In short, China's strategy would be to get an invasion fleet across the Taiwan Strait before the U.S. could come to its ally’s aid. “And once that happens we'd face an Iwo Jima situation,” Ochmanek said, referring to the small Japanese-held island in the Pacific that the U.S took in one of the most casualty-heavy battles of World War II. “Once Taiwan was occupied, the option of retaking it with an amphibious assault of our own would be very unattractive.”
Goldstein has likened an American commitment to defend Taiwan, of the sort that would be required by the proposed Taiwan Defense Act, to be a kind of Cuban Missile Crisis in reverse, a reference to the 1962 confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which ended when the Soviets backed away from its effort to put nuclear missiles on the island just 90 miles from Florida.
The overwhelming American advantage on Cuba then mirrors what Goldstein sees as an overwhelming Chinese advantage on Taiwan today – “vast conventional superiority” in a region of the world far closer to it than to the U.S., combined with “the wide recognition that the island's fate is a 'core interest' that united Chinese citizens behind the cause.”
China also seems aware of the comparison. A typical statement earlier this month in Global Times, the nationalist mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, put it this way: “The Mainland has many cards, including military cards, and it is very important that our will to play those cards at critical moments will be far better than Washington's.”
Other experts, however, believe that the situation is not quite as bleak as the war games would indicate, or at least that it can be remedied. They argue: 1) that the American deterrent even now is still strong enough to make China very hesitant to use force on Taiwan, and 2) that the U.S. can and should adapt to China's capacity with new weapons and new tactics that would enable the country to prevail if it did come to an armed confrontation.
According to most analysts, the key to defending Taiwan would require stopping China’s ability to transport a large occupying force the 90 miles across the Taiwan Strait. Chinese military publications are full of pictures of what such an assault would look like – hundreds of amphibious tanks landing on Taiwan's beaches, troops arriving on new landing craft called 075 units (now being built), and thousands of troops parachuting into the country at night. They have also been heralding the use of helicopters flying below Taiwan's radar to land advance troops.
Some analysts say that the U.S. could counter that threat by shifting from a reliance on aircraft carriers and long-range bombers to weapons such as stand-off missiles – that is, missiles fired from beyond the range of any Chinese attack, especially a new generation of long-range anti-ship missiles, or LRASMs, that can be fired from ships as far as 600 miles away.
A second component of a Taiwan defense would be space-based reconnaissance using artificial intelligence to locate enemy targets, which the LRASMs would hit; a third would be an American version of flooding the zone, with unmanned undersea drones that could fire torpedoes at Chinese landing craft.
“All of these things are doable,” Ochmanek said. “There's no magic here, no technological breakthroughs.” He estimates that the Defense Department could make the needed changes if it diverted about 5 percent of its budget— about $35 billion -- a year. Taiwan, he said, also needs to move away from the glamorous, showy weapons, like F-16 fighter planes, that it buys from the United States. “The F-16s are not going to get off the ground once the war starts,” Ochmanek said. “They need anti-ship cruise missiles, sea mines, mobile artillery, mobile air defenses, unmanned aerial vehicles.
“It comes down to sinking about 300 Chinese ships in about 48 hours,” he said.
Analysts believe Taiwan could spend more on defense than it does – currently about $13 billion a year, which is a small fraction of the estimated $225 billion to $260 billion that the mainland spends. But, they say, it already possesses sea mines and coastal missile defenses that could take a heavy toll on a Chinese invading force – assuming they aren't wiped out in an initial Chinese missile attack. It could shoot down helicopters with Stinger missiles, which the U.S. has agreed to sell Taiwan.
“What both sides can do is turn the sea and air space around Taiwan into a no-go zone,” Heath said. “China could do that, but we could make it very hard for any surface ship to survive near Taiwan, including Chinese transport vessels loaded with troops. That alone might stop an invasion.”
And if it doesn't? China would face the risk of a larger war with the United States, which might involve nuclear weapons and an outcome Beijing could not guarantee. “The biggest threat to China is that a regional anti-China coalition forms,” Heath said. “And so if the United States can succeed in building its alliances in Asia, that would be a powerful deterrent, because China can't afford to go to war with Asia.”
Others, like Goldstein, fully agree that China would be reluctant to go to war, but they argue also that if war should happen, it's unrealistic — indeed, Goldstein says it’s dangerously self-deluding – to think that the combined forces of Taiwan and the U.S. would prevail.
"I don't agree that all we'd have to do is sink 300 ships,” he said. “Chinese war planners would expect to lose a thousand ships. They would put 10,000 boats, ferries, barges and fishing craft into the water, with thousands of decoys, far more than there would be LRASMs or submarines to sink them.”
This first appeared in RealClearInvestigations here.