Tensions have been steadily ramping up between the United States and China for quite some time now. However, the recent trip by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, despite firm warnings from China and reservations from the Pentagon, has kicked off the most aggressive Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Strait region.
Currently, our government is running a tabletop war game in DC to see what might happen if China opts to invade Taiwan in 2026. The results show that the United States and China would take significant hits, with some wondering if we are appropriately prepared to counter Chinese aggression in the region.
The short answer to the question of whether we are prepared is “no.” However, the reasons are multi-faceted, ranging from beans and bullets to pure geography.
The parameters set for this current war game assume that Japan would grant the United States expanded rights to use our bases postured in their country. However, another assumption is that Japan would stop just short of engaging directly in the conflict. The war game also excludes nuclear weapons being utilized. That part seems counterintuitive based on a previous war game conducted earlier this year by NBC.
The results of this war game won’t be officially released until December. However, Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which is leading the war game, did provide some teaser insight this week. His general feedback was that; “…most-though not all-scenarios, Taiwan can repel an invasion.”
Mr. Cancian follows up with this warning:
“However, the cost will be very high to the Taiwanese infrastructure and economy and to US forces in the Pacific.”
The war game won’t estimate lives lost or the economic impact of a large-scale war, but it’s safe to say both will be catastrophic. Mr. Cancian explains that in 18 of 22 rounds completed, Chinese missiles sink a large part of the US and Japanese surface fleet and destroy “hundreds of aircraft on the ground.”
The reason for the devastating losses projected for the United States isn’t just rooted in military prowess or lack thereof. Mr. Cancian explains:
“The reason for the high US losses is that the United States cannot conduct a systemic campaign to take down Chinese defenses before moving in close.”
In short, we face what those in the business call ‘the tyranny of distance.’ David Ochmanek of the Rand Corp illustrates:
“Whenever we war-gamed a Taiwan scenario over the years, our blue team [the US] routinely got its a** handed to it because, in that scenario, time is a precious commodity, and it plays to China’s strength in terms of proximity and capabilities.”
Essentially, there is a big damn ocean between us and the shores of Taiwan versus how close China is to the island. While we have troops and equipment postured in surrounding areas like South Korea, Japan, and Guam, they pale compared to the 2-million-strong Chinese military and navy.
Some argue China would opt to kick off the invasion with a swift, devastating Pearl Harbor-style attack on the United States, perhaps against bases in Guam, Japan, and South Korea. For example, Oriana Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University, asserts:
“My argument is that the more people like Pelosi try to make the US commitment clear, then the more certain the Chinese are of our commitment – and the more likely a Pearl Harbor-style attack is.”
Her argument is even more alarming when you consider that Chinese military doctrine is to “paralyze the enemy in one stroke.” Taiwan has less than 200,000 active military duty members. It has only a fifth of the combat aircraft that China has in stock, most of which are dated.
The reality is Taiwan isn’t the formidable opponent China is exercising for; it’s us. And it doesn’t seem that outside the bounds of possibility that China may try to cripple us up front to keep us from arriving at Taiwan’s aid on time.
This could make it where the war is over by the time we even arrive to fight it. Moreover, with these increased military exercises, China might be pulling a move from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook of conducting enough exercises to surprise adversaries with an invasion.
The exercises currently taking place by China aren’t just to practice a blockade and an invasion; it’s to normalize regional aggression. As Ms. Mastro explains:
“If it becomes routine for China to be engaging in mass mobilizations then it’s harder for the United States to know if it’s a blockade of Taiwan or just an exercise.”
The idea of a Pearl Harbor-level attack should make us uncomfortable. Not just because of the devastation it would cause, but because the greatest generation that ever lived no longer exists and is certainly not mirrored in the current generation.
Perhaps the most gut-punching outcome Mr. Cancian discusses is the scope of our loss:
“To get a sense of the scale of the losses, in our last game iteration, the United States lost over 900 fighter/attack aircraft in a four-week conflict. That’s about half the Navy and Air Force inventory.”
Hard to know what faith we should have in war games. Last year the Air Force conducted one that ended in a cataclysmic US defeat.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said of the recent Chinese aggressive behavior that Washington is “determined to act responsibly to avoid major global crisis.” So let’s all hope that’s the case.
However, there are already hints of how this administration plans to play out a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Mr. Cancian puts the ownership on Taiwan, stating:
“The success or failure of the ground war depends entirely on the Taiwanese forces.”
With our policy on Taiwan ambiguous at best and flip-floppy at worst, Taiwan should probably prepare to shoulder the blame for any loss to China. One only has to look at the fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban and this administration’s position on why that happened so quickly.
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