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Surprise Attack: How China Could Start a War Against Taiwan

China Attack Taiwan
Image: Chinese Internet.

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series detailing a U.S.-China war over Taiwan. You can read part two here.

There are many in Washington today debating the merits of abandoning the decades-long concept of “strategic ambiguity” and instead issuing explicit security guarantees to Taiwan. Whatever benefits these advocates claim would accrue to the U.S. from such a change, there has been far too little consideration of the catastrophic cost that would fall on America should we ever have to make good on a promise to defend Taiwan.

The short answer: in the least-bad scenario it could cost us our place of preeminence in global affairs and put our future security at risk that it would otherwise not – and in a worst-case scenario, Chinese nuclear weapons could vaporize millions of Americans. Don’t get a false sense of security that such fears are exaggerations. They are very real.

The idea of strategic ambiguity has governed U.S. and Chinese attitudes and actions regarding Taiwan since the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. In it, the United States declared anything other than the peaceful reunification of Taiwan would be “considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” The congressional authors intentionally didn’t address whether Washington would consider a Chinese attack as an act of war for which we would respond.

Today, however, both members of Congress and influential opinion-leaders are calling, with increased stridency, to abandon strategic ambiguity for an over-defense guarantee for Taiwan. Some of their concerns are entirely valid, which includes a desire for peace in the Indo-Pacific region and to deter China from attacking a peaceful, democratic island. What these advocates fail to properly address, however, is the cost-benefit ratio for the United States.

Supporters of changing the status quo implicitly make three assumptions: 1) that the United States military could stop China from taking Taiwan if it attacked; 2) that we could do so at an acceptable cost, and 3) and that the end state of defending Taiwan would leave the United States in a better position globally than it is now. All three are wrong, potentially catastrophically so.

There is an almost universal belief in America today that the U.S. Armed Forces are the best in the world and would win every future engagement, just as we have since the Korean War, against every potential opponent. Many will concede that the cost of victory might be high – like the 100,000 troops that were killed in World War I or the 400,000 from World War II – but ultimate victory is inevitable. While our military is indeed very powerful, however, it is not omnipotent.

If used properly in the current global environment, our Armed Forces can justly be expected to provide an invincible national defense. Meaning, because of the composition of our forces, quality of our troops, and the quality of our military technology, there are no other countries on earth that could launch unprovoked attacks against the American homeland and hope to win.  Anyone that attacks the United States territory would be at a fatal disadvantage and would suffer a crippling defeat. If used improperly, however, the U.S. military could lose.

To demonstrate why the United States could not successfully intervene to defend Taiwan from China, I will describe how a Chinese attack would likely be conducted. By painting a picture of how an attack would unfold – to include the disposition of American Forces in the region at the initiation of hostilities – it becomes readily apparent why we cannot conduct a successful intervention.

Even with a dramatic change in our foreign policy and military infrastructure – which themselves would be prohibitively expensive, it is likely the U.S. would still not prevent a successful Chinese assault. Though an actual attack would be different in many respects from the scenario that follows, the choices confronting the president and Congress would be virtually identical – which would be limited to choosing between bad, horrible, or catastrophic outcomes.

The Prelude

Any Chinese attack will, out of military necessity, be an out-of-the-blue shock that catches everyone by surprise. Like the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, MacArthur’s famous landings at Inchon in the Korean War, and even Germany’s 1939 blitz into Poland, it is crucial for the attacking force that the defender be out of position and unprepared for the initial blow.

Ideally, the defender will believe the day of attack is like every other day that came before it, so that when the hammer starts to fall, there is great fear, waves of panic, and significant chaos as the defenders scramble to get to their positions and try to get a clear picture of what’s happening. The attacking force, however, will be fully prepared mentally, will know exactly what they are supposed to do in the opening phases, and will likely be highly motivated. That is almost certainly how China’s attack on Taiwan will begin.

“If the possibility for peaceful reunification is lost, the people’s armed forces will, with the whole nation, including the people of Taiwan, take all necessary steps to resolutely smash any separatist plots or actions,”

Chinese Gen. Li Zuocheng, chief of the Joint Staff Department and member of the Central Military Commission, May 28, 2020

Timing will be critical for the Chinese attack. To create the optimal conditions for success, prior to launching the invasion, China will seek to cripple Taiwan’s ability to command and control their forces so that when the overt phase of the attack starts, chaos and indecision may result in some areas of Taiwan’s defenses remaining inactive.

To accomplish this objective, China will activate hit squads that were prepared, in some cases, years in advance, and carry out targeted, rehearsed assassinations of key leaders. Primary objectives will be leaders with the authority to order military forces into defensive positions, responsible for ensuring all defenders are alerted and given orders, and those tasked to maintain order of various aspects of the government’s responses.

These teams will be made up of people posing as Chinese tourists, Chinese businessmen who have been working for months or years prior to the attack, and – in some disturbing cases – Taiwanese citizens who are sympathetic to Beijing. Some of the latter group may be in key positions of government, police, and the military. This latter group will also be instrumental in conducting the next phase of the plan.

Hours before the invasion begins, Chinese Special Forces will be covertly inserted, under cover of darkness from the sea, to a few key, isolated locations. Once ashore, they will link up with collaborators (many from the same categories as the assassination squads) and move into position so that at given time or upon signal, they can carry out sabotage of critical infrastructure. These will include communications assets, electric grids, cell phone towers, and disrupt other means of communications.

They will also destroy bridges or block specific roads that will be used by Taiwanese units sent to man shore defenses once the alert is given. Lastly, there will be teams sent to be ready to destroy planes on the ground, missiles in their storage containers, and artillery pieces targeting the Strait.

Another key element of their plan will be to attack troop barracks of the security detachments charged with providing airfield security and immediate reaction forces; every troop Chinese infiltrators kill, every plane destroyed on the ground, every missile knocked out before getting to the launch pad is one less problem with which the attacking forces will have to contend.

The last component of the pre-invasion operation will be to prepare to seize at least three airfields on Taiwan that is large enough to receive transport plane-loads of invasion troops and light armor. Storming a well-prepared beach is the last thing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) wants to do; far better to land invasion troops and equipment via transport plane and helicopters, enabling their troops to attack beaches from behind.

Long before the invasion took place, China had pre-positioned its missile forces, troop concentrations, Air Force assets, and Naval Forces at several bases near China’s shores, making them appear to be standard forces at military bases. There will be no need to conduct large scale mobilization of assets – which would tip off American and Taiwanese intelligence services – because they are already prepared for a “standing start” launch.

The three keys to China’s initial operations will be secrecy, timing, and speed. It is absolutely vital that when the first rockets start hitting their targets that everyone on the island is shocked and unprepared. To attain that goal, timing will be critical: start the assassination or sabotage operations too early and authorities will realize what’s going on in time to sound the national alarm; wait too late and they will fail at their mission.

That means the operations may have to start as little as 30 minutes before the invasion begins. Once the covert actions begin, it will be essential that they move as fast as possible. Speed will be critical once the war begins as well: the faster PLA troops can seize airfields and reduce shore defenses, the faster they can move even more troops onto the island. If China succeeds beyond its expectations in the pre-invasion phase, the Taiwanese military and political leadership may be fatally weakened to the point that the main attack knocks Taiwan out of the war within as few as 48 hours.

Once “H-Hour” (the beginning of overt operations) arrives, however, there will be no more secret actions and all the world will know what’s happening. And that is when the danger for America begins.

Daniel L. Davis is a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times and the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” The views shared in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent any group. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. RETNAVYSWO

    March 16, 2021 at 8:37 am

    The Red Chinese are not stupid. They have their spies in America and in countries where U.S. Forces reside and visit. They keep up on our readiness and location of all our forces at any given time (this is only logical).
    They will pick an opportune time when our forces are in heavier maintenance or holiday period and then place an electronic blanket over Taiwan as they invade. I would see a conventional invasion to grab the government and surround the largest military bases. Nuking Taiwan serves no purpose as thy would want the infrastructure and economy intact. The PLA and PLAN far outnumber Taiwan’s forces and could easily destroy, damage, or browbeat them into submission. The Commies know that the new administration will bluster and complain, but know we will do nothing. What can we do? Think of Taiwan as a dead moose carcass with bear cubs feeding on it (PLA forces) and the mother bear (Mainland China) standing over it protecting the cubs. The current administration is already moving to downsize our forces and do you think we would be able to mount any kind of amphibious invasion to liberate Taiwan? Think of our forces as a small wolf trying to get at the moose carcass with a mother bear 10 times its size ready to pounce.

  2. Don Walker

    March 16, 2021 at 1:01 pm

    The protection of Taiwan, a staunch American democratic ally in Asia is critical to the credibility of the United States in foreign affairs. Any suggestion that the US will not follow through on its long presumed intention of safeguarding the right of the Taiwanese people to direct their own affairs WILL lead to war in Asia.
    President Trump was clear that the US will stand with Taiwan and so China never considered aggression. President * Biden must also be clear that US policy towards Taiwan, and the Taiwanese people has not changed if he is serious about protecting American credibility around the world.

  3. Donald Link

    March 16, 2021 at 3:10 pm

    Interesting scenario however, a couple of items not mentioned. Taiwan is most certainly aware of how the Mainland would initiate a war and have prepared for it. The Chinese are not especially accepting of casualties as they were against the Japanese in WW I. That is why they did not pursue the border skirmishes with Vietnam in 1980-81 or expand operations against India in the border regions today. Their best bet is to continue the present arrangement and quietly support politicians in Taiwan who favor unification with the mainland. They had made good progress in that direction until their ham handed treatment of Hong Kong. The setback that caused can probably be measured in decades despite Xi’s ambitions. Leadership in the CCP is collective; the days of Mao are over.

  4. Albert Schwartz

    March 16, 2021 at 7:49 pm

    Normandy was a surprise but it wasn’t our first invasion. Think back to North Africa. It was lucky we were just fighting the French.

    China’s military has zero combat experience and also zero in conducting an amphibious operation of the scale needed to invade Taiwan. Their military leaders are selected based on political connections not military skills. All three U.S. Army corps commanders in North Africa, all friends of General Marshall, had to be replaced. Patton was one of the replacements.

    Then there is the problem of Taiwan’s Air Force and modern air defense missiles, including Patriots. They would need to be taken out if you plan on controlling the skies above the invasion beaches. That is hard to do and maintain surprise.

    You would need to land tens of thousands of troops on invasion day and be prepared to supply them for days or weeks over the beach. That requires lots of transport. The massing is hard to hide in the age of satellite surveillance. If I were leading the Taiwan Navy I would concentrate on mining the likely invasion beaches, including naval mines. Once hostilities begin I’d use my submarines to mine the approaches to Chinese ports supporting the invasion. That is a relatively simple mission but it could seriously disrupt Chinese logistics.

    In 1949 after chasing Nationalist forces from the mainland, China launched an invasion of a Nationalist held island only a few miles from their shore. They landed 17,000 seasoned troops. All were killed or captured. They never tried it again.

    The bottom line is that a bolt out of the blue attack on Taiwan is extremely risky.

  5. J Victor

    April 6, 2021 at 3:15 am

    China will not invade Taiwan, because that would mean starting a war with the US. Once the US goes to war with China, there will be no “peace deal” or anything short of unconditional surrender by China; this is the way politics work in America. Beijing knows this, they know they are not prepared yet, and hence they will do their utmost to prevent a war from actually taking place. China will not attack until she has a two to one advantage and victory is certain: perhaps in ten to fifteen years.

    Of course Washington may precipitate a crisis before that happens, and will, if beating China in the economic and technological field proves futile. But if the “technological cold war” is lost by China, there will be no war, unless Xi believes that the US will isolate and strangle China economically, something quite difficult to do since China has so many populated neighbors to be developed by her, even if she’s kicked out of Africa and Latin America, something most of the world would object to anyway. Hence the US China competition can only be settled in the laboratory and on the factory floor: all kinetic options by either side are impractical: if initiated by the US, most of the world will stop such a war from taking place, and the US can’t simply force its will against the entirety of the rest of the planet; China will not initiate a military attack until it has already won the “competition” in the realm of economics and technology. Neither side is stupid and hence dirty tricks and backstabbing won’t work. There won’t be a military conflict unless it is a rapidly scalable nuclear conflict with hundreds of millions of deaths, should any party believe that this is their only chance for survival, a difficult decision in a Democracy, a risky one in a collective leadership one-party state in which your head may roll during a politburo meeting.

    North Korea is the most dangerous piece here, because it could cause untold, even crippling damage to the US while Beijing claims plausible deniability, and MAD calculations do not work with a God-King hidden in his countryside and supported by the PLA. Xi could push Kim to detonate nuclear weapons over NYC or the Bay Area; the US could wipe out every mid-sized North Korean city but that would not in the least compensate for such a blow to the communities who actually run the financial and technological pillars of American preeminence. This trick can only be stopped if Washington clearly states, 1962 Cuba-like, that any attack by NK against the US or its allies will be interpreted as an attack by China itself, and be answered to accordingly. Only then will China agree to give Kim the choice of denuclearization or regime change.

    Provided it is clarified to Beijing that any war or third-party-disguised attack will result in total commitment, they will not start a war, and given the difficulties of sustaining land operations in SE Asia, and the constraints of a functional democracy, it is unlikely Washington will either. This conflict will be decided in the universities, factories and research labs, and by the time it is fought militarily, if it is ever fought, it will be short and decisive because of the great imbalance between the contenders: it will have already be won or lost irremediably by one of the two.

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    June 4, 2021 at 6:55 am

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  7. Long Tang

    July 3, 2021 at 2:05 pm

    You left out one traditional Chinese option. Espionage – China will rely on recruited assets and fifth column already emplaced in Taiwan, and there are many. The White House will have to decide if it is willing to raze Taiwan in order to save it from China.

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