Deterring Chinese aggression against Taiwan is realistic and must be the commitment of any U.S. leader who refuses to accept American decline. Americans agree that China poses a serious threat to the United States, but there is disagreement about the ways China poses a problem and to what degree we can and should do something about it.
China’s economic coercion, censorship, theft, and pernicious efforts to make America more like China, or at least make Americans of the view that there is nothing wrong with the Chinese Communist way, are meant to help China exert greater influence over U.S. business, trade, speech, religious expression, travel, medicine, etc. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) snuffing out of liberties in Hong Kong and its domestic repression make perfectly clear what the CCP values and what behavior, speech, and thought they reward and punish.
China’s growing influence over U.S. culture, sports, and big business leaders will not simply fizzle out on its own. Stopping Chinese domination will require determined U.S. leadership. To do what, exactly? To untangle our countries’ financial interdependence, to create significant disincentives for Americans to bend to the CCP’s preferences and demands, to reshore critical manufacturing, to revitalize American education in research and technology, and to reassert U.S. sovereignty and promote and defend the American way of life.
So the astute American who appreciates how badly this country needs highly motivated and sustained political leadership to support a renewal in our civic and democratic institutions will also appreciate that this national renewal necessarily includes competing with and at times confronting China.
China has become much more influential in international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization, in addition to private companies, because of the size of its economy and the strength of its military. China has been amassing a large, precise, and diverse arsenal of missiles and has practiced using them against mockups of U.S. ships and the bases the United States has in the region. China has also built a Navy bigger than ours. It has invested in cutting-edge space and cyberspace technologies.
As China grows in strength militarily and economically, relative to the United States, it grows in its ability to coerce and pressure the United States and our allies. As China scholar Denny Roy summarized in an essay, China’s hegemonic intent is increasingly hard to deny:
Equally obviously, however, Beijing pressures, corrupts and coerces foreign governments to act in support of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) agenda in various ways, including military intimidation, cutting off trade, bribing foreign officials, grey zone activities, harassment in contravention of professional norms, hostage diplomacy, cyberwarfare and collusion with other outlaw governments. The frequent result is Beijing forcing other governments to abandon their preferred course of action – to ‘suffer what they must.’
This brings us to the question of Taiwan. “Unifying” the vibrant democratic and capitalist Taiwanese island to mainland communist China is the CCP’s highest priority. China has been harassing Taiwan incessantly, trying to intimidate and cause to despair its population of 24 million, who have repeatedly voted to remain autonomous and free.
Reasonable and decent people agree that Communist China’s ongoing assault against Taiwan is unjust, and that China is the aggressor against the democratic island that just wants to be left alone. But the first step for the CCP to establish hegemony over Eurasia is to overturn the status quo and to absorb Taiwan — including by military force if necessary.
Adm. Phil Davidson, in his outgoing congressional testimony as head of the Indo-Pacific Command last spring, estimated that China would invade Taiwan in six years. Analysts now refer to this ominous prediction as the “Davidson Window.”
The debate over whether the United States should be concerned over Taiwan’s fate would be more constructive if people knew that successfully deterring Chinese aggression against Taiwan is technically possible. It is. This is not to suggest the steps necessary to deter Chinese aggression are easy; they are not. But the steps are eminently doable, and defeatism is unwarranted.
But whatever we are going to do to deter Chinese aggression must begin now and be sustained over the next several years and then for the foreseeable future. Presumably Chinese leaders have not attempted to forcibly occupy Taiwan up until this point because they are not confident that the cost would be worth the gain.
The job before the United States is to make sure they continue to draw this conclusion. Broadly, this will require the United States to lead a coalition (the Aussies and Japanese are on board) to credibly convince the Chinese that we would prevent China from getting across the 80 miles of ocean to the Taiwan Strait before it could launch a full-scale invasion.
First, arm and cooperate heavily with our allies. This includes Taiwan, whose officials and public opinion polls repeatedly show have the will to fight off CCP invaders. Taiwanese polling data over the past several years emphatically shows a willingness of the people of Taiwan to fight (almost 80 percent in a recent poll) despite CCP disinformation to convey the opposite.
Importantly, a leading Taiwanese analyst noted: “the more supportive the United States appears, the more confident the people are; when the United States is less supportive, the people then lean toward China.” But they need to spend a lot more money on their defense and they must buy the right kinds of weapon systems necessary to pose an asymmetrical threat. We should insist they do so, privately.
There are other good conversations going on now to collaborate with allies for “capacity building,” for example, stockpiling munitions in and with Japan. But Japan should also buy from the United States and field a long-range strike capability. That’s still politically fraught in Japan, but less than it used to be, as Japan stares down the proverbial barrel of a CCP gun.
Good things are happening without the United States, too, but our steady hand in the region is undoubtedly needed. (Japanese warships have cooperated with Taiwanese warships to get Chinese ships to back off Taiwan.) There is also considerable potential for basing Unmanned Aerial Systems in the nearby Japanese and Philippine islands and Guam with relatively small landing strips. Unmanned Aerial Systems with long-range strike missiles could be formidable against transport ships, for example.
Second, the United States must prepare to withstand and then prevail in a Chinese-initiated missile attack. This means working on defenses to limit the damage of an attack and deploy offensive weapons to respond with formidable combat power. This requires hardening U.S. assets with passive and active defenses.
The good news is we can get started on this now if we do not permit bureaucratic inertia to get in the way. We don’t need more government reports to tell us it would be extremely good to put a robust (not impenetrable!) missile defense architecture that includes the full spectrum of already developed missile defense systems on the U.S. territory Guam.
Guam will be critical for any U.S. effort to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific and to prevent China from dominating it. It also means investing in new technologies like hypersonic weapons and defenses and the attendant sensor and tracking architecture. Some of this good work is underway but it needs to move faster. Our testing programs should also move faster and more obviously demonstrate a real-world ability against a Chinese attack. It also means investing in underwater warfare capabilities — submarines, submarines, submarines.
Third, the United States must revitalize and update our nuclear deterrence so it disabuses a potentially dangerous Chinese misunderstanding that it would be wise to use a low-yield nuclear weapon against U.S. forces. Well-meaning idealists might wish that nuclear weapons and their deterrent impact have no role in contemporary geopolitics. But our adversaries do not share that wish. In 2017, China announced its intention to build a “world-class military by the middle of the century.”
To their mind, this clearly means they want to be on the same level as the United States — and Russia (which has far more theater nuclear weapons than the United States) in nuclear weapons. Estimates are that China will at least double its nuclear warhead stockpile in the next decade.
Because the United States has not invested in theater-range nuclear weapons, China has exploited this. As Dr. Christopher Yeaw, who was the chief scientist of Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC)and theDepartment of Energy’s lead official in the development and rollout of the 2018 Trump administration Nuclear Posture Review, has written:
In these wargames, adversary crossing of the nuclear threshold has been deemed by players as quite credible, given the paucity of reciprocal US deterrent capabilities and the minimized collateral damage afforded by such adversarial employment. US players have found response options to be uncomfortably insufficient or even non-credible, largely because of a paucity of sufficient prompt, assured, proportional NSNW capability.
To bolster deterrence in the China context, we should address the paucity and we should be fully modernizing and adapting U.S. nuclear deterrence — not weakening, restricting, or shrinking it.
China has imperialistic ambitions, and it is naïve to insist it is not so. But, like the United States, it also has problems. We should not permit defeatism to reign, thereby surrendering the next century to one where Chinese Communism is the most influential global power.
China’s pandemic-spreading, bullying, coercion, lying, and opacity generally, but especially during the last two years, has seriously harmed its global reputation and galvanized U.S.-led coalitions opposing it. We have ample reason to be encouraged that we can exploit China’s weaknesses while keeping clear eyes to the threat and necessary moves to fight for American preeminence.
The goal for the United States must be to prevent a war with China and to fight for American sovereignty. The goal is to deter aggression that could lead to further escalation. If deterrence fails, we should be prepared to outmaneuver and out-muscle China to cause them to back down.
War is always a tragic outcome — but it is sometimes not the worst outcome. We could simply let the Chinese Communists take democratic Taiwan and the rest of Eurasia while we focus on worthy domestic debates and crises at home; and when we are finished with those domestic fights, we will look up to see that our country is at the mercy of Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communism. It is not a good trade.
We can successfully take on our domestic challenges while deterring CCP domination, and in doing so, preserve and strengthen American security and the American way of life — and we must.
China’s military “will heavily attack U.S. troops who come to Taiwan’s rescue” if a war between China and Taiwan breaks out, a possibility that is increasingly likely as the Communist regime readies its war machine on Taiwan’s borders.
The latest threat to attack the United States during any standoff between China and Taiwan was issued Thursday in the Global Times, an official Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece that prints the regime’s propaganda. “It is credible that the [People’s Liberation Army] will heavily attack U.S. troops who come to Taiwan’s rescue,” the paper wrote. “Such credibility is increasingly overwhelming the deterrence that U.S. troops may have.”
China’s latest threat to escalate tensions with Taiwan comes on the heels of remarks by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who said the United States is prepared to counter an attempt by China to forcefully seize Taiwan and bring it back into the Communist country’s orbit. The long-simmering standoff comes as the Biden administration confronts Russian attempts to invade Ukraine, a situation that could also prompt U.S. intervention.
China has been threatening to take Taiwan since the Biden administration took office, leading the United States to bolster the island’s defense and warn the CCP against escalation. Thursday’s Global Times editorial marks one of the first times in recent memory that China has actually threatened to attack U.S. troops who might come to Taiwan’s aid.
“If Washington supports the Taiwan authority’s path of seeking secession and encourages the Taiwan authority to rely on it, then reunification by force will definitely happen. The more the U.S. and the island of Taiwan collude, the sooner reunification by force will come,” the propaganda outlet wrote.
Sullivan on Tuesday said in response to questions from reporters that the United States is out to ensure a forceful Chinese takeover of Taiwan “never happens.” The Global Times in its editorial responded directly, saying China will not back down from its reunification effort.
“Mr. Sullivan, please be advised to sort out your mind carefully and think about what bargaining chips you do have in your hands to intimidate the Chinese mainland which is determined to achieve national reunification and has various strategic tools to resist blackmail,” the paper wrote. “You will find your hands empty. Therefore, don’t have a big mouth, Mr. Sullivan, otherwise you will only create more embarrassment for your country.”
In December 1949, Chiang Kai-shek moved the capitol of the Republic of China (ROC) to Taipei. He intended the relocation to be temporary. He had already moved his government multiple times: when the Empire of Japan invaded China, when World War II ended, and again when Mao Zedong’s Communist insurgents took the upper hand in the Chinese Civil War.
To Chiang’s eyes, Taiwan was the perfect place to refit his tattered forces and prepare them for the long struggle ahead to defeat the Communists. The main island was protected by dozens of tiny island citadels, many just off the mainland coast, and surrounded by famously rough waters. While Chiang’s army had sustained crushing battlefield defeats and mass defections, he believed his superior navy and air force would make Taiwan an impregnable fortress.
The events that followed presented successive U.S. presidents with some of the most consequential foreign policy questions ever confronted by America’s leaders. During the decades since 1949, there have been several incidents that tested whether or not Washington was willing to confront the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and support Taiwan. If past is prologue, how the United States responded to previous crises might say something important about what it will do in the future. So, what does the historical record say? What might we expect to see if China attacks Taiwan in the 2020s or beyond?
The Korean War
On January 12, 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech in which he suggested that America no longer intended to defend its erstwhile allies the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Republic of China (Taiwan). According to Acheson, those governments were outside of America’s defensive perimeter in Asia. His speech encouraged the newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC) to accelerate plans to invade Taiwan. But before Mao Zedong and his generals could act, their North Korean ally Kim Il-sung launched an invasion of South Korea.
On learning of the attack, President Harry Truman decided that the U.S. would defend both Korea and Taiwan, and ordered the U.S. Navy to forestall the CCP from attacking the ROC’s last redoubt. On June 29, 1950, an American aircraft carrier, heavy cruiser, and eight destroyers sailed into the Taiwan Strait to conduct a show of force within visual range of Communist forces arrayed along the mainland coast. Soon thereafter, armed American seaplanes were stationed on the Penghu Islands and began to search for any hostile movements toward Taiwan.
To further enhance its early-warning picture, the U.S. sent submarines to monitor Chinese ports across from Taiwan, areas where enemy vessels were expected to marshal if an invasion was imminent. In addition, four American destroyers were stationed in Taiwan. Their mission was to patrol near the coast of China, with at least two warships watching around the clock for signs of a pending amphibious assault. The Taiwan Patrol Force, as the mini-surveillance fleet became known, operated continuously for nearly three decades to come.
Soon thereafter, the U.S. established a defense command in Taipei and sent a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) to Taiwan under the command of a two-star general. This organization was tasked with providing training, logistics, and weapons to the ROC military in order to develop it into a modern fighting force. By 1955, there were tens of thousands of American troops stationed in Taiwan, including over two thousand military advisors, making MAAG the largest of the U.S. advisory groups then deployed around the world. In the following years, MAAG transformed the ROC military into one of Asia’s most capable fighting forces.
The 1954–1955 Taiwan Strait Crisis
In August 1954, the Chinese Communists launched a string of operations against ROC forces along the mainland coast. Mao and his top lieutenants judged that by attacking the offshore islands they could drive Washington and Taipei apart and set the stage for a final invasion of Taiwan. They began by shelling Kinmen and Matsu, island groups located just off the coast of Fujian Province. Not long after, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched air and sea raids on the Dachens, a group of islands 200 miles north of Taiwan, near Taizhou in China’s Zhejiang Province.
In November 1954, the PLA encircled Yijiangshan, a ROC island base located at the extreme northern flank of the Dachens. Using modern equipment and tactics from the Soviet Union, the PLA carried out a successful invasion operation, taking the island on January 18, 1955. In response, the U.S. Navy steamed into the area with 70 ships, including seven aircraft carriers. The Americans then launched Operation King Kong, the evacuation of the Dachens. U.S. Marines assisted ROC forces to safely move some 15,000 civilians, 11,000 troops, 125 vehicles, and 165 artillery pieces back to Taiwan with no casualties.
On March 3, 1955, Washington formally cemented a mutual defense treaty with Taipei. President Dwight Eisenhower also received permission from Congress to exercise special powers in the defense of Taiwan, granted by the Formosa Resolution. In May 1955, the PLA stopped shelling Kinmen, and, three months later, the CCP released 11 captured American airmen. The 1954-1955 Taiwan Strait Crisis was over, but the standoff continued.
The 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis
On August 23, 1958, the PLA launched a surprise attack on Kinmen, showering the island group with tens of thousands of shells as a prelude to planned amphibious landings. Beijing sought to test the resolve of the Americans, seeing if the seizure of Kinmen and the threat of war could break the U.S.–ROC alliance apart and demoralize Taiwan. The plan failed almost immediately. ROC military engineers had tunneled deep into Kinmen’s granite, carving out subterranean bunkers and strongholds that allowed the defenders to weather the shelling with few casualties. The PLA made an amphibious assault on the nearby island of Tung Ting and was repulsed. To the north, Communist units launched artillery strikes against the Matsu Islands. But those were just as ineffectual.
The U.S. sent in four aircraft carriers, along with a large number of cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and amphibious ships. The American fleet was equipped with low-yield atom bombs, designed to stop a potential human-wave assault on the islands, a PLA tactic previously seen in Korea. After torpedo boats and artillery began to target ROC Navy ships resupplying Kinmen, the U.S. Navy began escorting the convoys from Taiwan with cruisers and destroyers. On September 18, 1958, American artillery guns were rolled ashore Kinmen, which were capable of firing tactical nuclear shells that could incinerate any invader (the shells were kept aboard U.S. Navy ships located nearby). The colossal guns also fired conventional rounds that increased the garrison’s firepower and morale.
During the crisis, ROC Air Force pilots used new Super Sabre jets and Sidewinder missiles to engage PLA MiG-17s in air-to-air combat. The results were decisive: ROCAF pilots achieved 33 enemy kills in return for the loss of four of their own. On October 6, Beijing announced a cease-fire under pressure from its Soviet allies, who feared the fighting could escalate and go nuclear. The 1958 Crisis was over and Taiwan’s offshore island bases remained undefeated.
The 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis
In the early 1990s, Taiwan began peacefully transitioning to a democracy. With the Cold War over, it seemed hopeful that the U.S. and other nations would recognize Taiwan as a legitimate, independent country. Taiwan’s president, Lee Teng-hui, publicly signaled that, in his view, the Chinese Civil War was over; Taiwan was now the ROC, the ROC was Taiwan, and his country would no longer claim sovereignty over territory controlled by the authorities in Beijing.
In June 1995, President Lee returned to his alma mater, Cornell University, to announce Taiwan’s plans to hold free and fair elections. The CCP responded by conducting a series of ballistic missile tests, firing rockets into the waters north of Taiwan. In August, the PLA moved a large number of troops to known invasion staging areas, conducted naval exercises, and carried out further missile firings. That November, the Chinese military staged an amphibious assault drill. In March 1996, just before the elections, the PLA fired more ballistic missiles into waters directly off Taiwan’s two largest ports, and implicitly threatened to turn a planned exercise into a real invasion operation.
The U.S. played an important role throughout the crisis. President Bill Clinton responded to Beijing’s provocations by sending two carrier battle groups to waters near Taiwan. The American demonstration succeeded: China backed down, and Taiwan’s elections went ahead as planned. President Lee won the elections with a decisive margin, and the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis ended on a positive note. Nonetheless, Taiwan remained diplomatically isolated and has slowly become more vulnerable over time, a trend that continues unabated to present day.
Implications for the Future
While all historical analogies are imperfect, precedents previously set could provide American leaders with a guide in subsequent similar circumstances. The record of past policy decisions made by Washington demonstrates that, when tested, American presidents have always viewed it in their nation’s interest to come to Taiwan’s defense, even amid situations that could have escalated to the level of nuclear warfare. In 1958, for example, Washington was resolved to defend Taiwan against invasion even if that required the use of battlefield atomic weapons—and even if such usage invited nuclear retaliation from the Soviet Union, which was then closely aligned with Beijing.
Perhaps even more notable were those American leadership decisions undertaken in the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. In that instance, the U.S. deployed aircraft carrier battle groups to waters near Taiwan in spite of the fact that the CCP had recently detonated two nuclear warheads at a test site; had carried out multiple tests of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles; and, in backchannel conversations, had implicitly threatened Los Angeles with nuclear attack. The resolve displayed by Washington in 1996 might be considered particularly remarkable given that the U.S. no longer diplomatically recognized Taiwan’s government at the time.
To date, there is no known case in which an American president failed to send forces to support the defense of Taiwan in response to a credible CCP threat. If this track record is indicative of future performance, the years ahead are likely to see the U.S. government continually improve its operational readiness to defend Taiwan in accordance with the evolving threat picture. In times of crisis, American leaders will likely send overwhelming national resources to the Taiwan Strait area and make their commitments to Taiwan’s defense more explicit in hopes of convincing the PRC to deescalate tensions.
Even barring a major political-military crisis, it seems probable that the years ahead will see the U.S. government improve its early-warning intelligence via regular ship, submarine, and aircraft patrols of the Taiwan Strait; more frequent overhead passes of space and near-space platforms; and expanded intelligence sharing arrangements with the Taiwanese security services. It also seems probable that the U.S. will make significant enhancements to its diplomatic, trade, intelligence, and military presence in Taiwan.
It remains an open question whether a Taiwan Patrol Force and MAAG-like organization will be reestablished—let alone an official country-to-country relationship and defensive alliance. But each could be considered past examples of political and military initiatives that, when combined, were successful in helping to deter CCP aggression. Herein we might find positive lessons for the future.