The United States can use geographic and technological advantages to raise the costs to China. This might not prevent missile strikes, a maritime blockade, or the seizure of outlying islands, but it could deter a full-scale invasion of Taiwan.
How can the United States continue to deter coercion and conflict across the Taiwan Strait? This is perhaps the most important and difficult question that the American defense community faces today. The Biden administration has called China “the pacing challenge” for the US military, and US officials have labeled an invasion of Taiwan “the pacing scenario.”
Nonetheless, many are concerned that the current approach to cross-Strait deterrence may not be sustainable, because the military balance is rapidly shifting in China’s favor.1 Many now argue that the United States is losing—or has already lost—military primacy in East Asia. In this chapter, we assert that the United States does not need to have primacy throughout maritime Asia, with full air and sea control, to attain its military objectives in the Taiwan Strait. This chapter explains why and how this is the case by examining four key trends, four Chinese military options, and four potential US responses.
Four fundamental trends are underway across the Taiwan Strait, each of which has substantial implications for cross-Strait stability. The first two— political dynamics and military imbalances—make conflict more likely. The second two—geographic features and technological innovations— make conflict less likely. Understanding the interactions among these four factors is crucial to managing cross-Strait risks.
First, political dynamics across the Taiwan Strait are becoming more difficult to manage because Beijing’s actions have all but eliminated mainland China’s hopes for peaceful unification. The Communist Party’s repressive actions in Hong Kong have undercut its insistence that the “one country, two systems” model should appeal to those living in Taiwan. As this political solution becomes less realistic, leaders in China are considering alternatives that might force unification. Beijing’s recent political warfare, diplomatic and economic pressure, air sorties around Taiwan, landing drills opposite Taiwan, and naval exercises in the East China Sea all serve as reminders of Beijing’s coercive options against Taiwan. In short, China’s prospects for a peaceful political solution to the Taiwan situation are receding and triggering a renewed debate in China about whether Beijing should use military tools to forcibly unify Taiwan with the mainland.
Second, there is a growing military imbalance between China and Taiwan. The gap in defense spending is widening: China now spends 13 times as much on its military as Taiwan spends on its own, to say nothing of the Communist Party’s internal security forces, which could also be used in a conflict. Taiwan’s standing military consists of 190,000 troops, less than a tenth of China’s two million active military personnel. The Pentagon’s most recent Chinese military power report assesses that China has 416,000 ground-force personnel near the Taiwan Strait, while Taiwan has only 88,000.2 In wartime, Taiwan could hope to mobilize its two million reservists, but only 300,000 of Taiwan’s reservists are required to participate in yearly refresher training.3 It is unclear whether Taiwan’s entire force would be prepared and capable of fighting under high-intensity combat conditions. There are real questions, therefore, about whether Taiwan will be capable of deterring China on its own. Thus, the prospect of US military involvement is increasingly important for cross-Strait deterrence.
These political and military factors imply that conflict between China and Taiwan is all but inevitable, yet two key trends are pushing in the other direction. One is Taiwan’s geography, which would challenge an invading force. The main island of Taiwan is 245 miles long and 90 miles across at its widest point—roughly the same size as the Taiwan Strait that Chinese forces would have to cross.4 The terrain is highly mountainous, including 258 mountain peaks taller than 9,800 feet. And there are only a handful of deep-water ports, most of which are at the island’s north and south ends. Taiwan is also urbanized, with a population of 23.6 million in under 36,000 square kilometers—roughly the same population as Australia but in 0.5 percent of its territory.5
Therefore, China would have to cross a large body of water to launch an invasion against a densely populated island spread across mountainous territory. Amphibious invasions are notoriously difficult, so observers should not expect that China could carry out such an operation without substantial operational risk.
In addition, attempting an invasion of Taiwan would put China on the costlier side of the power-projection curve; Beijing would have to project power against an entrenched adversary that is trying to deny it. Power projection is fundamentally platform-centric, and therefore expensive, whereas anti-access and area denial are more munitions-centric and thus comparatively cheap. Precision-guided munitions enable even relatively weak forces to sink surface ships, hit fixed bases, and shoot down aircraft.
To invade Taiwan successfully, China would need to maintain forces in contested areas for extended periods, a mission that would require a panoply of pricey platforms (and skilled operators)—potentially including amphibious ships, aircraft carriers, submarines, anti-submarine warfare forces, surveillance aircraft, refueling tankers, and replenishment vessels. Taiwan or the United States could threaten these platforms by using cheaper denial systems, such as advanced missiles that, according to a recent RAND Corporation study, cost on average 1/50th the amount of the power-projection systems they could neutralize in war.6
These four trends focus on one central question: Can the United States use geographic and technological asymmetries to offset the Taiwan Strait’s worsening political and military situations? We now turn to this question, focusing in more detail on China’s four military options and how smart choices from US leaders could deter each.
The most high-intensity scenario involving Taiwan would be an outright invasion of its main island. Conquering Taiwan is the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) top warfighting mission, but the China military power report asserts that the PLA is not currently capable of mounting a successful invasion of Taiwan.7 The report does, however, assess that China “has a range of options for military campaigns against Taiwan, from an air and maritime blockade to a full-scale amphibious invasion to seize and occupy some or all of Taiwan or its offshore islands.”8 This section looks at four options China has for doing this: barraging Taiwan with missile strikes, blockading it, seizing its outlying islands, and launching an amphibious invasion of its main island.
Air and Missile Strikes. According to some PLA strategy documents, China would begin a war with Taiwan by bombing its air and naval bases, missile batteries, and command centers with ground- and air-launched missiles. The purpose would be to destroy most of Taiwan’s air defenses and offensive forces before they could fight back.
In 2000, the PLA had only a few hundred inaccurate missiles and a few dozen advanced aircraft. Today, however, China has 1,500 accurate missiles aimed at Taiwan and more than 1,000 advanced fighter aircraft.9 This raises the risk that China could annihilate Taiwan’s air defenses, ground its air force, and sink most of its warships.
The success of a Chinese air-and-missile bombardment would depend on several factors, the first of which is how much notice Taiwan would have ahead of the attack. Taiwan has two dozen fixed early warning radars, 10 ground-mobile radars, six E-2 Hawkeye aircraft, thousands of spies on the Chinese mainland, and satellite intelligence provided by the United States.
Taiwanese intelligence has often detected PLA actions in advance. In 2013, for example, the Taiwanese government had early warning about China’s pending announcement of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea. If China planned an all-out assault on Taiwan, it would require an operation involving hundreds of thousands of personnel, and Taiwan’s military would probably discover it days, if not weeks, in advance. Conversely, for a smaller Chinese attack, such as an assault on offshore islands, Taiwan might have little, if any, warning.
Second, the success of a Chinese attack would depend on how quickly Taiwan could deploy its navy and disperse its combat aircraft among the dozens of airfields scattered around the island. Some of these location have aircraft facilities built inside mountains. Others have hardened aircraft shelters with thick concrete walls. If PLA missiles disabled Taiwan’s air bases early in a conflict, Taiwanese aircraft could still operate from a dozen civilian airstrips and numerous highways, where Taiwanese forces have already deployed fuel and supplies.
Taiwan also could shoot down some Chinese missiles and aircraft and strike Chinese bases and missile batteries. Taiwan has dozens of surface-to-air missile batteries, nearly all of which are road mobile, and at least 400 road-mobile antiaircraft guns.10 In addition, Taiwan has at least 12 road-mobile cruise-missile launchers; 50 short-range ballistic-missile launchers; several hundred howitzers located on Quemoy, an offshore island a few miles from China; and several hundred fighter aircraft and dozens of ships that can fire long-range cruise missiles.11
Some of Taiwan’s major weapons systems would likely survive a Chinese missile bombardment. In the Gulf War and the war in Kosovo, the United States and its allies pummeled Iraq and Serbia for weeks, yet some of each adversary’s road-mobile missile launchers survived. The same has been true in Russia’s war against Ukraine. But if China has greater success and destroys most of Taiwan’s air and naval forces in a surprise attack, it would quickly establish air and sea dominance and could then move on to an invasion or coercive campaign.
An alternative coercive tactic would be a strategic bombing campaign, in which the PLA tries to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence by leveling some of its cities and infrastructure. Opinion polls show that most Taiwanese are willing to risk conflict with China to maintain Taiwan’s de facto independence but not to achieve de jure independence.12 Thus, China could seek to deter Taiwan from officially declaring independence (or compel it to reverse any move toward formal independence) by carrying out a bombing campaign.
But it would be difficult for China to compel Taiwan to give up its de facto sovereignty by bombing its cities. Strategic bombing alone has never forced an opponent to surrender its sovereignty. Modern states adapt to the loss of critical infrastructure, and civilian populations react by digging in and rallying around their home government. Strategic bombing not only is historically ineffective, as seen by history’s 14 unsuccessful strategic bombing campaigns, but also does not neatly serve China’s ultimate political objectives.13 In past bombing campaigns, the attacker simply wanted the defender to halt some action, a goal that theoretically could be achieved by bombing the defender into ruin. China, by contrast, wants to absorb Taiwan as a prosperous Chinese province and turn Taiwan’s people into loyal Chinese citizens. Leveling Taipei and killing thousands of Taiwanese civilians would not achieve that end.
Maritime Blockade. An alternative option would be for China to coerce Taiwan into submission through a blockade in which the PLA tries to strangle Taiwan’s economy by preventing commercial ships from reaching its ports. Taiwan imports most of its food and 98 percent of its energy resources and has only a four-month emergency supply of food and a three-month supply of oil.14 Its small coastline requires large container ships to take predictable paths to seven major ports, four of which are located on Taiwan’s west coast—facing China.
China’s most aggressive option would be to destroy Taiwan’s offensive forces, ports, and offshore oil terminals in a surprise missile attack and then have PLA submarines and combat aircraft sink cargo ships and scatter mines near Taiwan’s ports. If China’s surprise attack destroyed all of Taiwan’s offensive forces and port infrastructure, Taiwan would have no way to unload cargo containers or oil tankers, causing its economy to grind to a halt.
China would hope that Taiwan would quickly concede, but history suggests a PLA blockade would need to last several weeks, if not months or years, to force Taiwan to capitulate. The reason is that modern states typically adapt to supply shortages, and civilian populations are usually willing to hold out under harsh conditions to defy a foreign enemy. For example, the most comprehensive blockade in history was the US blockade of Japan in the early 1940s (code-named Operation Starvation), which slashed Japan’s imports by 97 percent. Japan, however, surrendered only after US forces decimated the Japanese military, firebombed its major cities, and dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.15
Moreover, if China maintained a blockade for an extended period, it would be vulnerable to sanctions, attacks, and counterblockades from other powers. Historically, anti-submarine warfare forces have been able to disrupt blockades. Germany’s attempted blockade of Allied shipping in World War II, for example, became increasingly porous once the Allies launched a dedicated anti-submarine warfare campaign, and Iran’s and Iraq’s attempts to blockade each other in the 1980s mostly failed because neither side could maintain sea control. The US blockade of Japan in World War II, by contrast, was enforced only after the United States dominated the waters around Japan.
Offshore Island Seizure. Another option for China is to seize one of Taiwan’s offshore islands to test Chinese capabilities, assess American resolve, undermine Taiwanese confidence, or use the island as a jumping-off point for annexing Taiwan itself.
To conduct an amphibious assault on Taiwan proper, experts estimate that at least one to two million PLA combat troops would have to cross the Taiwan Strait.16 Thousands of ships, ferries, fishing boats, container carriers, and cargo ships would need to carry PLA troops across the strait. Some believe that the PLA Navy does not currently have the necessary number of warships since the PLA would have to simultaneously protect shipping lanes, support operations against Taiwan, and land PLA forces on Taiwan.17 Furthermore, mobilizing so many people and resources could make detection easier, thus eliminating the element of surprise.
It might therefore be more attractive for Chinese forces to practice such an invasion against a real opponent by seizing one of Taiwan’s outlying islands. This would send a political signal about Beijing’s seriousness without risking the failure that could come with invading Taiwan. Taiwan could make such a seizure painful for China, bleeding the PLA and sapping its strength, hopefully long enough to preclude a move on the main island. But defending these outlying features is likely to be nearly impossible, even for the United States, given the geographic closeness of some of the islands to China.
For decades, studies have suggested that China could conduct a phased invasion of Taiwan by seizing Quemoy.18 Although Quemoy is heavily fortified with tunnel and bunker complexes, it has at most 50,000 defenders. If China seizes Quemoy quickly, Taiwan would have to decide whether to accept a fait accompli. If the Chinese can succeed in taking Quemoy, the next logical step would be an invasion of the Pescadores Islands, which are only 30 miles from the main island of Taiwan.
Another option would be for China to seize Pratas Island, which is situated 275 miles from Taiwan’s main island. Taiwan has deployed hundreds of soldiers there, recognizing that Chinese seizure of Pratas, despite its small size, would have broader implications. For instance, it could be a way for China to test the waters ahead of a more aggressive campaign, such as seizing Quemoy, the Pescadores, and Taiwan’s main island.
Defending some of Taiwan’s offshore islands from falling under China’s control is close to impossible. Fortifying them with anti-access and area-denial platforms could, however, make the costs of conquering them unpalatable. Furthermore, the seizure of offshore islands would give the United States, Taiwan, and the rest of the international community warning that a full-scale invasion of Taiwan proper is likely next, providing time and incentive to prepare. For all these reasons, Chinese leaders may think twice about seizing Taiwan’s offshore islands, as they could pay a high cost to gain hold of them.
Amphibious Invasion. An amphibious invasion is the most difficult mission in warfare. An attacker must first achieve air superiority, then land forces in a place where they outnumber the defender and surge reinforcements to the landing zone faster than the defender does. In the successful amphibious invasions of World War II and the Korean War, the United States and its allies enjoyed all these advantages yet still suffered huge losses.
Assuming that China already has air superiority, it would need to land enough troops on Taiwan’s shores to secure a beachhead and then reinforce that position faster than Taiwan’s defenders could converge on the landing site. China has roughly 100 amphibious ships. If they all survived the daylong trip across the Taiwan Strait, they could land roughly 30,000 troops and 800 armored vehicles on Taiwan’s shores. China could supplement these amphibious ships with hundreds of repurposed ferries and fishing vessels and dozens of coast guard ships. Most of these vessels, however, cannot hold large numbers of armored vehicles or landing craft, so most troops ferried by them would have to disembark and trudge ashore on foot. In addition, Chinese civilian ships lack heavy armor and defensive weapons, so they would be vulnerable to attack from Taiwanese coastal artillery.
Another difficulty China would face is that only 10 percent of Taiwan’s coastline is suitable for amphibious landing. The east coast consists of steep cliffs, and PLA landing craft would have to sail many hours around Taiwan to reach it—a journey during which they might encounter high sea states, which are common in those waters, and attacks from any surviving Taiwanese ships, aircraft, or shore-based missile launchers. On the other hand, the west coast consists mostly of mudflats that extend miles out to sea. To avoid getting stuck in the mud, PLA units would have to land at high tide at one of a few suitable locations. Taiwan’s defenders know those locations well and have defenses prepared on them and forces based near them.
Having made an initial landing, Chinese forces would need to reinforce the initial assault faster than Taiwan could strengthen its defenses at the point of attack. By some estimates, the PLA could ferry roughly 25,000 troops per day to the landing zone using its amphibious ships, assuming none are destroyed or broken down, and more if it uses fishing, coast guard, and civilian transport vessels. It also could supplement its invasion with an airlift of several brigades. These numbers, however, do not account for attrition, which would depend in part on the size and skill of Taiwan’s defending force.
Taiwan’s military still has a long list of shortcomings. As part of its ongoing transition to an all-volunteer military, Taiwan has reduced the length of conscription from one year to four months. Recruits receive only a few weeks of basic training, and reservists are called up for just a few days each year. Many Taiwanese soldiers lack basic tactical knowledge, have rarely practiced firing their weapons, and suffer low morale. Taiwan also has underfunded its logistics force. In some cases, soldiers have avoided training with their weapons for fear of accidents or wasting precious ammunition.
Yet even a small and weak Taiwanese force could complicate a Chinese invasion. Unless China destroys all of Taiwan’s anti-ship missile launchers, Taiwan could strike PLA amphibious ships as they load in Chinese ports or transit the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan also could bombard PLA landing craft with short-range artillery fire as they make their final 20-minute run into the beach.
Past operations suggest the PLA could lose many ships. For example, during the 1982 Falklands War, the United Kingdom carried out the only major amphibious assault in the past 40 years against an Argentine military with fewer than 100 combat aircraft, five anti-ship cruise missiles, and some World War II–era “dumb” bombs. Yet the Argentines managed to sink 15 percent of Britain’s naval task force (five ships out of 33) and damage an additional 35 percent, even though British ships never came within 400 miles of Argentina’s coast. China’s ships, by contrast, would be operating within 100 miles of Taiwan from the moment they left Chinese ports and be targeted by much more numerous and advanced forces armed with precision-guided munitions. Attrition rates would almost surely be higher than what Britain suffered in the Falklands War.
Once PLA ships land on Taiwan’s shores, Chinese troops would need to run up the beaches and attack Taiwanese defenses. During the D-Day assault of 1944, the United States lost roughly 10 percent of its troops on the beaches while attacking a severely overstretched German army (most German units were in Eastern Europe, fighting the Soviet Union), in many cases defending hastily dug positions on foreign soil with mortars, cannons, and small arms. If the PLA invaded Taiwan today, it would be attacking massed forces defending home soil with precision-guided munitions, attack helicopters, tanks, and smart mines. PLA losses during each wave, therefore, could be much higher than 10 percent.
Based on an analysis of these four potential contingencies, we conclude that Chinese leaders can only control Taiwan through an inherently risky full-scale invasion. Therefore, though we address these other options, none would likely result in Beijing forcing Taipei into submission. The only way for China to gain sovereignty over Taiwan is likely by outright physical occupation of its main island, which should, as a result, ultimately be the top focus for US defense planning. This means accepting some risk that missile strikes, a blockade, or outlying-island seizure could occur, but we assert that these scenarios should not be seen as the pacing contingency when evaluating the viability of US plans for a Taiwan Strait contingency. If US planners are able to satisfy the needs of the amphibious-invasion scenario, then they should turn to the other three conflict scenarios.
Given China’s development of anti-access and area-denial capabilities and its proximity to the likely zones of conflict, it will not be possible for the United States to establish sea or air control within several hundred miles of China’s territory early in a conflict, in contrast to the situation of the past 70 years. Fortunately, the United States does not need to control the seas and skies within the first island chain to stop a cross-Strait invasion; it only needs to be able to deny China’s sea and air control. Therefore, the United States should shift to a denial strategy to prevent China from controlling waters and airspace along and within the first island chain. This section looks at four areas in which the United States should consider altering its approach to better deter a Taiwan Strait contingency: readiness, modernization, force structure, and force posture.
Readiness. The slew of recent US Navy ship collisions underscores that crucial air and naval forces are being overstretched by a combination of high operational tempo and lack of investment in maintenance and training. American forces are everywhere at once; they conduct a seemingly endless number of missions around the world, limiting their ability to focus on and prepare for a potential Chinese assault on Taiwan.
Several steps could be taken to free up resources for readiness. First, the US could reduce certain missions outside Asia, which tie up forces and wear down the military’s most in-demand combat units. Second, it could shift more investment to denial systems, such as cruise missiles, that would be crucial in a war with China. In many cases, the constant presence of denial systems could provide more consistent combat capability than a rotational deployment of large and vulnerable systems. Third, the US could reduce the size and readiness of its heavy ground forces, both active and reserve, protecting funding to keep conventional missile forces, advanced aircraft, and maritime assets in a high-readiness state.
Modernization. To change the status quo in maritime Asia—vis-à-vis Taiwan, in particular—China has to cross a large body of water with substantial numbers of forces. The United States will remain vulnerable to a Chinese first strike, given it has a limited number of bases in the region.
But US forces can deny China’s power-projection efforts and thereby deter revisionism by developing robust sea-denial capabilities. Washington should also encourage US allies and partners to build similar capabilities by providing them with loans, arms, training, and intelligence.
The United States should develop and deploy conventional missile forces and lethal drones for these purposes. It should also train and equip ground forces to conduct expeditionary long-range precision fires. Where possible, the US should pre-position these forces on allied territory in potential conflict zones. This would help turn East Asia into a sensor-rich environment by massively increasing the production and deployment of unmanned sensors, radars, and reconnaissance vehicles. The United States can also build additional undersea systems, such as towed payload modules that can be deployed in the region ahead of a conflict, and install missile launchers on barges to ensure it can strike both Chinese surface ships and land targets at the outset of a conflict.
Force Structure. Asia is largely a maritime theater, so the US Army has a limited role in most China scenarios. To the extent that funding constrains US force structure, elements of the active Army can be cut substantially, with some force structure shifting to the National Guard. A portion of the Army should also follow the Marine Corps’s lead in shifting resources away from heavy units toward long-range, land-based missile forces for cross-domain operations. Savings from the Army could be used to invest in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force.This reprioritization should focus on winning a long-range salvo competition. To do so, the Navy should de-emphasize aircraft carriers, unless it can protect them in the modern threat environment. Meanwhile, it should invest in additional undersea capabilities and missile capacity. The Air Force should de-emphasize purchases of short-range fighters and instead increase bomber numbers, including autonomous or teamed aircraft. The Marine Corps should continue developing a stand-in force that can operate inside the threat ring within the East Asian littoral.
Force Posture. The United States should forward deploy more air-, sea-, and ground-based missile forces in Asia. It must prioritize areas near the first island chain—including Japan and the Philippines—and Australia, the Pacific Islands, and other locations. This would help reduce US reliance on Guam by developing other regional access points, thereby decreasing the possibility that China might launch a first strike against US forces at the outset of a conflict.
Doing so might require more reliance on an offshore-balancing strategy in the Middle East, limiting the US peacetime presence there to a skeletal base structure and Special Operations Forces. New spending should be devoted to increasing the number and resiliency of forward-operating sites in maritime East Asia. Spending should include hardening existing bases on Okinawa and Guam and developing additional ports, airfields, and missile batteries, with particular emphasis on building new facilities on the Marianas and securing access to facilities in the Philippines.
Deterring coercion and conflict across the Taiwan Strait is no simple task, given the political, strategic, technical, and cultural challenges involved. But as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley noted in congressional testimony, the difficulty of an invasion of Taiwan is still a major barrier for China.19 The United States can use geographic and technological advantages to raise the costs to China. This might not prevent missile strikes, a maritime blockade, or the seizure of outlying islands, but it could deter a full-scale invasion of Taiwan.