The recent Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) war game of a Taiwan conflict may provide the reader with a sense of safety. If, as the war game’s result concludes, China would lose a Taiwan war at severe cost, Beijing is unlikely to authorize such a risky gambit. Deterrence holds, at least for now. Considering the sheer scale of the Taiwan endeavor, it will hold for some time. Really?
In fact, the war game’s results — provisional as they are — indicate precisely how close the cross-strait balance has become. Moreover, the U.S. Indo-Pacific position stems from a dominant balance, not one that rests upon a knife’s edge. A confrontation, if not open conflict, is increasingly likely absent a hard course correction, including a dramatic increase in military spending, an expansion of U.S. and allied stockpiles, and the forward-deployment of more forces to the First Island Chain and western Pacific. The war game is a warning, not a palliative.
War-gaming, as the report’s authors indicate, is an imprecise business. Rather than forecasting a conflict’s outcome, war games allow strategists, commanders, and staffs at every level of war, including that of high politics, to rehearse a scenario with attempted elements of realism. Most effectively employed, war games are teaching tools, not forecasting mechanisms. Nevertheless, iterating a war game at scale — with the proper inputs — can provide a reasonable projection.
The fundamental forecast of the CSIS war game is probably correct at this time, or more accurately, fits with the available analytical evidence. More likely than not, a Sino–American conflict over Taiwan would end in Chinese failure if the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) cannot keep the U.S. military at arm’s length from the fight for at least several weeks. American air-sea forces remain numerous and capable enough.
If, in a conflict’s first few weeks, the U.S. could bring its forces to bear, it would keep Taiwan open for resupply and hit PLA warships and amphibious craft that would sustain a Chinese lodgement. However, this would come at a cost. Destroying the PLA navy and killing tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of PLA soldiers, sailors, and airmen would require an enormous butcher’s bill. American capital ships would be lost for the first time since World War II. Tens of thousands of Americans would die, trapped in sinking ships, killed at airfields and bases under bombardment, and on Taiwan itself fighting in the mud and muck against their PLA counterparts.
But the balance of forces has shifted in the past two decades. Then, a costly victory was simply unthinkable. Since the early 1950s, the U.S. has protected Taiwanese autonomy through its absolute dominance in the air and at sea. American naval and air power resolved all three Taiwan Strait Crises, either by preventing a Chinese blockade of Taiwan or, in 1996, literally sailing a U.S. carrier battle group through the Taiwan Strait.
The PLA accepted the bargain of the 1990s, beginning with the 1992 Consensus, in part because of a misplaced faith in globalization. American engagement policy sought to moderate Chinese behavior through Beijing’s participation in the global commercial system, which — it was imagined — would ultimately lead to market liberalization and, if not democratization, then at least a relaxation of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) messianic imagination. Hence the U.S. deprioritized China as a strategic threat, refrained from comment on its obvious human-rights abuses, and committed to essentially unrestricted economic engagement.
Beijing believed that its sheer economic weight, combined with cultural ties between Taiwan and the mainland, would inexorably draw Taipei into its orbit, enabling a smooth reconciliation in the first half of this century. Indeed, the KMT and CCP were allies once — why not revive their alliance, pairing Taiwanese semiconductor skills with Chinese markets and productive capacities? Both American and Chinese strategies failed. China remained a one-party, totalitarian state. And the Taiwanese people, increasingly accustomed to liberal democratic capitalism, have no desire to submit to Beijing’s diktat, particularly after the iron blanket that the CCP has thrown over Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Time may or may not be on Beijing’s side, but unification will not stem from the inexorable force of market economics.
Yet the 1990s bargain, like the 1972 arrangement that Washington and Beijing concluded, also rested on the PLA’s inability to take Taiwan. In 1972, the U.S.–PRC Shanghai Communiqué employed “constructive ambiguity” to sidestep the Taiwan question and thereby enable Sino–American diplomatic engagement and triangulation against the Soviet Union. Yet Taiwan was still under no real threat, given the state of Chinese forces. The 1992 Consensus, an integral part of the United States’ post-1989 bet on globalization, enabled economic contact between the PRC and Taiwan by ensuring that both accepted a united China in principle — yet the PLA had no ability to forcibly retake Taiwan. Even absent U.S. support, Taiwan likely would have withstood a Chinese invasion before the 1990s. And with U.S. support, a Chinese invasion remained impossible.
The contemporary balance, as the CSIS war game demonstrates, may still favor the United States and its allies in the abstract. But it is extraordinarily close. Indeed, the war game identifies several crucial factors required for the U.S. to win a Taiwan war — measures that are obvious to sensible analysts but worth repeating. Specifically, the U.S. must commit rapidly to Taiwan’s defense and employ the full spectrum of its military capabilities. It must have access to Japanese bases even if Japan avoids direct participation in the Taiwan fight. And it must employ deep stocks of long-range missiles, particularly those that can strike Chinese ships.
Still, the PLA — or such events as unfavorable political/military circumstances for the U.S. or its allies — can disrupt each of these essential factors. China would begin a conflict with intensive bombardment. This bombardment would target U.S. regional bases, including in the Ryukyus, Guam, and future bases in Australia and perhaps the Philippines. It might also hit allied ports. If U.S. warships remained in port for too long, or if the PLA, despite being unready for a full invasion for several weeks, still unleashed a major missile barrage, the U.S. would lose combat power long before the fight started in earnest.
Moreover, the question of alternative scenarios is thoroughly relevant to a Sino–American war. The U.S. and China are not the only major Eurasian actors. Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds on, and the grinding — likely for months, if not years — demands U.S. strategic attention. Iran, increasingly emboldened by its long-range-strike capabilities and with access to Russian advanced weaponry, may escalate its shadow war with the Gulf Arabs and Israel. A Turkish–Greek conflict would require physical forces to separate and adjudicate the situation in the Levantine Basin. Pakistan, increasingly a Chinese proxy rather than U.S. ally, might act against India, increasingly an American partner rather than a nonaligned third power. Each contingency is possible before a Taiwan war. Each is far more likely after one starts. As Russian power recedes, others have probed in the Levant, Caucasus, and Central Asia. The wholesale reorientation of U.S. power and attention to the Indo-Pacific would peel open a host of additional strategic questions.
But assume that all elements of war break in America’s favor. The U.S. intervenes over Taiwan, and despite brutal losses, drives China back. Chinese collapse is possible, albeit unlikely given the scale of the Chinese security state. More likely is a protracted conflict, in which the PLA continues to probe U.S. defenses, the CCP seeks other weaker targets to accumulate strategic gain, and Beijing activates its partners in Asia and elsewhere to pressure U.S. power. Sticking to the CSIS war game’s assumption of two carriers and tens of thousands of U.S. forces lost, the U.S. would struggle to respond to a Korean war, or one in Latin America, in the near term. Over time, unless the U.S. destroyed Chinese shipyards, the PLA would rebuild — almost certainly faster than the U.S. Navy would. The U.S. would then face, five or ten years later, the same situation with a far weaker force. Power transitions, after all, typically take two wars.
The reality is that a close balance is deeply unstable. It should offer the U.S. no solace. The modern CCP and PLA understand that, unlike their predecessors, they have a fighting shot to break U.S. Eurasian power. The response on the United States’ part cannot be half measures and a misguided faith in the current balance of forces. It must be a hard course correction, one that expands the U.S. military, particularly the Navy, to a degree where it can defend American interests and make a Chinese defeat inevitable in a conflict over Taiwan.