Asked about those warnings, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided scant reassurance when he said “China has a ways to go to develop the actual, no-kidding capability to conduct military operations to seize through military means the entire island of Taiwan.” It’s true that conducting a contested amphibious assault is one of the hardest military operations to pull off, and China might not have the capacity to do so in the near future. But Beijing wouldn’t necessarily have to invade to achieve its objective.
Imagine what would happen if China blockaded Taiwan, an island that imports some two-thirds of its food and nearly 100 percent of its energy supplies. While the U.S. Navy retains a qualitative advantage, China already has the world’s largest navy. Within a few years, its air and missile forces will also be far larger than what the United States deploys in the region. It has the actual, no-kidding capacity to blockade Taiwan.
Taiwan could try to break the noose, but Taiwan’s armed forces are roughly one-tenth the size of the mainland’s. If Taiwan opened fire, the People’s Liberation Army could respond with cyber, missile and air strikes that would destroy Taiwan’s electrical grid and cellular networks, close its airports and further damage its economy.
This would be a nightmare scenario not only for Taipei but also for Washington. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act says that the United States would be concerned about “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes.” But it doesn’t pledge the United States to defend Taiwan. Would the United States be willing to risk war with another nuclear-armed superpower?
We could try measures short of war — for example, launching an airlift similar to the one that kept West Berlin alive during a Soviet blockade in 1948-1949. But it’s one thing to supply the 2.5 million people of 1948 Berlin; it would be far harder to supply the 24 million people of Taiwan. And far more dangerous: Beijing could threaten to shoot down any planes and sink any ships that enter what it claims as sovereign territory.
What happens then? Do we fight to save Taiwan? Or do we allow that vibrant democracy to fall? Capitulation would be a human tragedy and a significant blow to the United States’ strategic position in Asia, but it might be preferable to a war we could easily lose.
Let’s hope no U.S. president ever has to confront that difficult decision. But if we want to avert that dire contingency, we need to work harder to deter China.
For a start, as Richard Haass and David Sacks argue in Foreign Affairs, the United States needs to remove the ambiguity about whether it would come to Taiwan’s defense. Uncertainty about U.S. intentions raises the risk of war — the prime example being North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in 1950. President Biden should declare that, though we will not support a Taiwanese declaration of independence from China, we will defend the island if it is attacked. Japan, too, needs to be more explicit in its commitment to Taiwan’s defense.
We also need to build up a more credible deterrent. Recent Pentagon war games show the United States losing to China, which has stockpiled missiles, submarines, cyberweapons, space weapons and other “asymmetric” capabilities designed to defeat conventional U.S. forces. U.S. aircraft carriers can no longer operate anywhere close to China, as they did during a previous Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996, because of the risk of China’s “carrier-killer” missiles and submarines.
A U.S. Air Force war game last year showed the United States doing better — but only by utilizing weapons systems that aren’t yet in its inventory. These included both large and small drones and autonomous munitions that could be dropped from cargo aircraft. The basic concept is to deploy large numbers of missile launchers, drones and sensors so we don’t have to rely on surface ships, short-range fighters or regional bases that would be vulnerable to Chinese attack. Taiwan itself also needs to invest more in these high-tech capabilities.
The problem is that the Defense Department continues to build and deploy the kind of conventional military forces that would be likely to lose a war with China. Stop buying more aircraft carriers, destroyers and short-range fighter aircraft. Start buying more unmanned systems. We won’t be able to effectively deter a Chinese lunge at Taiwan until we do more to transform our military.