China wants Taiwan back — can America hold the line?
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, may be flying over stormy diplomatic waters as she tours several East Asian countries this week. Reports that she may take the opportunity to make a stop in Taiwan have drawn an unusually sharp response from China, which considers the island nation a breakaway province. Beijing’s tone — an official statement said Pelosi was “playing with fire” — reflects a new belligerence that concerns many national security analysts.
Mark Montgomery, a retired US Navy rear admiral who serves as senior director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, outlines America’s strategic concerns over Taiwan.
“The US commitment to defending Taiwan is about more than just defending a stellar example of liberal democracy in Asia,” he tells Mishpacha. “Taiwan’s robust economic development and its strong investments in numerous emerging high-technology industries have made it a key economic and industrial partner the US as well.
“Additionally, at this point, our commitment to Taiwan’s self-determination is also about our credibility as an ally and partner, both in Asia and Europe. If we can’t keep our word on Taiwan, why should any ally or partner trust us?”
When China made aggressive moves toward Taiwan in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton ordered the Navy into the Taiwan Straits in response — a move that’s unthinkable today. I asked Montgomery if the US Navy could successfully defend Taiwan against China’s improved capabilities.
“China has spent 25 years developing anti-access and area denial capabilities that aim to keep US forces operating outside the ‘First Island Chain’ — roughly a line from Japan through the Philippines and down to Indonesia and Malaysia,” he says.
These capabilities include a massive arsenal of anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, land-attack cruise and ballistic missiles, long-range radar and satellite systems to locate US targets, fifth-generation fighter aircraft, quieter and longer-range submarines, and massive numbers of surface combatant warships.
“It is not simply a question of whether the US Navy is too small, but rather do the US Navy and US Air Force, along with any allied naval and air forces that choose to participate, have the right platforms and munitions, in sufficient numbers, to defeat the Chinese navy and air force in the areas around Taiwan or in the East or South China Seas,” Montgomery says.
American military planners should expect China to go all out in the event of a Taiwan invasion, Montgomery says. “US aircraft carriers will need to rely on speed, maneuver, emissions control, and most of all, the defenses inherent in their escort ships in order to survive. Even then, US carriers, as well as all allied ships and aircraft, will be at risk in combat with China.”
The Ukraine Example
Tensions over Taiwan comes in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has told the world a thing or two about the NATO alliance, various countries’ military capabilities, and the international community.
“Taiwan has learned about the importance of resilience, and the need to continue the fight after suffering hard losses,” says Montgomery. “This emphasizes the ongoing Taiwan effort to purchase sufficient counter-intervention tools — much like Javelin and Stinger for the Ukrainian forces, Taiwan will need sea mines, anti-ship cruise missiles, and Javelins and Stingers, and many other things as well. Taiwan will need to continue to develop its cyber defenses, both for military forces and their critical infrastructure such as electrical power grids and water supplies.”
But he cautions that China has also been studying the war in Ukraine carefully. “I would not judge China’s capabilities by Russia’s failure to conduct large-scale maneuver warfare effectively. The US should be taking a hard look at Chinese logistics and sustainment capabilities to see if they have the same challenges and shortfalls as Russia. Also, Taiwan should plan for a high miss rate and civilian casualties if China were to subject Taiwan to cruise and ballistic missile attacks, as the Russian systems have caused significant collateral damage in Ukraine.”
Grant Rumley, a veteran US foreign policy advisor who has served in both the Trump and Biden administrations and is now the Goldberger Fellow with the Washington Institute’s Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Program on Great Power Competition and the Middle East, predicts China would try to learn from Russia’s failures and score a quick knockout blow.
“Should Beijing decide military force is required in Taiwan, the Ukraine example will reinforce a desire to avoid a protracted conflict,” Rumley says. “China will want to make sure it has such a large military advantage that it renders Taiwanese resistance ineffective. Otherwise it risks a quagmire that drains resources, personnel, and ultimately, their military’s prestige. Beijing will also have to assume that the international response to a Taiwan invasion will likely follow the Western response to Ukraine, primarily in issuing sanctions and supplying arms.
Taiwan, on the other hand, will emulate Volodymyr Zelensky’s model. “For Taiwan, I’d wager they’re likely seeing the importance of political leadership and controlling the information environment for morale and the fighting force. I think they’re also seeing the importance of the quantity of arms in repelling an invading force, specifically in cheap, effective, and man-portable arms.”
A Darker View
Robert Spalding, who was Trump’s senior director of strategy and is now a senior fellow at Hudson Institute focusing on US-China relations, economic and national security, and the Asia-Pacific military balance, is less sanguine about Taiwan’s prospects. He says that short of giving the Taiwanese nuclear weapons, there’s no way to prevent a Chinese invasion, and the Biden administration needs to be preparing the Taiwanese for evacuation.
“I would be putting a plan in place right now to evacuate the island and to destroy [things] that we don’t want to fall into Chinese hands, such as semiconductor factories” he says, although he admits that the vast majority of Taiwan residents will not want to relocate.
“You have to think about it in terms of what [China’s] capabilities are, what they’re willing to do, and quite frankly, they’re willing to do whatever it takes, because they have to uphold the regime’s reputation,” Spalding says. “They don’t care about the people, and they only care about the ground. So they’ll kill as many people as they need to, and they will destroy as much as they have to.”
Although Russia has been ruthless in its campaign in Ukraine, Spalding believes that conflict can’t be compared to what would happen in a war over Taiwan.
“I think the difference is going to be overwhelming compared to Russia and Ukraine,” he says. “China has maneuvering ballistic missiles, like the DF-21, that can sink carriers before they can come into effective range of their aircraft. China has far more resources than Russia. The Chinese invasion will be overwhelming. And the Chinese have already taken steps to eliminate the effectiveness of Western sanctions.”
Asked how American planners should prepare for Chinese tactics against US aircraft carriers, Spalding can only offer a tepid response: “Keep the carriers out of range of their missiles. China will also try to blind or destroy our satellites, making America’s military deaf and blind.”
Spalding’s view is certainly the most pessimistic. But if anything, China’s rapid military development underlines Taiwan’s crucial role as a front-line outpost — something Nancy Pelosi no doubt took into careful consideration as she planned her Asia trip.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 922)
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