After Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) Jan. 2 speech threatening Taiwan, oaths by his generals that they can conquer Taiwan in 100 hours and the beginning of a new year of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force and Navy intimidation exercises around Taiwan, is there any doubt that once it decides it can succeed, China will attempt to conquer Taiwan?
Today, Taiwan’s strength and the high probability of US military intervention might be enough to deter a Chinese attack, but that margin of deterrence could erode significantly by 2025, when the PLA’s missile and air superiority could become overwhelming.
Its airborne, marine and ground forces are to be formed into more powerful and agile brigades, and a mobilized air and maritime operation would be able to put 1 million military personnel on Taiwan in less than a month.
After it demolishes Taiwan’s democracy, it is much less clear what China would do with Taiwan and its people.
On Jan. 2, Xi said “the social system and way of life in Taiwan will be fully respected … legitimate rights and interests of Taiwan compatriots will be fully protected after peaceful reunification is realized.”
However, PLA Lieutenant General He Lei (何雷) said that if you support “independence” for Taiwan, you are a “war criminal.”
Taiwanese need look no further than the gulags of Xinjiang, the ongoing suppression of Hong Kong and China’s unfolding digital dictatorship to see their future under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule.
China’s occupation plan for Taiwan likely includes the wholesale murder of committed democrats, vast population shifts to Xinjiang or other distant regions, national re-education and digital pacification — a high-tech Cultural Revolution.
However, what the CCP is loath to admit is its urgency to turn Taiwan into a major base for PLA land-based and submarine-launched nuclear missiles, nuclear bombers, aircraft carriers and amphibious projection groups.
For the CCP, control of Taiwan is essential for China to take over Japan’s Ryukyu island chain and to impose full control over the South China Sea. It would split Japan and South Korea from their alliances with the US, neutralize Southeast Asia, and greatly ease PLA power projection into the Indian Ocean, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
The stark reality is that China poses an existential threat not just to Taiwan, but also to the US.
Conquering Taiwan is for China an essential first requirement if it is to achieve the strategic subjugation of the US. A CCP that fears Taiwan’s democracy sufficiently to carry out its brutal military destruction likely harbors even more fears of US freedom and will also seek its eventual destruction.
So why do Americans and Taiwanese settle for much less than total deterrence against Chinese threats to Taiwan?
Though clearly not as bad as the 1980s, Washington’s arms sales policies are still affected by the February 1978 US Department of State memorandum that calls for only “defensive” weapons sales to accommodate “PRC sensitivities,” ie, not selling long-range or intermediate missiles.
US administrations since have forgone arms and technology sales, be it F-16s, F-35s or missile technology, in varying degrees deferring to Beijing — which has consistently prepared for war, especially since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.
What little is known about Taiwan’s new operational defensive concept strategy indicates that it is a victory for those in Washington urging Taiwan to adopt an overwhelmingly defensive strategy at the expense of larger expensive “offensive” weapons, such as the F-35B fifth-generation jet and submarines.
Yet the stakes are now truly immense. Either Taipei and Washington fully commit, publicly, this year to a Taiwanese victory against any Chinese attack or both will only give increasing confidence to PLA generals that a war could succeed, encouraging the cataclysm Taipei and Washington have avoided since 1950.
This could start with a prompt decision by the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to commit to annual defense spending levels well in excess of the 2 percent of GDP planned for this year.
A special emphasis should be placed on the upgrade and expansion of military and reserve forces to make clear to the PLA that a massive citizens’ army could extend any war for years.
Beyond deterrence, Washington’s highest goal should be to win any war that China starts. Washington should now seek a minimum policy consensus with its allies: Any Chinese attack against a democracy would result in a campaign to economically and politically isolate the regime.
Washington should repudiate the February 1978 memorandum, replacing it with an acknowledgement that US arms sales must no longer be limited to “defensive” capabilities that “accommodate” Beijing’s concerns.
It should start by allowing the sale of missiles and technology to assist Taiwan’s acquisition of long-range strike capabilities. There is a much better chance of deterring a PLA attack when it knows that Taiwan’s missiles can attack their gathering forces from Dalian to Hainan Island.
As the administration of US President Donald Trump leaves the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and begins developing new intermediate, medium and short-range missile systems, they should be deployed to US forces in Asia to deter China’s ballistic and cruise missiles — which could number as many as 1,800 with launcher reloads.
Furthermore, Chinese “sensitivities” should no longer dissuade US sales of the advanced systems such as the F-35B. For Taiwan, this fighter could serve as a bridge between fifth and sixth generation military capabilities, which Taipei will require by the late 2020s.
When China is sufficiently deterred in the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea and the South China Sea, there is a much greater chance it would consider joining future arms control regimes, as Trump offered in his State of the Union address last week.
Richard D. Fisher Jr is a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Potomac, Maryland.
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