Although today’s world is fraught and fragile, the rules-based order is in many ways in good shape. The broad coalition of Western democracies, undergirded militarily by American armed forces and nuclear deterrence, collectively accounts for at least two-thirds of world GDP and defense spending.
Alliances like that between Japan and the United States are further buttressed by the forward deployment of U.S. combat units and realistic exercises. Deterrence seems to be working. The absence of a war between great powers since 1953 is testament to how much we have collectively gotten right in strategic terms — even as new threats such as COVID-19 test our every capacity and demand cooperation with countries like China to the extent possible.
Yet as noted, the world is fragile, and thus none of this is guaranteed to last. Perhaps the most likely path to a great-power war in today’s world would be a crisis over Taiwan that spins out of control.
Debate on how to prevent such a conflict is intensifying in the United States, with Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass calling for an end to so-called “strategic ambiguity” and a clear commitment by Washington to come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of war.
Others like former Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg have pushed back, arguing that the existing policy has served us well. Either way, if a crisis did happen, how could we reduce the risks that it would escalate to an all-out war that could of course also involve Japan?
Should Taiwan push for independence or should China get tired of waiting for reunification, trouble could again ensue. Beijing might convince itself that a blockade-centered operation against Taiwan, designed to force it to reverse whatever purportedly offending action or rhetoric might have caused China’s reaction in the first place, would present acceptable risks.
In principle, China could scale back or suspend enforcement of the blockade at any point if it needed to, and could do so while saving face, especially if the blockade was conducted principally by submarines. Moreover, Beijing might believe that even a partially effective naval blockade could be a potent instrument of coercion against Taiwan.
China would not need to stop all commercial ships transiting into and out of Taiwan. It would simply need to deter enough ships from risking the journey that Taiwan’s economy would suffer badly. The goal would likely be to squeeze the island economically to the point of capitulation.
This solution might seem quite elegant from Beijing’s point of view: It could involve little or no loss of life, little or no damage to Taiwan itself and give Chinese leaders the option to back off the attack if the United States seemed prepared to intervene or if the world community slapped major trade sanctions on China in response.
In any such blockade, China might well combine various elements of military power, including cyberattack capabilities, into a multidimensional operation. It could attack Taiwan’s command and control capabilities; if the United States intervened, it could seek to neutralize America’s space-based assets, too.
The centerpiece of the approach could be, as mentioned earlier, China’s submarine fleet. The nation’s submarine force has improved by leaps and bounds in recent decades. Over the past 20 years, its fleet of modern attack subs has grown from roughly two to 40. China’s precision-strike capabilities have improved to the point that it could conceivably use preemptive missile and air attacks against Taiwanese airfields, ports and associated infrastructure to hobble the island’s ability to strike and fight back.
If they chose to try to break the blockade, the basic concept of operations for Washington and Taipei would probably be to assemble enough forces in the western Pacific to set up a protected shipping lane east of Taiwan. To carry out that mission, the United States together with Taiwan, and perhaps Japan, would need to establish air superiority throughout a large part of the region.
The United States, Taiwan and the others might have to do all this without assured access to some of their satellite architecture. That is because China’s abilities to shoot down or disable low-Earth orbit satellites through direct-ascent interceptors, directed-energy weapons or by other means, have improved in recent years.
Twenty years ago, I examined this scenario and concluded that the United States, with or without allied help, could confidently prevail in such an engagement, albeit perhaps losing several ships along the way. Today, I am much less optimistic.
What that means for military force planning and war planning is complex. The United States should not signal to Beijing that it is somehow intimidated from coming to the defense of Taiwan because of the difficulties that might come with such an operation. It would be a difficult and very risky conflict for China, too, and there is no point in depriving the United States and its allies of instruments that may contribute to deterrence.
In addition to reserving the right to conduct a counter-blockade operation, the Western allies should think creatively about other kinds of forcible and, perhaps, indirect military responses. Ideally, they should be relatively nonescalatory, in the sense of threatening relatively few people. They could also be geographically asymmetric, so as to play to U.S. strengths and avoid fighting on home turf for China.
Specifically, ships transporting oil or gas from the Persian Gulf to China could be either seized or incapacitated using precision ordnance — or even advanced nonlethal weapons. Even though it may not always be possible to determine which vessels are headed for China, since supertankers sometimes set sail before buyers for their oil have been found, such methods could still be effective. The assets of companies that continued to trade with China, or ships that have previously been involved in evading sanctions, could be subsequently targeted in a blockade that strengthened over time.
Here is the key point for today: Chinese retaliation of various kinds would have to be anticipated in such a situation. These considerations therefore put a premium on enhancing the resiliency of the United States, as well as its key allies, especially against the kinds of limited harassment attacks and partial supply cutoffs that would seem the most likely Russian or Chinese recourses.
For this military scenario, the most important form of preparation is in fact not military at all; it is, rather, to mitigate the developed world’s economic dependence on key commodities and components made in China. We have seen this before, with rare earth metals and the Senkaku Islands in 2010.
We would be foolish not to prepare against a similar possibility today. And if we do so, the chances of all-out war over Taiwan should decline considerably, because we will have other and better and less escalatory options.
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at Brookings and author of “The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint.”
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