The Biden government faces a stark reality: China may attempt to take Taiwan in the next four years. For the first time since 1950, Beijing could reasonably believe that it has a viable military option to disrupt what it sees as a breakaway province. President Xi Jinping said Taiwan must be part of China – and signaled that he intended to do something about it.
The stakes for America are immense. Keeping Taiwan out of Beijing’s grip is critical to denying China’s goal of regional hegemony and ultimately global supremacy. The island occupies a central geographical position. If Taiwan falls, China would have the ability to project military might across Asia. Japan, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands would be more vulnerable to China’s military.
The US has long spoken out against China’s war against Taiwan, and states in the region would read the US response to an attack as a sign of American reliability. Failure to defend Taiwan would seriously undermine America’s credibility among already nervous Asian allies and partners. For these reasons, the recently released Indo-Pacific Strategy of 2018 specifically ordered the Pentagon to implement a defense strategy that would enable the US to defend Taiwan.
But can America even defend Taiwan from a China that has become so powerful? The People’s Liberation Army is getting stronger astonishingly quickly. The PLA Navy already has more ships than the US Navy, its air forces are the largest in the region, and Beijing also has the world’s largest missile force. Beijing aims to achieve technical parity with the American armed forces by 2020 and to outperform us by 2030.
Despite all of this, the answer is yes. Defeating a PLA attack would be far from easy or cheap, and if you are ready to do it, you will have to fundamentally transform the changes in US and Taiwanese defense companies. But it can be done.
It would be more difficult than often thought if China were to bring Taiwan to its knees. It is true that Taiwan is less than 100 miles off the coast of China. But to subordinate Taiwan, China would either have to invade the island and occupy it, or block it or bomb it in submission. Any of these courses would be very difficult if China faced a sophisticated and prepared defense, especially when coupled with Taiwan’s determined people who have watched Beijing turn Hong Kong’s freedoms upside down.
Invasion is Beijing’s cleanest option, especially a fait accompli that the island will be captured before the US can mobilize a sufficient response. In such circumstances, Beijing could bet that Americans would overestimate the costs and risks of ejecting a firmly anchored PLA. But to do that, China would have to raise and support an army, at sea and in the air, large enough to capture and hold an island of 24 million people. This could be doable if the PLA attacks a stand-alone Taiwan. Taking a Taiwan backed by a well-prepared U.S. military is a whole different matter. Amphibious invasions against a capable, prepared defense are very difficult.
To put it simply, to defeat a Chinese invasion, the US, Taiwan and all other parties involved would have to paralyze or destroy enough Chinese amphibious ships and transport planes to prevent the PLA from holding the island. For a country that spends more than $ 700 billion annually on defense, this is a problem if America focuses on it.
But the US urgently needs to do four things. First, deploy an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system to monitor Chinese airfields and embarkation ports, and to attack Chinese invasion forces in the event of a conflict. Second, buy more long-range ammunition, especially anti-ship weapons, and position them in the region at sea and in places like Guam, Japan, and the Philippines. This would help prepare the US to blunt the first waves of the Chinese amphibious fleet and airstrike elements. Third, powerful forces farther down the Pacific and beyond must be ready to augment these blunt forces. Fourth, routinely practice these three components together to demonstrate to Chinese military planners that an attack is unlikely to be successful.
The US can also handle a Chinese attempt to block or bomb Taiwan in order to submit. With American support in particular, Taiwanese people would be unlikely to collapse under such pressure, even if brutal, as the alternative is said to be swallowed up by Xi Jinping’s China. This is especially true when Taiwan had enough food, energy, and other essential goods in stock. A well-prepared US could also conduct a “Taipei Sealift” to deliver the supplies necessary to prevent China from strangling the island’s population.
Firm and determined US action is needed to prevent Asia from falling under Beijing’s hegemony. Cutting Taiwan apart would undermine Washington’s valuable credibility in the region while uncorking China’s projection of power.
To ensure that the US can defend the island, both America and Taiwan need to get their attention and invest heavily. But it can be done. And that’s a small price to pay to ensure that China doesn’t get the wrong idea – with disastrous consequences.
Mr. Colby is the director of the Marathon Initiative. From 2017 to 18 he was Deputy Deputy Minister of Defense for Strategy and Troop Development.
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