Defense experts predict any conflict between China and the United States would be costly for both sides and would probably not produce a result in the U.S.’s favor.
“If you were to rank them, I would put Taiwan first, South China Sea second, the Senkaku Islands third, and then elsewhere in the world.,” said James Anderson, acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy during former President Trump’s administration. Anderson added that the Sea of Japan could also be a flashpoint for conflict with China.
In May, President Biden emphasized the U.S.’s commitment to defending Taiwan, even militarily, saying it was “the commitment we made.”
Taiwan’s proximity to China would give Beijing a significant military advantage, similar to the advantage seen when Russia had a momentum swing during its Ukraine invasion after it shortened supply lines to allow it to focus only on the territories just beyond its western border in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
“The problem is that in the Indo-Pacific Theater, the closer you get to China, the more [China] can concentrate its military assets,” explained Anderson. “What is especially concerning to the United States and its allies are ballistic missiles and the fact that China is probably ahead of us with hypersonic weaponry,” which could allow China to hit surface ships and jet carriers fast and hard.
Even though China faces a significant conflict, Dr. John Lee, Hudson Institute senior fellow and former Senior National Security Advisor to Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, said a conflict would prove to be “a very bloody affair for both sides.”
“Over the past two decades, the U.S. and allies have been very passive, allowing the People’s Liberation Army to achieve air and sea dominance in this theater. However, [they] are now becoming serious about developing long-range strike capabilities, hypersonic strike capabilities, asymmetrical capabilities…and the range of non-military measures which would include crippling economic and financial sanctions,” explained Lee.
“In short, the U.S. and allies have many good and powerful options to ensure the military and strategic balance is in their favor,” Lee added.
Anderson touted the U.S. military’s ability to counteract missiles. Despite that capability, the ability to counteract China loses impact in the face of “saturation attacks,” which aim to effectively blanket a target with numerous missiles and cause a strain on defensive efforts.
U.S. seeks to strengthen Taiwan
Because of the strain, the U.S. is focusing on trying to strengthen Taiwan through a “porcupine strategy,” which would see other nations, along with the U.S., supply it with a large amount of anti-air and anti-tank weaponry to help narrow the gap of military dominance that China holds.
According to the Brookings Institution, China holds a significant advantage in manpower over the United States, with China’s 2.8 million soldiers in its army outranking the U.S. alone. However, the U.S.’s air combat and naval operations would severely limit that advantage.
“At this stage, China has air and sea dominance over the Taiwan Strait but cannot land troops successfully on Taiwan,” said Lee. “If it achieves the capacity to do so, then China will see the military option as a more attractive one.”
According to Matt McInnis of the Institute for the Study of War, China’s goal largely dictates its deployment and coordination. McInnis says any attempt to secure islands in the contested straits and seas will likely limit China’s ability to utilize the choke points and use them for troop deployments.
“Depending on your objectives and what they aim to achieve through naval and air forces, you would potentially have some use for Marines to hold certain smaller pieces of territory and some smaller islands,” said McInnis. He added that Beijing would only move forward with an invasion if it felt confident that American forces wiykdb;t be able to deploy quickly enough to the region.
Anderson also noted that while China has closed the gap in some military domains, it has not yet overtaken the United States but has “the largest number of ships in the world today.” However, the U.S. still has the quality advantage and has a “superior” Air Force. The United States can also rely on some assistance from regional partners. Conversely, China has few allies they can turn to, mainly looking to countries like Russia, currently embroiled in a war against Ukraine, to help “deflect” economic pressure imposed by the U.S. and its allies, said McInnis.
“There will certainly be economic lines of effort…and I’m quite sure China is looking long-term at how Russia, as well as key energy suppliers like Iran, can help them manage economic fallout from a conflict with the United States,” McInnis said. “But I don’t think we’re at the point in the relationship between countries, certainly including North Korea, where they would necessarily provide operational support or lethal aid directly to China.”
Dr. Lee believes that China’s position has weakened since its revealed “broader intentions” to “dominate East Asia,” a move that has encouraged the United States and its allies to ensure they counteract the ambitions by China.
“China seeks to prevail by convincing the U.S. and allies that it is not ‘worth it’ to defend Taiwan, that the cost would be too great,” he said. “China’s problem is that it has revealed its broader intentions, which is to dominate East Asia: Hence, a successful Chinese seizure of Taiwan would embolden China to push further rather than lead to a more satisfied power.”