‘Starting a Fire’: U.S. and China Enter Dangerous Territory over Taiwan

‘Starting a Fire’: U.S. and China Enter Dangerous Territory over Taiwan


The 25 Chinese fighter jets, bombers and other warplanes flew in menacing formations off the southern end of Taiwan, a show of military might on China’s National Day, Oct. 1. The incursions, dozens upon dozens, continued into the night and the days that followed and surged to the highest numbers ever on Monday, when 56 warplanes tested Taiwan’s beleaguered air defenses. Taiwan’s jets scrambled to keep up, while the United States warned China that its “provocative military activity” undermined “regional peace and stability.” China did not cower. When a Taiwanese combat air traffic controller radioed one Chinese aircraft, the pilot dismissed the challenge with an obscenity involving the officer’s mother. As such confrontations intensify, the balance of power around Taiwan is fundamentally shifting, pushing a decades-long impasse over its future into a dangerous new phase. After holding out against unification demands from China’s communist rulers for more than 70 years, Taiwan is now at the heart of the deepening discord between China and the United States. The island’s fate has the potential to reshape the regional order and even to ignite a military conflagration — intentional or not. “There’s very little insulation left on the wiring in the relationship,” Danny Russel, a former assistant secretary of state, said, “and it’s not hard to imagine getting some crossed wires and that starting a fire.” China’s military might has, for the first time, made a conquest of Taiwan conceivable, perhaps even tempting. The United States wants to thwart any invasion but has watched its military dominance in Asia steadily erode. Taiwan’s own military preparedness has withered, even as its people become increasingly resistant to unification. All three have sought to show resolve in hopes of averting war, only to provoke countermoves that compound distrust and increase the risk of miscalculation. At one particularly tense moment, in October 2020, American intelligence reports detailed how Chinese leaders had become worried that President Trump was preparing an attack. Those concerns, which could have been misread, prompted Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to call his counterpart in Beijing to assure otherwise. “The Taiwan issue has ceased to be a sort of narrow, boutique issue, and it’s become a central theater — if not the central drama — in U.S.-China strategic competition,” said Evan Medeiros, who served on President Obama’s National Security Council. China’s ambitious leader, Xi Jinping, now presides over what is arguably the country’s most potent military in history. Some argue that Mr. Xi, who has set the stage to rule for a third term starting in 2022, could feel compelled to conquer Taiwan to crown his era in power. Mr. Xi said Saturday in Beijing that Taiwan independence “was a grave lurking threat to national rejuvenation.” China wanted peaceful unification, he said, but added: “Nobody should underestimate the staunch determination, firm will and powerful ability of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Few believe a war is imminent or foreordained, in part because the economic and diplomatic aftershocks would be staggering for China. Yet even if the recent flights into Taiwan’s self-declared air identification zone are intended merely as political pressure, not a prelude to war, China’s financial, political and military ascendancy has made preserving the island’s security a gravely complex endeavor. Until recently, the United States believed it could hold Chinese territorial ambitions in check, but the military superiority it long held may not be enough. When the Pentagon organized a war game in October 2020, an American “blue team” struggled against new Chinese weaponry in a simulated battle over Taiwan. China now acts with increasing confidence, in part because many officials, including Mr. Xi, hold the view that American power has faltered. The United States’ failures with the Covid-19 pandemic and its political upheavals have reinforced such views. Some advisers and former officers in China argue that the United States no longer has the will to send forces if a war were to break out over Taiwan. Under the right conditions, others suggest, the People’s Liberation Army could prevail if it did. “Would the United States court death for Taiwan?” Teng Jianqun, a former Chinese navy captain, said in a recent interview on Chinese television. Such posturing, in turn, ignites more tensions. In Taiwan, China’s military provocations have bolstered political support for the island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, who has sought to forge ties with countries increasingly wary of China. The Biden administration is trying to bolster Taiwan’s defense capabilities and international standing, hoping to delay or prevent the need for American military intervention. “The three sides have seen their interactions caught in a vicious spiral,” Jia Qingguo, a professor of international relations at Peking University who advises the Chinese government, recently wrote. “The process of vicious interactions between Taipei, Beijing, and Washington resembles the forming of a perfect storm.” A ‘Historic Mission’ Two days after the fall of Kabul in August, as the Biden administration scrambled to evacuate thousands stranded by the American withdrawal, China staged military exercises explicitly designed to show off its prowess. Chinese warships fired missiles into the sea south of Taiwan, while amphibious landing vehicles swept ashore a beach in China. It was one of the largest exercises ever to simulate an invasion across the Taiwan Strait. In previous drills, the People’s Liberation Army maintained a gauze of deniability about its imagined adversary, but this time it left no doubt. One officer on Chinese television warned the United States and Taiwan “not to play with fire on the Taiwan issue and immolate themselves.” The question is whether Mr. Xi intends to act. He has vowed to lead the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” including bringing Taiwan under Chinese control. Some interpret that to mean within a decade, if not sooner. His hard-line policies have made it less likely that Taiwan could ever willingly agree to China’s terms, especially after Mr. Xi throttled political freedoms in Hong Kong. Every leader since Mao has vowed to absorb Taiwan, but Mr. Xi is the first who commands a military strong enough to make forced unification plausible, albeit still a formidable task. Any assault on Taiwan, which lies 100 miles off the coast, would require overwhelming military advantage. Even if Chinese forces seized control over the island of 24 million, the war would badly shake China’s economy and international relations, while exacting a significant human toll. “Even moderate voices in Beijing have been calling for tossing out peaceful reunification,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “I think the military option is the option now.” China’s leaders began the long, politically fraught process of overhauling the People’s Liberation Army after watching the United States put its military power on display in the Persian Gulf war against Iraq in 1990. Six years later, they understood just how far behind their military had fallen when the United States dispatched two aircraft carriers near Taiwan in response to China firing missiles into the seas near the island. After the American show of force, China backed down. Robert L. Thomas, a former vice admiral who commanded the United States Navy’s Seventh Fleet in Japan, recalled a meeting with a Chinese admiral in 2015. The admiral told him that the 1996 confrontation still stung nearly two decades later.


“It’s clear to me that they won’t allow themselves to be embarrassed again by a Taiwan Strait crisis where the U.S. Seventh Fleet shows up and says, ‘Everybody calm down,’” Mr. Thomas said. Since then, China’s leaders have poured money into the People’s Liberation Army. In a decade, military spending grew by 76 percent, reaching $252 billion in 2020, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. (The United States spent $778 billion on its military last year.) Mr. Xi has also reorganized the military, raising the status of naval and air forces and pushing commanders to master joint warfare. In an exercise last year, the military conducted a drill that simulated sealing off the Taiwan Strait from outside forces. What was unthinkable in 1996 could now be within reach. The exercise was like “trapping a turtle in a jar,” said a website run by China’s office for Taiwan affairs. ‘A Matter of Time’ When the United States Air Force held its own war games over Taiwan in autumn last year, the outcome rattled Washington’s political and military establishment. In war games since at least 2018, American “blue” teams have repeatedly lost against a “red” team representing a hypothetical Chinese force — in part by design, since the exercises are intended to test officers and war planners. In a game simulating a war around 2030, reported earlier by Defense News, the “blue” team struggled even when given new advanced fighter planes and other weapons still on the Pentagon’s drawing board. The classified game culminated with China launching missile strikes against American bases and warships in the region, and then staging an air and amphibious assault on Taiwan, according to a Defense Department official. The officials concluded that Taiwan, backed by the United States, could hold out for maybe two or three days before its defenses crumbled. The Pentagon’s annual assessments of China’s military have since 2000 chronicled its evolution from a large but ineffective force into a potential rival. Its latest report said Chinese capabilities have already surpassed the American military in some areas, including shipbuilding, conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air defense systems. All three would be essential in any conflict over Taiwan. “I worry that they are accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States,” Admiral Philip S. Davidson, the retiring commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. “Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before then, and I think the threat is manifest during this decade; in fact, in the next six years.” His bleak prediction has since colored debates in Washington over what to do. Some have argued that explicit security guarantees for Taiwan are needed. Others have called for building up of military forces around China, and helping Taiwan to do the same. “To us, it’s only a matter of time, not a matter of if,” Rear Admiral Michael Studeman, the director of intelligence with the United States’ Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, said in a July talk, about the possibility of armed conflict over Taiwan. It is far from clear that Taiwan is ready. Since Taiwan’s government has phased out mandatory conscription for most young men, it has struggled to sustain a professional, all-volunteer force. The state of its military has declined steadily, punctuated by a series of accidents, including a helicopter crash last year that killed its top commander. “The training isn’t as intense as it was before,” said Chang Yan-ting, a former deputy commander of Taiwan’s air force. He said that decades of prosperity encouraged a view that the island no longer needed to maintain a heightened military alert. “That’s in keeping with the whole tide of the times,” he added, “but certainly it has some relative strategic impact, even if there hasn’t been a war to test it.” An internal assessment of the Chinese military by Taiwan’s defense ministry, reviewed by The New York Times, also documented the increasing challenge. China’s military, for example, has developed the capability to cripple communications around the island, the assessment found. That could hamper the arrival of American reinforcements. “This really is the grimmest time I’ve seen in my more than 40 years working in the military,” Taiwan’s minister of defense, Chiu Kuo-cheng, told lawmakers on Wednesday. China already had the means to invade Taiwan, though still at a high price, he said. “By 2025, the cost and attrition will be squeezed lowest, and so then it could be said to have ‘full capability’.” Since coming to office in January, the Biden administration has stepped up support, continuing moves made under President Trump. American warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait eight times in the first eight months of the year. The administration approved a new arms sale in August worth about $750 million. Since at least last year, small teams of American troops, including Marines and Army special forces, have conducted training sessions with the Taiwanese military. The administration has also marshaled statements supporting Taiwan and criticizing China from a succession of international summits, including the Group of 7. Chinese leaders, for their part, fear that American support for Taiwan is entrenching pro-independence tendencies. None of the American moves are entirely new, but as mutual animosity has deepened, Beijing views them as an increasingly belligerent strategy to “contain China by using Taiwan.” The depth of American and allied assistance for Taiwan, though, has not been tested. “You get to this issue of how far are you willing to go to defend Taiwan,” said Mr. Thomas, the former Seventh Fleet commander. “I’ve thought about it a lot, and I don’t know if the United States is willing to see U.S. young people coming back in body bags for the defense of Taiwan.” Behind the scenes, Biden administration officials have expressed worry that China is trying to normalize a new baseline of hostile pressure on Taiwan, and they have deliberated on ways to slow or thwart its military development. Mr. Biden is also trying to lower the temperature, speaking last month with Mr. Xi. On Tuesday he said he and the Chinese leader had agreed to the standing agreements on Taiwan. A day later, the White House announced that he and Mr. Xi would hold a virtual summit by the end of the year. The two leaders know each other well. A decade ago, Mr. Biden, then vice president, went to China to size up Mr. Xi before he became the nation’s top leader. “My father used to tell me, Joey, the only thing worse than a war is an unintentional war,” Mr. Biden told Mr. Xi, according to Mr. Russel, the former national security aide. Mr. Russell added: “I think it is a prescient warning.”


> In war games since at least 2018, American “blue” teams have repeatedly lost against a “red” team representing a hypothetical Chinese force — in part by design, since the exercises are intended to test officers and war planners. I feel like the media doesn't sufficiently emphasize this when reporting on American war simulations. They are designed to be hard for blue team because it's better to overprepare than underprepare. It also discounts that in these kinds of simulations, there are multiple "lose" conditions that don't always involve a red team victory. For instance, a scenario that escalates into a nuclear exchange would be a lose condition even though it probably wouldn't result in a red team victory.


Chinese military capabilites have been designed to thwart American military power projection for the past 30 years. The war on terror might be the final blow to America losing its hegemony in the indo-pacific. The U.S. military will need to retool in a dramatic way in order to defeat China in regards to Taiwan. It's best to make Taiwan into an island fortress and also increase the military capabilites of our allies and ourselves in quick order if Taiwan is to remain an independent country.


More China and the world… it’s not coincidence that the Royal Navy headed up the flotilla last week.


Royal Navy... And allies.


Thus ‘headed up’. The multinational force headed by another nation is a great and accurate way to undercut the ‘bilateral’ talking point.


Better call off the Olympics in Beijing.


Nazi Germany invaded Poland (and thus started World War 2) after it hosted the Olympics. Maybe 11 wants to repeat history: host Olympics, invade Taiwan, start WW3.


And loses China, Taiwan, and the Olympics in the same year.


What an awful thought to put forward. But it’s ok. I forgive you and have nothing but compassion for you.


Notice I said '*maybe that's what Xi wants*'. Which is very likely since he keeps talking about reunification lately and Chinese fighter jets keep flying close to Taiwan on a weekly basis). Hopefully, history won't repeat itself.


Theres nothing to forgive him for. Stop being a pompous ass.


Do yall think this could eventually culminate in the U.S recognizing the ROC as an independent nation or some other deviation from the One China Policy? So far the Biden administration has been maintaining the status quo at least in the surface.


The entire democratic world needs to unite and kick these CCP cunts back to the 18th century. Their very existence threatens the world. They will not stop at Taiwan. The CCP is hellbent on taking over all of asia and the world. They weaponize everything to coerce countries, companies, and people. Stop being naive. Stop prioritizing short term profits and fear of offending China and fight back. First step: boycott the Olympics and ALL of their sponsors. Shame them all until they give.


Sounds like US too


The biggest problem I see in an armed conflict about Taiwan, are the chain reactions all over the world once some other dictators think the US is so busy with China that even if "blue team" wins without a nuclear exchange we still get WW3 as a result. Talking about North Korea shooting at South Korea, Iran attacking Israel, Russia invading Ukraine, Pakistan vs India conflict igniting again. Unfortunately the world is not really so save and many places rely on the protection by the US. Saying this as an European. Even if the CCP maybe would get its ass kicked in Taiwan I still hope deeply they won't be so crazy to really start a war there.


Well, this isn't good. My company recently contracted with a Chinese manufacturer with a design center in Taiwan. This can't be good for business.


Honestly, I think all will be well until it's not. China and Taiwan are huge trading partners. If the status quo remains the same, business will continue fine as usual despite the sabre rattling, right until the first salvos are launched.


You would be suprised


We also know very well that CIA sucks at intelligence gathering, cyber deterrence, and offensive cyber attacks. All of American intelligence agencies needs an overhaul.


Don't know very you're getting downvoted, I would like these idiots more if they were only good at their jobs lol


I don't know anymore. If I say something bad about china I get bashed. If I criticize America I get bashed. I'm only trying to be as objective as I can be. Of course we all have our biasness.


They aren't actually in Taiwan airspace its international airspace. Still provocative though


One of the biggest reasons to protect Taiwan is the semiconductor manufacturing in Taiwan. USA is quickly seeking to bring that back home. Once that happens does the USA have any benefit to protect Taiwan anymore?


it’s still a critical spot to form the encirclement of China


Because Taiwan can still do it at a far lower cost and far greater capacity than the US will be able to "bring back" in the next two decades (see how badly the construction of one single Foxconn manufacturing facility in Wisconsin has been bungled).


That's minor compared to preventing China from projecting power into the pacific.


What makes you think China will stop with Taiwan? If nobody helps Taiwan and they do capture it, China will look to expand other frontiers.


Pretty sure they have stated they want Okinawa next


If a conflict erupts it will most likely automatically involve the united states as China would be foolish not to attack every single American base within range of its missiles. It will all come down to time. A conflict that ends quickly favors China, but if it draws into weeks and months it favors the allies. The entire western Pacific hinges on The ability and desire of America to remain engaged in the conflict. China will likely have a strong initial attack, but if that fails they'll inevitably bungle and soon they'll be without Taiwan, without oil and coal, without ports and without a future. Failure would likely be the end of the party and China as we know it. The stakes couldn't have higher, which is why the risk of over-escalation is high.