Taiwan is now entering a period of maximum danger from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) due to an accelerating Chinese military challenge now emboldened by a shocking dive in American strategic credibility occasioned by its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan.
This means there is a much higher chance that in the next one to three years CCP leader Xi Jinping (習近平) may order the PLA to invade Taiwan because he believes the PLA can win and that the Americans can be dissuaded from coming to Taiwan’s aid in time.
It is still possible for Taiwan and Washington to successfully diminish Xi’s confidence and slow his momentum, but in both Taipei and Washington there must be a new urgency, starting with an open recognition of the accelerating cumulative threats posed by CCP/PLA.
The most serious looming Chinese threat is that Xi Jinping may soon achieve nuclear parity or superiority and decide that he can dissuade and deter Washington from militarily defending Taiwan. So far, US President Joe Biden shows no sign of moving to counter the PLA’s drive to nuclear superiority; his party shrinks even from modernization investments necessary to maintain the present ageing strategic nuclear stockpile as a credible deterrent, let alone investing in advanced missile defenses and related technologies.
After three decades of nuclear missile technology development and production capacity buildup, China chose the advent of the Biden Administration to more openly surge toward nuclear superiority.
This year alone, commercial satellite imagery has revealed that the PLA Rocket Force is now building at least 346 new missile silos across multiple fields. Each silo may hold a new version of the 10-warhead-capable DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
So, a potential 3,460 new PLA nuclear warheads, added to estimates of 350 current warheads, plus nuclear cruise missiles on bombers, point to a potential total PLA warhead count over 4,000 well before 2025.
Furthermore, Vladimir Putin could add his 1,400 or more warheads for joint nuclear coercion against the United States; this is one real outcome of a decade of deepening China-Russia military cooperation. China’s assistance to the Pakistani, North Korean, and Iranian arsenals expands the complexity.
At the same time, PLA Taiwan invasion preparations are accelerating, mainly with the integration of civilian sea and air transport assets, and more aggressive exercises and probes.
Large civilian 15,000 to 30,000 ton Roll-On-Roll-Off ferries were previously assessed to be charged with transporting the bulk of PLA armored and mechanized units to captured Taiwan ports. Now they could be equipped with special ramps to join large PLA Navy amphibious assault ships to launch amphibious armored vehicles into the water. This could triple the number of amphibious armored vehicles that can be launched against Taiwan beaches.
In addition, close to 1,500 PLA and civilian Chinese helicopters could target Taiwan airfields with thousands of troops each. Captured airfields could then receive some of the 3,000 Boeing and Airbus-made Chinese airliners capable of surging troops and material to accelerate invasion operations. Added to surprise, such rapid consolidation is vital to dissuading or countering any US defensive response in support of Taiwan, and thus to PLA victory.
Recent reports indicate China has started a major transport infrastructure building effort across the Taiwan Strait in Fujian Province, which could see the construction of 12 new ports and 10 new airports, including a new large airport in Pingtan County less than 165km from the outskirts of Taipei. Such signals underscore intent.
Perhaps the only present silver lining is that the shock of the rapid collapse of the 20-year American-led effort to prevent Taliban rule in Afghanistan — followed by the humiliatingly inept withdrawal that stunned many US allies and exposed NATO’s weakness — has resulted in the realization among the allies that they must now do much more for their own defense.
Greg Sheridan, a senior Australian columnist for The Australian, stated on September 6, 2021, “If the Western alliance fails, it will be because almost all US allies, with the full exception of Israel and the partial exception of Britain, have based everything on the idea that America will solve all their military problems and they therefore do not take responsibility for themselves.”
President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) response to the disaster in Afghanistan was swift and appropriate. On August 18 she stated, “I want to tell everyone that Taiwan’s only option is to make ourselves stronger, more united and more resolute in our determination to protect ourselves.”
By August 21 there were reports that words would be followed by decisive action: Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense would be proposing a special budget of NT$200 billion (US$7.22 billion) for the National Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology, specifically to increase its manufacturing of indigenous air defense, anti-ship, and land-attack missiles.
In an August 18 interview President Biden made a strong case that he would “respond” if China attacked Taiwan.
However welcome, this statement was at variance with decades of US “ambiguity” on this issue and there has been no further elaboration from the Biden Administration that this is a new addition to the Communiques/Taiwan Relations Act/Six Assurances basis of US policy toward Taiwan.
Regardless of Biden’s intent, it is now necessary that he make preparations equating to a wartime level of emergency because the danger of a Chinese attack is becoming perilously close.
First it is necessary for the Administration to abandon its strategic stance for 2021 of trying to balance “cooperation” with China with “competition” with China.
The CCP is offering America and Asia only the latter and nothing of the former. The CCP increasingly comprises an existential nuclear threat, accelerates its military threats to Taiwan, Japan, and other allies, and wages an integrated global propaganda, diplomatic, and economic warfare campaign designed to humiliate and weaken Washington and its alliances and resolve. All is couched in language designating the US as China’s enemy, and designed to rally the Chinese people behind Xi’s CCP war footing.
Washington now faces grave threats from a Taliban friendly with the PRC and flush with over US$83 billion in abandoned US weaponry with which it will re-invigorate the global Islamist terror hydra.
Washington must revise its Asia strategy to place first priority on robustly calling out and countering China’s strategic and military threats.
There is little choice now but to abandon the 2010 New START Treaty with Russia that limits the US to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads.
First, it would be appropriate to begin by putting nuclear warheads back into multiple-warhead capable ICBMs and submarine launched missiles which would elevate the US warhead count to about 3,800.
Even after a China-Russia first strike, there would be enough US retaliatory capacity to ensure their destruction. This would neutralize any hopes by the CCP and Russia they could succeed in nuclear coercion operations.
Second, the US must now abandon previous policies that sought to limit Taiwan’s “offensive” military capabilities.
This should start with a US commitment to help Taiwan to secure a force of 1,000 offensive long-range ballistic missiles by 2024, being ready to transfer the balance as Taiwan increases indigenous missile production. Such a number will go far to blunt and thus deter a PLA invasion attempt.
Third, Washington should vigorously encourage Taiwan-Japan dialogue to better coordinate defense, as China will likely seek to occupy Japan’s southern Ryukyu Islands , both as a prelude to an invasion and to further break the “First Island Chain.” Defense cooperation with Taiwan should be a major project of the Australia-India-Japan-US “Quad.”
For the CCP, a war to conquer Taiwan and kill its democracy will be the first in a series of efforts aimed at defeating Asian democracies, intimidating recalcitrant nations, imposing its hegemony regionally and globally. All democracies, but especially Taiwan, Japan, and the United States, can and must prevent this catastrophe by ensuring the CCP never tries to attack Taiwan.
Richard D. Fisher Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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