Taiwan war will be a game of denial between US and China

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President Xi Jinping’s sees China-Taiwan reunification as a “historic inevitability”. In his public statements and meetings with United States (US) President Joe Biden, he has made his objective starkly clear and warned against American interference.
China has staged two major war games in the last one-and-a-half years around Taiwan, with one simulating attacks, using precision strikes, blockades and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) sorties.
Chinese fighters and bombers increasingly cross the Taiwan Strait’s median line to do joint combat readiness patrols with the PLA Navy (PLAN). China’s aircraft carrier Shandong sailed through the Strait in December. Though an alarmed America has slammed such intrusions, it sticks to its ‘One China’ policy.
The threat of China occupying Taiwan by force is real and can’t be ignored, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
If Donald Trump is re-elected, China could attack Taiwan considering his non-interventionist policy. If Biden returns, the danger remains as the US will be reluctant to open a third front in Taiwan after the Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars.
However, wars are unpredictable, and an American involvement in Taiwan can’t be completely ruled out. A direct conflict with nuclear-armed China will have catastrophic consequences for both nations. To avoid such an escalation, America needs an effective war strategy that ends in victory without an escalation.
In a February report titled ‘US Military Theories of Victory: For a war with the People’s Republic of China’, the RAND Corporation lists five theories of a US victory over China in a hypothetical war:
Dominance: To use brute force to incapacitate China. However, it’s not possible considering China’s retaliatory power, nukes and superior missiles.
Denial: To convince China that it lacks the means to take Taiwan by destroying its sea and airlift assets. But it requires sufficient power to blunt an invasion and the risk of escalation persists.
Devaluing: To convince China that the benefits of taking Taiwan are too small by, for example, by destroying Taiwan’s semiconductor industry. However, China’s political interests in Taiwan and the American political obstacles to harming a partner make the option unviable.
Brinkmanship: To convince China that the future cost of fighting for Taiwan may become intolerably high by threatening escalation, like using nukes. This option is also impractical as China can retaliate with its nuclear arsenal.
Cost imposition: To use military instruments, like distant blockade of Chinese maritime trade at chokepoints or strategic air attacks, to persuade China that the costs of continuing the war outweigh the benefits. But the US must find and target pressure points at “a sufficient speed”. This will unlikely generate pressure quickly enough to stop a fait accompli.
According to RAND, the best options are denial, military cost-imposition, or a mix of the two. However, denial by a proxy war with China—like the military aid to Ukraine—entails a lower escalation risk but has “lower odds of operational success”. Besides, it could lead to a direct war due to deliberate, inadvertent or accidental escalation.
The report opts for direct denial as the best option considering China will plan an amphibious assault. The US can target such routes using its attack submarines and long-range precision strikes. Though PLAN is the largest navy, the US has more capable carriers, cruisers and destroyers.
Moreover, America has more advanced and capable fourth- and fifth-generation fighters than China. Since China can target US bases of Guam (Western Pacific) and Diego Garcia (Indo-Pacific) with its long-range missiles and bombers, Washington introduced the Agile Combat Employment doctrine in 2022 to park combat jets in several small and dispersed bases.
“Attempting a more difficult denial campaign might still yield better odds and introduce fewer risks than resorting to military cost imposition,” the report adds.
Obstacles China will face in a Taiwan invasion
Before examining the feasibility of the denial theory, it’s essential to discuss the challenges China will face in a Taiwan invasion. In a January report, the American think tank Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) lists the challenges.
First, considering the “choppy” Taiwan Strait, which is around 160 km wide, the report assumes an amphibious assault with Chinese ships transporting hundreds of thousands of soldiers for weeks, which will make them vulnerable to Taiwanese missiles.
Second, Chinese ships would be anchored far from Taiwan because the west coast has shallow waters and few deep-water ports and beaches. The east coast’s cliffs are too steep to climb and Taiwanese forces could launch guerilla attacks. The PLA will be exposed to mines, anti-landing spikes and mobile missile launchers.
Third, China will find it challenging to seize Taipei and depose the government because it is surrounded by mountains with few routes. According to CFR, Taiwan could destroy its major port, tunnels and highways leading into the Capital.
Fourth, China will have to wage urban warfare to seize Taipei, which has a population of seven million. “Taiwan’s population of 24 million people is packed into dense urban areas … To conquer Taiwan, China would therefore be forced into urban combat, fighting street by street.”
Denial theory assumptions could go wrong
First, since it’s a hypothetical war, conclusions are drawn based only on assumptions which could go horribly wrong. The US assumption about a Chinese war strategy and attack could be entirely different from the one Beijing will use.
According to CFR, China would have to conduct an “extraordinarily complex military operation synchronising air, land and sea power as well as electronic and cyberwarfare”.
What prevents China from conducting such an operation? Nothing.
China sent warplanes and warships near Taiwan several times in the last four years to prepare for an integrated joint attack.
In February, 14 PLAAF jest carried out joint combat readiness patrols with PLAN. In January, 23 Chinese jets did “joint combat readiness patrols” with warships. In December, J-10, J-11 and J-16 fighters and an AWACs aircraft were detected over Taiwan.
The PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) will combine space, cyber, electronic and information operations to disrupt, paralyse or destroy both Taiwanese and American military and civilian structures before an invasion. It will be a platform-integrated war with PLA Ground Force, PLAN, PLAAF, PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) and PLASSF networked closely.
In May 2023, Chinese hackers infiltrated the computer networks on Guam, the closest American military base housing 20,000 US military personnel at the Naval Base and the Andersen Air Force Base. State-sponsored Volt Typhoon hacked American servers undetected to hibernate and strike “communications infrastructure between the US and Asia during future crises”, like a war with Taiwan.
Chinese cyberattacks on Taiwan have risen sharply since 2023. According to US-based cybersecurity firm Trellix, cyberattacks jumped from 1,758 on January 11 to more than 4,300 on 12 January, a day before the elections.
Last year, Google tracked around 100 hacking groups that targeted Taiwanese government, private and defence organisations. Microsoft found that state-sponsored Flax Typhoon targeted organisations in telecom, education, energy and information technology.
Therefore, China can conduct a synchronised war using its air, land, sea, electronic and cyberwarfare capabilities. Increasing cyberattacks against the US and Taiwan and joint combat patrols are a proof of China’s strategy.
In a 2023 report titled ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China’, the US department of defence (DoD) said: “The PLA has sought to modernise its capabilities and improve its proficiencies across all warfare domains so that, as a joint force, it can conduct the full range of land, air, and maritime as well as nuclear, space, counterspace, electronic warfare and cyberspace operations.”
Second, both RAND and CFR assume that China will launch an amphibious assault on Taiwan, and Chinese aircraft and ships transporting troops to its coast would be vulnerable to US attacks.
RAND’s denial option assumes that the US will only need to deny China local air and sea control for the invasion to succeed. China’s “reliance on scarce air and sealift platforms to transport troops and supplies to Taiwan creates a bottleneck in PLA operations that the United States can exploit”.
What are the chances of a Chinese amphibious assault and the success of a US denial? It’s a hypothesis.
The US would have to launch air attacks from its bases on Guam, Diego Garcia and probably Japan and South Korea and aircraft carriers in the South China Sea (SCS) to deny a Chinese invasion.
In that scenario, US carriers and bases will also be exposed to China’s long-range missiles. RAND admits that the “PLA has strong operational incentives to attack US military forces even on American soil, especially in Guam and Hawaii, to make it harder for the US to attack PLA invasion forces near Taiwan”.
Even America realises the lethality and range of Chinese missiles. The US ended its 16-year-old Bomber Assurance and Deterrence mission on Guam, which housed the B-52s, B-1s and B-2s, in 2020. China’s DF-26 IRBM, or the ‘Guam Killer’, can destroy the bombers before they take off from the base. Besides, the PLAAF’s H-6K bomber can fire Changjian-20 cruise missiles at Guam.
In 2020, three B-2 bombers were deployed on Diego Garcia for the first time since 2016. Six months earlier, six B-52s were redeployed on the atoll. The two deployments were done after it was reported that the PLAN was planning a live-fire training drill 545 km north of Taiwan near the Zhoushan Islands. In 2021, the US deployed B-1s on Diego Garcia for the first time in more than 15 years after China launched air drills near Taiwan and a joint naval exercise with Russia in the Sea of Japan.
However, China can strike every American military base in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean, including Guam, Diego Garcia, Japan, South Korea and Australia.
The PLARF has the biggest and the most varied stockpile of land-based, cruise and anti-ship missiles numbering more than 2,000—mobile ground-launched SRBMs, MRBMs and IRBMs, ICBMs and ground-launched cruise missiles.
Using DF-21 MRBM’s ASBM variant, China can target ships, including aircraft carriers, in the Western Pacific from mainland China. The DF-26 can rapidly swap conventional and nuclear warheads and conduct precision land-attack and anti-ship strikes in the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean and SCS from mainland China.
The DF-31A and DF-41 ICBMs can reach most locations in the US. The DF-41, which can carry 10 independently targeted nuclear warheads, could theoretically hit the US in 30 minutes, per the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Similarly, US bases in Japan are within the striking range of DF-21s and the CJ-10 land-based cruise missile.
A day after an American U-2 spy plane allegedly entered a no-fly zone in SCS in August 2020, Beijing fired the DF-21 ‘carrier killer’ version DF-21D and the DF-26—which has a ‘carrier killer’ version called the DF-26B—as warnings to USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan and Guam respectively.
Such capabilities would allow China “to threaten conventional strikes against targets in the continental United States, Hawaii, and Alaska”, the DoD report reads.
Third, China is aware of the superiority of American carriers and warplanes. The US has 11 carriers while China has only 2 with the third one awaiting trials. Therefore, Beijing made rapid technological advancement and investment in missile development in the last several years to target adversaries on land and sea and in air.
The 1987 US-Soviet Union Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty banned deploying missiles ranging from 500-5,500 km. Trump withdrew from the treaty in 2019 citing “non-compliance” by Russia and the rapid Chinese missile development. It was too late and China took advantage.
China has eight operational ICBMs/SLBMSs and one under test and development while the US has only two, the Minuteman III and Trident II. America is developing an ICBM called the LGM-35A Sentinel but it will be operational in 2029.
According to the Federation of American Scientists, China has more ICBM silos than the US with 450 as of October 2022—an increase of 350 launchers in only three years.
China is also ahead of the US in developing next-generation hypersonic missiles, which are more manoeuvrable, evasive and quicker. They don’t follow a set trajectory and can manoeuvre midway to their target. Both the DF-17 MRBM and DF-41 have hypersonic glide vehicles.
According to a February Congressional Research Service report , former undersecretary of defence for research and engineering Michael Griffin testified to Congress that the US doesn’t have defences against such Russian and Chinese missiles. “Hypersonic targets are 10 to 20 times dimmer than what the US normally tracks by satellites in geostationary orbit,” he said.
The DoD believes that China is developing a new conventional ICBM that will leave the atmosphere, re-enter and descend towards its target at Mach-20.
Besides, the success rate in shooting down ICBMs is very low due to their higher altitudes and countermeasures, according to US missile experts and defence officials. The current US missile defence system has been tested only 19 times since 1999 with only a 50 per cent success rate.
In February 2021, the American Physical Society released a study called ‘Ballistic Missile Defence: Threats and Challenges’, which focused on hypothetical strikes by North Korean ICBMs against the US. The “current capabilities are low and will likely continue to be low for the next 15 years”, the study found.
“No missile defence system has been shown to be effective against realistic ICBM threats,” the study reads. “It has been described as shooting a bullet with a bullet trying to hit a warhead,” Laura Grego, a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the study’s co-author, said.
Therefore, China’s use of hypersonic missiles against US bases or carriers and a synchronised military operation will make the RAND’s denial option unviable. Instead, it will deny US intervention in the first place.
The DoD report found that China is aggressively developing capabilities to “dissuade, deter, or, if ordered, defeat third-party intervention in the Indo-Pacific region, and to conduct military operations deeper into the Indo-Pacific region and globally”.
“The PRC’s counter-intervention strategy aims to restrict the United States from having a presence in the East and South China Sea regions and increasingly to hold at risk US access in the broader Indo-Pacific region.”
China will use long-range precision strikes and its “integrated” and “robust” air defence system that relies on an extensive early warning radar network, fighter aircraft and a variety of SAM systems. Besides, China’s radars and air defence weapons on outposts in the SCS further extend the range of its air defence system.
China will probably launch a massive, crippling cyberattack on US and Taiwanese military and civilian infrastructure before striking them with missiles and also destroy US carriers and bases to prevent an American denial. Subsequently, it will launch an amphibious invasion.

 

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