The threat of Chinese invasion of Taiwan is growing every day. What the US can do to stop it.
In his speech last week on the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, Chairman Xi Jinping announced that China has never harassed or oppressed the people of any other country. But that is exactly what Beijing is doing to Taiwan, and its growing aggression towards the democratic island raises concerns that it will attempt to take it by force.
The question is not whether the United States should defend Taiwan at war, but how to prevent war in the first place. Now is the time to strengthen US-Taiwan security cooperation.
For years, world leaders have been reluctant to respond to China’s military aggression in the region. But Beijing’s escalating rhetoric and military developments are pushing Washington and its allies to work together in unprecedented ways, such as joint US-Japanese military planning for a conflict with China over Taiwan. It was only on Monday that Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso declared that “Japan and the US must jointly defend Taiwan” in the event of an attack on Taiwan.
“Forcibly unite Taiwan” as a Chinese policy has existed since Chairman Mao Zedong coined the term. Although the outbreak of the Korean War saved Taiwan from such a fate at the time, China’s unfulfilled aspirations continue to haunt the Communist Party. In recent years, Xi has linked the annexation of Taiwan, which separated from mainland China in the midst of civil war in 1949, with his “China dream” of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. In the eyes of the Communist Party elites, the unification of Taiwan is the last step in making China great again.
The Communist Party now controls Asia’s most powerful military, the People’s Liberation Army, and Beijing’s growing urgency to annex Taiwan is reflected in major changes in its military stance. Beijing recognizes that the United States is the main obstacle to its conquest of Taiwan and has shifted its armed forces to deliberately offset the US’s operational advantages in the Pacific. To this end, the Chinese military has developed anti-ship ballistic missiles, assault submarines, and a range of air and naval platforms to carry out saturation attacks to overwhelm enemies, all of which are backed by space-based systems that make it more integrated and make it deadlier.
Taken together, China’s rise as a military competitor to the United States presents Washington’s greatest strategic challenge. The pace and intensity of China’s military modernization seem to have taken American leaders by surprise. This is perhaps less due to Beijing’s mastery of hiding its efforts than to Washington’s smug neglect of the Communist Party’s ambitious pursuit of national rejuvenation as a means of challenging the American-led post-Cold War world order.
In this environment, it is impossible to predict exactly when China might attempt a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. Given the complexity involved, even Xi may not have a definitive schedule. However, the existence of a significant military imbalance between China and Taiwan – with the far more powerful side intent on bringing the other under political rule – increases the possibility and temptation of war.
What is certain is that the Communist Party is already taking action against Taiwan. For years it has deliberately and gradually carried out military provocations below the threshold of armed conflict with the aim of restricting the freedom of action of Taiwan’s military while at the same time intimidating its people. These operations have presented Taiwanese leaders with significant challenges.
Such sub-conflict operations, known as aggression in the gray area, include frequent airspace attacks by People’s Liberation Army fighter jets, demonstrations of force by Chinese warships in Taiwan, cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns aimed at demoralizing Taiwan’s society and popular support for the Taipei government to undermine.
An escalation without an all-out war is soon conceivable. The exchange of fire between Chinese and Taiwanese armed forces, small-scale missile attacks and the Chinese occupation of the outer islands of Taiwan are possible. Should Xi’s bid for a third term at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China fail in 2022 due to internal resistance, a military crackdown on Taiwan could give its credentials both as a champion of China’s great rise and as a strong leader who can withstand it. underpin America’s so-called hegemonic powers.
All-out war is unlikely to occur in the near future, however, as the People’s Liberation Army has yet to resolve significant operational issues in order to launch an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. But the Communist Party has announced that the military will be a fully modernized force by 2027, which could be the time China sees an opportunity for a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. Factors that could lead Beijing into such military adventures include the US’s reduced deterrence and Taiwan’s continued failure to implement major military reforms.
To deter this potential conflict, the United States and Taiwan must create uncertainty in the minds of Chinese government elites while credibly demonstrating that they can impose unacceptable costs should Beijing choose to conflict. This means that Taiwan must rapidly strengthen short-term combat capabilities and defense readiness based on asymmetric warfare.
This could be achieved by fully implementing and institutionalizing the force modernization priorities prescribed in Taiwan’s Total Defense Concept, which the US government strongly supports as it would effectively allocate Taiwan’s limited resources to systems that directly improve its defense strategy. The ODC aims to maximize Taiwan’s combat capabilities in order to survive a Chinese attack, disrupt the flow of Chinese operations, and deny the effectiveness of its military mission. Taiwan’s defense procurement should focus on systems that are inexpensive, affordable in large numbers, mobile, viable, and lethal.
For its part, the United States should prioritize Taiwan’s defense readiness and work with Taipei to swiftly reform and implement its defense strategy, while streamlining its procurement system through the establishment of a joint US-Taiwanese task force focused on the implementation of the ODC.
In addition, the US should stockpile ammunition, spare parts, and other critical defense equipment that could directly improve Taiwan’s readiness for war. This would also demonstrate the commitment and political will of the US. Congress could model this initiative along the lines of the War Reserve Stocks for Allies program it has with Israel.
The United States should also prioritize building capabilities among allies and U.S. forces that can work together to address critical vulnerabilities of the People’s Liberation Army in a Taiwanese emergency. Together they must develop the means to disrupt, deny, degrade, destroy, or deceive the assets of the Chinese military in order to prevent a military success against Taiwan. This would greatly improve credible deterrence – and that could prevent a war.
The threat of Chinese military aggression is no longer hypothetical; Gray area operations have already started. Should the Communist Party’s aggression escalate further, a widespread attack on Taiwan could become likely, with economic and military consequences that would shake the world. The question is not whether the United States should defend Taiwan at war, but how to prevent war in the first place. Now is the time to strengthen US-Taiwan security cooperation to ensure peace on the strait.