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What a U.S.-China War over Taiwan (And the War After That) Could Look Like

F-35A Lightning IIs from the 158th Fighter Wing, Vermont Air National Guard, return from training exercises during Red Flag 21-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, Nevada, July 27, 2021. Red Flag was created to increase interoperability, leveraging common perspectives against shared threats. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Ryan Campbell)

The Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis is in full swing. The PLA has continued its military exercises after Speaker Pelosi’s departure from Taiwan, the PRC has imposed targeted sanctions upon Taiwan. Beijing’s diplomatic service and propaganda outlets compete to emphasize the overwhelming response that Taiwan and the West will suffer if Beijing’s demands are not met. Beijing’s demands, of course, cannot be met. Hence, we are headed for a cross-strait confrontation, sooner rather than later, likely before the early 2030s, and possibly sooner depending upon American political events.

As it stands, the cross-strait military balance is relatively even. However, we must reckon with the worst-case scenario: a decisive Chinese attack succeeds. China achieves its coup de main. Moreover, given China’s likely strategy, the U.S. cannot respond immediately – its only options are the cession of Taiwan and a new Pacific demarcation line or a multi-year Pacific war.

The primary question for American strategists must be: can the U.S. win this sort of war? Could Taiwan be traded for time?

First, China’s plan of attack against Taiwan should be recognized. It is not a long-term blockade that erodes Taiwanese economic capacity until some months later the lights go out. Certainly, the PLA’s recent exercises simulated a blockade, and a blockade would likely be an element of a Chinese invasion plan: as historical parallels demonstrate, sea and air control are prerequisites to a successful amphibious assault.

However, Taiwan is not Cuba, and the PRC is not the U.S. in 1962. The American “Quarantine,” a blockade by another name, successfully isolated Cuba from additional Soviet nuclear transfers. Yet the conventional balance gave the blockade teeth. The Soviet Union was incapable of challenging an American blockade without horizontal escalation, that is, the East German capture of West Berlin or some other European military pressure, which was likely to trigger an American nuclear response. Hence the crisis was one of nerve, not of actual power. By contrast, while the PLA could blockade Taiwan without attacking it, the U.S. could challenge that blockade with an air-naval escort mission. This puts China in a worse position than simply attacking: the U.S. would use the blockade as a valuable war warning, surging forces to the Indo-Pacific and encouraging allies to prepare for combat.

More likely than a gradual approach is a decisive, violent action to overwhelm Taiwanese resistance. This would involve a major missile barrage, blockade, and an air-heliborne assault followed by an amphibious landing and traditional combined-arms land combat. All the while, cyber-attacks and saboteurs will seek to disrupt Taiwanese cohesion. Unlike Russia, which constructed a display of military power that it believed would shock its opponents out of the war, the PLA would likely use extreme violence to resolve the conflict as rapidly as possible, or at least to reduce Taiwanese resistance and force Taiwan into an attritional war that relies on Western support.

The issue of support, like in Ukraine, is key. Hence second, it is essential to see that the PLA will strike American and allied targets almost immediately. China likely lacks the power to execute a Pearl Harbor style first-strike against American naval centers of gravity. However, the PLA can hit targets throughout the Western Pacific, including Kadena Air Base on Okinawa and Yokosuka Naval Base. It will attack deployed American Carrier or Expeditionary Strike Groups in the Philippine Sea and may hit Guam and even bases in Australia. China’s objective is to isolate the battlefield—if the U.S.’ logistical capabilities and air-naval forces are degraded, the PLA has a shot at simply overwhelming Taiwan.

A properly executed first move would not eliminate American combat power. Within days, the U.S. could deploy its forward-based submarines to the Taiwan Strait that would hit PLA transports ferrying troops to Taiwan, and potentially shuttle long-range bombers to the Western Pacific to conduct standoff strikes. Within a week, the U.S. could blockade the Malacca and Lombok Straits, a move to which China would have no counter apart from nuclear use or a long attritional conflict. The U.S. could impose all manner of sanctions upon China, while a global economic meltdown destroyed both economies. Over several months, the U.S. could mass combat power and slowly roll back Chinese gains.

However, if the PLA can limit the U.S.’ ability to intervene directly for weeks to months, it may be able to “lock in” its gains over Taiwan. This conquest, presented as a fait accompli may be sufficient to cut short American intervention, particularly if timed with an American domestic crisis. The CCP’s Ministry of State Security, alongside the Russian SVR, could supercharge civil violence, either manufacturing violence to accelerate an internal incident or aiding and abetting those domestic forces who seek to upset the peace. In the autumn of 2024, for example, it is quite conceivable that another riot wave could sweep through U.S. urban areas for any manner of reasons, and that the losing party in the 2024 presidential election contests the result, regardless of the candidate. Similarly, limited American military stockpiles, combined with divided American strategic attention in Europe, may reduce the U.S.’ ability to fight. Faced with the prospect of a long, hard slog in the Western Pacific, and fighting from a near-term disadvantage, the U.S. could refuse to act—although ideally it would welcome Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturer Company’s researchers and destroy its fabrication facilities to prevent them from falling into Chinese hands.

Chinese victory over Taiwan, however, does not guarantee Chinese dominance in the Indo-Pacific. Historically, systemic power transitions take at least two conflicts. Pre 19th century confrontations took longer, although one might explain this given the lesser power of states at the time. However, post 18th century power transitions nevertheless take two conflicts. Defeating Napoleon required two separate periods of war. Two wars broke Germany. The Cold War had two distinct competitive phases. While pre-modern trends may differ, the Peloponnesian War, the first thoroughly recorded example of a power transition in the Western world, took two separate conflicts to be resolved.

Taking Taiwan would strengthen the CCP’s strategic position, but not give it regional hegemony. Taiwan would serve as an effective base for power-projection into the Philippine Sea—as it did for Imperial Japan. Chinese submarines and aircraft could operate east of Taiwan, making greater Chinese naval presence in the central Pacific, or direct pressure on Japan, viable. China’s fundamental strategic issue, however, would remain unresolved. Even with Taiwan’s capture, the PLA would not be able to break a Malacca blockade without overwhelming escalation. The CCP, therefore, would still have its work cut out for it.

Could the U.S. prevail in a second confrontation? Quite possibly if it manages a post-Taiwan conflict economic meltdown well enough, expands its defense production, and keeps its alliance system intact. But this war, is far broader in scope, and therefore far more dangerous. As it stands, the PLA has only limited ability to push beyond the First Island Chain. War in the Central Pacific would be much bloodier than in the Western Pacific.

Better to prevent a U.S.-PRC war from reaching a second phase. This requires deterring a first one, which in turn means ending the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity about Taiwan’s defense—and assisting Taiwan robustly to forestall an attack.

Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness. This first appeared in RealClearDefense. 

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Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.