Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

China’s Nightmare: What If the U.S. Military Sent Troops to Taiwan?

M1 Abrams Tank

A M1 Abrams from 5th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, fires a round during a Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise (CALFEX) at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Mar 26, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Hubert D. Delany III / 22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Concerns over a cross-strait conflict have only grown over the past five years. President Joe Biden has chipped away at the policy of ambiguity that has long governed U.S. diplomatic relations towards Taiwan, meaning that the specifics of deterrence have come into the debate.

Deterrence is a difficult and complex thing; often we don’t know if a competitor has been deterred, or simply did not intend to do the thing that we don’t like. Sometimes a word of caution is sufficient to deter.  Sometimes a promise of support is enough; sometimes a brigade and a squadron of interceptors is necessary. We have seen this dynamic play out in NATO, as the United States has steadily increased its commitments to the Baltic states as concerns over Russian aggression have grown.

The shifting stance of the Biden administration on Taiwan almost inevitably spurs the question of whether the United States eventually needs to pre-position equipment and personnel on Taiwan in order to deter a Chinese attack?

U.S. Troops to Taiwan? It Has Happened Before 

The United States military has deployed troops in Taiwan in the past, albeit in far different strategic and political circumstances.

As the Chinese Communist Party and its armies rolled up mainland China in 1949, U.S. naval forces interposed themselves between Formosa and the mainland in order to prevent an invasion of the sort that captured Hainan Island. The first substantial U.S. forces deployed to the island in the mid-1950s, during a period of severe tension between the PRC and the RoC. The US military commitment on Taiwan itself maxed out at about 2,0000 in 1958 but remained in the thousands until the 1970s.

In addition to troops, the US deployed the nuclear-armed Matador cruise missile, which had a range of nearly 1000km and could reach many Chinese population centers. With the normalization of relations between Beijing and Washington in the late 1970s, the U.S. removed its remaining troops from Taiwan and trusted in a combination of naval power and diplomacy to maintain the security of the island.

The situation has changed for a variety of reasons. The expansion of Chinese naval and aerospace power has shifted the conventional military balance in Beijing’s direction, making a contested invasion at least somewhat plausible. Technological developments have tended to favor long-range precision fires, increasing China’s capacity to control access to Taiwan.

Finally, the diplomatic relationship between Beijing and Washington has deteriorated badly. In combination, these factors could make the pre-positioning of US military equipment and personnel an attractive option for the first time in over forty years.

Does China Get a Vote?

China’s reaction to the peacetime deployment of U.S. forces to Taiwan could get extreme.  Past U.S. deployments came during a period in which the United States enjoyed presumptive conventional and nuclear superiority over the PRC. These deployments ended when the U.S. and the PRC entered their extended period of detente and friendship from the 1970s into the 2000s. Putting consequential military forces back in Taiwan could do irrevocable damage to the relationship.

The likelihood of a negative reaction makes the pacing and sequencing of a deployment particularly important. The news of a U.S. deployment would be self-defeating if it incurred an immediate Chinese attack on Formosa. Much will depend on context, but the establishment of a tripwire might not be a sufficient deterrent against a Beijing deeply irritated by Washington’s intervention in its relationship with Taipei. If the Biden administration or a future administration decided to do this, it would need to rapidly transition consequential military forces into Taiwan in order to forestall a Chinese attack. It would not be at all surprising in China responded with force, even if at a level of escalation lower than a full-scale invasion.

Taiwan

Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The secret transfer of forces and capabilities might seem ideal, but keeping the deployment of, say, nuclear cruise missiles to Taiwan secret from Beijing would be exceedingly difficult and virtually guaranteed to enrage China when it became public. We do, after all, have historical experience with an effort to secretly transfer nuclear missiles to an island next to continental nuclear power. Any kind of secret deployment would require extraordinary care to pull off successfully.

A U.S.-China Relationship Transformed

The deployment of US forces to Taiwan would mark a transformation in the US-China relationship. If the U.S. decided to escalate in this fashion, it should be while Washington’s attention is firmly focused on China; ideally, the Ukraine War would have ended, for example. On the upside, the pre-positioning of U.S. forces would eliminate any doubt in Beijing’s mind that invading Taiwan would start a major war. On the downside, it would risk starting a major war, as well as disrupting one of the world’s most important economic relationships.

We can only hope that a future US administration will contemplate such a move with the greatest of care.

Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. The Al U Know

    October 20, 2022 at 10:44 pm

    China, echoing Aliens.
    Private Hudson:”Game over man! Game over!”

    Corporal Hicks:
    “I say…we leave this place and nuke the site from orbit.
    It is the only way to be sure.”

    In the end it is only Ripley, Bishop the Android and Hicks. And he is nullified by acid for the final act. Needless to say, the planet is destroyed.

    So it shall be with China. If they try to invade conventionally it will turn out to be a game of inches bloodbath, with a severely weakened USA on top. Maybe if China played the long game, ignored Xi’s desire for a conqueror’s legacy. AI is the way to go, up to that singularity moment, and this goes for the US and other competitors too.

    I’d rather prefer that the West rise to the occasion and take the lead from an adolescent US that seems as bi-polar, aggressive and yet unsure of its identity. More umph than Merkel being recognized as most powerful statesperson on Time mag.

  2. 403Forbidden

    October 20, 2022 at 11:54 pm

    No need to panic, the US military is already present and available on the island.

    US special forces have long established themselved in taiwan under guise of working as trainers, and USAF technicians supervise and help maintain US-built PAVE PAWS radar on mt leishan.

    Still, their presence gives the big lie to the freedom & democracy bs peddled by countless individuals. US more concerned with gaining military advantage and having means of staging provocation.

    This US-orchestrated taiwan issue can only be resolved using the ‘nuclear formula’ or possessing so massive a nuclear arsenal that washington won’t dare to meddle militarily unless it wants all-out ww3.

    The use of nukes or the threat of using them will force uncle sam to ask if it’s worth risking everything for holding onto its foothold on the front doorstep of its rival.

    A nuke battle or nuke exchange between the two will leave ‘others’ in charge of the globe once the smoke has ckeared. Is this all along what the global hegemon plans to have or what’s actually the real deal. Havoc and tension as readily available political capital for perennial partisan politicking in the beltway’s corridors of power.

  3. Kwan Chow

    October 21, 2022 at 10:06 am

    I don’t think China want to fight with US. Current Chinese government is much more competent then it was 1989. you can refer to HK issue, they didn’t send any LPA during the protest. CCP is much better in strategic thinking. Take Zero -Covid policy as example, literally it look very stupid but apparently the inflation of US does not import to China because of this policy.

  4. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    October 21, 2022 at 12:04 pm

    China simply has too many close assets and bodies – if they decide to take Taiwan, they will unquestionably prevail and the Pentagon knows this.

  5. Roger Bacon

    October 21, 2022 at 3:47 pm

    I, for one, welcome the new Chinese trolls that will be joining up here at 19fortyfive.com when such a conflict starts. 🙂

    • The Al U Know

      October 21, 2022 at 9:36 pm

      So are u anti-authoritarianism/ extremist communism, or just pro psychological fixation-fetish with imaginary ‘Chinorcs’ substantiated with tendencies of hostility?

      In other parlance, do u have a point you actually wish to convey?

      Psychiatrists have a word for people who see things that don’t conform to established reality- schizophrenia.

  6. H.R. Holm

    October 22, 2022 at 11:16 pm

    Perhaps one alternative approach would be to lease a number of advanced fighter aircraft to Taiwan, say a mix of F-15s, F-16s, F-22s, and F-35s. This could be put in place comparatively quickly, without having to go thru the machinations and wait time of selling Taiwan the jets and then building/delivering them over years. Perhaps U.S. pilots could be included, serving 2-for-1 dual roles as trainers for their Taiwan air counterparts.
    And/or bring Taiwanese pilots to the U.S. for training (but quietly). An effort could be made to do all this ‘on the sly’, surreptitiously as possible. In addition, scattering the planes and crews at smaller, more hardened remote bases, and keeping them on QR (quick reaction) status at least some of the time would be of additional value. If Taiwan even has some air bases built into more mountainous areas as additional protection, all the better.

  7. Ross Knode

    October 23, 2022 at 4:01 pm

    Russia can’t conquer a country right on their border. No idea how any of you think China will be able to invade an island 100 miles away. How exactly will they get their troops there? All Taiwan needs is a couple hundred mobile anti-ship missiles to stop the invasion and inflict so many casualties it won’t be worth it. You China trolls need to come up with way more than name calling. It’s hilarious reading your posts. They just show you are lashing out 5-year-olds.

  8. The Rational Thinker

    October 23, 2022 at 9:19 pm

    The US hasn’t done so well in the past putting boots on the ground. Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya… heck, we ran screaming for the hills when Ukraine occurred and only got our swagger back once the Russians screwed up and the Ukrainians proved tougher than expected.

    American forces in Taiwan would like be a big old nothing burger. American troops never pacified Iraq and in fact had to bribe the locals into not attacking coalition forces. US patrols in Afghanistan always made it back before dark, as if they were patrolling in some horror movie and Michael Myers were lurking around the corner. US forces, it has been shown, are not very good at fighting an enemy with no heavy artillery, no air support, no armor, no drones, and no navy… yet American forces are expected to stand up to a military with all of that and more?

    Let’s not fool ourselves: we have not fought a near peer in almost eighty years, yet have failed to defeat our foes in the majority of the wars we have fought during that time period. China, on the other hand, has only fought peers or superior forces in every war it’s gotten into since the 1950’s.

    Worse yet, I am of the opinion that neither the US nor China would win such a war. Just as World Wars I and II ultimately led to the demise of the British, French, and Dutch Empires and led to the demise of Germany’s rise as a global power, so would a Sino-American war lead to our ruin as well as China’s. Wars are expensive and we’re running out of money and are faced with the prospect of not being able to print anymore.

    But worst of all, China is better positioned to weather such a conflict. It has the largest merchant marine in the world, is the number one trading partner with the most nations on Earth, possesses the largest manufacturing base on the planet, and is fighting closer to its shores than we would. Yes, Taiwan is a hundred miles away… yet people act as if Taiwan is right next door to us (which, spoilers, it isn’t). Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that as the losing team for the past four wars that suddenly we’ll pull one out of the hat.

    • TMark

      October 25, 2022 at 8:48 am

      And yet, after 73 years, Beijing still shrinks from invading. Their apologists can’t explain it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Advertisement