There has long been heated debate over whether the United States should defend Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion, but little consideration to whether it successfully can. An unemotional assessment of the military capabilities of both China and the United States reveals the odds are uncomfortably high that the U.S. forces would be defeated in a war with China over Taiwan. What’s worse, even achieving a tactical victory could result in a devastating strategic loss. That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t alternative strategies to effectively preserve U.S. interests and at an affordable cost.
Few leaders in “establishment Washington” have taken the time to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the capabilities of the U.S. Armed Forces and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Instead, decisionmakers routinely engage in seemingly cost-free rhetorical declarations about U.S. political preferences devoid of context. Policymakers have long argued to jettison the idea of “strategic ambiguity” that has underscored decades of America’s Asia policy, and outright declare that the United States would militarily defend Taiwan in the event of an attack.
Former Pentagon official Joseph Bosco reflected the desire of many this summer when he argued that Congress should pass the Taiwan Defense Act because “it will move U.S. policy just one step short of an open defense commitment to Taiwan.”
If signed into law, the act would obligate the U.S. government to “delay, degrade, and ultimately defeat an attempt by the People’s Republic of China to [use military force to seize control of Taiwan].” It would be useful to stop and consider what those confident words would mean for America in practical terms on the ground, on and under the seas, and in the skies of the Asia-Pacific region. It doesn’t take long to realize it would be bad for the United States.
Any act or treaty the United States enters into should unequivocally have the net result of a more secure America, preserving (or expanding) the country’s ability to prosper. It is obviously not in America’s interest to tie itself to another state or entity if America must absorb all the risks and costs while the other party reaps the majority of the benefits. Extending a security guarantee to Taiwan fails in the first requirement and thoroughly meets the second.
Recent wargames jointly conducted by the Pentagon and RAND Corporation have shown that a military clash between the United States and China, especially over the Taiwan issue, would likely result in a U.S. defeat. In simulated wargames between the United States and China, RAND analyst David Ochmanek bluntly said America got “its ass handed to it.”
If China committed all-out to seize Taiwan, Ochmanek explained, then it could accomplish its objective “in a finite time period, measured in days to weeks.” The reason, he said, is because it’s not, “just that they’ll be attacking air bases in the region. They’ll be attacking aircraft carriers at sea . . . They’ll be attacking our sensors in space. They’ll be attacking our communications links that largely run through space.”
Perhaps the wargames underestimate America’s ability to counterattack or overestimate China’s ability to perform the operations. Perhaps America could eventually repulse China’s assault on Taiwan. Such a “victory,” however, would have a staggeringly high price for the country.
In addition to the cost to America in terms of lives lost, ships sunk, and airplanes shot down, the United States would then have the unenviable obligation to build a massive military presence on Taiwan and build up bases throughout the region to secure the country and prevent the next Chinese attempt to retake it. America would have to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on perpetually maintaining such defenses and constantly be at risk of a new attack.
Moreover, the geography would be a problem. Taiwan is roughly the same distance from the Chinese mainland as Cuba is from the tip of Florida; it’s almost six thousand nautical miles from Taiwan to the U.S. mainland. At a time when defense budgets are already causing more strain owing to the economic effects of coronavirus, it would cripple America were its defense budget to explode to cover a war with China. In short, losing a war with China would be catastrophic while “winning” a war over Taiwan would bankrupt America. Clearly, Washington needs a better way to compete with Beijing. Fortunately, there is a superior alternative.
The best way America can help Taiwan and dissuade China from using force is to encourage all the friendly countries of the Asia-Pacific region—not only Taiwan—to engage in a buildup of its own self-defense capabilities. China has famously hardened its defenses against the United States by means of anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) which would impose a severe cost on the United States for any attack against China. Taiwan should do the same.
Taipei should continue to bolster its defenses through an A2/AD strategy of its own so that the cost of forcible unification by China would be so significant—and ultimate success would not be guaranteed—that the Communist Party leaders in Beijing would not risk the potential loss. Even that, it must be admitted, would be no guarantee that China would never attack Taiwan. But for American policy, it doesn’t make sense to risk military defeat or financial ruin when our interests are not directly threatened.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after twenty-one years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.