Defending Taiwan: Introduction

Although there is still a war raging in Ukraine, Taiwan is increasingly on the minds of US diplomats and military leaders. Following President Biden’s trip to Asia and his comments on the possibility of the US militarily supporting Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack there are many questions being raised about how the US might intervene to defend Taiwan if the PRC launches an attack. Policy debates on the shape and size of a potential US intervention are taking on a new importance in the aftermath of Biden’s ambiguous remarks in Tokyo. The president was less than clear, whether by design or circumstance, on the conditions needed to be met in order to trigger a US military response. For example, is Washington willing to intervene in the event of a Chinese military blockade of Taiwan, or will the red line only be crossed after the first Chinese troops land on Taiwanese soil?

Practically speaking, there are considerable obstacles US forces will need to overcome to successfully defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack. Geography and force posture are two of the most crucial. Taiwan is situated in the PRC’s front yard. Just 110 miles of water separate the island-nation from the Mainland. This is an advantage that cannot be negated or minimized. Hundreds of tactical aircraft and ballistic missiles, dozens of warships and thousands of troops ready for embarkation are normally based in close proximity to the Taiwan Strait. During a buildup to hostilities, reinforcements will pour into the Eastern Theater Command area and greatly increase the combat power available for an operation against Taiwan. Considerably more combat power than the US and select allied nations in the region could bring to bare or use as a deterrent. Improvements in Chinese air and naval capabilities over the last twelve years also make the formula more than a numbers game. The US forces still maintain a qualitative edge, but that is diminishing somewhat. Expanding capabilities, coupled with China’s already immense advantage in quantity might be enough to keep the US military at bay and unable to effectively influence the battle.

Periodically in the coming weeks, Today’s DIRT will examine the options available for the US to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, as well as taking a detailed look at the forces available to both the US and China.

Biden’s Asia Trip Produces More Questions Than Answers

Joe Biden’s first trip to Asia as president was positively gushed over by many in the media. Foreign policy and political pundits attached to left-leaning publications and news channels applauded Biden for adopting a strong position against China during his trip. While in Tokyo, Biden rolled out the framework for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a trade pact the administration is hoping will serve as a counter to China’s growing economic power and influence in the Indo-Pacific region. On this past Monday, Biden stated the United States will defend Taiwan militarily in the event of a Chinese invasion. Strong, confident words and proposed action by the leader of the free world.

Unfortunately, some factors were left out of Biden’s calculations. To no one’s surprise, most left-wing and/or mainstream journalists failed to make mention of this. On the economic side, Taiwan has not received an invitation to join the IPEF despite demonstrating high interest in becoming a member. Militarily, despite Biden’s promise and sentiment, the United States does not have a concrete war plan centered on countering a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Sure, Indo-Pacific Command has dozens of contingency plans and hypotheticals available to work from, as do the individual services. So, Biden has promised to defend Taiwan with American blood even though the military has no realistic plan for this at the present time. Then we have the administration deliberately keeping Taiwan away from IPEF membership because bringing Taipei aboard will be viewed as provocative and controversial by Beijing.  

Not surprisingly, China is less than thrilled by the US following IPEF and Biden’s Taiwan comments. On Tuesday, as leaders of the Quad nations met in Tokyo, Chinese and Russian bombers flew in close proximity to Japanese airspace. Chinese officials were vocal in denouncing IPEF while China’s state-run media claim the pact is ‘economic NATO.’ Xi Jinping will likely limit his country’s response to verbal outrage and a handful of snap air and sea exercises. Quite honestly, China has more pressing problems to worry about closer to home right now.

In time, China will get around to adopting an effective counter to IPEF and Biden’s newfound military confidence. Then the competition for supremacy in Asia will officially begin.

Biden’s Upcoming Asia Trip

With US President Joe Biden heading to Asia today, the focus of the US government will pivot away from the war in Ukraine and Europe for the first time in months. Even though the pivot will be temporary, Biden’s trip to Japan and then South Korea will reveal a glimpse or two at future US economic and security policies and postures in the Western Pacific. As expected, even though Biden’s trip will take him to Japan and South Korea, two staunch US allies, this visit is all about North Korea and China.

Tensions in the region are evident at first glance. China is contending with issues close to home stemming from the latest COVID-19 outbreak on the mainland, redoubled efforts to replenish strategic oil reserves and of course, Taiwan. Then there is North Korea, dealing with its first official outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, as well as preparing for either a ballistic missile or underground nuclear test in the near future. Washington’s preoccupation with Ukraine and Russia has delayed the Biden administration’s intentions to refocus on Asia this year.

The Ukraine crisis and subsequent war is raising concerns about the ability of the United States to handle simultaneous crises in different parts of the world diplomatically and politically. China’s designs on Taiwan are at the core of these concerns. One of Biden’s primary goals for this trip will be to address the worries of allies and non-aligned regions in the region and demonstrate how solid US security commitments in the region are. The president also needs to address why his administration has failed to apply an economic component to US Indo-Pacific strategy. During this trip, Biden is expected to present the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as an answer to the economic questions.

Ukraine Update 23 March, 2022

  • A number of Russian defense and intelligence officials, as well as general officers, have been dismissed, placed under house arrest or have gone missing in recent weeks. The latest is Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who usually makes regular public appearances and is no stranger to the Russian media. According to journalists from two Russian media outlets, however, Shoigu has not been seen in public since 12 March. Rumors floating around Moscow suggest he is in poor health and is dealing with heart problems. Naturally, there are also other rumors that say Shoigu has been fired and is now under house arrest. So far, no Western media has managed to verify either allegation, or determine what Shoigu’s present status is.
  • Shoigu is not alone. There are also reports suggesting Russian special envoy Anatoly Chubais has resigned from his position in opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and fled the country. Bloomberg broke the news initially, but there has been no confirmation of it, or proof that Chubais has in fact left Russia.
  • US President Joe Biden is traveling to Europe today for the special NATO summit scheduled for tomorrow in Belgium. Afterwards, Biden is expected to visit Poland where he will discuss efforts to continue support of Ukraine. On Monday, Biden made some comments about the state of the international order in the post-Ukraine War era. He claims the world is now at an inflection point which occurs every 3-4 generations. “We’re going to — there’s going to be a new world order out there, and we’ve got to lead it,” Biden said. “And we’ve got to unite the rest of the free world in doing it.”

Note: Shorter afternoon update today. I will hopefully follow up with another update later this evening, provided I get the time.

The Heart of the Matter For Russia Is NATO Expansion

The prospect of NATO’s eastern expansion advancing deeper into the Russian sphere of influence remains an undeniable fear for the Russian government. It continues to color the Kremlin’s decision making and forms the foundation of Russia’s defense and foreign policy to a great extent. NATO’s eastern expansion is at the heart of Russia’s growing involvement in Ukraine, Belarus and on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border. It has been, for all intents and purposes, the thorn in Moscow’s side for decades. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s warning at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Sweden made it clear his nation is reaching the point where its actions will not be constrained by Western threats and military maneuvers in close proximity to Russia’s frontiers.

Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met at the conference in Sweden. Whereas Blinken warned of “serious consequences” if Russia sought a military conflict with Ukraine. His Russian counterpart responded with a warning that Europe might be returning to the “nightmare of military confrontation.” He followed up with a proposal to establish a new security pact in Europe to prevent further NATO expansion. Essentially, Lavrov was proposing a return to the Cold War.

Yesterday in a speech, Lavrov accused NATO refusing to consider proposals to lessen tensions and prevent dangerous incidents. “The alliance’s military infrastructure is being irresponsibly brought closer to Russia’s borders in Romania and Poland, deploying an anti-missile defense system that can be used as a strike complex,” he said. “American medium-range missiles are about to appear in Europe, bringing back the nightmare scenario of a military confrontation.” Lavrov then went on to warn the alliance against transforming nations bordering Russian into “bridgeheads of confrontation.”

So, there it is. In the space of a handful of sentences, Lavrov laid out the heart of the matter for Russia: Halting NATO expansion. He also, in a less than surreptitious fashion, listed the issues Russia would be willing to negotiate on in exchange for a solution to the manufactured crisis in Ukraine. There’s no plausible scenario where Washington would agree to a withdrawal of the US military presence from Eastern Europe in exchange for a promise by Russia not to invade Ukraine. On the other side of the coin, Russia will not stand by idle and allow NATO expansion to advance unchecked forever. This crisis may pass without a military confrontation, but the problem is not going to dissolve anytime soon.