Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series. You can read part one here.
If China finally decides to use force to reunify Taiwan, its objectives will not be to engage in an all-out war with the United States – nor any other country in the region – but to subdue Taiwan with the least cost and least escalation. What follows is an assessment of the cost-benefit calculations that would have to be made in Beijing, Washington, and the capitals of U.S. allies in the region should China’s forceable attempt to reunify Taiwan include taking out specific U.S. military targets in Japan.
In this scenario, Chinese President Xi Jinping chose to take a major risk by launching devastating, large-scale attacks on the U.S. airbase at Kadena on Okinawa and the Sasebo Naval Base in southwest Japan that they could convince Japan, South Korea, and Australia that Beijing had the ability and the will to attack other bases – but that if the three countries agreed merely to deny the U.S. permission to attack China from its bases, no further actions would be taken. This put all three nations under enormous pressure.
Washington immediately called on all three capitols to make good on their mutual security agreements to come to our aid. Many in each country felt obligated to make good on the treaty and argued for their governments to declare war on China. But there were other, major considerations and domestic pressures on the governments of each state.
None were militarily prepared for war. None had ammunition and logistical stocks sufficient to sustain combat for more than a few weeks of high-intensity conflict; all were undermanned. Domestic politics also exerted pressure to stay out. China had not declared war against the U.S., some argued, but only against the forces that could influence the fight on Taiwan.
To go to war now, unprepared, would cause great destruction to fall on their ships, port facilities, air forces, and industrial sectors – not to mention potentially tens of thousands of their citizens; it would take decades to recover. Though each had a security agreement with the United States, the language was sufficiently vague as to give each an out in this situation.
There is an identical phrase in the three treaties signed by the U.S. and South Korea, Japan, and Australia. Each party agreed that if another signatory to the agreement were attacked, it would “be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.”
Despite what some believe, there is no automatic trigger that an attack on one requires the others to fight. If their “constitutional processes” results in the government leaders and legislatures concluding that there would be greater harm in fighting now than in refraining at present, they will not come to our aid.
South Korea, Australia, and Japan Choose to Live and Fight Another Day
In the end, South Korea calculated it could not risk a two-front war with China and potentially North Korea, and in any case, could not sustain the hit their economy would face from war with China. Australia said it was with great regret and shame, but that it could also not come to our aid because its armed forces were insufficient prepared; however honorable it would be to make good on its guarantees, Canberra felt they could not bring destruction on their country when there was little chance of success.
Even Japan, with the wounds it suffered at Kadena and Sasebo, opted to refrain from going to war with China, for most of the same reasons as South Korea and Australia; they calculated their lack of readiness would result in great loss and give them little chance of success. Yet all three nations – and many others in the region – all recognized the urgency of going on an all-out rearmament program because they could no longer trust that they would not one day be China’s next target.
China would be significantly weakened by its attacks against Taiwan and the U.S. forces in the region and would not be in any shape to launch another attack for many years into the future. Japan, South Korea, and Australia would take advantage of the time and launch an urgent arms race. As tough as the fight/no-fight decisions had been for those three states, however, the situation for the U.S. Government were even more fraught.
Biden’s No-Win Options
The U.S. Constitution and 1973 War Powers Act gave Biden authority to respond to the surprise attack immediately. To expand beyond that, however, and wage an all-out fight would require a Congressional declaration of war. While the rally-round-the-flag emotions of an illegal and immoral attack of U.S. Forces had many shouting for full scale war in retaliation, Biden knew that he had to carefully weigh his options, because some of them carried the risk of turning a bad situation into a catastrophic one.
In the immediate aftermath of the Kadena and Sasebo attacks, the U.S. Military had suffered the loss of several ships, dozens of aircraft, and hundreds of casualties. But the majority of the Pacific fleet was still intact. No other bases had been hit, no aircraft carriers sunk, and all the rest of the troops alive. Military advisers were already recommending an attack on Chinese mainland targets where the missiles had originated – and Beijing had already warned Biden that any attack on their home soil would be answered in kind with attacks on American soil. They intentionally left unstated whether those retaliatory strikes would be conventional or nuclear.
Yet Biden realized that it wasn’t as simple as choosing to respond or not. There was also the matter of capacity. Prior to Desert Strom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. had undergone many months of preparation and pre-positioning of war matériel so the U.S. could successfully engage in a sustained and protracted fight. We had none of those advantages now.
To choose to fight would mean the remainder of our troops would enter combat with insufficient training, inadequate amounts of ammunition, and a shortage of fuel and other logistics necessary to sustain combat operations. Sending the U.S. to fight under these suboptimal conditions would result in losing men, ships, and planes at an alarming rate. It would be a real risk that to accept the fight would severely gouge our military forces in the Pacific, would not prevent China’s capture of Taiwan, and leave America’s security at home and other parts of the world compromised.
At that moment, Biden had to decide whether to retaliate against the Chinese aggression and risk a full-scale war that could result in a major military loss – and potentially escalate to a nuclear exchange – or preserve our combat power and live to fight another day. To do the former could result in damage to our country from which we might never recover; to do the latter would expose Biden to unimaginable pressure from a vocal part of the population that would be screaming for revenge and accuse him of being this generation’s Neville Chamberlain.
Biden would be in a no-win situation.
Hard Assessment of the Cold Facts – and the one path that could preserve our power
I’ve heard many argue that this is like 1938 and China successfully taking Taiwan would be analogous to Hitler’s conquest of Czechoslovakia or Poland; let Beijing successfully capture Taiwan, and like Hitler before him, Xi will then roll over the rest of Asia in a conquest spree. That is a badly flawed analogy and ignores whole categories of major differences.
The argument implies that the United States should choose to fight to prevent Taiwan’s fall so that we don’t have to fight a larger war later. But that is a badly misplaced aspiration and exposes the advocates’ significant lack of understanding of the military fundamentals involved.
As this article has shown, fighting China over Taiwan gives every military advantage to Beijing and exposes our every disadvantage: our supply lines are thousands of miles long; China’s are virtually non-existent. We would have only a small portion of our combat power to battle China while their entire navy, air, and missile forces would be pitted against us. China would be fighting for a highly-charged emotional issue; many in America would ask why we’re paying such a premium price to defend someone else’s country.
However, if we retain the idea of strategic ambiguity and give China reason to believe that we would not fight them over Taiwan, Beijing would be more likely to avoid directly attacking U.S. military targets in the opening salvo. In that case, China would still eventually wear down Taiwanese defenses and succeed, but in the aftermath, their forces would be considerably weakened from their current state.
In addition to directly attacking the invading Chinese military, Taiwan’s defense plans call for directly attacking Chinese military bases and facilities directly on the mainland, further weakening China’s armed forces; it would take them decades to recover from the losses.
Our entire force, however, would remain at full strength, which would have the net effect of giving us the significant military advantage again over the PLA. They would not be capable, for decades, to mount any attack beyond Taiwan, and we would no doubt go on a multi-year increase to our Indo-Pacific territories, ensuring that our security would remain fully assured indefinitely.
In short, all the advantages go to preserving American power and security by avoiding a fight with China over Taiwan. As unpalatable as it is, we must not engage in a fight we can’t win simply because we would hate to see Taiwan fall. The cost to America could be the permanent loss of our place in global affairs.
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.