The Pentagon, with its outdated policies, may not have the luxury of time when a crisis develops.
‘Strategic ambiguity” is the longstanding U.S. policy toward Taiwan, but President Biden’s approach has been more ambiguous than strategic. Asked at an Oct. 21 town hall whether he would defend the island nation against a Chinese attack, Mr. Biden replied, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” The White House then “clarified” his answer by reasserting its commitment to ambiguity.
All this begs the question: What should the U.S. do in defense of Taiwan? And it raises a broader one: What should the U.S. do to counter China’s military challenge?
These two inextricable questions are united by U.S. policy makers’ failure to answer either. China’s strategic objective is to monopolize the South and East China seas and use the resulting economic power to reshape the global order. But doing so requires breaking the U.S. Indo-Pacific alliance system, which in turn requires shattering the First Island Chain, which runs through the Japanese archipelago, Luzon in the Philippines, and Borneo, terminating with the Vietnamese coastline. The First Island Chain limits China’s maritime exit points into the Philippine Sea and the Indian Ocean, making control central to Chinese strategy. Taiwan lies at the center of the First Island Chain.
In such a conflict, deterrence and warfare become synonymous in policy. The U.S. has yet to articulate what victory would mean in a war with China. The Biden administration has suggested no desire to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party and replace it with a regime that respects international order. Rather, the objective seems to be to maintain the status quo, which means defending the sovereignty of all Pacific states, the territorial integrity of regional allies including Taiwan, and the freedom of navigation that undergirds the international system. Accomplishing these objectives means convincing China to stand down from its increasing regional aggression or in a war, to sue for peace. Accomplishing that requires identifying what China holds most valuable.
The answer is simple. The Chinese Communist Party desires survival. President Xi Jinping fears that the managed capitalism of his predecessors won’t prevent the emergence of a middle class that challenges the party domestically. He has turned for inspiration to three past Chinese rulers: Mao Zedong ; Qin Shi Huang (247-221 B.C.), the first Chinese emperor; and Gaozu (202-195 B.C.), the first Han emperor.
The most effective way to destroy the Chinese economy is a long-term blockade. A Sino-American confrontation would trigger a global economic depression that would harm Americans and their allies. But democracies’ electoral legitimacy makes them more resilient to such shocks than authoritarian regimes. A war-generated economic downturn in the West would bring high unemployment and tighter household budgets in the U.S. and, at the very least, an energy crisis elsewhere in the world. In China, such a downturn would usher in cascading power failures, production stoppages, soaring unemployment, and likely riots challenging the Communist Party’s legitimacy.
The huge Chinese social-media site Weibo reveals discontent with some government acts. For example, despite being accused of murder, Ou Jinzhong, who died Oct. 18 while awaiting arrest by Chinese police, received widespread public support on Weibo. He had lived in a shack for five years while local officials denied his requests to build a proper home. Similarly, although the Communist Party appears to have the Evergrande default under control, protests in Shenzhen and Hubei broke out when the full extent of the disaster was revealed.
China isn’t on the cusp of revolution. But the party understands that a sustained economic downturn would trigger unrest that could overwhelm its internal security. A blockade carries risks, not least because it is a long-term strategy that the U.S. would conduct over months or years. The People’s Liberation Army may believe that it can destroy enough U.S. combat ships in the first weeks of a war that such a blockade would become unfeasible, or that co-belligerents—likely Iran, Pakistan and Russia—would complicate the blockade enough to reduce its viability. Beijing may—understandably—assess that the U.S. logistics fleet is unlikely to sustain a multimonth conflict, and that Washington lacks the political will to do so.
Or Beijing may miscalculate, encounter its worst-case scenario, and adopt Russia’s mentality to “escalate to terminate”—that is, use nuclear weapons. The general assumption that the U.S. and its allies are better equipped to handle a long war than the Chinese Communist Party, and that the party therefore hopes to avoid a long war, is likely correct.
The alternative to blockade is to “fight forward” or, as Lord Nelson signaled at the Battle of Trafalgar, to “engage the enemy more closely.” That means defending Taiwan and the sovereignty of U.S. allies by denying China its short-term operational objectives. This would require much more naval and amphibious basing in East Asia than the U.S. currently maintains. American aircraft carriers must be equipped with long-range antiship missiles, and U.S. Marines with ground-based antiaircraft and antiship missiles, to disrupt an amphibious assault on Taiwan. The U.S. Navy must deploy more submarines to Guam, Yokosuka, Sasebo and perhaps the Australian cities of Sydney and Perth to exploit the PLA’s undersea vulnerabilities and sink Chinese merchantmen and warships. A Marine expeditionary force or Army airmobile division must be deployed within range of the Taiwan Strait, likely to Southern Japan or Darwin, Australia. Air Force and Marine fighter squadrons must be placed in new bases throughout the First Island Chain, supported by ground-based antiaircraft missile units, to deny the PLA immediate air control.
Achieving this would entail the most sweeping reorientation of American force structure and deployment since the end of World War II. But it is the safer strategic choice given the dangers of a longer conflict.
There is no articulated plan for the U.S. to defend our allies while conducting offensive operations against China. We build ships, buy aircraft and tanks, and train solders with no strategy in mind, lumbering forward under institutional inertia, guided by policies 10 to 30 years out of date. In Iraq it took the U.S. military three years to grasp the nature of the conflict, another year to implement a new strategy, and another year for the country to stabilize. We won’t have five years from China’s first missile launch. We may not have five months.
Mr. Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy.
China’s hypersonic missile test demonstrates the next major war will utilize cyber attacks and unmanned vehicles striking from afar. So far the Biden administration is ignoring the warning signs.
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Appeared in the November 3, 2021, print edition