Even though it was the source of the novel coronavirus pandemic, China appears to be the only country benefiting geopolitically from its knock-on effects. China’s No. 1 strategic goal has been to reclaim Taiwan, an island it has long considered merely to be a “breakaway province.” It seems poised to accomplish this task.
Many analysts, such as Ian Easton of Project 2049, have argued that China would try to reclaim Taiwan at some point in the next decade. Yet, reality often presents opportunities. And the pandemic is the strategic opportunity of a lifetime.
The warning indicators are flashing—or they should be in Washington. Not only has the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) been conducting ongoing, aggressive flights into Taiwanese airspace, but last Thursday, the PLAAF performed a detailed reconnaissance mission over southern Taiwan.
Then, on Saturday evening, China’s only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailed from China through the Japanese-controlled Strait of Miyako, escorted by two guided-missile destroyers and two additional guided-missile frigates. That move prompted Taiwan to scramble its navy. The Liaoning and its escorts sailed beyond Okinawa, turned south, and kept going—its ultimate destination unknown to all except Beijing.
Of course, we can guess where the carrier is headed. In all likelihood, the carrier is sailing south of Taiwan. It is following a pattern that the Chinese military employed last year during what was, at that time, China’s largest wargame since the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis.
Most of those who are paying attention to China’s military movements both around Taiwan and in the South China Sea believe that China is merely flexing its muscles, albeit in a big way. In response, the Trump Administration ordered a display of force: the B-52 bombers assigned to the U.S. military base at Guam, roughly 1,800 miles away from China, conducted an “elephant walk” wherein the bombers are lined up on the runway, ready to fly.
The implications of this move are clear: should China try any funny business with Taiwan, there is no guarantee that Washington will sit on its hands.
Of course, after this show of force, the Trump Administration ordered all B-52s out of Guam with no replacements being flown in. It is likely that this is because China has a missile they call the “Guam Killer” that could potentially destroy the entire B-52 force on the island should war erupt. Clearly, there are concerns about China’s growing hostilities since the COVID-19 pandemic spread from China.
The Trump Administration is merely replicating the pattern the Clinton Administration began in 1996. At that time, Taiwan’s citizens were set to vote in their presidential elections and a pro-independence candidate was likely to win. In order to prevent a pro-independence leader from gaining traction in a place Beijing views as a rebellious province waiting to be reclaimed, China’s military was deployed to intimidate the Taiwanese people. Salvos of missiles rocketed over the besieged island routinely and the Chinese military conducted mock invasion drills of Taiwan. It all ended when the Clinton Administration sailed two U.S. Navy supercarriers through the Strait of Taiwan, signaling America’s intention to intervene militarily to protect Taiwanese sovereignty. That move stopped the crisis from spilling over into armed conflict. Taiwan’s election proceeded unhindered by China.
China took a key lesson from that episode to heart: To reclaim Taiwan, it needed to divorce the American military from its defense of Taiwan.
In 1996, two supercarriers operating miles away from China’s exposed coastline were more than enough to get Beijing to back down. Today, this is not the case. The Trump Administration’s decision to elephant walk B-52s on the tarmac in Guam is an admirable attempt to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan. Ultimately, however, it will prove insufficient.
It also highlights American weakness in the Pacific.
Chinese leaders likely wonder why there were no aircraft carriers available. Oh, wait, that’s right: America’s two supercarriers assigned to the Pacific, the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Theodore Roosevelt are both out of commission because of COVID-19 outbreaks onboard. Chillingly, China’s carrier, the Liaoning, is now the only operational aircraft carrier in the Indo-Pacific at this time.
Not since the interwar period has the American military position in the Pacific been weaker—and the Chinese know it.
The Liaoning and its escorts likely are sailing south of Taiwan where they will rendezvous with a much larger force of Chinese warships that have been conducting naval drills in the South China Sea. They will practice how to maintain control of the sea during an invasion of Taiwan.
Everything that China does in the South China Sea is about sea control. And China desires sea control in order to better protect what will be their inevitable invasion of Taiwan. This was the purpose of China’s massive wargames last year. What’s more, southern Taiwan is likely to be the landing site of any Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Further, many analysts believe that the invasion force China plans on using against Taiwan will be moved into position under the guise of military exercises. Once in place, that exercise could quickly morph into a real-world invasion of Taiwan.
With both American carriers out of commission, America’s options for effectively deterring China are limited. Taiwan would only be able to hold out against an invasion for a relatively short period of time before they’d need U.S. military support. And as the United States plunges headlong into the worst recession since the Great Depression, Taiwan cannot rely on the Americans to come rushing to their aid to repel a Chinese invasion of their territory.
If President Trump is serious about maintaining deterrence in the Pacific, his best hope is to rapidly increase the size of the U.S. Navy’s submarine force operating there. Submarines would prove decisive in repelling any Chinese seaborne invasion of Taiwan—especially as the U.S. Pacific Command awaits the arrival of another supercarrier, the USS Harry S. Truman, from the Persian Gulf.
Reality has presented Beijing with a strategic opportunity to reclaim Taiwan when the Americans are down. Whether Beijing will take it or not remains to be seen.
President Trump, however, cannot let the Chinese make that decision. Therefore, Washington needs to disabuse China of its belief that the United States is weak. Otherwise, it will be open season on U.S. interests everywhere.