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“We have immense power, but so do they”. Would US defend Taiwan militarily?


Nov 4, 2011
“We have immense power, but so do they”. Would US defend Taiwan militarily?
May 5, 2021

“We have immense power, but so do they”
War games simulating a US-China military conflict over Taiwan make two things perfectly clear: 1) The fight would be hell on earth, potentially leading to hundreds of thousands of casualties, and 2) the US might not win it.

Experts say the first thing Beijing would most likely do is launch cyberattacks against Taiwan’s financial systems and key infrastructure, possibly causing a water shortage. US satellites might also be targets since they can detect the launch of ballistic missiles.

Then China’s navy would probably set up a blockade to harass Taiwan’s fleet and keep food and supplies from getting to the island. Meanwhile, China would rain missiles down on Taipei and other key targets — like the offices of political leaders, and ports and airfields — and move its warplanes out of reach of Taiwan’s missile arsenal. Some experts believe Beijing would move its aircraft carrier out of Taiwan’s missile range since Chinese fighter jets could just take off from the mainland.

And then comes the invasion itself, which China wouldn’t be able to hide even if it wanted to. To be successful, Xi would have to send hundreds of thousands of troops across the Taiwan Strait for what would be a historic operation.

“The geography of an amphibious landing on Taiwan is so difficult that it would make a landing on Taiwan harder than the US landing on D-Day,” said Ross, the Boston College professor.

Many of Taiwan’s beaches aren’t wide enough to station a big force, with only about 14 beaches possibly hospitable for a landing of any kind. That’s a problem for China, as winning the war would require not only defeating a Taiwanese military of around 175,000 plus 1 million reservists, but also subduing a population of 24 million.

For these reasons, some experts say Taiwan — with US-sold weapons — could thus put up a good fight. China’s military (known as the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA) “clearly would have its hands full just dealing with Taiwan’s defenders,” Michael Beckley, a fellow at Harvard University, wrote in a 2017 paper.

Others agree. Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in the UK, told CNN in 2019 that “the Taiwanese air force would have to sink around 40 percent of the amphibious landing forces of the PLA” — around 15 ships — “to render [China’s] mission infeasible.” That’s a complicated but not impossible task.

What’s more, the island’s forces have spent years digging tunnels and bunkers at the beaches where the Chinese might arrive, and they know the terrain better than the invaders do.

“Taiwan’s entire national defense strategy, including its war plans, are specifically targeted at defeating a PLA invasion,” Easton told CNN in 2019. In fact, in his book he wrote that invading Taiwan would be “the most difficult and bloody mission facing the Chinese military.”

Even so, most experts told me China would have a distinct advantage in a fight. It has 100 times more ground troops than Taiwan and spends 25 times more on its military. Even former top Taiwanese soldiers worry about the island’s defenses.

“From my perspective, we are really far behind what we need,” Lee Hsi-min, chief of the general staff of Taiwan’s military until 2019, told the Wall Street Journal in April. (It’s for this reason that Taiwan’s government consistently requests more weapons as laid out in the TRA.)

Because of China’s power, proximity to Taiwan, and Taiwan’s weaker forces, most analysts I spoke with say Beijing would come away with a victory. “It’s more or less impossible to stop. Taiwan is indefensible,” said Lyle Goldstein of the US Naval War College. “I think China could go tomorrow and they’d be successful.” When there’s just over 100 miles for a stronger nation to get across, “good luck to the small island,” he added.

This is why the question of America’s support in such a war is so big, and why a decision for Biden would be so weighty. Knowing all this, Biden — or any American president — would likely have to decide whether to intervene to keep Taiwan from losing.

That’s risky, because many believe the US might not succeed at fending off an invasion. China has advanced its missile arsenal to the point that it’d be difficult to send fighter jets and aircraft carriers near the war zone. US bases in the region, such as those in Japan hosting 50,000 American troops, would come under heavy fire. US allies and friends like Australia, South Korea, or even the Philippines could offer some support, but their appetite for large-scale war might not be so high.

It’s a troubling scenario — one in which thousands of Americans could die — that US defense and military officials see over and over again in simulations.

“You bring in lieutenant colonels and commanders, and you subject them for three or four days to this war game. They get their asses kicked, and they have a visceral reaction to it,” David Ochmanek of the Pentagon-funded RAND Corporation told NBC News in March. “You can see the learning happen.”

The best-case war game I found, reported on by Defense News in April, found that the US could stop a full invasion of Taiwan. But there’s a big catch: America would succeed only in confining Chinese troops to a corner of the island. In other words, Beijing would have still pulled off a partial takeover despite the US intervention.

That’s partly why Hagel, the former Pentagon chief, cautions against the US entering such a fight. “I was never sanguine, nor would I be today, about a showdown with the Chinese in that area,” he told me. “We have immense power, but so do they. This is their backyard.”

And, lest we forget, there’s little to no chance that a war over the island wouldn’t spill over to the rest of the world.

“I think it would broaden quickly and it would fundamentally trash the global economy in ways that I don’t think anyone can predict,” Kurt Campbell, Biden’s “Asia czar” in the White House, said on Tuesday.

What would Biden do?
Despite these dire predictions, some analysts I spoke to said the US would simply have no choice but to come to Taiwan’s defense. It might not be mandated by law — the US commitment is ambiguous, after all — but America’s reputation would take a major hit if it let China forcibly annex the island.

“How would other countries see the United States if we don’t come to Taiwan’s aid?” Glaser of the German Marshall Fund said. “We would lose all credibility as a leader and an ally,” especially if Washington didn’t act to support a fellow democracy.

There are some moves short of all-out war Biden could choose, said Schriver, who was also the top Pentagon official for Asia in the Trump administration and is now chair of Project 2049, an Asia-focused think tank.

The US could provide intelligence, surveillance, and logistics support to Taiwan; try to break China’s naval blockade of the island, assisting with logistics and supplies; and deploy its submarine force to augment Taiwan’s naval capabilities.

“It would be an aberration of history if we did nothing, and the PLA would make a mistake to assume that we will do nothing,” Schriver told me.

The US very well might do something, and the president may even be able to get congressional support for such a war given the strong bipartisan support for Taiwan.

Still, Biden would be the decider about whether or not to put US troops in harm’s way. The responsibility, at least for the next four years, lies with him — and no one is really sure what he’d do.

“Would the US come to Taiwan’s defense? The honest answer is that nobody knows,” said Abraham Denmark, a former top Pentagon official for Asia issues now at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, DC. “It’s only up to one person. Unless you’re talking to that person, it’s never going to be clear. That’s been true since the late 1970s.”

Biden has a long record on Taiwan, but it’s as ambiguous as America’s Taiwan policy.

As a senator, he voted in favor of the Taiwan Relations Act, the law that establishes security cooperation between the US and Taiwan. But in 2001, Biden wrote a Washington Postopinion article arguing that the law doesn’t require the US to come to Taiwan’s defense. In fact, it left that matter ambiguous, he said.

“The act obliges the president to notify Congress in the event of any threat to the security of Taiwan, and stipulates that the president and Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, an appropriate response by the United States,” Biden wrote. “The president should not cede to Taiwan, much less to China, the ability automatically to draw us into a war across the Taiwan Strait.”

Still, a senior Biden administration official told me there are many reasons to believe that America’s support for Taiwan remains ironclad.

“You hear the president consistently talk about how democracies deliver,” the official said. “Taiwan is a leading democracy in the region” and “an example of addressing the pandemic, the Covid crisis, in a way that is consistent with democratic values.”

There’s also an economic imperative: Taiwan is the world’s key manufacturer of semiconductors used in products, from tablets to cars to sex toys, that account for 12 percent of America’s GDP. If China were to usurp Taiwan, Beijing would have a firm grip on that supply chain and thus more influence on the future of the US and global economies.

So would a Biden administration come to Taiwan’s defense? Unsurprisingly, America’s stance on the issue remains ambiguous so far, which is why experts and officials in Taiwan remain on high alert.

“We have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” said the Taiwanese source close to the current administration, speaking about the general mood on the island. “That’s our basic philosophy.”


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