- - Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Will the United States defend Taiwan if China tries to reunify it with the mainland by force? 

That could be the key question that the Biden administration will face because Chinese leaders have made it clear that they will seek unification by force if necessary.

That crisis may not happen immediately because China is still busy digesting what is left of democracy in Hong Kong. Taiwan is still in the proverbial pecking order; it just has not been pecked yet.

If Mr. Biden decides to make a commitment to defend Taiwan, he must make some tricky moves at both the strategic and tactical levels. The sequencing of these decisions will be crucial to creating a successful deterrent to Chinese adventurism.

President Trump was close to clarifying the now ambiguous American post-Nixon position on the defense of what was once called Nationalist China, but the Biden administration has thus far been quiet on the issue. Despite its supposedly isolationist stance, the Trump administration worked hard to solidify the Quad Group’s (U.S., India, Australia and Japan) hardline stance on Chinese bullying in the Indo-Pacific region.

So far, Mr. Biden’s foreign policy team has not backed away from a commitment to resist Chinese adventurism; but a Biden doctrine on China has yet to be articulated.

Without clear allies, Taiwan cannot defend itself. The position of the United States is that Taiwan is a self-governing part of China. After Mao, many Americans hoped that a liberalized China and Taiwan would reunite. The rise of Mr. Xi and the demise of Hong Kong’s democracy ended all that.

This is complicated by the fact that native Formosans are outbreeding the offspring of the Nationalist Chinese survivors who fled the mainland in 1949. Many of the new Taiwanese want nothing to do with China. The current U.S. position seems to be to let the Taiwanese continue to be autonomous, but Mr. Xi obviously disagrees. 

The United States and the other Quad nations will eventually need to decide if Taiwanese self- determination is a “go to war” issue. Just as important, we need to determine how that approach can be translated into a credible deterrent if adopted.

From a strategic perspective, the tactics come before the strategy. In 1939, France and Great Britain belatedly realized that Hitler was not going to stop having absorbed Austria and dismembered Czechoslovakia. Both nations gave Poland reassurances that they would go to war if it were to be invaded, but neither had the capability to back up those promises in a timely manner. France had deliberately dismantled its expeditionary capability and the British would take months to project power all the way to Poland. The Germans and the Russians knew this, and Poland ceased to exist in weeks.

If the Chinese can temporarily gain sea control around Taiwan, it is entirely possible that they will be able to overrun Taiwan before the U.S. or other Quad nations can intervene. The Chinese know this and have steadily built up an Anti-Access/Access-Denial (AA/AD) capability in the South China Sea that they would use to create an amphibious version of the blitzkrieg; amphibious warfare requires air and sea superiority.

Consequently, the fledgling Quad alliance should be able to demonstrate real deterrent capability before giving the Taiwanese any assurance of continued democratic existence. The devil is in the details.

The Chinese planners believe that their AA/AD complex will keep American aircraft carriers and other major surface combatants out of the South China Sea early in a conflict, and they are probably right. Submarines are another matter; they are hard to detect and lethal to the amphibious ships that Beijing will need to make an invasion succeed.

If the Quad nations agree to keep “wolf packs” of attack subs constantly off Taiwan, it would be a credible deterrent to a Chinese invasion. So too would be prepositioning American air and anti-ship missiles. They could be sold to Taiwan with the proviso that American crews could fall in on them if needed. China could not claim that Americans were being based on Taiwan, but the deterrent effect would be clear.

In the best of all possible worlds, Communist China and Taiwan would reach a European Union type agreement which would benefit both nations. That is an end state that all four Quad nations and Taiwan could probably agree on. Unfortunately, that vision does not coincide with that of Mr. Xi. Until we have a post-Xi world, a credible deterrent is our best bet for a free Taiwan.

• Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis Wargaming at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. 

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