The United States has maintained strategic ambiguity for years about what it would do if China attacked Taiwan. Now, U.S. President Joe Biden has brought new attention to the question.
In an interview with 60 Minutes, Biden said on Sept. 18 that the United States would indeed fight to protect Taiwan against China. That follows remarks made in Tokyo in May, during which Biden said the United States would engage in battle to defend Taiwan. Currently the Americans provide arms to the Taiwanese, but the U.S. has also recognized Beijing’s One China policy.
What would the United States do militarily if there was an attack on Taiwan?
From Wars of Words to a War of Missiles
Taiwan sits about 110 miles off the coast of mainland China. Beijing claims the island as its own. Chinese President Xi Jinping believes that total reunification is unavoidable, and he has not ruled out the use of force to maintain the One China policy. Any shooting war that draws in the United States would be bloody, with death and destruction mounting on both sides.
At the outset of a war against Taiwan, China would deliver a shock-and-awe missile attack at military targets on the island. Hundreds of missiles launched from shore, ship, and airplane would explode on Taiwan.
The U.S. Navy would have two aircraft carrier battle groups in the area, with supercarriers escorted by destroyers, frigates, and cruisers, and supplemented by submarines. They would try to stay out of the range of China’s anti-ship missiles while firing their own over-the-horizon missiles at the ships and airplanes attacking Taiwan.
The United States would also be flying stealth warplanes such as the F-35. China would answer with fighters such as the J-20, which has radar-evading attributes. There would likely be missile exchanges between the two sides, and the Navy would use the Aegis combat system to ward off enemy missiles.
Protect Guam At All Costs
Guam could also come under Chinese attack. The closest U.S. territory to China, Guam is one of the most strategic islands in East Asia. Without holding Guam, defending Taiwan would be difficult. China has H-6 bombers that could reach Guam and fire cruise and ballistic missiles, including hypersonic weapons. Guam currently uses the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense long-range anti-missile system. An ongoing missile defense modernization effort would direct additional air defenses to Guam, but that upgrade isn’t expected to be completed until 2026.
The United States could also use a cyber attack against China to disable its radar and sensor systems and to stymie its missiles’ targeting and guidance systems. China would probably conduct its own cyber operation against Taiwan.
Preparing for a landing
Before sending any troops to the island, China would probably conduct a blockade of Taiwan to ensure no arms shipments are delivered by allies. The Chinese would also patrol no-fly and no-shipping zones in the area to consolidate its control of airspace and sea. Finally, China would deploy its submarines close to Taiwan to fire land-attack cruise missiles at the island. Then a Chinese amphibious attack would begin.
China can attack U.S. carriers with missiles from land, sea, and air in many different ways. This means the Americans have to plan for one of their carriers to be damaged or destroyed. As unthinkable as it seems, it is time for the U.S. Navy to realize that this could happen. The event would leave the Navy dependent on its other aircraft carrier to pick up the slack. Meanwhile, having destroyed or damaged one American carrier, China would continue its amphibious attack against Taiwan.
This would be a terrible scenario for the United States, but it goes both ways: The Americans could sink a Chinese aircraft carrier and a number of support ships. This could either strengthen Chinese resolve, or deter them and create an opening for diplomacy.
Taiwan’s Defense Spending Is No Match
Taiwan must spend more on its defense. Taipei has raised its defense budget by 14%, to $19.4 billion next year. Meanwhile, China is spending $229.47 billion, a 6.8% rise from 2021. The United States also announced this month that it would provide a sale of as much as $1.1 billion in air defense and anti-ship missiles to Taiwan. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved even more on Sept. 14, unlocking $4.5 billion in military aid.
There are no good options for the United States to protect Taiwan. Every scenario in which China attacks leads to naval losses for the U.S. The best hope is that military-to-military communication reduces the damage, creating room for diplomacy and a cease-fire. Biden may want to reconsider protecting Taiwan without first establishing clear military options. The Pentagon needs to make sure that the White House understands the price that would be paid for protecting Taiwan.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.