What would a Sino-American Clash over Taiwan actually look like?
While the new Biden team at the Pentagon is preoccupied with bringing the “woke” revolution to the U.S. Military, China is taking full advantage of the distraction of America’s frivolous political class. If senior Biden appointees at the Pentagon were properly focused on preventing an actual war rather than on waging a left-wing culture war, they might take a moment to register the appropriate sense of alarm about the situation with Taiwan. Here is the briefing the Biden team needs to be receiving on what I have termed “the most dangerous place on Earth.”
The bottom line: the U.S. may be stumbling into war in the Taiwan Strait–and despite our overwhelmingly military advantage in terms of the capability of our Armed Forces, in such a conflict, a disaster for America could be more likely than most Americans would believe.
As I argued in the first installment of this series, for the Chinese Communist Party, the question of retaking Taiwan is not a matter of if–it’s a question of how and when. Taiwan’s centrality to the semiconductor trade makes it a linchpin of global supply chains. But more importantly, the continued existence of a rival “Chinese” regime in Taipei not only calls into question the legitimacy of the CCP government in Beijing to speak for all of China; it also raises doubts about just how impressive the record of the CCP has been in turning China into a great power.
In the CCP’s determination to retake Taiwan, War has been an option contemplated since 1949, and Beijing has threatened to resort to just such methods at least three times. Once in 1955, again in 1958, and most recently in 1996. To China, however, war comes in many forms. There is, of course, the military element, and here China’s buildup is posing a threat that almost all American officials recognize.
Military strength can be assessed in two ways. First, in an absolute sense. Who has the greater destructive potential–, the more formidable aircraft, the more advanced weapon systems? The second is to consider which side is better equipped to accomplish a specific task.
There is no doubt that the United States maintains a vast technological superiority over the People’s Liberation Army forces. While the gap has closed in recent years–and quantity, as the saying goes, often has a quality of its own–when it comes to destructive potential on a global level, the United States is unequaled. This is especially true when it comes to the ability of each side to inflict damage on the other’s homeland. The United States possesses the ability to not just hit targets anywhere in China, thereby paralyzing China’s transportation and communications infrastructure, but naval and air superiority on a global level which could cripple the Chinese economy.
While China might be able to compete with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea, there is little the Chinese could do to challenge American dominance in the Middle East or the Americas in the event of a conflict. As such, Beijing could expect the U.S. to be able to close the Panama Canal, the Suez, and the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca to Chinese shipping. As for the ability to strike each other’s homelands, while China can hit American targets with nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons generally do not factor into conflicts with conventional geopolitical objectives.
While all of these advantages would spell doom for China in a prospective World War III against the United States, the important thing to understand is that China’s leaders have no intention of fighting a World War III against America. At least not for the foreseeable future, and preferably not ever if it can be avoided. China has a limited objective, namely asserting its sovereignty over Taiwan, and the playing field for that conflict is very different. While the United States, in theory, could use all of the means at its disposal to destroy China in order to stop China from taking Taiwan, this is highly unlikely in practice, in the same way, that the United States would never have resorted to World War III to stop a Soviet Invasion of Poland in 1981 to crush Solidarity, or during the Cold War to remove Tito from Yugoslavia.
For one thing, virtually all of the vital strategic chokepoints mentioned above exist on the sovereign territory of countries other than either China or the United States. The Suez Canal belongs, as we have so recently been reminded, to Egypt. The Straits of Hormuz separate the Gulf states from Iran. The Straits of Malacca, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. For the United States to blockade any of these sea routes without the consent of the countries involved would be an act of war, and doubly so if it involved seizing neutral shipping.
This is where the limited nature of Chinese objectives and the Chinese propaganda campaign (which I wrote about here) will come into play. While nations such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are U.S. allies, and might if it was a choice between Chinese world domination and a continuation of the status quo, decide to align with America, they certainly have no reason to destroy their economies, their relations with one of their greatest investors, and risk becoming warzones to involve themselves in what is at most a Sino-American affair, and at worst an internal Chinese one–the status of Taiwan. All of these nations recognize the PRC as the sovereign government over all of China, including Taiwan, and many have dubious democratic records of their own.
In the event of conflict over the Taiwan strait, therefore, America’s overwhelming superiority on a global level would quickly be neutralized by the rapid and firm declarations of neutrality that would emanate from virtually every government on the entire globe. If the U.S. were to nevertheless try to turn the situation into a global conflict (where America has the advantage), it would likely trigger a global economic crisis and create enormous pressure from more or less the entire world to settle the conflict. “Settling” would almost certainly be Beijing’s terms.
Fundamentally, therefore, any military conflict over Taiwan will have to be won or lost in the Taiwan strait. The Communist government in Beijing grasps this, and its strategy is heavily focused not on winning a global war but on winning a war along the coast. Here, again, the People’s Liberation Army would face a logistical challenge invading Taiwan, which, after all, is an island. Amphibious landings are notoriously risky, and the straits are not known for the calmness of their waters. Again, however, Beijing does not actually need to invade Taiwan to “defeat” the United States. It merely needs to destroy the American forces between Taiwan and the mainland.
In practice, that would mean defeating the U.S. 7th Fleet, based in Yokosuka, Japan, a formidable force including five aircraft carriers. This would be no easy task on the high seas, where even the rapidly expanded Chinese Navy would stand little chance. That is why the battle would not be fought on the high seas but rather near the coast of the Chinese province of Fujian. As a consequence, American naval forces would be faced with confronting Chinese land-based forces.
This would not be a fair fight. U.S. weapon systems are vastly more advanced, but military history teaches us that periods pass in which either defense or offense are more advantageous given the technology available. In World War I, the onset of the machine gun and artillery provided the defense with an overwhelming advantage which was only overturned with the development of airpower and motorized transport in the Second World War. In the modern era, the rise of precision-guided missiles ensures that naval combat (and air combat for that matter) is almost entirely carried out at long-range by missile exchanges. This lesson was demonstrated during the Falklands war, where a mere four French Exocet missiles in the hands of the Argentine Navy inflicted virtually all of the losses the Royal Navy suffered. They were enough to knock a carrier out of action. Argentina had a mere 7 in total. Had Buenos Aires possessed 70, much less 700, it is hard to see how much would have been left of the Royal Navy.
China has invested heavily in anti-ship missiles. While the U.S. Navy’s anti-missile countermeasures are generations more advanced than the almost non-existent British defenses in 1982, there is a fundamental problem, as the National Interest points out. It is much cheaper and easier to build land-based anti-ship missiles than it is to build ships, and it is far easier to resupply land-based launchers in one’s own territory than it is to resupply anti-missile systems onboard ships at sea. The Defense Department estimated in 2019 that the PRC had as many as 1,500 super-sonic mid-range anti-ship missiles, noting that “China’s broad range of ASCMs and launch platforms as well as submarine-launched torpedoes and naval mines allow the [Chinese Navy] to create an increasingly lethal, multiaccess threat against an adversary approaching Chinese waters and operating areas.” There is a real possibility that with current trends, China will, to put it bluntly, be able to shoot the U.S. Navy out of anti-missile ammunition, at which point our fleet would be sitting ducks.
There are, of course, ways of countering these advantages. The easiest would be for the U.S. military to destroy Chinese launchers on the ground. But here, politics will rear its ugly head. While militarily sensible if not vital, launching strikes on Chinese weapon systems on the soil of the Chinese mainland before they open fire would be politically impossible. It would be an act of war and aggression. As such, American military countermeasures will be limited by the need to allow the PRC to strike first.
Furthermore, while the Chinese will be able to operate from both land and sea, American forces will likely find their options limited. South Korea is unlikely to wish for its territory to be used for attacks on Chinese targets, not least out of fear of retaliation either directly or politically after any conflict. Even the attitude of Japan will be uncertain. While a U.S. ally, Japan’s economic lifelines run through the sea lanes along China’s coast. Becoming a combatant would make Japanese shipping vessels fair game, and unlike U.S. warships, Japanese merchantmen lack any missile defense systems. It would not be a shock if a Japanese government suddenly discovered “constitutional” obstacles to allowing American forces based in Japan to operate in defense of Taiwan, obstacles that would be unable to be resolved without a meeting of the Diet, which would be conveniently indisposed for unclear reasons. The United States Navy might find itself effectively evicted from its major regional bases (outside of Guam) on day one of any conflict, if not before.
The only territory which would likely not have objections to American forces operating against China would be Taiwan itself, but here the diplomatic and political circumstances make basing American forces on the island prior to the outbreak of fighting difficult if not impossible.
It is worth noting that these circumstances combine to create a “no-lose” situation for China. If China were to engage in this sort of conflict, the sole goal would be to defeat or destroy the U.S. 7th Fleet. If China were to fail, the political and economic interests of both regional powers and major states in Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America would ensure that the United States would come under enormous pressure to accept a cease-fire rather than taking the war to the Chinese mainland. This would leave China free to try again at a future date while using economic and political leverage to mitigate any diplomatic fallout. The U.S. would have no plan for any sort of follow-up other than merely surviving.
By contrast, if China were to eliminate the 7th Fleet, the incentives that would lead Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and other regional states to seek neutrality in the initial conflict would shift to causing them to seek accommodation with Beijing. They would step in to mediate so as to avert a “total” collapse of the American position in the region, most likely by offering a settlement whereby Taiwan would accept Chinese sovereignty and Beijing would “allow” an autonomous government to continue. Beijing would have every reason to offer such a settlement in the circumstances. Having destroyed the U.S. 7th Fleet in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing would have demonstrated to the Taiwanese that the PRC could invade whenever it chose. Therefore there would no longer be a need to actually do so in order to achieve the desired collaboration. Beijing would, of course, demand Taiwan’s total disarmament and an agreement that Taipei would conduct future foreign relations solely through Beijing. Through such “generosity”, the CCP could ensure that Taiwan could be gobbled up at any convenient moment in the future while also reassuring “former” American allies in the region and allowing a defeated Washington to save face. It is hard to see how an American administration could resist pressure to accept such terms.
It is this “win-win” or at least a “win-not lose” situation for China that makes the position of Taiwan so dangerous. While the United States could easily defeat China in World War III, the dynamics of any conflict over Taiwan will be very different. In fact, they risk conspiring to ensure that the United States would be forced to fight any such conflict with one, if not both, hands tied behind its back.