Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 27 January 2021


How the US can defend Taiwan

Taiwan air force flexes muscles after latest Chinese incursion

An F/A-18F Super Hornet takes off from USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea this week. Picture: US Navy 
An F/A-18F Super Hornet takes off from USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea this week. Picture: US Navy
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The Biden administration faces a stark reality: Over the next four years it’s possible that China will try to take Taiwan. For the first time since 1950, Beijing may reasonably think it has a viable military option to force what it regards as a renegade province to heel. President Xi Jinping has said Taiwan must be part of China — and has signalled he intends to do something about it.

The stakes for America are immense. Keeping Taiwan out of Beijing’s grip is crucial for denying China’s goal of attaining regional hegemony and eventually global pre-eminence. The island occupies a pivotal geographic position. If Taiwan falls, China would have the ability to project military power throughout Asia. Japan, The Philippines, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands would all be more vulnerable to China’s military.


U.S. military 'flexing' won't help: China

China's foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian is condemning recent U.S. Navy moves in the disputed South China Sea, which occurred as Taiwan reported incursions by Chinese air force jets.

The US has long opposed China’s belligerence toward Taiwan, and states in the region would read the US response to an attack as a bellwether of American reliability. Forgoing Taiwan’s defence would seriously undermine America’s credibility among already nervous Asian allies and partners. For these reasons, the recently declassified 2018 Indo-Pacific strategy specifically ordered the Pentagon to implement a defence strategy that will make the US capable of defending Taiwan.

But can America even defend Taiwan from a China that has become so powerful? The People’s Liberation Army is growing stronger at an astonishingly fast rate. The PLA Navy already has more ships than the US Navy, its air forces are the largest in the region, and Beijing also boasts the world’s largest missile force. Beijing seeks to reach technical parity with America’s armed forces by the 2020s, and surpass us by 2030.

Despite all this, the answer is yes. Defeating a PLA attack would be far from easy or cheap, and being ready to do so will involve wrenching changes in the US and Taiwanese defence establishments. But it is doable.

It would be harder than often appreciated for China to bring Taiwan to its knees. It is true that Taiwan is less than 160km off the Chinese coast. But to subordinate Taiwan, China would either have to invade and occupy the island or blockade or bombard it into submission. Any of these courses would be very difficult if China faced a sophisticated and prepared defence, especially combined with Taiwan’s resolute population that has watched Beijing bludgeon Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Taiwan sailors parade in front of the 'Feng Chia' navy frigate. Picture: AFP.
Taiwan sailors parade in front of the 'Feng Chia' navy frigate. Picture: AFP.

Invasion is Beijing’s cleanest option, especially a fait accompli that takes the island before the US can mobilise a sufficient response. In such circumstances, Beijing might gamble that Americans would judge the costs and risks of ejecting an entrenched PLA as too great. But to pull this off, China would have to ferry and sustain by sea and air an army large enough to seize and hold an island with 24 million people. This might be feasible if the PLA attacks a Taiwan standing alone. But taking a Taiwan backed up by a well-prepared US military is a far different proposition. Amphibious invasions against a capable, prepared defence are very hard.

To put it simply, defeating a Chinese invasion would require the US, Taiwan and any other engaged parties to cripple or destroy enough Chinese amphibious ships and transport aircraft to prevent the PLA from holding the island. For a country spending more than $US700 billion a year on defence, this is a tractable problem, if America focuses on it.

But the US must do four things, urgently. First, deploy an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system to monitor Chinese airfields and ports of embarkation, and to target Chinese invasion forces should conflict erupt. Second, buy more long-range munitions, especially antiship weapons, and position them in the region at sea and in places like Guam, Japan and The Philippines. This would help make the US ready to blunt the initial waves of the Chinese amphibious fleet and air-assault elements. Third, have powerful forces further back in the Pacific and beyond ready to reinforce those blunting forces. Fourth, routinely exercise these three components together to demonstrate to Chinese military planners that launching an attack would be unlikely to succeed.

The US can likewise handle a Chinese attempt to blockade or bombard Taiwan into submission. Especially with American support, the Taiwanese would be unlikely to buckle under such pressure, even if brutal, since the alternative is to be swallowed up by Xi’s China. This is especially true if Taiwan had stockpiled enough food, energy supplies and other essentials. A well-prepared US could also conduct a “Taipei sealift” to deliver the supplies needed to prevent China’s from strangling the island’s populace.

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Firm and resolute US action is necessary to prevent Asia from falling under Beijing’s hegemony. Cutting Taiwan loose would undercut Washington’s precious credibility in the region while uncorking Chinese power projection.

Ensuring that the US can defend the island will take focus and heavy investment from both America and Taiwan. But it can be done. And that will be a small price to pay to make sure China doesn’t get the wrong idea — with catastrophic results.

Elbridge Colby is a principal at the Marathon Initiative, dedicated to developing strategies to prepare the US for an era of sustained great power competition. He served as US deputy assistant secretary of defence for strategy and force development 2017-18

The Wall Street Journal

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