Since Taiwan’s democratisation over thirty years ago, the world has seen fit to promote a so-called “status quo” in which Taiwan’s friends pretend it isn’t a real country, while Taiwan pretends its problems will disappear, if given enough time. In this fantasy of failed strategy, China was meant to become peaceful, satisfied with wealth, amenable to Taiwan’s continued independence, and not at all a belligerent bully biding its time to wage a war Taiwan cannot win.
Yet here we are. As China’s routine warplane intrusions across the Strait wear down Taiwan’s air force, and its new carrier group performs sweeps near its coast, the military leadership of America, Japan and Taiwan are starting to speak more openly about the prospect of a Chinese attack on the island before the end of the Biden-Harris administration. Rightly so.
Unfortunately, there seems to be little understanding of just how desperate Taiwan’s situation is, and little appreciation of China’s likely tactics. Rather than defending Taiwan from a D-Day style attack, Taiwan and its allies need to be preparing for a possible coming blockade, one which will throttle the island over a period of months or years, and which will open the way to an air campaign that eventually compels the island’s surrender.
In years to come, likely using the results of a future Taiwanese election as a pretext, expect Beijing to announce that it will begin exploiting and enforcing its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around Taiwan in preparation for “unification.” This will quickly evolve into large-scale, organised penetrations of Taiwan’s seas by unarmed or lightly armed vessels, similar to China’s occupation of Whitsun Reef this year. Given the lack of conventional military force in these penetrations, Taiwan’s navy will be unable to stop them, as the use of deadly force will be politically impossible in the eyes of global opinion.
As Taiwan grapples with these quasi-raids, China’s navy will commence stop and search of ships entering Taiwan’s waters, releasing them only if they affirm Chinese sovereignty. Other navies, including the U.S. and Japanese, may attempt to secure their ships access to Taiwanese ports, but it will require an effort that is unsustainable.
Moreover, China will begin to employ ramming and obstruction tactics with specialized low-cost, high durability ships, before escalating to the employment of dangerous but non-kinetic weapons. For instance, Beijing could employ microwave emitters and sonic weapons—the kind already being honed against India. These will be invaluable on the seas and could cause the gradual collapse of international efforts to run the tightening blockade.
At this point, Taiwan’s allies will face a stark, binary choice: (1) Accept defeat and withdraw, leaving Taiwan to its fate; or (2) commence sinking Chinese ships. Option one, disturbing though it is, seems most likely. As Taiwan’s allies gradually abandon it and the foreign public loses interest, China will formalise its blockade by cutting off all access by air and sea. Should Taiwan’s military commence “kinetic” efforts to break the blockade, an air campaign will commence over Taiwan using the Chinese air force and its array of land-based missiles.
As Taiwan will be unable to protect its industries and infrastructure from attack or access outside help, the island state will wither, then belatedly accept a political solution that is tantamount to surrender. The only question is whether the Taiwanese will hold out for six months or three years. The outcome will not be in doubt.
But what about option two? What if an international coalition commences sinking Chinese ships and attempts to break the blockade? Firstly, politically speaking, it will be difficult to undertake option two. Western states are perfectly capable of bombing military weak states, however, such escalations against a major power are much harder. Partial proof of this comes in the meek response of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Russian aggression in the Caucasus and Ukraine, as compared to their actions against Serbia in the 1990s, or Libya, Iraq and Syria more recently.
Secondly, the primacy of Chinese land-based weapons and the curse of distance means the U.S. navy will never be able to sustain its fleet close enough to Taiwan. Not anymore. This isn’t the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. The sheer volume of missiles, drones, small ships and conventional aircraft that can be used by China in its region will likely overwhelm American fleets and island bases, all of which rely on air defence systems that have very little ammunition ready for immediate use. Even the newest Zumwalt class destroyers will be hard pressed to intercept more than a few dozen incoming targets, even assuming near perfect operation, and Chinese land-based weapons will replenish faster than U.S. sea-based systems.
Already, the United States has moved air assets away from Guam, knowing that it will not be a sustainable airbase when confronted by Chinese missiles. Kadena (in Okinawa) will be the same. Consequently, U.S. air power will have to fly from bases in Hawaii, the U.S. mainland or (possibly) Japan, dramatically lowering sortie rates and overburdening its refuelling capacity. And this assumes the F-35 stealth jet fighter and America’s aging fourth-generations airframes are even capable of sustained combat, which is doubtful.
In short, the Chinese military will not require anything near full spectrum operational parity with America to achieve its goal of isolating Taiwan. Its use of missiles, mines and drones will keep foreign navies occupied, whilst the sinking of just a handful of fleet replenishment vessels will drastically limit the time adversarial navies can stay on station. It will be Chinese victory through a form of logistical attrition—a whimper, not a bang.
Hopefully, this will not turn out to be true and Beijing will not attempt a blockade in the future. However, preventing this would require a drastic change in military-industrial planning that goes beyond Taiwan, and this is a change Taiwan and its allies simply will not make before the blockade commences and the whimpering begins. May no one else share the fate of those millions.
Dr. Simon Leitch is a former lecturer at Griffith University. His work focused on the rise of China in the post-Cold War world.