon Bonaparte in his campaigns in Europe in the early 19th century. Conceived as a method for dealing with an overall superior but dispersed foe or two or more foes seeking to join their forces and crush him—and Napoleon was constantly fighting coalitions of foes who were often traveling and sometimes fighting as separate armies—the concept is theoretically sound but depends to a great extent on seizing the initiative and execution in battle to work as planned. The objective of the strategy of the central position is to keep two or more separate enemy forces from coalescing and, hence, outnumbering and overwhelming one’s own units by positioning one’s own force between the enemy units thus making it impossible for them to link.[2]

In short, a commander in such straits (no pun intended)—i.e., at risk of being pressed between two enemy forces or crushed by a numerically superior force should the two coalesce—must act to buy time and in one way or another render one force combat ineffective before swiftly wheeling around to meet the second force with superior numbers and defeat it. Napoleon did this by detaching one unit or corps to shadow, attack, or otherwise hinder the advance of one force, attacking the second and sending it to route, and then attacking the first force with his remaining units. At Waterloo, this strategy failed because the first force was not completely destroyed, lost contact with, and, at the critical moment of the epic battle with Wellington’s army (the second force), the first force made its way to the battlefield and attacked Napoleon’s right flank.[3] This defeat spelled the end of Napoleon, but it should not lead us to ignore the strategy’s successes, particularly at Ligny and Quatre Bras.

Briefly, were the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to control Taiwan, regardless of what has been said in the past by Chinese officials about not placing military units on Taiwan,[4] Taiwan could serve as the PRC’s strategic (geographical) central position in the so-called first island chain, possibly the second island chain (by offering the PLA Navy [PLAN] easy access to the open Pacific), and likely the entire Western Pacific, complicating U.S. and joint naval operations in the South China Sea and East China Sea by driving a wedge between dispersed rival naval forces.

In practice, such a scenario may be difficult operationally, and technologies serve to both complicate and simplify such strategies. For starters, it assumes that the PLAN and PLA Air Force (PLAAF), among others, are able to develop a lethal concentration of force on or at least near Taiwan. Second, it assumes that potential opponents will operate aircraft carriers, aircraft carrier battle groups, and other similar surface and subsurface combatants instead of, for example, long-range strategic bombers (stationed in the continental United States, for instance), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), space bombers, laser technology, and other related technologies.[5] By contrast, advanced Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) technologies would quite obviously make timing, coordination, and command centralization far less complicated than in Napoleon’s (or even Rommel’s) day. Results would, it seems, be mixed at best—or at worst, depending on which side one operates. Third, it assumes that land warfare tactics can be applied to naval and air warfare. Despite these weaknesses, and probably others, the idea still, in my estimate, deserves consideration in naval and air force calculus.

From this perspective (as well as the other perspectives noted in the original article[6]), commentaries about Taiwan being strategically irrelevant are misplaced. China need not be the focus of continued U.S. support for Taiwan[7] even though the Chinese leadership would likely perceive such things differently. But it may be that regarding this last point, many Chinese leaders have already made up their minds regardless of the U.S. position on Taiwan, the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the U.S.-Japan alliance the U.S.-ROK alliance, and the overall U.S. strategy in the Pacific. An abandonment of Taiwan by the United States would hand a key strategic piece over to the PRC (read PLA) and not satisfy Chinese demands on “core interests,” a list that continues to expand. Operating from a position of what I term “residual strength,” that is, ongoing strong ties with and support for regional states, it makes little sense to take a step back, so to speak, and hope for PRC reciprocity when there is little the PRC can give in return (again, the expansion of the list of “core interests” is indicative here). All the United States must do is maintain, although it may certainly (and as I would advise) strengthen, such relationships, while potential opponents must gain at Washington’s expense.[8]

[1] I believe such thought experiments imperative, although the policy analyst, politician, military planner and practitioner, and the odd journalist may consider them merely exercises in abstractions.

It should nonetheless be noted that such a concept as follows fits nicely into China’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) and active defense strategies. The former in particular, in order to function as a proper layered defense, assumes some form of force projection capability.

[2] See also, besides the linked Internet article at the words “tactical maneuver” in the same paragraph in which this note appears, Gunther E. Rothenberg, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1978), pp. 146-51. For a sense of the grander significance of holding a strategic central position geographically and not necessarily tactically before a military engagement, see Charles Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: And International History, 1803-1815 (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), pp. 232-3.

[3] It should be noted that the arrival of Blücher’s (the first) force was not in-and-of-itself decisive and Napoleon still could have, it is believed, won the battle had not Wellington’s troops massacred Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. Although the arrival of Blücher’s force may have hastened the disaster the Guard experienced, had it broken Wellington’s line, Blücher’s arrival arguably would have been insignificant.

[4] Such an assertion means very little. Were Taiwan attacked, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would almost certainly be forced to respond. Taiwan’s military would have no raison d’être now that its present role of deterring or countering a PLA attack would be an anachronism after unification. Moreover, Taiwan’s military would still need hardware and probably software, which it would need to procure from the PRC after unification. It matters very little whether, after unification, the PLA stations units on or around Taiwan: by fait accompli, Taiwan would be under heavy Chinese influence.

[5] It should be noted here that these technologies may not necessarily complicate PLA operations in such a scenario. The PLA may be able to defeat such technologies by asymmetrical or other means, thus rendering them, at least hypothetically, essentially useless.

[6] Admittedly, the long string of espionage cases involving Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) soldiers and officers directly spying for or otherwise passing information on to the PLA may render Taiwan’s information-gathering role limited and even entirely irrelevant over time, which is why it is imperative that the Taiwan military gets its house in order.

[7] Indeed, U.S. support for Taiwan has played a role in the decades of relative peace in the Asia-Pacific region and would arguably continue to do so regardless of the origins of any regional tensions.

[8] One final point I wish to make is that my interest here is the geographic position of Taiwan and how said position could be utilized by the PLA were Taiwan and China to one way or another unite politically. How it may be used is anyone’s guess; hence, the reason behind this thought experiment.