Does the US Need to Fear That China Might Invade Taiwan?
Does the US Need to Fear That China Might Invade Taiwan?
No scenario worries American strategists like a possible war with China over Taiwan. Recent months have brought a stream of reports making two things uncomfortably clear: The danger of a Chinese assault on Taiwan is growing. And the US, which has an ambiguous security commitment to Taipei, might well lose if it joined such a war on Taiwan’s behalf.
Given this grim forecast, many Americans might fairly ask why the US would even try to defend an island thousands of miles away — a country that wasn’t supposed to have survived this long in the first place. The answer is that the fate of Taiwan may determine the fate of the Western Pacific. But in addressing the possibility, Americans have to understand just how difficult and dangerous it could be to preserve a free Taiwan.
There’s no question that the Chinese military threat to Taiwan is greater than it’s been in decades. From probing Taiwanese air and naval defenses, to posturing forces that could be used in an invasion, to dropping the word “peaceful” from its calls for reunification, Xi Jinping’s government is advertising its determination to bring Taiwan back under its control — perhaps not today or tomorrow, but at some point in the coming years. And whereas China long had more ambition than capability, the military balance has now moved sharply in its favor.
According to press reports, Pentagon-sponsored war games consistently show that the US military would struggle to act quickly and decisively enough to prevent the People’s Liberation Army from overrunning Taiwan. A former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Morell, and a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, James Winnefeld, recently argued that a Chinese assault would present Washington with the agonizing choice of either intervening — and suffering catastrophic losses, possibly in a losing cause — or standing aside and seeing the island subdued.
This changing condition of forces, in turn, could also shift Beijing’s calculus. As a successful invasion, or the use of a “surrender or die” ultimatum, becomes more achievable, it will also become more attractive.
Why would any of this matter for America? After all, when Richard Nixon made his opening to China in the early 1970s, he expected a then-authoritarian Taiwan to one day fall back into the mainland’s grasp. More broadly, it might seem absurd that the US would risk war with a nuclear power over an island on China’s doorstep. But there is a three-fold rationale for helping Taiwan defend itself.
First, Taiwan is key to the military balance in the entire Western Pacific. Taiwan anchors the first island chain, which runs from Japan down to the Philippines. In friendly hands, it constitutes a natural barrier to the projection of Chinese air and sea power into the open ocean. In Beijing’s hands, Taiwan would be a stepping stone to regional hegemony.
Control of Taiwan would allow Beijing to extend the reach of its anti-ship missiles, air defenses, fighter and bomber aircraft, and other weapons hundreds of additional miles from its shores. It would let Beijing menace Japan’s energy supplies, sea lines of communication, and even its control of the southern Ryukyu Islands. By complicating American operations in support of remaining regional allies — especially Japan and the Philippines — the loss of Taiwan might well make these countries wonder if opposing Chinese hegemony is even possible.
Second, the loss of Taiwan would shatter US credibility. Credibility is a controversial concept, but America’s alliances in the Pacific rest on the belief that Washington is able and willing to protect them from harm. Once it is revealed that America cannot or will not defend Taiwan, it would be foolish for Tokyo, Manila or Seoul not to wonder whether alignment with the US is still worth incurring China’s wrath. As Taiwan goes, so may go the region.
Finally, Taiwan is a small country with outsized ideological significance. The Chinese Communist Party has long argued that democracy and Chinese culture are incompatible. That’s nonsense, of course, as the mere existence of Taiwan demonstrates. In difficult circumstances, Taipei has done almost everything the world could have asked of it: It has built a strong market economy and made the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Taiwan is a living reminder that the Chinese regime has brought its citizens prosperity but not freedom.
The trouble is that the US is only starting to realize how much it would actually take to deter China from attacking Taiwan, or defeat any assault. As former Pentagon officials have explained, a war in the Taiwan Strait would be a deadly race against the clock. In the opening days of a conflict, to prevent the PLA from getting a critical mass of troops ashore, US and Taiwanese forces would have to sink hundreds of Chinese transports. Taiwan would need to be resilient enough to withstand subversion, bombardment and assault from air and sea; the US might have to absorb heavy casualties among forces trying to fight their way into the theater. That task could be so daunting, a future president might simply decline to fight.
There is an alternative, but not an attractive one. Taiwan would need to invest drastically more in its own defense — probably twice the 2.3% of GDP it currently spends — and stud itself with mines, anti-ship missiles, mobile air defenses and other cheap but lethal capabilities. The Pentagon would have to procure vastly more long-range strike capabilities, as well as additional submarines, unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned underwater vehicles, and other assets that could be used to weaken an invasion force from the outset. Nor would there be any end in sight — Washington and Taipei would have to reconcile themselves to a long, dynamic competition with Beijing for military advantage, and to the high tensions and recurring crises that could mark the years to come. Recall that, in the first 15 years of the Cold War, there were multiple Berlin crises. The Taiwan Strait could be just as volatile.
We sometimes think of the US-China competition as a fundamentally different kind of great-power contest, one whose outcome will be determined more by control of data than by control of strategic terrain. Yet it is also an old-fashioned military rivalry, with all the perils that entails. It would be catastrophic if the free world were to lose Taiwan. It might also be hard, costly and dangerous to keep it.