A US-China War Over Taiwan?

A US-China War Over Taiwan?

There are few barriers to nuclear escalation.


What will happen when China invades Taiwan, as so many in Washington believe is inevitable? To answer that question, the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, an entity created at Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s behest in February, conducted a “tabletop exercise” involving a simulated attack of this sort on April 19. No official report on the closed-door exercise has been made public, but participants indicated that the outcome of such an encounter would prove catastrophic for all parties involved. Committee members were confronted “with the potential for death and destruction on scales that haven’t been seen in decades,” reported one game-player. What hasn’t been reported, however, is that any such engagement would almost certainly brush up against the nuclear threshold—and very likely cross it.

Of course, there is no reason to assume that China will invade Taiwan, thereby incurring that apocalyptic risk. Nevertheless, Chinese officials have asserted their right to employ force to prevent “separatist elements” on the island from severing ties with the mainland, and recent Chinese military exercises—many conducted in the days following Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s April 5 visit with Speaker McCarthy in California—suggest elaborate planning for such an endeavor. Whether or not these moves suggest a genuine intent to employ force, US defense policy has largely coalesced around plans to defend the island should Beijing actually mount an invasion. Accordingly, a US-China conflict over Taiwan has become a very real possibility—and this, in turn, has led to growing concern over the possible outcomes of such a clash.

In considering such a scenario, it is natural to assume that a conflict over Taiwan would look something like the ongoing war in Ukraine, with the Taiwanese fighting off the Chinese as the Ukrainians have been fighting off the Russians. But this would be misleading. The war in Ukraine has largely devolved into a brutal ground conflict, with each side fighting to take or hold key swaths of territory and the United States limiting its involvement to the supply of arms, training, and intelligence. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan, however, would look very different, involving giant air and sea battles and, in all likelihood, immediate US intervention—indeed, President Biden has said as much on four separate occasions. The resulting melee, involving hundreds of warplanes on each side and dozens of major warships, is sure to produce vast numbers of casualties and generate enormous escalatory pressures.

In anticipation of such an encounter, both the United States and China have greatly enhanced the combat capabilities of their respective air and naval forces, replacing older ships and planes with more modern and capable systems. Japan, another likely participant in a US-China war over Taiwan, has bolstered its own well-equipped military—deceptively called the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF)—and recently announced plans to double its defense spending.

All of these countries, moreover, have invested vast sums in the acquisition of long-range precision-guided missiles designed to attack enemy ships, ports, airfields, and other high-value targets. China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has accumulated a force of approximately 700 short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missile launchers, capable of reaching Taiwan, Japan, and US bases in the Pacific, including the key US air and naval base on Guam. The United States, for its part, has equipped its ships and submarines with hundreds of Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles, capable of striking coastal sites in China from hundreds of miles offshore. The large-scale use of such weapons at the onset of any US-China conflict is certain to result in massive losses on both sides, with many ships lost and other targets decimated.

War-Gaming the Outcome

To gain some understanding of how a war between these well-equipped forces might turn out, two Washington-based think tanks, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), conducted simulations of such an encounter in 2022. In each case, a group of experienced analysts and former government officials assumed the role of senior Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, and US policy-makers. The findings from both organizations are highly informative, but those from CNAS are particularly revealing as they served as the basis for the House committee’s simulation on April 19. For those of us without access to classified information, these results provide the best possible indication of what we might expect from a US-China war over Taiwan.

Both the CNAS and the CSIS simulations rest on the same basic assumptions: At some point in the future, say in 2026 or 2027, Chinese leaders conclude that Taiwan is about to declare its independence and so choose to invade the island to prevent that from happening. To accomplish this, the Chinese conduct massive air and missile strikes on the island accompanied by an amphibious assault aimed at seizing a beachhead on Taiwanese soil. Also, in anticipation of US and Japanese countermoves, they bomb US air bases in Japan and fire multiple missiles at US warships in the region. In response, the Taiwanese strive to contain whatever beachhead the PLA is able to establish on the island while the US and Japan try to impede the PLA assault by attacking Chinese ships, ports, missile launchers, and air bases.

This is a type of struggle in which ultimate victory largely depends on one’s success in destroying the enemy’s key assets quickly, before they can be brought to bear on the fighting. Hence, the prime US-Taiwan objective will be to sink as many Chinese amphibious vessels as possible in the first days of combat, while the top Chinese objective will be to degrade US airpower through attacks on US air bases and aircraft carriers. With both sides firing thousands of precision-guided missiles at the other, the losses for each are bound to be enormous.

This is a scenario in which there can be no winners. In all of the iterations of the exercise conducted by both organizations, China fails to capture Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, in the first few weeks of combat, yet the island suffers immense death and destruction and all other parties to the conflict sustain severe losses. In most encounters, “the Chinese invasion quickly founders,” CSIS said of its simulations. Despite massive Chinese air attacks, Taiwanese forces manage to prevent PLA forces from moving beyond their beachhead while US bombers and submarines—aided by JSDF assets—rapidly cripple China’s amphibious fleet, leaving any surviving PLA forces in Taiwan stranded.

Yet “this defense comes at a high cost,” the CSIS project team concluded. “The United States and Japan lose dozens of ships, hundreds of aircraft, and thousands of service members.” Two US aircraft carriers are damaged or destroyed, with hundreds of casualties on each. “Such loses,” CSIS concluded, “would damage the US global position for many years.” While Taiwan’s military survives, “it is severely degraded and left to defend a damaged economy on an island without electricity and basic services.” China also suffers mightily: “Its navy is in shambles, the core of its amphibious fleet is broken, and tens of thousands of soldiers [stranded on Taiwan] are prisoners of war.”

The CNAS team, using a different game model, reached essentially the same conclusions. Here, too, China succeeds in seizing a beachhead on the Taiwanese coast but is unable to deliver sufficient strength to seize Taipei or force a Taiwanese surrender. Similarly, while the US and Japan succeed in destroying large numbers of PLA ships and planes, they, too, incur heavy losses. As a result, the conflict reaches a stalemate after the first weeks of combat and all key players are forced to consider an existential decision: whether to engage in a protracted war with no clear outcome, seek a negotiated settlement satisfactory to no one, or escalate.

The Escalation Option

Simulations like these typically do not account for the internal calculations of senior policy-makers or the political pressures they are routinely subjected to. But in a situation like this, such considerations cannot be ignored. So consider this: Having staked his legacy and leadership on bringing Taiwan under Beijing’s authority, how might President Xi Jinping react if faced with a failed Chinese assault on Taiwan or the prospect of a protracted war with continuing high casualties? Or, for that matter, how would a President Biden (or a President Trump, or any conceivable alternative) react if faced with the loss of two US aircraft carriers—a debacle not experienced since World War II—and the prospect of a protracted war with continuing high casualties? Are any of them likely to accept a humiliating peace settlement or accumulating hardship? And even if they were, would they be allowed to remain in office for very long? The odds, one would imagine, are strongly against.

This, in turn, raises the question of escalation. For the experts who played the Chinese leadership (the “Red Team”) in the CNAS simulation, there were few doubts about the likely outcome. After PLA attacks on US bases failed to impede continuing US support for Taiwanese forces, the Red Team concluded it had no choice but to escalate—first with conventional strikes on US bases in Hawaii and then, when this proved of limited effect, with the detonation of a nuclear weapon off the Hawaiian coast. Although intended primarily as a signal—meant to persuade US leaders (the “Blue Team”) to abandon their support of Taiwan—the detonation also implied the potential for more widespread and cataclysmic nuclear attacks. (Although the game was terminated at this point, CNAS noted that such a move “likely would have been viewed as a major escalation” by the US side.)

“There is a risk that a future conflict between the United States and China could go nuclear,” CNAS observed. “In a conflict over Taiwan, Beijing may be willing to forgo its stated no-first-use policy to brandish or detonate a nuclear weapon in an effort to prevent or end U.S. involvement in the war,” it added. Not mentioned was the obvious alternative: Should the US experience significant setbacks—such as the loss of its prized aircraft carriers—might Washington not just as easily brandish or detonate a nuclear weapon in an effort to end Chinese involvement in the war?

We do not know how the same simulation, when performed by members of Congress on April 18, resolved these dire choices, but the reactions of participants suggest that the options were mind-numbing. “If there’s one lesson from the CNAS Taiwan war game,” Representative Ro Khanna (D-Cal.), a member of the House committee, tweeted soon afterwards, “it’s that a war with China would be catastrophic for America and all of humanity.” Heed his words: “We must do everything in our power to prevent a conflict.”

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