InFocus: Future Conflict in the Pacific
Over the past six months, China has increasingly sent large numbers of its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tactical military aircraft into the air defense identification zone of Taiwan. Many of these incursions appear to be training events for large strike packages, which include nuclear-capable heavy bombers, sophisticated 4th and 5th generation strike-fighters, air superiority fighters and electronic warfare aircraft. Recently, China has included aerial refueling of these strike packages with its newest indigenously-produced Y-20 aerial refueling aircraft. To many China watchers, these training events appear to be rehearsals for an attack on Taiwan. In response, Taiwan has increased arms purchases from the U.S. and has begun training with U.S. Marine and special operations forces for defense against an amphibious assault by China.
While the U.S. does not have a formal security alliance with Taiwan, it is a strong supporter and maintains commercial and military ties through the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. China views U.S. relations with Taiwan as disruptive to the stability of the region and an affront to the sovereignty of China under its current “one China” policy.
China’s goal is to eventually control access to the Pacific, establish a global forward presence and exploit its access to other nations’ natural resources in order to supply its growing economy and population.
The U.S. understands the consequences of a potentially hostile hegemon controlling access to the Pacific – and with it, the supply chains on which the U.S. economy relies. The problem is that over the past three decades, the U.S. has outsourced a considerable amount of its industrial capacity to China. Only about 12% of consumer goods are now manufactured in the U.S., while roughly 45% of maritime imports are produced in China. This puts the U.S. on the horns of a dilemma. On one hand, the U.S. cannot allow China to control the Pacific. On the other, armed conflict with China in order to maintain a free and open Pacific would likely result in severe supply chain disruptions across the U.S. and Europe. In addition to the economic impact, if the U.S. demurs and allows China to seize Taiwan and threaten Japan and Australia, its security promises will be deemed worthless. If it attempts to stop China from seizing Taiwan or threatening its Pacific allies and it fails, then it proves unable to fulfill those same security promises. Either way, a significant and empire-ending event for the U.S. is a distinct possibility. And the first step in this unpalatable scenario begins on the beaches of Taiwan.
Potential Courses of Action
Most Dangerous Course of Action:
The most dangerous course of action is that China will coordinate a corps-level amphibious and airborne assault on Taiwan to occur simultaneously with a separate geopolitical crisis. Currently, Russia is massing forces on the border with Ukraine. U.S. intelligence agencies now estimate that Russia will launch an attack on Ukraine sometime in early 2022 with a 175,000-man combined arms army. With the U.S. and European Union distracted, or potentially bogged down in a conflict in Ukraine, China could exploit the chaos of that crisis to make a sudden surprise attack on Taiwan, followed by a quick occupation of the Senkaku islands. An additional joint operation with Russia to seize or threaten Japanese territory in the vicinity of Hokkaido and the Kuril Islands would put Japan between two much more powerful adversaries. This would give China near total control of the Pacific’s first island chain and facilitate its naval forces in future moves south or east in the Pacific. Should the U.S. respond militarily, China would likely attempt to use its long-range precision fires to destroy U.S. and allied naval forces which threatened its move on Taiwan. In addition to kinetic operations in the Pacific, China could leverage its influence with U.S. domestic protest movements such as Antifa, BLM, and other social justice groups to foment civil unrest in the U.S. in order to cause maximum chaos and potential disruption of the leadership decision cycle. China’s goal would be an overwhelming first strike on the Taiwanese military and government along with a crushing blow to U.S. and allied military forces responding in defense of Taiwan. Once consolidated on the island post-landing, expect China to deliver terms of surrender to the Taiwanese government. The idea being to avoid having to fight in the dense urban areas if at all possible. Once the seizure of Taiwan is complete, China and Russia could negotiate a new status quo in the region, even returning some captured Japanese territory as a concession.
Most Likely Course of Action:
A second possible course of action would be for China to conduct what would essentially be a military demonstration by seizing Taiwan’s Pratas Island and Japan’s Senkaku islands with regimental-sized amphibious forces. While at the same time forward deploying additional military forces to the austere airfields and naval facilities recently constructed on China’s man-made islands in the Paracels and Spratlys. With Taiwan essentially surrounded, China could put in place a sea and air embargo and give Taiwan’s government terms for reunification. This could also be timed with any Russian actions against Ukraine, but this would not be necessary for success. In this scenario, China would be betting that the U.S. would not come to the aid of Taiwan and would seek a negotiated settlement … perhaps the return of the Senkaku islands to Japan in exchange for a free-hand in bringing Taiwan under China’s control. In this coercion-by-embargo scenario, China’s goal would be to publicly force the U.S. hand on Taiwan. Washington’s expected lack of military response would undermine and demoralize any Taiwanese ideas about resistance and lead Taiwan to accept a Chinese reunification proposal sprinkled with insincere guarantees of limited autonomy. This is the most likely course of action because it avoids all-out armed conflict in the Pacific and keeps commerce flowing between China and the West. Executing this COA within the next 12 months capitalizes on the diminished leadership in Washington and exploits the psychological impotence resulting from the U.S. military’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Least Likely Course of Action:
A third possible course of action would be for China to hold off on a kinetic option to capture Taiwan. Instead, China would continue building out its military forces with advanced technology and power projection capabilities (such as hypersonic weapons, aerial refueling platforms, and intermediate range ballistic missiles), while simultaneously using covert influence operations against the U.S. political leadership in Washington and the Taiwanese leadership in Taipei in order to facilitate a fait accompli against Taiwan. In this case, China would seek to convince the Taiwanese that no one would be coming to their aid and a negotiated settlement for reunification would be in their best interest – and eventually, through covert influence, getting U.S. leaders to publicly admit the same thing. It is the least dangerous for the U.S., but is also least likely. This is a “bird in the hand versus two in the bush” scenario, since it forfeits the present opportunity to repatriate Taiwan during a time of diminished U.S. leadership for a chance to achieve the same victory through soft power mechanisms at a later date. By delaying until a future date in order to develop and employ soft power influence operations, there is a chance that U.S. leadership might regain its footing with more competent leadership and a better led, organized, and equipped military. This would be an enormous gamble for China.
The U.S. response to any Chinese move on Taiwan is likely to be what Secretary of Defense Austin called in a recent interview integrated deterrence. Integrated deterrence leads with diplomatic dialogue and pressure, backed up with the threat of military action. The concept of integrated deterrence looks good on paper and is certainly appropriate for a slow-moving potential conflict with a rational like-minded nation-state. Integrated deterrence is not as effective against a blitzkrieg-type kinetic threat by a nation-state that uses different calculations to determine its national interests. It works best when finely calibrated to an adversary’s interests and pain points and deployed well ahead of any potential armed conflict.
In the case of Taiwan, integrated deterrence would likely result in performative condemnation of China’s actions along with a new set of red lines in the Pacific focused on protecting Australia and Japan.
Should the U.S. decide to respond militarily, expect the forward deployment of additional carrier and amphibious task forces into the Pacific. Additional USAF and US Army units would likely be forward-deployed to Japan, Guam and Australia. From a military perspective, the timeline for deployment of additional forces is much longer than China’s timeline for an assault on Taiwan. Indications and warnings (I&W) of an impending amphibious and airborne operation against Taiwan would be sparse since many of China’s combat units and naval vessels are permanently stationed in close proximity to the Taiwan Straits. It is reasonable to conclude that the U.S may receive seven to ten days of I&W prior to the launch of an operation against Taiwan, whereas it would take double or even triple that to reposition significant additional forces in the Pacific.
Currently deployed forces would not be sufficient to counter a PLA corps-level amphibious and airborne assault on Taiwan. The likelihood of an attempt to dislodge PLA forces already dug in on Taiwan is minuscule owing to the probability of escalation and the improbability of success.
Simply put, the U.S. will not be able to counter China’s attack on Taiwan by reacting or waiting until the first PLA ships and planes cross the Taiwan straits. Instead, the U.S. would need to preposition forces in the Pacific in advance of I&W – something already ruled out in the recent DoD Global Posture Review. Additionally, with intelligence agencies forecasting a Russian attack on Ukraine in early 2022, the U.S. may choose to forego attempts to counter China in a near-term assault on Taiwan, and instead look to mitigate any further damage in the Pacific under a new status quo.
If the U.S. fails to halt China’s move on Taiwan, the result will be a reordering of the status quo and geopolitical alliances in the Pacific and potentially world-wide. After all, if the U.S. can brush away its security promises to Taiwan, who is to say they would not do the same to any other nation with which they have made similar promises?
In any scenario, the U.S. will likely begin to decouple its economy from China and near-shore its manufacturing, as is already happening in response to COVID-19 impacts. The U.S. will lead with various sanctions against China, most of which will focus on key national and business leaders, as well as inward-facing Chinese corporations, in an effort to reduce effects on the U.S. economy. The U.S. will also likely remove recently enacted regulatory restrictions on transportation and domestic oil and gas production in order to streamline supply chains and counter rising prices from renewed competition in the global market. Additionally, expect a significant change in leadership in the U.S. and a loss of international prestige as a result of the failure to protect national interests in the Pacific.
U.S. businesses can front-run this conflict by seeking new suppliers outside of Asia. Those with manufacturing concerns in China should seek alternate manufacturing means and locations in geographical areas not subject to Chinese control or manipulation. U.S. consumers should anticipate major disruptions in supply chains and build up at least 90 days’ worth of essential food and supplies.
Many automotive, HVAC, and technology components are manufactured in China, therefore it is advisable to have required maintenance or replacements completed prior to the commencement of hostilities in the Pacific. Taiwan produces 40% of the world’s high-end microchips. This means that a large portion of that market may be unavailable for an extended period of time. As we witnessed during the most recent microchip shortage, there was a significantly decreased availability of new automobiles, agricultural equipment and industrial machinery that relied on these chips – plan accordingly.
In the event of cyberattacks on U.S. critical infrastructure, have an alternate electrical power source and available cash for emergencies. If China executes the most dangerous course of action, expect increasing civil unrest across the country, but particularly in cities and areas along political seams (red/blue lines). Citizens and businesses should have a realistic security plan and be prepared to provide for their own self-defense.