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Most US-sponsored war games focus on a possible American response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. They also dwell on “worst-case” outcomes. The Rand Corporation, for example, wrote its scenario in the context of NATO already fighting in Eastern Europe when China launches an assault on Taiwan. And while some US war games focus on strategic outcomes, most look at tactical issues (airpower to airpower or “local” warfighting), not a full-blown war between China and the US. And while there are both historical and tactical reasons to think that China might test its prowess against lesser, but still highly important, objectives, none consider scenarios other than a direct invasion of Taiwan. China’s superior numbers of missiles, its air defenses, and its alleged dominance, also are presumed in the US wargame planning.
Some of those and other underlying assumptions may be outdated and may understate American strengths.
While China may have had hopes in the past that the US would ignore Chinese aggression against Taiwan, America’s dislike for China is at an all-time high and the chance that any administration could simply sit on its hands appears remote. By invading Taiwan, China would be taking a massive – perhaps fatal – risk of engaging the US in a big war.
If the US did intervene, most military experts and analysts agree that a major American effort would include stealth bombers and F-35 aircraft playing a key role in destroying Chinese air defenses, missiles and air bases. While China has the S-400 air defense system (but not its long-range interceptor missiles, which the Russians promised but didn’t deliver), it is unlikely to accurately detect stealth aircraft. The S-400 fire control and tracking radar is the 92N6E “Grave Stone” – a good radar somewhat like the one used by Patriot. There is speculation that the S-400 could exploit weaknesses in the F-35, but this is unproven and unlikely, in our opinion. Moreover, the formidable F-22 stealth fighter bomber and B-2 strategic bomber, can kill the S-400 fairly easily. American F-35s, meanwhile, can take out Chinese fighter and bomber aircraft, including the J-20 Chinese stealth plane. India has already discovered that the J-20 is easily picked up even on older Russian radars.
The US has moved very far ahead of all potential competitors in the integration of its fighting systems, taking advantage of networking and the automatic allocation of targets, optimizing war fighting and force multiplying air, sea, and land platforms. Whether China has any ability along these lines isn’t known, but China has not had any combat experience for years and its fast tracking of military hardware production (often based on knock-offs of Russians and US equipment) suggests that most of these systems are discrete and not functionally integrated or optimized. While there are reasons to be concerned with some systems, such as the DF-17 and the DF-21D, we do not believe that China has enough of these missiles to change the outcome of a major confrontation.
As such, it is highly likely China’s military prowess has been seriously overrated by Pentagon war gamers. That raises the concomitant risk that the Chinese might come to believe the American overestimates of China’s capabilities.
But even if China’s leaders are “drinking their own beer” and ours with it, would Beijing want to risk a war with the United States by invading Taiwan? The US has been through wars before, including the Korean war, where despite massive setbacks (even serious consideration by American generals to use atomic weapons), the US and its allies pushed so-called Chinese “volunteers” and their Russian friends back to the current armistice line.
China has less risky options. While Beijing has never attempted to invade Taiwan itself, it has a history of attacking islands that are under Taiwan’s control. It also has a losing record.
Likely candidates are Kinmen (Quemoy) and Penghu (Pescadores). Penghu has an airbase and has been busy fending off incursions of a variety of Chinese warplanes recently, suggesting that China is testing Penghu’s defenses. Kinmen has been more or less quiet, but it could be targeted. Again.
Between October 25 and 27, 1949, newly communist China launched an attack on Kinmen to try to defeat Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC) forces on the island. The 1949 Battle of Guningtou was a sea invasion of Kinmen from the mainland, which is only 2 km away. The invasion failed after three days of heavy fighting. On July 26, 1950, on a lesser scale, China tried to take Dadan Island, part of the Kinmen island group, sending 700 soldiers into the attack, which failed. Starting in 1958, China launched a massive and lengthy artillery barrage, known as part of the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis. On August 24 and 25, China attempted to land on and take Donding Island but its forces were repulsed by Taiwan (ROC) forces.
An attack on Kinmen is potentially easier for China than an attack on Taiwan and, unless preempted before it gets underway, it is hard to see how an invasion could be stopped, although it would surely take time for China to subdue the island. While Kinmen is heavily fortified, the island lacks up-to-date defense systems.
On the other hand, its close proximity to the mainland limits the exposure of China’s invading force to Taiwanese or American air or naval counterattack.
In at least one US war game of a straight-on invasion of Taiwan, the players decided to walk away (other than using air power), evaluating a Chinese invasion of Taiwan as “not an existential threat.” That is unrealistic, considering the consequences for the US posture in East Asia under that circumstance. Chances are good that the entire US security infrastructure in the region would quickly unravel.
China’s objective in attacking Kinmen would be to force a change in Taiwan’s internal politics in Beijing’s favor. In that sense, politically, an attack on Kinmen is an attack on Taiwan. Taipei can’t surrender the islands, nor surrender the troops there, nor permit the 150,000 inhabitants to fall under China’s control. Washington would come under enormous pressure to intervene.
The Pentagon’s current war-gaming rests on three shaky presumptions: American weakness, Chinese strength and a direct Chinese attack on Taiwan. All three contribute to strategic uncertainty and increase the danger of military miscalculation.
Stephen Bryen is a former senior Defense Department official and regular contributor to Asia Times. Shoshana Bryen is the senior director of the Jewish Policy Center in Washington, DC.