There is a debate raging on the Right about whether the United States could—or should—militarily defend Taiwan in the event China ever invaded the besieged island. It was only a matter of time before this question ensnared the Right, as there is a growing divide about what our policy should be. The occasion for the current controversy was a particularly contentious row between my colleague at the Asia Times, David P. Goldman, Michael Anton, and noted China hawk, Michael Pillsbury at the recent National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, Florida.
At that conference in November, Goldman and Anton made the case for why the United States should not commit its military to defending Taiwan. Pillsbury, on the other hand, argued the United States should be prepared for rushing to Taiwan’s defense—going so far as to label Goldman and Anton “appeasers.”
Goldman’s argument is more circumspect: the United States, he says, must get its own house in order before it risks a nuclear war with ascendant China over an ancillary strategic concern, like Taiwan. Anton, concurring with Goldman, makes a more technical argument: the Armed Forces of the United States is presently incapable of reliably defending Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. Pillsbury’s contention is that the United States is obligated to defend Taiwan both by treaty and out of necessity—i.e., if Beijing can conquer its region, it will inevitably expand into other regions of the world, such as America’s region.
Each of the three men is correct in his own way, which is why this debate has become so rancorous among the intelligentsia on the Right. This ongoing debate, however, misses the point. The greater question among U.S. policymakers ought to be: Why, now, does Beijing want to risk a wider war with Washington over tiny Taiwan? After all, the island democracy has existed apart from Communist China since 1949.
The reason for China’s sudden shift on Taiwan has to do with Beijing’s new capabilities. It took decades for China to catch up to the Americans in military capabilities. But now Beijing has mostly caught up with their American rivals—and China’s rulers want the world to know that they’ve got Washington’s number.
Beijing’s strategy for the eventual conquest of Taiwan is a classic example of upping-the-ante against a rival. It’s also a great example of how China plays “Keep Away” with America. China’s leaders understand that the U.S. military is a more dominant force than their military in a direct fight. So China’s leaders have spent years developing capabilities and tactics designed to keep the brunt of America’s military power away from China; isolating American allies in the region from our protective umbrella while upping the costs of intervention so much that Washington ultimately opts to abandon Taiwan rather than fight a costly war over the embattled island democracy.
China Denies America Access
Toward that end, China has built powerful anti-access/aerial denial (A2/AD) systems that can effectively keep the potent aircraft carriers of the United States Navy far enough over-the-horizon that they would be rendered combat ineffective (unless Washington wanted to roll the tactical dice with an $11 billion flat top staffed by nearly 3,000 young Americans).
Then there is China’s growing arsenal of counterspace weapons. China possesses everything from anti-satellite kill vehicles and co-orbital satellite swarms, to powerful ground-based lasers, all of which can debilitate or destroy critical American satellites in orbit. Should a conflict erupt over Taiwan, it is all but certain that Beijing will use these devastating weapons to render any U.S. or allied force that might threaten a Chinese invasion of Taiwan deaf, dumb, and blind.
Recently, China shocked the world with the successful testing of their hypersonic glide vehicle. A weapons platform that can travel at more than 3,800 miles per hour and can evade most U.S. air defense systems, these next-generation weapons can easily wreak havoc upon American or allied forces attempting to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Not only do the Americans lack reliable defenses against this new weapon but neither the United States nor its allies possess their own hypersonic weapon arsenal.
Meanwhile, the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) has revealed that Beijing has rapidly expanded their Mumian facility in the South China Sea, which is dedicated to electronic warfare (EW). This type of warfare is meant to attack and disrupt the critical signals and frequencies that an advanced military, such as those of the United States, Taiwan, Japan, and other modern militaries in the region rely upon. Further, China has proven adept at cyber warfare which could easily be deployed against the Americans and their allies should China decide to attack Taiwan. The point of these attacks would be to sow so much confusion and doubt in the minds of America’s leaders and people that they would not and could not militarily defend Taiwan from China.
And don’t forget about China’s growing submarine fleet. While no one in the Pentagon will publicly admit to it, it is likely that the recent USS Connecticut incident in the South China Sea was the result of the advanced US Navy Seawolf-class submarine colliding with a Chinese submarine that had been dispatched from Hainan Island to scare away the Yanks, who were attempting to gather critical electronic intelligence about the sophisticated naval base on the Chinese island.
For the record, should war between the United States and China occur over Taiwan, submarines, not aircraft carriers, would be the most important weapon at sea—and the U.S. Navy lacks enough of these ships. In fact, a year-over-year assessment of American shipbuilding capacity indicates that America cannot meet the peacetime requirements to maintain its submersible fleet let alone meet an increased wartime demand for these vital systems. China, meanwhile, churns new submarines out routinely and reliably.
A recent analysis by Graham Allison of Harvard University has concluded that any conflict fought near China’s shores would likely end in a strategic defeat for the Americans and their allies, because of the specific systems and tactics that China’s military has spent the last decade creating. As for Taiwan’s military, as I offered earlier this winter, should China decide to launch an invasion of Taiwan, without immediate—direct—military support from the Americans and their allies, the Taiwanese military would be unable to effectively repulse a full Chinese invasion of their island.
And who among us believes that any American politician would risk World War III over Taiwan?
What is To Be Done?
The solution, therefore, is not to get bogged down in the question of whether the United States should defend Taiwan. In my opinion, General Douglas MacArthur’s supposition that Taiwan is America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” off China’s coast remains as true today as it was when MacArthur made that comment. And, while the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 is purposely ambiguous as to the extent that Washington is required to actively defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, the fact remains that America’s overall alliance system will take a critical blow if Washington is seen by key allies as not doing all it can to protect its Taiwanese client.
What Uncle Sam must do is defer a military engagement with China over Taiwan for as long as possible. It must first invest the time and money into plugging the strategic gaps that have formed in its war machine—ranging from insufficient submarine units to frighteningly vulnerable satellite constellations to foolishly insecure cyber and electromagnetic spectrum capabilities. A total rehabilitation of the U.S. military must be completed before Washington risks war with Beijing over Taiwan. In the meantime, David Goldman’s suggestion of nation-building at home is apt. America’s war machine can only operate effectively if its domestic economy and infrastructure is strong. At present, they are not.
Once these reforms are enacted, the question of whether Washington should defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack will go away. Beijing, seeing the restored power of the Americans, will not risk wider war because their chances of victory in that conflict will have been greatly diminished. Some degree of the status quo can be restored, and relative peace will reign. But if Washington does not make the changes in its military capacity that I described in this piece, war will occur soon, and the Americans will be defeated—whether they decide to fight China over Taiwan or not.