As China, Taiwan Tensions Flare, US Faces Shrinking Window to Deter Conflict
Experts say China has multiple options for military or coercive action in the coming years. Neither the US or Taiwan can prepare for all of them.
Even as China’s recent exercises near Taiwan highlighted Beijing’s growing ability to invade the small island nation, legislation working its way through Congress could help the United States arm Taiwan against such an attack. But there is disagreement in Taipei and in Washington about how best to fortify the island—and how much time they have to do so.
Last year, then-Indo-PACOM commander Adm. Philip Davidson said China might invade within half a decade. More recently, a former senior defense official called Davidson’s forecast too optimistic. “I am very confident that there is no real analysis behind that,” the former official told Defense One, adding an invasion or other major action is likely in 2024, when both Taiwan and the United States will hold presidential elections. Still, the most recent edition of the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military concluded that Beijing “appears willing to defer the use of military force as long as it considers that unification with Taiwan could be negotiated over the long-term and the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits.”
A Center for Strategic and International Studies war game, which Defense One observed Aug. 3, found that the United States can repel a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, but at a huge cost of military equipment and human life. During the first two weeks of a conflict that played out during the game, the United States lost an aircraft carrier, 10 destroyers, half a dozen subs, and scores of aircraft, in addition to the deaths of thousands of American troops.
The United States also quickly rolled through its anti-ship missiles in the first few days of the conflict, trying to wipe out China’s amphibious fleet and limit its ability to land troops and supplies on Taiwan. The Long Range Anti-Ship Missile made by Lockheed Martin was especially critical to the fight, but those playing the game quickly found they had run out. One participant said they would trade every U.S. ship for more missiles to cripple China’s fleet.
“It reaffirmed that we are in a real pickle with munitions, similar to the Ukraine fight, where we’ve seen seven years of Javelin production used in only three months,” said Mark Montgomery, a retired Navy rear admiral and senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies who also participated in the wargame. “We’re in the low hundreds [on LRASMs] , which literally could be expended in the first 24 hours of combat.”
Montgomery said he believes the military needs between 800 and 1,200 Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles, though he said the military also needs to invest in munitions more broadly, including Mark 48 torpedoes and shorter range naval strike missiles, and emphasized that at least some of those weapons must be forward stationed to cut down on transit time to the region if a conflict breaks out.
The military is buying between 75 and 88 LRASMs a year. The game on Wednesday, which was set in 2026, gave the U.S. 400 anti-ship missiles, which they used up during the first three and a half days.
“The beauty of this system is the Chinese know it’s good, I think they logically are concerned about it, if they can see production ramp up and the number of planes that can launch it expand…that’s deterrence,” Montgomery said.
But there are challenges to ramping up production. Lockheed Martin builds LRASMs on the same production line as the JASSM-ER cruise missile. While the company could expand its factory to be able to build both munitions at the same time, Montgomery predicted Lockheed is unlikely to invest the money required to do so without a multi-year commitment from the Defense Department to buy the platforms.
The focus of the legislation on Taiwan is simply getting them the tools they might use to thwart an invasion, similar to the way the United States is assisting Ukraine without putting boots on the ground (or putting U.S. ships in enemy crosshairs.)
The Taiwanese government is—officially at least—also focused on the land invasion scenario. That scenario is the focus of their so-called Overall Defense Concept, which seeks asymmetric capabilities to basically drive up the human and material costs of such an invasion, capabilities like missiles, drones, and mines, as opposed to conventional capabilities like jets and tanks.
“If all you're worried about is an invasion, then the best way to beat the invasion is to sink the [amphibious ships] as they come across the Taiwan Strait. And the best way to sink the [amphibious ships] is with mines, anti ship missiles, and those sorts of capabilities,” the former Defense official said.
Helping Taiwan fund its defense concept and acquire asymmetric defense capabilities is also the focus of the Taiwan Deterrence Act, sponsored by Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, and currently making its way through Congress, with a markup expected in September.
"The purpose of the Foreign Military Financing program championed by Ranking Member Risch is to encourage deeper defense cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries and accelerate Taiwan’s defense modernization and reforms,” a senate aide told Defense One. "Taiwan’s security environment looks very different now than it did 10 years ago, just because of the magnitude of the military modernization and willingness to use that military might by China. Taiwan’s military must adapt to this environment and the U.S. must consider whether the arms we are selling to Taiwan are truly conducive to a formidable self-defense capability.”
A similar bill from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., would also help fund asymmetric capabilities for Taiwan.
All that leads to the question: Which war scenario is the most likely? Experts believe there are four main possibilities. The full-scale military takeover of the main island of Formosa is certainly the most dramatic, but there’s also the possibility of an attack on some of the smaller islands, such Pengu, which could force a political crisis in Taipei. The former Defense official also suggested that China could attempt a series of coercive missile strikes to force Taipei to accept China’s reunification agenda. The official also outlined the possibility of a naval blockade without a large invasion.
On Thursday, retired Army general Jack Keene told the Heritage Foundation that he actually considers the naval blockade the most likely scenario. He described it as “A quarantine of sorts, but a formidable quarantine [that] would stop air and sea traffic going into Taiwan.”
Taiwanese defense officials say that the cut off in air and sea traffic around China’s weekend exercises to be a blockade but on Monday air traffic around the island appeared to be returning to normal.
Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said, “A lot of legislation moving through Congress is trying to do the right thing, which is to increase the resources that the U.S. and Taiwan are spending to address a variety of potential cross-strait scenarios.” But, he said, too much focus on one scenario could give China an advantage if it elects to pursue another against which neither Taipei nor Washington are well prepared. He said that’s a real discussion taking place now in the highest levels of government in Taipei.
“I think there's also this middle ground of people saying well, the [Defense Concept] was basically right, but we need to worry about non-invasion scenarios.”
Michael Hunzeker, an assistant professor at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government, has written prodigiously on the topic of Western military support for Taiwan and supports the asymmetric approach outlined in the Overall Defense Concept. He said a large part of the resistance to that approach within the Taiwanese government stems from the outsized role of some older ideas harkening back to the days of Chiang Kai-shek and the dream of retaking the Chinese mainland with jets, tanks, and conventional forces.
While there are multiple credible scenarios for Chinese military action, the Taiwanese people are unlikely to be coerced to give up their independence by anything less than a full-scale invasion, he said.
But that is not to say the Taiwense Army doesn’t need support—n addition to more missiles and naval mines. If the Chinese military does decide to take military action, the real battle for Taiwan won’t be at sea, but on the beach, Hunzeker said. “We find ourselves in a very terrifying position where the PLA has a lodgement and that really causes utter chaos in Taiwan. I think nobody will break the will of the Taiwanese people [except] like 10, 20, 30,000 PLA troops securely ashore.”