The US can't fight China for Taiwan, but it can help Taiwan make China think twice about starting a war
Taiwan has become a focal point for tensions between the US and China.
Many in the US have called for a commitment to defend the island against Chinese attack, but a war with China over Taiwan would likely be devastating.
The US can and should help Taiwan improve its ability to defend itself and better deter China.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former US Army lieutenant colonel.
On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that US Special Forces and Marines had secretly been training Taiwanese troops on counter-invasion tactics.
On Friday, the semi-official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, the Global Times, warned the presence of US troops in Taiwan will accelerate "preparations for military actions" and that once "war breaks out in the Taiwan Straits, those US. Military personnel will be the first to be eliminated."
In combination with the recent increase in the number of Chinese warplanes flying into Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone, this latest development continues a trend of rising tensions between the United States and China over the flashpoint of Taiwan.
As I have previously written in these pages, there is virtually no scenario in which the US fights a war with China that we don't come out severely harmed; in a worst-case scenario, we stumble into a catastrophic nuclear conflict.
Before a crisis is thrust upon us, there is a clear imperative for the White House to consider the ramifications of being drawn into an unwinnable war. Of even greater importance, the US should identify non-kinetic means to protect our country, its security, and future prosperity in the event of a Taiwan crisis.
Fortunately, there are viable alternatives to war that could see our security strengthened vis-à-vis China. Unfortunately, few in Washington are interested in these more prudent solutions.
Secretary of the Navy Carols Del Toro gave a lecture to the midshipmen of the Naval Academy on Tuesday in which he said it is the Navy's "ultimate responsibility to deter [China] from what they're trying to accomplish, including taking over Taiwan."
The secretary is essentially seeking to make the US armed forces the de facto security force for Taiwan. Under no circumstances should that aspiration become US policy.
Del Toro isn't the only one who thinks we should commit to defending Taiwan, however, as a growing chorus of leading voices call for just such a policy change.
Rep. Guy Reschenthaler cosponsored the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act which would authorize "the president to use military force to defend Taiwan against a direct attack." Such provocation would make war more, not less, likely. Meanwhile, the promise of US protection would perversely incentivize Taiwan to do less for its own security.
My colleague at Defense Priorities, policy director Benjamin Friedman, argued on Thursday that instead of leading Taiwanese authorities to believe the United States will fight China on their behalf, Washington "should push Taiwan to invest more in its self-defense capacity - especially radar and mobile anti-ship and anti-air missiles, which makes an amphibious attack on the island more costly."
America's overwhelming imperative in the Indo-Pacific must be to avoid unnecessary war with China and the preservation of American security and economic prosperity. Both would be seriously harmed by a war with China.
The best way to deter China from attack is to encourage Taiwan to invest in its own defense and acquire in the kinds of defensive weapons and training that will impose the most severe pain on China should Beijing ever resort to force.
We must be candid and blunt, however, and acknowledge that a time may come when China will not be deterred, and attack Taiwan no matter how great a price they must pay. In the event Beijing does choose that destructive path, it is imperative that the United States not compound a bad situation by being drawn into a no-win war with China.
Choosing to fight a war out of pride or an understandable affinity for democratic ideals will harm our military greatly, likely not prevent Taiwan's capture, and take us decades to recover from the military losses; in the worst case, things could spiral out of control and result in a nuclear exchange.
In short, we have everything to lose and nothing to gain from fighting China - but much to gain by refusing to get drawn into the unwinnable war.
If China attacks Taiwan, they will have an albatross around their neck for years to come - much as we did throughout the Vietnam War - as part of Taiwan's defense strategy is to conduct indefinite guerilla warfare against the Chinese invaders. Even if China's conventional attack goes well, they will still suffer considerable loss in warships, combat aircraft, and troops.
The PLA would then be severely weakened, even if successful, and it would take upward of a decade to rebuild its strength to its pre-invasion level. Meanwhile, the task of convincing Europe and other Asian nations to join with us and band together for a balancing coalition would be much easier, complicating Beijing's economic objectives for decades to come.
I cannot more strongly reinforce this point: refusing to be drawn into a no-win war with China over Taiwan will see our comparative advantage over China increase dramatically. Their military would be seriously degraded from combat losses, while ours and all our allies would be at full strength.
We should therefore do everything in our power to assist Taiwan in bolstering its self-defense capability, and encourage their political leadership to maintain the status quo.
China wants eventual reunification with Taiwan, but Beijing overwhelmingly prefers to do so without the use of force. As long as the status quo is maintained - and if the cost to the PLA of an invasion is sufficiently high because Taiwan can defend itself - the chances of war across the Strait will remain low.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the US Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of "The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America." Follow him @DanielLDavis1.
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