Actions by the US and Taiwan have pushed China to the edge of its self-declared “red line” regarding the use of military force to achieve the reunification of China with Taiwan. Recent high-level political visits by US officials, combined with an increase in the quantity and quality of weapons provided by the US for Taiwan’s defense, have Chinese authorities convinced that Washington is moving away from its long-held “One China” policy, and that Taiwan is moving toward de facto independence. In response, China appears to be preparing for a conflict that the US can neither deter nor win.
Recent actions by the US government, in concert with the Taiwanese government, demonstrate a growing disregard for the “One China” policy that has defined US relations with China and Taiwan since the 1970s. Instead, they place the US and Taiwan on a trajectory toward de facto, if not publicly stated, independence for the island territory. In response, China appears to be moving toward a decision on the forceful reunification with Taiwan, a deviation from its long-held stance that reunification should be achieved by peaceful means.
On Sep. 21, Chinese President Xi Jinping told attendees of a seminar on national defense and military reform that, when it comes to Taiwan, everyone should “understand the situation and the new task requirements,” and, ominously, “focus on preparing for war.”
Xi’s comments come after a period of military escalation following the August visit to Taiwan of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It also follows the publication of a new Chinese “white paper” on the issue of Taiwan, which removed earlier promises that, in the event of reunification, China would not station its troops on Taiwanese soil or dispatch administrators to oversee governance. Previous papers of this nature presumed reunification with Taiwan would be peaceful, hence the guarantees. It appears China is no longer presuming a nonviolent conclusion of the Taiwan issue. Additional clarity regarding Chinese intent should emerge during the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which opens on Oct. 16. Xi is expected to be re-elected as China’s president and to further consolidate his political power, a necessary precursor to any potential invasion.
While Washington continues to publicly profess adherence to its decades-old One China policy, US military officials are publicly speaking not only about the real possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, but, even more pointedly, about what a US military response would look like. Adm. Samuel Paparo, commander of US naval forces in the Pacific, recently stated bluntly that the US military would be able to defeat any effort by China to enact a naval blockade of Taiwan.
“They [China] certainly have got the number of vessels and the capability at sea to execute a blockade,” Paparo said in recent comments to the press. “The question that follows is: ‘Do the allies have the capability to break that blockade?’ And the answer to that is a resounding ‘yes,’” Paparo declared.
Another senior US military official, Gen. Clinton Hinot, deputy chief of staff of the Air Force, told a recent conference of the Atlantic Council that the US was ready to “attack the channels and supply centers of the [People’s Liberation Army] in case of maneuvers against Taiwan,” in order to “complicate” the logistical support of the Chinese army. “I hope,” Clinton declared, “that our potential adversary China will think about it.”
The optimism of Adm. Paparo and Gen. Hinot is not seemingly shared by their colleague, Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps. In his recent “commandant’s guidance,” Berger acknowledged that assumptions about the traditional supremacy enjoyed by the US Navy must be altered given “the proliferation of anti-access/area denial [A2/AD] threat capabilities in mutually contested spaces,” where “massed naval armadas” would be confronted with “precision long-range fires, mines and other smart-weapons.”
Berger’s cautious analysis seems to contradict the optimism of Paparo and Hinot. Moreover, his position is bolstered by military analysts at the Rand Corp. who, with the Naval War College, conduct an annual war game pitting the US against China in a fight over Taiwan. In almost every case — the exception being games where Chinese capabilities have been unrealistically degraded, and US capabilities artificially inflated — China captures Taiwan within two weeks, inflicting massive casualties on any intervening US force.
The National Interest reported in 2020 that according to analysts participating in these war games, “the days of unfettered American military superiority in the Western Pacific are over,” with China’s mastery of A2/AD threatening to “prevent American forces from being able to penetrate anywhere near Taiwan once a war there started.”
“The casualties that the Chinese could inflict on us could be staggering,” said Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at Rand and formerly a China analyst at the US Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, according to the National Interest. “Anti-ship cruise missiles could knock out US carriers and warships; surface-to-air missiles could destroy our fighters and bombers.”
Lessons From Ukraine
Hovering over the China-Taiwan crisis is the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. One of the takeaways from that conflict, from the perspective of the US, is the need to prepare Taiwan for both the probability and reality of war. Indeed, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Miley, is reported to have privately advised his Taiwanese counterparts to arm all of Taiwan’s combat-age male population ahead of any Chinese invasion, so that a mass mobilization could be achieved regardless of any Chinese actions designed to disrupt this.
Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US believed that China would not be prepared to carry out a major military assault on Taiwan until 2027. Now, US assessments have been moved forward to include a potential 2024 time frame. Key to such an assessment is the confluence of world vision between Russia and China, first articulated during the meeting between Xi and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Beijing in February.
The escalation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, including the provision of billions of dollars of Western military and financial assistance, has only hardened China’s support for Russia. The Chinese have declared that, from their perspective, the US and Nato had threatened “the lives of Russian citizens” by “expanding directly on Russia’s doorstep,” leading to — and justifying — Russia’s “resolute response.” China, senior officials have said, “understands” the Russian position, and is actively coordinating with Russia.
Russia, for its part, has indicated its full support for China over Taiwan, with the implication that Russia would not oppose any Chinese military intervention and could support China in the event of any US military response. Recent joint air and naval patrols by Russian and Chinese forces in the Pacific appear to underscore this.
Increasingly, the question no longer appears to be whether China will invade Taiwan, but when. If China does invade, it seems unlikely that the conflict would last more than a month — or that the US could do much to alter this outcome.
Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer whose service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on the staff of US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.