This opinion piece first appeared in the New York Times.
President Biden’s recent trip to Asia nearly went off without a hitch — until Taiwan came up. Mr. Biden was asked whether the United States would respond “militarily” if China sought to retake the self-ruled island by force.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s the commitment we made.”
It was one of the most explicit U.S. defense guarantees for Taiwan in decades, appearing to depart from a longtime policy of “strategic ambiguity.” But it’s far from certain that the United States could hold off China.
I have been involved in dozens of war games and tabletop exercises to see how a conflict would turn out. Simply put, the United States is outgunned. At the very least, a confrontation with China would be an enormous drain on the U.S. military without any assured outcome that America could repel all of China’s forces. Mr. Biden’s comments may be aimed at deterring a Chinese attack, and hopefully they will.
After a decades-long military modernization, China has the world’s largest navy and the United States could throw far fewer ships into a Taiwan conflict. China’s missile force is also thought to be capable of targeting ships at sea to neutralize the main U.S. tool of power projection, aircraft carriers. The United States has the most advanced fighter jets in the world but access to just two U.S. air bases within unrefueled combat radius of the Taiwan Strait, both in Japan, compared with China’s 39 air bases within 500 miles of Taipei.
If China’s leaders decide they need to recover Taiwan and are convinced that the United States would respond, they may see no other option but a pre-emptive strike on U.S. forces in the region. Chinese missiles could take out key American bases in Japan, and U.S. aircraft carriers could face Chinese “carrier killer” missiles. In this scenario, superior U.S. training and experience would matter little.
The need to project power across vast distances also makes U.S. forces vulnerable to China’s electronic and cyberwarfare capability. China could disrupt networks like the United States Transportation Command, which moves American assets around and is considered vulnerable to cyberattacks. China may also have the ability to damage satellites and disrupt communications, navigation, targeting, intelligence-gathering, or command and control. Operating from home turf, China could use more-secure systems like fiber-optic cables for its own networks.
Under a best-case battle scenario for the United States, China would attack only Taiwan and refrain from hitting American forces to avoid drawing in U.S. military might. This would allow the United States time to bring its forces into the region, move others to safety and pick where and when it engages with China.
If the United States did ever intervene, it would need regional allies to provide runways, ports and supply depots. But those partners may be eager to stay out of the crossfire.
I’m not the only one who’s worried. A 2018 congressionally mandated assessment warned that America could face a “decisive military defeat” in a war over Taiwan, citing China’s increasingly advanced capabilities and myriad U.S. logistical difficulties. Several top former U.S. defense officials have reached similar conclusions.
Mr. Biden’s remarks were made in the context of Ukraine, and America’s failure to prevent that war may be driving his thinking on Taiwan. Mr. Biden may be calculating that Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine will give China pause and that guaranteed U.S. intervention in a conflict over Taiwan would cost Beijing too much, even if it took the island.
But comparing Ukraine and Taiwan is problematic. Beijing views Taiwan — self-ruled since 1949 — as an integral part of Chinese territory since ancient times, a significantly deeper attachment than Vladimir Putin’s obsession with Ukraine. Reunifying the island with the mainland is one of the Chinese Communist Party’s most cherished goals, and China would see U.S. intervention as a bitter betrayal of the “one China” principle — the idea that China and Taiwan belong together, which Washington has acknowledged since the 1970s.
China’s military is bigger and more formidable than Russia’s, and its economy far larger, more resilient and globally integrated. Rallying support for economic sanctions against Beijing during a conflict — China is the biggest trading partner of many countries — would be more challenging than isolating Russia.
If so, then Mr. Biden should stop rocking the boat and focus instead on strengthening America’s position in the Taiwan theater. This doesn’t just mean more weapons for Taiwan and a more robust U.S. military presence in the region, though the former would help the island hold out if China attacked, and both would boost deterrence.
It also means shrewd diplomacy. Mr. Biden needs to stand firm against Chinese intimidation of Taiwan, while working to ease Beijing’s anxieties by demonstrating a stronger U.S. commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue. Mr. Biden should also persuade regional friends to provide more bases for the United States to use. This not only increases U.S. operational flexibility but also heightens deterrence.
Whatever Mr. Biden’s calculations, departing from the “strategic ambiguity” that has helped keep peace for decades misses the point. The main question for President Xi Jinping must be not whether the United States would join in, but whether China could beat the United States in a battle for Taiwan. Twenty years ago, China’s poorly trained army and largely obsolete naval and air forces had no chance. But that was then.
Many will applaud Mr. Biden for standing up for democratic Taiwan in the face of Chinese threats. But he could be putting the island in greater danger, and the United States may not be able to come to the rescue.