A Taiwan war is not desirable—at all

A Taiwan war is not desirable—at all


09 | 08 | 2022


For China It would not be easy to take the island, for the US it would be difficult to defend it without a permanent deployment in the area

In the image

Missiles launched from an unspecified location in China, August 4, 2022 [video footage from CCTV]

In a recent article for the US Naval Institute, professor and analyst James Holmes explains why the US needs to step into the South China Sea and pursue a permanent presence of its naval forces in the region. A shift from the come-and-go policy followed during the last decades in favor of permanently deployed troops in the area, he argues, would ensure China considers it twice before launching an invasion of Taiwan. Few weeks ago, after the US Congress President, Nancy Pelosi, announced the possibility of visiting Taipei while on her South East Asia Tour, many warned such initiative could trigger serious military measures by the government of the Chinese Communist Party. The government itself went on to confirm that “those who play with fire will perish by it.” And then the visit finally happened.

For many decades, the PRC has regarded Taiwan as a legitimate possession, trying to gain control over it and repeatedly using it as a pretext to extend its domain along the South China Sea. The government of Xi Jinping, who sees such environment as Chinese territorial waters, has been undertaking a serious modernization of its naval capabilities and technologies in recent years, transforming the navy of mostly coastal patrol forces into a dominant fleet. Additionally, China appears to have learned the concept of “island chains”, coined by John Dulles in the 1950’s. Applied against the USSR during the Cold War as part of the US containment policy, the island chains consist in imaginary lines drawn in the map by building military outposts in some of the islands of the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea; being then able to project power and restrict any unwanted access.

China has now adopted it as a key element of its maritime security strategy in the region, turning the waters between the Chinese coast and the second island chain into a region subject to grey zone operations (extending all the way to the Philippines, along the first island chain), where its coast guard ships and fishing fleet use ambiguous means to ensure China avoids a strategic encirclement by the US Navy. Chinese operations in the area are characterized by the refusal to abide by UNCLOS, while continuously harassing fishermen from the Philippines, crossing into territorial waters of countries such as Vietnam or Malaysia, and using the coast guard to block Philippine resupply ships coming in.

These tactics, when combined with the growing militarization of the surrounding islands using anti-ship ballistic missiles and other offensive weapons, has given rise to a tactical procedure known as the Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD). Using highly-advanced technological weapons combined with air and maritime defense systems, the People´s Liberation Army Navy (known as the PLAN) has managed to seize the control over its surrounding waters without the need to use military force. Instead, the fishing fleet and the coast guard patrol the waters and ensure their control without the need of mobilizing warships to the region (which would make China appear as the actual bully of the region). The success of this “modus operandi” developed by China has been facilitated by an occasional presence of the US Navy in the area, mostly in the form of Freedom-of-Navigation Operations (or FONOPs). As Holmes puts it, “they are not a deterrent to gray-zone aggression in any meaningful way. All they prove is that US ships can show up, drive through contested waters, and go away.”

Yet, China is still a regional power, a naval hegemon in South-East Asia if you will, but still in no position to contest the US for the control of the world oceans’—and it does not want to. The A2/AD provides China with the strategic and military superiority to secure its status. This, added to the fact that China has its entire navy based around the Chinese littoral, divided in 3 fleets (the Northern Fleet based in Qingdao, the Eastern Fleet based in Ningbo, and the Southern Fleet based in Hainan Island), provides a comparative advantage in case anyone decided to challenge the PLAN here.

The global responsibility that the US has across the seven seas cuts off its capacity in the South China Sea against a Chinese Navy, which, aside from being even bigger in number of assets (348 versus 296 at the end of 2021), can focus all its efforts in the region. Even having such clear disadvantage in terms of naval strength (China’s 3 carriers cannot compete with the 11 of the US, and the same happens with their anti-submarine technology), should a conflict break in the region, the mainland and its well-equipped anti-access warfare would turn it into a giant carrier, from where to launch missiles and aircrafts. This would translate into a heavy attrition war for the US forces, against a serious rival “playing at home”.

On August 3rd, immediately after the news of Pelosi’s arrival in Taipei, China began the mobilization of its forces to the proximities of the island. They fired several ballistic missiles into the waters of Taiwan at the same time the ships were organized into a large-scale military exercise to respond to the US offense. The missiles, identified by the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense as Dongfeng-class, were fired into the northeast and southwest waters of the island, at about 1.56 pm local time. To make matters worse, Japan’s Defense Minister went on to say that some of the missiles had landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This was just the beginning, as China proved the PLAN is no longer the coastal defense-based fleet from 1996, which had to watch powerless how President Clinton deployed the biggest naval display of aircraft carrier and amphibious assault groups in the region since the times of the Vietnam War. The situation has changed.

From August 3rd to 7th, in addition to the firing of missiles, China announced maritime drills of considerable scale, which took place around the entire island concentrated into six different zones (the drills were extended into the following week). According to the PLA official website, China always matches its words with deeds, and the countermeasures carried out under the Eastern Theater Command of the PLAN “are actually solemn deterrence against the collusion between the US and Taiwan.” Tan Kefei, spokesperson of the PLA Navy, insisted that the strategy used by both Washington and Taipei to use Taiwan as a containment for China “is doomed to fail.” His words reflect the doctrine extended among the entire Chinese population, by which the waters of the South China Sea legitimately belong to China, China acts across them as such; with any unwanted presence by US Navy ships (or any other navy in the world other than the PLAN) around those waters being considered a threat to national sovereignty and Chinese territorial integrity.

The intentions of the Chinese Navy behind the drills carried out around Taiwan have a clear deterrent component, to demonstrate the entire world that China is not a rival to contend with in the region. In the wordsof Chinese General Meng Xianqing, “it should be said that although this is an exercise resembling actual combat, it can at any time turn into a real combat.” Such a statement should not be overlooked, considering the fact that in the case of the 1996 drills in the Taiwan Strait, they did not enter into Taiwan’s EEZ; something which has not been the case this time.

Now, the possibility of naval confrontation between the US and China over Taiwan—or, at least, in the Taiwan Strait—has reignited a debate with an enormous amount of literature behind. Who would prevail if a confrontation broke between the US and China for Taiwan? The question has been reduced, put simply, to two essential positions: one arguing the US would come out defeated in what would be a bloody conflict, and other arguing that, should the US engage in an open confrontation with China in the South China Sea, it would have the strength enough to prevent an invasion and make China retreat. Holmes, on his side, argues that should the invasion take place, Beijing is more likely to strengthen its insurgent tactics by “by seizing outlying islands, conducting cyberattacks and economic warfare, blockading Taiwan, or establishing a quarantine as the US did against Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis.”

The economic warfare against Taiwan was one of the immediate responses taken after Pelosi’s visit, and although a quarantine may not happen, the display of power and strength that the drills intended to demonstrate is a concrete response to what China perceives as a direct provocation coming from Washington. Against the Chinese domain of those waters, the US is a destabilizer of that domain, with its destroyers and frigates sailing through their backyard. But contrary to 1996, the PLAN has the superiority over the US.  

The main reason for this, as mentioned at the beginning, is that the US lacks an essential element, central to attain the victory: actual presence in the region. And, although the partnership and cooperation with Australia and Japan strengthens its position, this absence hinders significantly their chances of a positive outcome. Combining the A2/AD strategy implemented by China in the region with the global responsibilities of the US Navy, which requires its presence in the entire globe, China has higher chances of success should an open confrontation erupt.

However, neverminded who would win in the conflict, both scenarios would inevitably transform into a bloody conflict, as has been already predicted. Having the two most powerful navies in the world competing for a relatively small island over a reduce theatre with the most sophisticated missile warfare to date and immense naval capabilities on both sides would result in a massive loss of life—hopefully so big that none of them is willing to reach such scenario. As indicated in an assessment from the US National Defense Strategy Commission back in 2018, “The US military would face daunting challenges in establishing air superiority or sea control and retaking territory lost early in a conflict. Against an enemy equipped with advanced anti-access/area denial capabilities, attrition of US capital assets—ships, planes, tanks—could be enormous.”

The recent controversy with Pelosi and Taiwan has again reignited the debate over a conflict that would not bring any positive results for the parties involved. Furthermore, it isn’t even what any of them desire. China has no interest at all in reaching an armed conflict and turning its water into a bloody scenario; and the US doesn’t have sufficient presence or naval capabilities to endure a conflict of such magnitude. The A2/AD remains China’s best asset, guaranteeing a difficult incursion for the US should it decide to do so. The PLAN, free of any major responsibility outside the East and South China Seas, would be the biggest rival the US Navy has come up with in several decades. As indicated by the US National Defense Commission, the US would face “a level of US national industrial and public mobilization not experienced since the middle of the last century.” Plus, going to war against the biggest economy in the world wouldn’t do much to improve the situation neither. China’s commercial influence with the Belt and Road Initiative and the String of Pearls along the Indo-Pacific coasts, upon which many economies in the world rely, could potentially suffer serious collateral damage.

Thus, in the light of the current economic and political crisis the world is experiencing, a war in Taiwan at one of the most commercially-active sea regions in the world is not desirable—at all.