What If ... "China Attacks Taiwan!"

By Russell, Richard L. | Parameters, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

What If ... "China Attacks Taiwan!"


Russell, Richard L., Parameters


"The Lacedaemonians gave sentence that the peace was broken and that war was to be made, not so much for the words of the confederates as for fear the Athenian greatness should still increase. For they saw that a great part of Greece was fallen already into their hands."

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War

"Attack when they are unprepared, make your move when they do not expect it."

"So a military force is established by deception, mobilized by gain, and adapted by division and combination."

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In surveying the landscape of international politics, the Taiwan Strait stands out as an area with grave potential for seismic instability. Beijing argues that Taiwan remains a province of China, while Taiwan steadily establishes de facto independence and contemplates the formal announcement of national autonomy. Such a declaration would cross China's political "red line" and push Beijing to the use of force. The United States, meanwhile, clings to a policy of "strategic ambiguity," recognizing only one China, with diplomatic ties to Beijing and withholding diplomatic recognition from Taiwan. The United States argues that any Chinese military aggression against Taiwan would be a serious threat to American interests, but so far has stopped short of extending formal security guarantees to Taiwan, fearing that such agreements would embolden Taiwan to formally declare independence and trigger a conflict with China. The Bush Administration does appear to be edging toward a more assertive position in support of Ta iwan than was the case during the Clinton era, however. President Bush in April 2001 publicly stated that the United States would do "whatever it took" to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. [1]

Despite the intractable political dilemma, many commentators and observers dismiss the potential for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. They argue that China's public comments on reserving the right to use force to cut the Gordian knot amounts to little more than bluff and bluster because China will lack the military means to attack and occupy Taiwan for at least ten years. This confident assessment lends itself to the United States resting comfortably on its current policy position of strategic ambiguity and dismissing the potential for a military conflagration in the Taiwan Strait that could bring American and Chinese forces into direct combat.

What if the prescience of these analysts is less than perfect? This article constructs a devil's advocate analysis to weigh against the analyses that see little prospect for major Chinese military action against Taiwan. It suggests that the Chinese could use strategic surprise to compensate for shortcomings in military capabilities and orchestrate a successful military campaign to take control of Taiwan. The Chinese could do so by readily deceiving outside observers about the scope of their sealift and airlift capabilities, which would fundamentally undermine the linchpin assumptions of sanguine analyses about Chinese force projection capabilities. The Chinese also could use massive barrages of surface-to-surface missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction to profoundly disrupt Taiwan's air force, air defenses, and other measures to counter Chinese amphibious and airborne assaults in a coordinated campaign to occupy Taiwan. What the Chinese military lacks in technological sophistication could be compensa ted for in military mass, contrary to the assertions of the optimists.

This sort of devil's advocate analysis has significant implications for US policy. American policymakers can better protect national interests if policy and military options are thought through long before the outbreak of a cross-Strait conflict than if they wait and are caught off-guard by a Chinese surprise attack.

Surprise Attack and Deception

Surprise attack is the use of military force against an unsuspecting and ill-prepared adversary.

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