The United States reconsiders how to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan
Far above the gleaming blue Pacific Ocean, 25 Chinese warplanes—including fighter jets, bombers, and anti-submarine warfare planes—breached Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) on April 12. The Taiwanese army quickly issued radio warnings, scrambled jets, and deployed air defense missile systems to track the planes.
It was the largest People’s Liberation Army (PLA) incursion since last September and the 72nd breach this year of the ADIZ—an area beyond Taiwan’s air space where air traffic controllers ask aircraft to identify themselves—and an example of Beijing ramping up military aggression against the island of 23 million that it claims as its territory.
But on the ground in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, life continues as usual. Taiwan has enjoyed an existence largely free of COVID-19 thanks to a world-leading pandemic response. So elderly aunties sell fresh produce—pale green loofahs, sliced pineapples, ripe tomatoes—in open-air markets as scooters whiz by. Hip young people line up outside hole-in-the-wall ramen restaurants. Middle-aged women cradling their impeccably groomed dogs gab with friends at well-lit Western cafés.
The latest Chinese provocations spur endless discussion on political talk shows each night, but they haven’t perturbed the Taiwanese population who have lived under the threat of invasion for the past 70 years. Pastor Alexander Wu of Taipei’s Pearl Church noted that his grandparents were part of the Nationalist army that came to the island with Gen. Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, so he grew up knowing an attack was possible.
Wu said an invasion doesn’t feel like a pressing issue: He doesn’t have an emergency pack ready, nor has he discussed with church leadership what they would do if an invasion comes. “The possibility of an invasion doesn’t quite play in the overall scheme of my ministry in Taiwan,” Wu said. “I take each day at a time … whether there’s an invasion or not, what matters is whether I’m faithful or not.”
As China emerges as a global superpower, many eyes turn to Taiwan, a mountainous island the size of Maryland and Delaware 100 miles off the southeast coast of China. Formerly under military rule, Taiwan is now a robust democracy with freedom of speech and religion. It has the world’s 21st-largest economy and is the world’s top producer of the semiconductor chips ubiquitous in modern electronics. For the United States, Taiwan is also strategically placed to prevent China’s dominance in East Asia.
Beijing has long aimed to “unify” Taiwan, by force if necessary, and now the risk is rising as the PLA’s capabilities grow. Nobody knows what would cause Chinese President Xi Jinping to invade Taiwan, so lawmakers hope to deter China by ensuring both Taiwan and the United States are prepared for an attack.
TAIWAN HAS ALWAYS BEEN the linchpin in relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States. Facing defeat during the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Nationalist army escaped to Taiwan where Gen. Chiang Kai-shek claimed to rule China’s legitimate government, the Republic of China (ROC). The PLA planned an invasion of Taiwan in 1950, but the Korean War grabbed Beijing’s attention.
As the United States sought to normalize relations with China in the 1970s, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai made diplomatic relations contingent on ending recognition of Taiwan. Under President Jimmy Carter, the United States officially switched diplomatic relations to the PRC in 1979. With its market potential and promised investments, Beijing has since enticed all but 15 countries to break off ties to Taiwan.
The United States passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, which vaguely promises to provide Taiwan with weapons and defense services “to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability” in the case of a Chinese invasion. By not directly agreeing to intervene on the side of Taiwan, U.S. lawmakers hoped this strategic ambiguity would deter both China from invading and Taiwan from declaring independence.
The United States remains undecided on Taiwan’s status but understands that China claims the island as its own territory. The United States maintains unofficial exchanges with Taiwan, including stationing a de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei called the American Institute in Taiwan staffed with 450 people.
Taiwan’s geography and climate help protect the island as well. Its mountains provide coverage for Taiwanese defenders. Typhoons, strong winds, and high waves in the Taiwan Strait leave only two months a year suitable for an invasion, writes Ian Easton in The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia. Most of Taiwan’s coastline is unsuitable for an amphibious landing, allowing ROC forces to concentrate their defenses at the few possible landing beaches.
The PLA would face an ROC army outfitted with sophisticated U.S. weapons, a greater familiarity with the land, and a greater will to defend their homes. With U.S. intervention likely, for years it seemed the death toll of an invasion would be extremely high and possibility of success low.
TODAY, THE CALCULUS HAS CHANGED. China is closing in on the United States as the largest economy in the world and has heavily invested in ships, warplanes, missiles, and weapons for the sole purpose of invading Taiwan. China now has the world’s largest navy, tripling in size in the last two decades. Last year, its defense budget was 15 times that of Taiwan.
China is building capabilities to prevent U.S. forces from coming to Taiwan’s aid (see sidebar). In war-game simulations of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the United States loses again and again.
Adm. Philip Davidson, Washington’s top military officer in Asia-Pacific, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in March that China could launch an invasion of Taiwan in the next six years. He noted China is quickly supplanting the United States’ role in Asia, making it difficult for U.S. forces to deter Beijing.
China may also be growing bolder since it has faced few international consequences as it commits genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang and quashes Hong Kong’s freedoms. China’s economic heft has bought silence from even democratic countries dependent on Chinese trade.
“If the international community has not stood up to Beijing by now, why should anyone in Beijing believe the democracies will fight hard to defend Taiwan?” asked Easton, senior director at the Project 2049 Institute. “Recent history may lead the [Chinese Communist Party] to miscalculate.”
Xi Jinping has been clear on his ambitions. In a 2019 New Year’s speech, he said unification of Taiwan and China was “an inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people,” a goal he pledged to realize by 2049, the centennial of the founding of the PRC. Xi called for a peaceful unification under a “one country, two systems” framework like in Hong Kong, but stressed Beijing would use force if necessary.
Most Taiwanese recoil at the idea of living under Beijing’s rule, especially since China reneged on “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong. They overwhelmingly reelected U.S.-friendly President Tsai Ing-wen in January 2020. A Pew study found 66 percent of Taiwanese view themselves as Taiwanese, while only 4 percent consider themselves Chinese (the rest see themselves as both).
While China has always tried using a mix of carrots and sticks to draw Taiwan into its fold, the emphasis is now on the stick, said Russell Hsiao, executive director of Global Taiwan Institute. Hsiao doesn’t believe a full-on military invasion is likely in the short term. He thinks China will continue to pressure Taiwan in other ways.
China offers high paychecks and benefits to entice Taiwanese talent and companies to work in the mainland. Internationally, it steals Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies and prevents it from joining international organizations. China has also launched disinformation campaigns, bought out Taiwanese media to print Chinese propaganda, and directed cyberattacks on Taiwan’s government offices and semiconductor industry.
China’s bullying became abundantly clear to the world during the coronavirus pandemic: While China covered up the origins of the coronavirus, Taiwan sounded an early alarm and kept its total death toll low. Still, China threatened to punish any country that supported Taiwan joining a World Health Organization meeting last May.
“There’s been a heightened awareness of Taiwan as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and a greater sense of urgency on the part of the United States and like-minded countries to allow Taiwan to meaningfully participate in an international capacity,” Hsiao noted.
AS THE UNITED STATES finds itself at odds with an aggressive China, it’s drawn even closer to Taiwan. The Trump administration stopped the practice of bundling weapons sales to Taiwan—intended to prevent Chinese provocation—and instead made multiple sales totaling $15 billion over four years. Less than two weeks before President Joe Biden took office, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lifted self-imposed restrictions that barred visits between U.S. officials and their Taiwanese counterparts.
The Biden administration has continued to strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan friendship by inviting Taiwan’s representative, Hsiao Bi-khim, to Biden’s inauguration—the first since the United States broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan. On NBC’s Meet the Press in April, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the United States had a “serious commitment to Taiwan being able to defend itself.” Later that week, former Sen. Christopher Dodd and former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and James Steinberg visited Tsai in Taipei.
During a White House visit in April, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Biden called for “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” the two countries’ first mention of the issue in a joint statement since 1969. Taiwan’s survival is vital for Japan’s national interest: From Taiwan the Chinese could easily blockade Japan, as 80 percent of its container ships travel through the Taiwan Strait. With Taiwan as Beijing’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” the PLA navy would have access to the greater Pacific and wield enormous power over all of East Asia.
Some analysts believe it’s time for the United States to end strategic ambiguity and openly state it would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an invasion. Richard Haass and David Sacks of the Council on Foreign Relations argued in a Foreign Affairs op-ed last September that ambiguity is no longer enough to deter China. Clarity would reduce the chance for war in the Taiwan Strait and reassure the United States’ regional allies, they said.
Haass and Sacks argued the United States should prioritize preparations for a Taiwan invasion, station more air and naval forces in the region, and pass a law that would impose severe sanctions on China if it attacks Taiwan. The United States could also help Taiwan maintain a strong democracy through aid with election security and cyber defense.
Others fear that such a move would provoke China to attack or embolden Taiwan’s leaders to formally declare independence. Still, Congress has bipartisan support for sending U.S. forces to intervene if China were to invade Taiwan.
WHILE ANALYSTS AND LAWMAKERS debate the threat of a Taiwan invasion from a 30,000-foot level, Wu is thinking about what it could mean for him, his wife, their five kids under the age of 10, and their golden retriever.
Wu has the luxury of dual Taiwan and U.S. citizenship and could quickly take the first flight out of Taiwan should an invasion occur. But he feels called to stay and care for those who can’t leave.
Lachlan McIntosh, the Taipei director of the mission organization Youth With A Mission (YWAM), also said he would stay if an invasion occurred. He’s lived on the island for 14 years and now oversees 60 YWAM staff in Taipei. “I don’t feel the call God gives us is only when things are good,” McIntosh said. “I hope to continue to be here, to support the Taiwanese people and share Jesus with them in the midst of a tough time.”
In the past few years, the Chinese government has kicked YWAM missionaries out of mainland China, and several of those families have relocated to Taiwan. While the group doesn’t have a specific contingency plan for invasion, it has encouraged staff to know their local emergency locations, register with their embassy, and have all important documents in one place should they need to pack up in a hurry.
Spiritually, he’s preparing his staff by helping them understand that the Christian life will be hard but the gospel hope remains no matter what happens—whether that means the death of a child, persecution, or an invasion. McIntosh noted it’s important to prepare people now when things are secure for difficult times to come.
Among local Taiwanese, there is also a strong desire to fight for their freedoms as China’s authoritarianism threatens their way of life.
“Taiwanese people will not run away,” Wu said. “They would hold to this land, and for generations this land has been occupied by different nations. As a people they’ve been resilient.”
What would a China-Taiwan-United States clash look like?
The defense of Taiwan is one of the most challenging military problems for the United States.
Since the 1990s, China has embarked on a modernization campaign that has transformed its military from a land-centric defensive force to an advanced technology-centric force capable of projecting power within the East Asia region and beyond. One of these advances is a “carrier-killer” missile, specifically designed to either destroy U.S. aircraft carriers or at least keep them far enough away to remove their effectiveness. China’s eastern coast bristles with an array of ballistic missiles that can target not only Taiwan but also Okinawa and Guam, two islands that host a variety of U.S. bases.
But the United States possesses key advantages. Stealth fighter jets, such as the F-22 and F-35, and stealth bombers can penetrate sophisticated air defenses. The United States has also invested heavily in anti-ballistic missile technology it can deploy from land and naval vessels.
Taiwan also has its own formidable defenses. Taiwanese pilots fly F-16s supplied by the United States as well as Taiwan-produced fighter jets. Taiwan also has an arsenal of missile systems, tanks, and submarines.
—by William Denham, a WJI mid-career course graduate and a retired U.S. Air Force colonel. He is currently an independent contractor training Air Force fighter pilots.
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