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.
With Daniel Ortega firmly embedded as Nicaragua’s leader, it was only a matter of time before Nicaragua gravitated nearer to China’s orbit. That it finally happened comes as no surprise, but the manner in which Nicaragua acted has raised many eyebrows around Central America and the world. In short, Nicaragua ended its long-running diplomatic and business relationships with Taiwan. Managua wasted little time in formally established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China next. Shortly thereafter, the first batch of Chinese-donated COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Nicaragua. Over 1 million doses have been promised by Beijing, seemingly a handsome payment for Ortega having chosen China over Taiwan.
“The People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government representing all of China and Taiwan is an undoubted part of the Chinese territory,” Nicaragua’s Foreign Minister Denis Moncada said in a televised announcement from capital city Managua last week. Nicaragua is not the first nation in Central America to sever ties with Taiwan in recent years. El Salvador and the Dominican Republic announced they would no longer recognize Taiwan. In the aftermath of Nicaragua’s decision, Honduras is now taking a hard look at the prospect of jumping ship as well.
Nicaragua’s decision is a double victory for Beijing. Taiwan’s diplomatic influence has been reduced and the Chinese beachhead in the Western Hemisphere expands. Outside of Cuba and Venezuela, which are both allies of Beijing, China is moving to gain favor and influence in other Central American countries. The Biden administration has been very slow in countering Chinese moves in America’s backyard. It should regard Nicaragua’s actions as a wake-up call at the very least. The fact that China is actively moving to minimize Taiwan’s circle of friendly nation-states takes the appearance of being a possible precursor to military action in the near future. In the bigger picture however, the Chinese inroads being made in Central America are the seeds of a challenge to US dominance in the Western Hemisphere at down the line.
Unfortunately, Washington doesn’t exactly see it this way. As a result, China’s inroads will expand unchallenged south of the border for some time.
The Pentagon is planning to begin building up key military installations in the Pacific theater early in 2022. The purpose behind the move is to counter and deter China. The build up and improvements will affect Andersen AFB and US Navy facilities on Guam as well as a number of installations in northern Australia which US forces operate from. Infrastructure improvements are at the top of the list with the overall goal to make these locations able to absorb larger numbers of troops, aircraft and supplies in the event of a crisis. The origins for the decision to build up and improve these installations stem from the Global Posture Review, the end result of months of analysis and investigation by the service branches and numerous government agencies to recommend changes to the postures and deployments of US forces in theaters worldwide. The recommendations for the Pacific region did not stop at infrastructure updates. The GPR also strongly recommends the US increase cooperation and planning with allies in the region, as well as increase the number of combat-ready assets in theater.
How much impact the GPR recommendations will have if implemented is anyone’s guess at this point. With China’s recent saber-rattling and its progress made in hypersonic weapon testing, all eyes are on the Pentagon and White House. One concern among defense analysts and former DoD officials is that the GPR’s findings are a matter of being too little, too late. The People’s Republic of China is obviously gearing up for a future war in the region. These measures have been underway for some time now. The US response has been rather slapdash. Part of the reason for this is the absence of a solid doctrine for fighting a potential war in the Pacific against China. In the past decade every effort to craft such a doctrine has withered on the vine due to political indifference or the simple fact that the doctrine was inadequate. From Air-Sea Battle to its successor JAM-GC, the Pentagon has been a day late and a dollar short.
Quite honestly, the current situation in the Pacific seems to resemble Europe in 1939. Once again, we have a nation-state building up its military and preparing for war in front of the entire world. The world has taken note of the developments but the regional and global powers have done little to challenge China’s actions and intentions, and will fail to do so until the shooting starts. By then, as history has shown us countless times before, it will be too late. As for the US military in late 2021, its resemblance to the British and French militaries in the summer of 1939 is astoundingly close. Stale doctrine, low readiness and indifferent senior officers combined to bring about disastrous defeats on the battlefield from late 1939 through 1940.
I pray that I’m incorrect, but it appears we are going down a similar road at present.
The virtual summit held Monday between US President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping produced nothing in the way of an agreement or breakthrough on any of the issues preventing US-China relations from continuing their downward slide. This was hardly a surprise. Regardless of the hype projected by the media, the expectations for Monday’s talks were low. This was evident today in how both sides attempted to frame the results of the virtual summit. Officials from the Biden administration were quick to point out that the discussions covered a host of topics considered important by both sides. Taiwan, the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China and the present trade impasse were matters talked about at length. Biden was even able to bring up the prospect of arms control talks in the future. It is clear from his comments and positions that Biden continues to regard China as a competitor more so than an opponent or potential enemy. His administration will continue to work with China on matters of mutual interest and confront Beijing when events call for it. In other words, no changes in US policy are on the horizon.
What Biden and his foreign policy team refuses to acknowledge is that China already considers the US to be an adversary. This much is evident by China’s actions of late. While Chinese officials publicly call for greater engagement between the two powers, the PLAN and PLAAF apply more pressure to Taiwan and operate freely in the South China Sea without fear of the US response. China’s military and geopolitical moves in recent months make it clear Beijing is playing an intricate game of chess while the Biden administration is playing checkers. Chess is a contest of strategy where each move has a purpose. Checkers is a contest where strategy plays a minimal role, and the game results are largely determined in the first few moves.
Adversaries play chess. Friendly competitors play checkers.
The Chinese government is advising its citizens to maintain adequate stocks of basic necessities on hand as the winter season approaches. The Ministry of Commerce released the advisory on Monday, 1 November and it was not long before many Chinese social media users were playing the speculation game. The latest COVID-19 outbreaks and unusually heavy rainfall amounts have sparked concerns about a looming supply shortage. Some social media users believe the rising tensions with Taiwan are the reason for the advisory. There have been reports of panic buying as well, with rice, cooking oil and salt being the main products sought, and wisely so. Chinese media outlets have also published a list of recommended goods to store including instant noodles, vitamins, flashlights and a battery-powered radio. The alarm brought on by the advisory prompted state media to step in and attempt to calm the growing concerns. Economic Daily, a Communist Party-backed newspaper, told citizens on its website that the advisory’s purpose was to make certain people were prepared in the event of another COVID lockdown. Local authorities are being encouraged to make certain supply and prices remain stable through the coming winter months.
Speculation aside, there’s no doubt that China’s domestic supply problems run deeper than Beijing is willing to let on. Earlier bouts of extreme weather have driven concerns about food supplies. Shandong, the nation’s largest vegetable producing region, has suffered heavy flooding in September and October. Prices for some vegetables grown in this area have doubled in recent weeks. Then there are China’s continuing energy issues, which are far from being alleviated. A combination of high energy and rising food prices runs a risk of creating a storm of domestic unrest. Beijing is eager to avoid this scenario from becoming a reality for obvious reason.