The United States should prepare for a protracted conflict if China invades Taiwan, the war game suggests


RakeshMay 12, 2022

The year is 2027. China has invaded Taiwan and the wheels of total war have begun to turn.

“We will not let them survive the first attack from our military operations,” said one of the masterminds behind Beijing’s military strategy. “We will not let the Taiwanese president survive the first day.”

To achieve the rapid beheading of the Taiwanese government, China is throwing a broad network of destruction – even pre-emptive strikes on US bases in Japan and Guam. The United States responds by bombing Chinese ports, and Australia mobilizes forces against Beijing, while the worst fears of the United States and its allies unfold in the Asia-Pacific.

It may sound like a purely academic exercise, but in reality it is deadly serious.

These hypothetical military operations were planned by U.S. lawmakers, former Pentagon officials and China experts as part of a war game exercise that unfolded in NBC News’ Washington office in April. The teams spent about five hours on an exercise that for the Pentagon would typically take up to five days.

The purpose was to think through what a Chinese invasion of Taiwan might look like now that the world has had to navigate the initial fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The war game was organized in collaboration with the DC-based think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS). It took place amid growing concern among U.S. officials in several administrations and in capitals across Asia-Pacific about the possibility of China attacking Taiwan.

This week, the director of the National Intelligence Service, Avril Haines, said that “a central focus area” for US intelligence officials is the intention of Chinese President Xi Jinping for a forced takeover of Taiwan. “China would prefer a forced alliance that avoids armed conflict,” Haines told Congress. “At the same time, Beijing is ready to use military force if it decides it is necessary.”

The overall takeaway from the participants in the war game: If China invades Taiwan, the Indo-Pacific region will plunge into a broad, protracted war that could include direct attacks on the United States, including Hawaii and potentially the continental United States.

“Neither Beijing nor Washington is likely to have taken over after the first week of the conflict, suggesting that it would eventually become a protracted conflict,” CNAS experts said. “The war game showed how quickly the conflict can escalate, with China and the United States crossing red lines.”

According to the war game, this escalation could lead to China using a nuclear weapon, a step that US officials worry Russia could take in Ukraine. For China, the cause of a potential nuclear reaction is Beijing’s limited capacity to react with conventional weapons.

“New issues of Russian military strength also apply to China’s military,” CNAS wrote in its preliminary conclusion.

Also, as was the case with Russia, the war game found that the United States’ efforts to deter China from attacking Taiwan failed. It prompted war participants to outline a range of measures that Taiwan, as well as the United States and its allies, should take to strengthen a deterrent effort.

Bryce Barros, China's affairs analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, joins the red team in a fake war game in which the United States and China fight over Taiwan, on
Bryce Barros, China’s affairs analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, participates in a fake war game in which the United States and China fight over Taiwan, at the “Meet the Press Reports” in Washington on April 25.William B. Plowman / NBC

These include improvements to Taiwan’s military through better training of its forces and new investment in additional weapons.

One of the most important things the exercise illustrated was the difficulty of defending and helping Taiwan compared to US efforts in Ukraine. NATO, which has largely united in Ukraine’s defense, is stronger than alliances in the Indo-Pacific. And Ukraine’s geographical location makes it easier to help than Taiwan, a number of islands off the coast of China.

“With Ukraine, you have borders that you can move things across,” said retired Air Force General Mike Holmes. “Taiwan is far away.”

The United States’ decision not to officially recognize Taiwan as an independent nation unless its status changes peacefully has been a long-standing cornerstone of US-China relations.

However, the “one-China policy” has been tested in recent years, as China claims that Taiwan is its territory and can be taken by force, and it has stepped up its saber-rattling. Taiwan maintains that it is an independent, democratic country that has the right to defend itself.

For four decades, the United States has pursued a policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan, which essentially keeps watch over whether Washington would intervene if China tried to take Taiwan by force, hoping to deter such a move. This attitude has been increasingly questioned by some US officials.

And while Washington has no formal ties with Taipei, the United States counts Taiwan among its best trading partners and is obligated to supply Taiwan with defensive weapons under the Taiwan Relations Act.

Another important part of the war game is, in fact, whether the United States should consider arming Taiwan prior to a potential war with China, because it would be incredibly difficult to get these weapons into the country after an invasion has begun.

The findings also include recommendations that the United States, Australia and Japan do more to improve their ability to respond quickly to an attack on Taiwan, and that the United States strengthen its bases in the region and acquire more long-range, precision-guided weapons and submarine capabilities.

All in all, according to CNAS ‘conclusion, everyone should prepare for a protracted, deadly conflict, not just a rapid invasion and takeover of the government.

Former Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy said the war game revealed the need for the United States and Taiwan to take steps now, such as “pre-deploying ammunition, getting Taiwanese ready, pre-positioning your armed forces, developing your payout bases.”

“If you have not spent years preparing for this,” Flournoy said, “then you will be behind the octopus all the way.”

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