President Biden’s recent trip to Asia went almost smoothly, until Taiwan showed up. Biden was asked if the United States would respond “militarily” if China tried to take back the self-governing island by force.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s the commitment we made.”
It was one of the most explicit US defense guarantees for Taiwan in decades, and appears to depart from a longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity.” But it is far from certain that the United States can keep China at bay.
I have participated in dozens of war games and simulation exercises to see how a conflict would turn out. Simply put, the United States is outgunned. At a minimum, a confrontation with China would be a massive bloodletting for the US military with no sure outcome that the US can repel all of China’s forces. Mr. Biden’s comments may and hopefully will deter a Chinese attack.
After a decades-long military modernization, China has the world’s largest navy and the United States could throw far fewer ships into a conflict with Taiwan. China’s missile force is also believed to be capable of targeting ships at sea to neutralize America’s main tool of power projection, aircraft carriers.
The United States has the most advanced fighter jets in the world, but only has access to two US air bases within the combat radius without refueling of the Taiwan Strait, both in Japan, compared to China’s 39 air bases within the 500 miles from Taipei.
If China’s leaders decide that they need to take back Taiwan and are convinced that the United States will respond, they may they see no other option than a preemptive strike against US forces in the region. Chinese missiles could take down key US bases in Japan, and US aircraft carriers could take on Chinese “carrier-killer” missiles. In this scenario, superior US training and experience would matter little.
The need to project power over great distances also makes US forces vulnerable to China’s cyber and electronic warfare capabilities. China could disrupt networks like the US Transportation Command, which moves US assets and is seen as vulnerable to cyberattacks. China may also have the ability to damage satellites and disrupt communications, navigation, targeting, intelligence gathering, or command and control. Operating from its territory, China could use more secure systems such as fiber optic cables for its own networks.
In the best battle scenario for the United States, China would attack Taiwan alone and refrain from attacking US forces to avoid attracting US military might. This would give the United States time to bring its forces into the region, move others to safety, and choose where and when to engage with China.
If the United States were ever to intervene, it would need regional allies to provide runways, ports, and supply depots. But those partners may be anxious to stay out of the crossfire.
I’m not the only one who is worried. A congressionally mandated assessment in 2018 warned that the United States could face a “decisive military defeat” in a war over Taiwan, citing China’s increasingly advanced capabilities and America’s myriad logistical difficulties. Several former top US defense officials have come to similar conclusions.
Mr. Biden’s comments were made in the context of Ukraine, and the US failure to prevent that war may be driving his thinking on Taiwan. Mr. Biden may be calculating that Russia Setbacks in Ukraine will give China pause, and guaranteed US intervention in a conflict over Taiwan would cost Beijing too much, even if it took the island.
But comparing Ukraine and Taiwan is problematic. Beijing regards Taiwan, self-ruled since 1949, as an integral part of Chinese territory since ancient times, a link significantly deeper than Vladimir Putin’s obsession with Ukraine. Reunifying the island with the mainland is one of the Chinese Communist Party’s cherished goals, and China would view the US intervention as a bitter betrayal of the “one China” principle – the recognition that China and Taiwan belong together. , which Washington has backed since the 1970s
China’s military is larger and more formidable than Russia’s, and its economy is much larger, more resilient, and more globally integrated. Rallying support for economic sanctions against Beijing during a conflict (China is many countries’ largest trading partner) would be more challenging than isolating Russia.
The White House again retracts Biden’s comments, saying official policy has not changed.
If so, then Mr. Biden should stop rocking the boat and focus on strengthening the US position in the Taiwan theater. Not only does this mean more weapons for Taiwan and a stronger US military presence in the region, although the former would help the island resist if China were to attack, and both would increase deterrence.
It also means cunning diplomacy. Mr. Biden must stand firm against Chinese bullying of Taiwan, as he works to ease Beijing’s anxieties by demonstrating a stronger US commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan dilemma. Mr. Biden should also persuade regional friends to provide more bases for the United States to use. This not only increases US operational flexibility, it increases deterrence.
Whatever Biden’s calculations, departing from the “strategic ambiguity” that has helped keep the peace for decades is a mistake. The main question for President Xi Jinping should not be whether the United States would join, but whether China could beat the United States in a battle for Taiwan. Twenty years ago, China’s poorly trained military and largely outdated naval and air forces didn’t stand a chance. But that was then.
Many will applaud Mr. Biden for defending democratic Taiwan against Chinese threats. But he could be putting the island in greater danger, and the United States may not be able to come to the rescue.
oriana skylar master (@osmastro) is a Center Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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