Taipei on Saturday warned that significant Chinese military drills in the seas around Taiwan and in the air over the island represented a simulation of an attack. On Monday, China announced that it was extending the maneuvers, with the semi-official communist mouthpiece Global Times claiming the expanded drills “will not stop and are expected to become routine until reunification.”
It is time for a blunt, stone-cold sober reality check for Washington. Continuing to base U.S./China policies on the arrogant assumption that we can simply impose our will on Beijing while ignoring realities on the ground will unnecessarily and avoidably raise the risk of war in the Taiwan Straits area.
The first round of PLA military exercises in and around Taiwan concluded on Sunday, but the crisis sparked when U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi made an official trip to Taiwan last week is far from over. Without immediate and sustained remedial action, Pelosi’s visit may well prove to have been the spark that lit the fuse for the explosion of war between China and Taiwan. Without deft diplomacy from Washington, that war could all too easily suck the United States into that no-win war.
Given foreign and military policies coming out of Washington over the past couple of decades, there is an uncomfortably high chance this situation could deteriorate into war – and that would be catastrophic for American interests. It should go without saying that a conflict between two nuclear-armed superpowers could all too easily devolve into an atomic confrontation – which could result in the literal destruction of both countries. But even if a battle were limited to conventional arms, choosing to fight China over Taiwan would represent an alarmingly high risk to our national security.
To better understand why the U.S. would be at a marked disadvantage conventionally, in any China-Taiwan war scenario, let us briefly consider how China would likely start such a conflict. What they almost certainly will not do, is move to attack in the current environment. Beijing highly prioritizes deception and strategic surprise in its war-making doctrine.
At the moment, every Chinese military move related to Taiwan is heavily covered in the Western media, and Taiwanese forces are on high alert. Should the Chinese communist leaders eventually order an attack, the PLA will likely wait until this current moment of heightened tensions cools and scrutiny of China’s military fades. But Chinese President Xi Jinping has provided clues as to what China may do.
In this current crisis, in his July 28 phone call with Biden, Xi said that “China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity is the firm will of the more than 1.4 billion Chinese people,” and that if Pelosi makes her visit, Xi emphasized, the U.S. should be careful because “(t)hose who play with fire will perish by it.” In the aftermath of the Speaker’s visit, China made good on Xi’s warning, conducting unprecedented military exercises and live-fire missile drills close to Taiwan’s shores. Perhaps of greater concern, however, is what Xi has previously said.
In a major speech last October, Xi flatly stated the “historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland (with Taiwan) must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled.” It has long been known that China would use force if Taiwan ever directly declared independence, but their 2005 “anti-Session Law” adds another, more ambiguous justification: “(if the) possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means” to enforce unification. Only the most senior communist party officials – led by Xi – have the power to decide when those possibilities have been irrevocably exhausted.
It may well be that Xi has concluded that Pelosi’s trip – and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, acting as a willing host – has signaled that Taiwan will never unify. Thus, a fuse may have been lit by this visit that will result, at a time of China’s choosing, in a move by Xi to take Taiwan by force. Here’s what that could mean for the U.S.
Improved Chinese Defenses
In the aftermath of the 1995 Taiwan Straits crisis in which then-President Bill Clinton effectively shut down aggressive Chinese moves against Taiwan by sailing two aircraft carrier groups through the straits – at the time China didn’t have sufficient power to contest the battle groups – China began a multi-decade process to create a lethal challenge to any future naval incursion near its waters. In the west, the strategy is known as anti-access, area denial (A2/AD).
The Pentagon describes China’s A2/AD strategy as designed to “dissuade, deter, or, if ordered, defeat third-party intervention” – primarily meaning the United States. The PLA plans to deter or defeat U.S. Forces by a combination of multiple and overlapping military capabilities. These defenses include shore-based missile sites, mobile launchers, air-launched missiles, aircraft carriers, land-based fighters and bombers, significant numbers of major surface combatants, submarines, sea mines, long-range artillery, and other offensive and defensive measures.
Key among these new capacities are the Chinese ability to sink our ships and shoot down U.S. aircraft. China has fielded several ballistic missiles designed to destroy even the largest U.S. ships, often referred to as “carrier-killer” missiles, such as the DF-21D and DF-26B. Though the U.S. Navy is working diligently to provide countermeasures to defeat these missiles, the history of war often exposes that it’s a lot easier to destroy a target than it is to defend one.
The defensive technology has never been tested by an American warship under combat conditions. If China uses “swarm tactics” and saturates our large ships with multiple missiles, it seems probable that some will get through. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship, the Moskva, was apparently sunk in April by two Neptune missiles. The circumstances of the sinking remain shrouded in mystery, but it seems likely Russia’s flagship would have had the best missile-defense capacity of any of its vessels, yet apparently, a single barrage of missiles got through and sank it. We can be sure that China would employ far more than a single volley and will definitely launch more capable and sophisticated missiles against our Navy.
China’s newest QW-12 anti-air missile system appears to be one of the most modern and capable mobile air defense systems in the world. Alongside its HQ-17AE, China may have better air defenses than any opponent the U.S. Air Force has ever faced. American fighter pilots have not faced any real anti-air systems since the Vietnam War. It is uncertain how effectively our air defense systems will protect our pilots, but it seems likely that some would be shot down in a major war with China.
Tactical Challenges for U.S. Navy and Air Force in a U.S.-China War
The F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters that launch from American carriers only carry enough fuel to attack targets a maximum of 500 miles from the ship. China’s DF26-B ‘carrier killer’ missile, however, has a max range of almost 2,500 miles (4,000km). Meaning, long before U.S. ships would even get in range to launch fighters to help Taiwan, they could be attacked and destroyed. If somehow the carrier defeated every missile China fired against it, the U.S. ships would still face an array of enemy surface combatants, submarines, land-based missiles, and potentially sea mines. Moreover, if any jets were launched, they would face Chinese fighters, land-based anti-air missiles, and the mobile QW-12 ADA system. Yet even these major threats may not be the biggest hurdles for American intervention.
If China decides to seize Taiwan by force, they will almost certainly strike at a time that takes the defenders and U.S. military by surprise. That will mean that the entire U.S. Armed Forces will be in the same peacetime configuration it is in at this very moment. China, on the other hand, will have covertly prepared for the surprise attack, will have sufficient stocks of weapons, fuel, and ammunition hidden from view, and be mentally prepared to engage in combat operations. This disparity in preparation and the advantage that would give to China is difficult to overstate.
When the U.S. military fought in 1991’s Desert Storm, it took almost six months to build up the combat power and ship the tanks, ships, and aircraft to the Persian Gulf, along with all the men, fuel, ammunition, and all other logistical support. The Pentagon took at least six months to prepare for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Assuming China succeeds in initiating its attack with little to no advance warning, no American unit will be prepared for combat.
U.S. fleets could physically sail from various bases to Taiwan in a matter of two or three weeks, but without months of preparation first, they could fight at most a week or two with the peacetime provisions normally stored abord each ship. The Pentagon would have to amass tons of ammunition, thousands of missiles, massive quantities of fuel for ships and planes, every combat unit would have to be brought up to 100 percent manning, and plans would have to be activated that would allow the military to sustain combat operations for months.
I cannot stress enough how Herculean the task would be to prepare for a war with China from a standing start. Yet none of the stages of preparation could be bypassed. To hurry into a war, thousands of miles away, to fight a fully-prepared and fully-stocked enemy, would be to rush to near-certain defeat. The ramifications are sobering and clear.
Insufficient Time or Resources
To even seriously contemplate fighting a war with China over Taiwan, the United States would likely require three months at the absolute earliest once war broke out. If China goes all-out from the outset, it is possible Taiwanese defenses could crumble in less than 30 days. Thus, the war could be over before any U.S. combat power could arrive. But even if Taipei defied all the naysayers and continued to offer firm resistance, retaining control of meaningful portions of the island, the task for an American intervention would be a nearly impossible endeavor.
China would have the full force of its A2/AD defenses focused as far away from Taiwan’s shores as possible to interdict U.S. naval power, meaning thousands and then hundreds of miles away – the closer the U.S. got to Taiwan, they would be in the range of an increasing number of Chinese missiles. China would, without question, destroy all the island’s airfields in the first minutes of an attack and will either blockade or destroy their naval port facilities. This means that there would be no place for U.S. military support to land and no existing port facilities for ships to dock.
It would be out of the question for the American military to mount a forced invasion of the island to wrest it from Chinese control. We simply do not have the capacity in all of the Department of Defense to execute a Normandy-style landing on Taiwan; trying would be suicide and put our entire Indo-Pacific force in jeopardy.
There are many in Washington who want to end “strategic ambiguity” and overtly state that the United States would militarily defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. It is entirely understandable why freedom-loving people would be fiercely against an aggressive seizure of a democratic nation by a hostile larger power. But desires must be subjected to stone-cold reality when it comes to setting policies and taking actions, especially those that affect our national security.
The plain harsh truth is that if China chooses to attack Taiwan and does so in a massive, large-scale surprise operation, it would be a near-impossibility for the United States to come to their rescue. I cannot stress this enough: regardless of how much we may want to defend Taiwan, the military and logistic challenges inherent in any attempt to fight China are too great to overcome. If we try anyway – if we rush into combat without sufficient preparation – we risk suffering a major defeat.
The U.S. military, despite what some apparently believe, is not bullet-proof, is not immune to basic combat realities and calculations, and if misused, can indeed suffer a stinging defeat. America’s conventional power is truly substantial and we remain preeminent on the world stage. But in the narrow Taiwan Straits, thousands of miles from the majority of U.S. bases, where China has been preparing to stop us for decades, we do not have military superiority.
Our forces are absolutely strong enough to defend our country and protect our citizens from attack anywhere in the world. Outside of the Taiwan Straits region, we dwarf China’s Navy and Air Force, because their ability to project power is minuscule compared to ours. The only way the PLA could defeat an American military force is if we foolishly impale ourselves into the spikes of China’s A2/AD defenses where they have the tactical advantage. God help us if we try.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, 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 @DanielLDavis
August 9, 2022 at 3:00 pm
China’s military is capable of defeating USA, but current xi jinping ordered drills around Taiwan are just plain crazy cuz while the military can easily bite biden’s backside, the civilians can’t.
Thus china must get rid of xi jinping (the biden of china) and then cutoff all coupling with Washington, including diplomatic ties.
Next, denounce biden’s dirty $10-billion+ proxy war in Europe and send heavy arms to Russia and Donbass.
Then, deploy a space-based military force in low earth orbit with FULL capability to severe biden’s head from his neck literally within minutes of an order or signal being given or sent out.
August 9, 2022 at 3:05 pm
One has to wonder about what is going on inside the WH, State Dept and Pentagon ? Every voice seems to be about confrontation. An article in WAPO by the house neocon even declared that confronting China and Russia at the same time is entirely doable.
Does domestic political spin so dominate thinking that there is no ability to conceive of the possibility of disaster falling on the US ?
Imagine there was a conventional war between the US and China. If I were the Chinese commander, the first thing I would do is to dispatch submarines to sink a few container ships sitting at anchor off the ports of LA and Longbeach and another submarine to sow mines in the approaches to the harbor.
Maybe that is improbable because some of those subs would be lost in the process, but even the threat would be enough to bring most shipping to a halt.
I don’t think China is ready for war, nor does it want one. But China may be forced into it by their own internal political and social dynamic.
If it happens, it may simply start with a formal Blockade and no-fly zone over the island, leaving the choice and burden of attack on the US.
In a tight blockade, Taiwan would have 60-90 days to act or surrender.
What a mess. We may all end up missing the policy of “strategic ambiguity” which kept the peace for 40 years while allowing Taiwan to operate more or less independently.
August 9, 2022 at 3:29 pm
Danny, you don’t know much about how carriers work. The combat radius of an F-18 does not include refueling “tanker” craft that launch with the tanker craft. Figure closer to 1000 miles, which is out of range of any ChiCom surveillance aircraft.
As for that scary ChiCom missile, it has to actually find a CBG to destroy it, and it won’t be doing that at 2500 miles range. Let’s not ignore the awesome defensive capabilities of said battle group with its accompanying cruisers and destroyers (armed with SM-3’s).
Here’s the thing. The ChiCom economy is in the crapper right now. They may make noises about attacking Taiwan, and even have bluster drills to show how butch they are, but they won’t attack.
August 9, 2022 at 3:29 pm
How on earth is China going to ship 100,000s troops across the Taiwan Straight? Hitler could not cross the 20 mile British Channel. Yes, China could turn Taiwan into a smoldering ruin with ease but if it wants to actually the nation in tact, I do not see how it can do it. Every troop vessel will be sunk.
August 9, 2022 at 4:05 pm
Dear Daniel, you are a magnificent quisling. We can simply impose our will on anyone, any country we want. We’ll sort it out in war. And, yes, we do nuclear, too.
August 9, 2022 at 5:43 pm
What a surprise !
Mr. Davis again arguing to hand Taiwan over to China.
If you were in charge during WW2 you would have let Hitler squash Europe and Imperial Japan conquer the whole pacific.
I’m sorry to say, but you are a disgrace to all the soldiers that time and time again gave it all to defend freedom and international law.
August 9, 2022 at 6:35 pm
It wouldn’t surprise me if, when the Chinese finally pull the trigger and begin the invasion, the US carrier groups will “just happen” to be in the middle of exercises located far away in the E. Pacific, or in a US port for maintenance. They will “just happen” to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, unable to intervene. I’m sure that there will be expressions of regret all around – in public. In private, there will be a lot of relief that we managed to dodge a bullet.
August 9, 2022 at 6:41 pm
“Our military is absolutely strong enough to defend our country.”
Except of course, that it is not defending our country. We are being invaded, and our military is actually assisting the invaders.
So why should I care one way or the other about Taiwan?
August 9, 2022 at 9:11 pm
Daniel Davis: Graduate of the Neville Chamberlain School of Foreign Policy.
August 9, 2022 at 10:27 pm
American submarines will blockade China. War over, 1 month. Confucious say; “China dumb dumbs”.
August 9, 2022 at 10:57 pm
God bless people in the world.
Thank you Mr. Davis.
You say much correct thought of warfare. I would like to ask a question about military’s doctrine.
As the doctrine of “Infantry Brigade Combat Team” and “Small Unit”,
could army and marine corps offensive counterattack Soviet-Russia and C.C.P. successfully?
Without LRSO of Airforce, could “Infantry Brigade Combat Team” and “Small Unit” maintain global defense?
God bless America.
Dr BISWAJIT GHATAK
August 10, 2022 at 4:33 am
THIS IS HIGH time FOR INDIA TO START MILLITARY DRILL AT INDIA CHINA BORDER AND AT CHINA OCCUPIED TERRITORY OF INDIA.
August 10, 2022 at 6:37 am
I’m going for October. The lao bai xing are locked down and locked out of their savings in the banks. Revolt is in the air. What does a tyrant do when faced with internal strife? Builds a straw man. In this case Taiwan and Speaker Pelosi. Plus the mid-terms on 8 November with America distracted but the assumption that on November 9 it will be wall to wall MAGA Republicans… Xi will go in October. In Australia we are closer to the fire & it’s feeling pretty warm…
August 10, 2022 at 7:35 am
china can resolve the taiwan issue easily with minimal bloodshed by compelling the taiwanese to come to their senses.
1. crater all the major runways on the island and ensure they remain cratered
2. blockade all possible ports of entry by ship.
3. wait for taiwan to run out of everything as their economy collapses and the majority of the population that WANTS to reunify with china force the state to do so
4. interdict their line of communications
minimal lives lost and techniques very chinese…….pressure and patience
whats washington going to do, send carrier strike groups close enough to have missiles fired on them but still be hundreds of miles away from unblocking ports?
send warplanes that can not land on taiwanese airfields?
August 10, 2022 at 8:08 am
Why do we still think Taiwan belongs to China? Historically, the Japanese have as much claim to the island as China does.
I totally agree that defending Taiwan would be impossible using only naval assets; however, I would point out to the Chicoms that they have assets around the world that are just as vulnerable if not more so that they would find difficult defending. And currently, the Chinese do not project power around the world as well as we do. We have powerful allies. The Chinese do not.
It could start out as a fully deniable campaign of piracy on Chinese shipping or China bound cargo similar to the campaign England supported against Spanish ships. It could take the form of denying Chinese ships access to the Panama or Suez canals.
China must be made aware that a forceful assimilation of Taiwan will come at a high price. We are correct in pointing out our vulnerabilities given the situation ; however, if China is thinking long term, they must be made aware that the conquest of Taiwan would be a pyrrhic victory at best.
August 10, 2022 at 9:52 am
I’d be getting ready now. Why wait until they attack to have war time preparations done? Taiwan can hold out for a while until we get there. If China does attack, kill its economy embargo all products and start sinking all vessels coming and going to Chinese ports. Start hitting all trains coming and going to Chinese terminals. Then hit those ports and terminals.
Then tell American corporations they need to find a new place to do business.
August 10, 2022 at 9:58 am
God bless people in the world.
Mainland China, Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu, Hong Kong, and Macao are all part of China. But socialism Japan army occupied Taiwan after 1895.
By ex aequo et bono, after the defeat of socialism Japan in 1945, the sovereignty of Taiwan Province should be restored to the state before socialism Japan seized China.
But Communist Party make socialism war in China after 1916, so they make the separation of mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan-Penghu-Kinmen-Mazu.
So people in America must prevent being occupied by socialism parties.
God bless America.
August 10, 2022 at 10:06 am
Sounds very logical. However, maybe the USA Navy and armed forces would not try to defend Taiwan in its immediate geography but would seek to deny oil tanker deliveries from the mid-east and blockade other sea shipping. China depends on importing oil and fertilizer and food, and a Indian Ocean blockade which the USA can manage would cause huge problems.
August 10, 2022 at 11:30 am
US Navy doctrine holds that sea power can successfully attack land-based military assets that are a threat to warships. History suggests otherwise. Warships seldom come within range of land-based weapons during wartime. This risks just do not justify the potential gains. A bombed airfield or missile launcher can be repaired or replaced within a matter of days or weeks; a bombed aircraft carrier will be out of action for months…..if not destroyed. Loss of life is likely to be higher for naval forces. There are no slit trenches on warships.
August 10, 2022 at 1:03 pm
There are numerous problems with this article. Ukraine was supposed to fall within days but the poor training of the Russian army nullified many of their advantages in the number of soldiers and amount of hardware the Russians had.
China has more challenges since their soldiers are less trained, and haven’t had recent combat experience that the Russians had in Chechnya and Georgia. The Russians could simply drive materials to Ukraine and they had challenges, while China will have to deliver.
This article didn’t take into account US training and upgraded missile defenses. Yes, China has new missiles, but the US has upgraded missile defense. And when comparing training I will take the US over China any day.
Moreover, the US is developing new units that can be deployed quickly with all the material and supply they need. And they are designed to be easily resupplied (often by unmanned drones and under sea vehicles). So the US recognizes its supply challenges and are designing units that can effect the war within days.
We should be concerned about China, but not overly afraid like this piece is. Hardware doesn’t fight battles. The US has the edge in training and is upgrading its missile defense technology and force structure to meet potential threats.
August 10, 2022 at 2:03 pm
While an invasion of Taiwan would temporarily boost popular support for Xi and the rest of his government, the subsequent economic consequences are likely to crush this support and throw his regime out sooner rather than later. As commenters above have mentioned, it would be easy for the US to blockade raw material imports (such as coal and oil) crucial to the Chinese economy. Perhaps even more consequential, the Chinese economy is utterly dependent on its exports. An economic and physical embargo of China exports by the US and wealthy allies following a Taiwan invasion would bring the Chinese economy to its knees, and no amount of hyped-up, debt-fueled building of apartments, roads, fast trains, etc. would save its economy or its current regime.
Russia actually is not as economically interdependent on the rest of the world as is China, and also at least Russia has the natural resources to keep what it already has going long-term. The economic and social consequences China would face in the aftermath of an invasion of Taiwan might make the after-effects of a Taiwan invasion even worse for China than what is soon in store for Russia after its stupid invasion of Ukraine. China as a country would, of course, make some kind of recovery in a few decades, but the Xi regime would be long gone.
August 10, 2022 at 2:39 pm
It is entirely possible that the Chinese takeover of Taiwan has already begun. The Chinese have assets in place now for a blockade of the island and can slowly increase its isolation without any sudden act that would elicit a response from the feckless Biden administration.
The idea that China has no economic levers to pull against the US is plainly hubris. They buy about 30% of our Treasuries for starters. What would happen if they stopped buying and dumped their holdings just when the Federal Reserve is embarking on quantitative tightening and is no longer the purchaser of last resort. What would happen to the US stock markets if the Chinese nationalized all of Apple’s, Tesla’s and Nike’s assets in China and at the same time stopped the shipment of all semiconductors from Taiwan?
The possibility of a python strategy or the oft-cited frog in a pot of water scenario is much more likely than a Ukraine-style invasion followed by a big shooting war with the US.
August 11, 2022 at 12:35 am
China’s next military operation will be its first in over 30 years. It is fair to say virtually no one in the ranks of the PLA has any actual combat experience. That will count for a lot in the heat of an actual battle. In addition, moving thousands of troops across 90 miles of ocean and keeping them supplied is not an easy feat. So China can roll the dice and hope everything works out, but they are likely to see tens of thousands of their precious only sons as shark food.
August 11, 2022 at 8:04 am
The logical conclusion from this article is, if US wants to have any chance of winning, they should prepare and provoke China invasion at the time of their choosing.
August 11, 2022 at 4:55 pm
Why doesn’t the US block the Straits of Mallaca ?
August 11, 2022 at 9:55 pm
No invasion of Taiwan so long as China needs their chips for their tech sector https://www.voanews.com/a/race-for-semiconductors-influences-taiwan-conflict-/6696432.html
Also no war with the US so long as China is holding almost $1 Trillion in US Debt and busy buying up American real estate https://www.cnbc.com/2022/07/18/china-holdings-of-us-debt-fall-below-1-trillion-for-the-first-time-since-2010.html
My guess is China exerts other pressure on both until they get what they want. Possibly years down the line. But no shooting war.
August 12, 2022 at 12:37 am
Dan Farrand: “Does domestic political spin so dominate thinking that there is no ability to conceive of the possibility of disaster falling on the US?”
It absolutely does. Right now any dissent, or even different opinions over the matter, are simply not allowed in any sort of mass media. Even on more specialized site such as this, you can see how any opinion, no matter how rational, reasonable and dispassionate, if it doesn’t support the official government line then it gets attacked. There are quite a few sites who have been kicked off of payment platforms such as Paypal, for instance, or be demonetized on youtube, simply for having the “incorrect” view.
This is what has become of the US. We can only discuss how righteous and good we are, and how we are the strongest, most exceptional nation the world has ever known. So if you can conceive of the possibility of disaster, you’d better not mention it because it might cost you your income.
September 19, 2022 at 1:08 am
US policy is that Taiwan and PRC are one country and should be reunified