Friday, August 06, 2021

Strategic Calculus of a Taiwan Invasion

It seems implausible to me that PRC would risk an invasion of Taiwan in the near term, absent a very strong provocation such as an outright declaration of independence. Mastro's recent article in Foreign Affairs: China's Taiwan Temptation made the case for potential near term conflict, and caused quite a stir among analysts.

My guess is that PRC already has the capability to take Taiwan, but not without significant risk. However, as long as they continue to believe that time is on their side an invasion seems unlikely.

Some comments:

1. PRC would have local air and naval superiority at the beginning of the conflict.

2. I am uncertain as to the details of lift/amphibious assault -- discussed by Goldstein on the panel. This is the main failure mode for PLA.

3. I am uncertain as to Taiwan's will to fight. A quick surrender is not excluded, in my opinion. It seems that most US planners do not understand this.

4. Most westerners fail to understand that this is a frozen civil war, with very strong and emotional commitments from the PRC side. The involvement of Japan in this conflict, given their history of aggression in Asia and previous colonial occupation of Taiwan, could easily get them nuked again (this time with much greater megatonnage). It is unclear whether the present leadership of Japan appreciates this sufficiently.

5. The interests of the average person in the US or Japan (or any Asian country) are best served by working very hard to avoid this conflict.

What is happening across the Taiwan Strait? 
In March, Admiral Philip Davidson, then commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific (INDOPACOM), said in a hearing before Congress that a Chinese attack on Taiwan could take place within six years. His successor, Admiral John Aquilino, agreed that such an attack could occur sooner “than most think.” More recently, however, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Mark Milley, testified that he believes that China has little intention to take Taiwan by force, and that the capability to do so remains a goal rather than a reality. 
On the other hand, the Chinese military has increased pressure on Taiwan in the past year, flying into the island’s air defense identification zone on numerous occasions. During one day in June, China flew 28 military aircraft toward Taiwan, the largest number in a single day, perhaps in response to G7 and NATO statements on China and Taiwan. 
On July 19, 2021, the National Committee hosted a virtual program with Lyle Goldstein and Oriana Skylar Mastro to discuss China/Taiwan/U.S. military relations. NCUSCR President Stephen Orlins moderated and NCUSCR Director Admiral Dennis Blair offered commentary. 
Lyle J. Goldstein is a research professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the Naval War College (NWC) and an affiliate of its new Russia Maritime Studies Institute. Founding director of CMSI and author of dozens of articles on Chinese security policy, he focuses on Chinese undersea warfare. On the broader subject of U.S.-China relations, Dr. Goldstein published Meeting China Halfway in 2015. Over the last several years, he has focused on the North Korea crisis. 
Dr. Goldstein received his bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard, his master’s degree in strategic studies and international economics from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and his doctoral degree in politics from Princeton. He speaks Russian as well as Chinese. 
Oriana Skylar Mastro is a center fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University where her research focuses on Chinese military and security policy, Asia-Pacific security issues, war termination, and coercive diplomacy; a senior non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; an inaugural Wilson Center China fellow; and a fellow in the National Committee’s Public Intellectuals Program. She has published widely, including in Foreign Affairs, International Security, International Studies Review, Journal of Strategic Studies, The Washington Quarterly, The National Interest, Survival, and Asian Security. Her 2019 book, The Costs of Conversation: Obstacles to Peace Talks in Wartime, won the 2020 American Political Science Association International Security Section Best Book by an Untenured Faculty Member. 
Dr. Mastro holds a B.A. in East Asian studies from Stanford University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University.

Added from comments
Russia is discussed by the panelists. My guess is that if PRC launched a surprise invasion of TW they would just sit it out. The panelists go so far as to speculate that Russia might collaborate with PRC in the planning of an invasion, and could even provide some geopolitical distraction in support of it. I'm not sure I believe that -- the risk of losing surprise due to information leakage from the Russian side would be a big negative against coordination. 
There would be huge repercussions from nuking Japan (PRC actually has a no first use policy), but the emotional effect of, e.g., seeing a large PLAN ship sunk by a Japanese missile would be very strong. Remember, to PRC it looks like a (very much still disliked) foreign power intervening in an internal Chinese dispute. Sort of like Britain helping the confederacy during our civil war, but much worse. At the beginning of a TW invasion PRC might issue some kind of very strong ultimatum of non-interference to all parties (US, Japan, etc.) and then feel justified if the ultimatum is not obeyed. 
Please don't confuse descriptive analysis with normative analysis. It's important to understand how this looks from the other side, in order to predict their behavior. 
PRC faced down the US on the Korean peninsula when they had NO nuclear deterrent. (The historical record is clear that the US seriously considered using nukes against PRC over Korea and over TW in the past.) This would be a fight over (in their minds) actual Chinese territory, not Korea, and today they have a very credible MAD deterrent.
Re: item #3 above, I would like to see a detailed analysis of Taiwan's senior military leadership and their political leanings. I suspect that among them are many descendants of KMT military officers (like my father and grandfather), who largely still support the KMT political party and not the pro-independence DPP. These officers might lead a military coup in the event of a PRC invasion -- especially if it is a reaction to a DPP proclamation of independence, or other US-backed provocation.


This interview with Professor Alexander Huang of Tamkang University (Taiwan) Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies addresses the possibility of direct participation by the US and Japan in defense of Taiwan. In my opinion, Huang is realistic and well-calibrated.  

This is a clear explanation of the status quo, with opinion poll results:

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