Beijing sent the largest-ever incursion by Chinese jets into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone last Friday, leading the country’s defense ministry to announce that it would no longer scramble its own planes in response.
These flights through Taiwan’s ADIZ are now essentially a regular occurrence, and they figure into a broader Chinese “gray zone” campaign against the country that has included everything from banning pineapple imports to inflict economic pain to sending a fleet of civilian sand-dredging ships to erode the coastlines of Taiwan’s peripheral islands. Scrambling its own jets to intercept the People’s Liberation Army’s planes only drained precious resources at a precarious time, so Taipei will instead train its missile systems on the PLA jets each time an incursion occurs.
U.S. defense planners warn that Beijing is softening the ground for an assault — one that might come in the not-so-distant future.
At two separate Senate hearings last month, the current head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the nominee to replace him warned of a growing threat of a Chinese attack. It could come “in the next decade, in fact within the next six years,” said Admiral Phil Davidson. His would-be successor, Admiral John Aquilino, a few weeks later offered a similar assessment: “There are spans from today to 2045. My opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think.”
Their grim assessments are borne out by the facts.
First, consider the extent of the Chinese military’s buildup in recent decades. Not only has the People’s Liberation Army embarked on a massive modernization drive for the past 30 years, but these efforts have been supported by an extensive whole-of-country initiative to marshal precisely the kind of resources necessary for an eventual cross-strait invasion. Even one of China’s largest ferry operators has constructed ships according to PLA specifications that could transport equipment and personnel during an amphibious assault.
And crucially, this buildup has focused on blunting U.S. deterrence through developing anti-access/area-denial capabilities that would impose significant costs on U.S. forces coming to Taiwan’s defense. These are the kinds of weapons that might sink American ships, neutralize critical battlefield surveillance systems, and threaten bases farther afield.
The modernization drive has been so successful that in Pentagon war games, the U.S. consistently loses to China in hypothetical conflicts over Taiwan.
Underlying the Chinese push for a military edge is a relentless national determination. “Reunifying” the island with the mainland has long been understood to be a core interest of the party-state and a matter of regime survival. Xi Jinping is believed by U.S. officials to view reunification as key to cementing his rule.
When Taiwan elected as its president Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party, the mainland cut off all diplomatic and cooperative channels and stepped up its coercion efforts, leading to today’s gray-zone campaign. In the event of an invasion, the CCP could employ other irregular tactics, such as cyberattacks and disinformation operations, cutting off the island from the rest of the world.
This would directly implicate U.S. interests. A successfully executed invasion would obliterate the U.S. posture in the Pacific, potentially driving U.S. allies into Beijing’s orbit. All of America’s bases in the region would be highly vulnerable to attack, and the success of the Taiwan invasion would vindicate the CCP’s thesis of a West in decline, emboldening it to seek further gains. A communist takeover could make for the start of a Chinese-led order in East Asia, and perhaps beyond.
To prevent the realization of that nightmare, Congress must work with the Pentagon to fully fund defense-modernization efforts and to overhaul U.S. defense capabilities in the Pacific. This should include, as Admiral Aquilino advocated, the multibillion-dollar Pacific Deterrence Initiative geared to funding the new weapons and technologies needed to counter Chinese capabilities. The only way to deter a direct military confrontation is to convince the Chinese that success is all but impossible. Beijing knows that the U.S. can impose heavy costs on the PLA, but if it sees a possibility of success, it is likely to act nonetheless.
The Biden administration, while continuing to build on the Trump administration’s work to bolster ties with Taiwan, ought to work with America’s allies on defense agreements for Taiwan-related contingencies. Such a pact with Australia was recently revealed, and the Japanese government has also cemented an agreement directly with Taipei. Still, more needs to be done.
The assumption guiding these efforts, and inspiring a sense of urgency, must be that Beijing could begin its assault at almost any time.