There is growing global speculation that the possibility is rising for a US war with China with the focus on Taiwan

Whether it is Taiwan or a clash elsewhere, for example in the Miyako Strait or the South China Sea, the question arises whether such a kinetic conflict would be limited, or would end up in a general war.

The Great Powers — namely the US, Russia (before USSR) and China — have generally tried to avoid direct conflict with each other. 

In the Korean War, for example, the Yalu River was the US no-go line to avoid a head-on fight with China. 

Even after China sent “volunteers” into Korea, the US held back on any direct battle in China’s territory, although some military leaders, General Douglas MacArthur among them, wanted to use atomic weapons on China — 34 of them to be exact. 

In the Vietnam war, the US directly avoided provoking China. In the 1973 Arab-Israel (Yom Kippur) war, the US supported Israel but stayed away from direct armed involvement so as not to get into a hot war with the Soviet Union.

In October 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, I was in the Soviet Union. Then, the possibility of a US-Soviet war was looming. 

Washington had declared DEFCON 3 in response to what the CIA believed was a Soviet decision to move nuclear weapons to Egypt. Whether that was true or not remains unknown, but what was known was the tension between the Soviets and the US was escalating.

Soviet troops were massing in the south of Russia and Washington believed they might be sent to Egypt. In Kiev, when our plane landed there, we were hustled onto the tarmac to watch a military demonstration. The situation could have gone out of control. 

On October 24, 1962, in response to nuclear intermediate range ballistic missiles sent to Cuba by the USSR, which had become operational, the US declared DEFCON 2 for the Strategic Air Command and DEFCON 3 for US armed forces. 

A B-52 Stratofortress arrives at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, in support of a Bomber Task Force deployment on January. 26, 2020. Photo: US Air Force/1st Lt. Denise C. Guiao-Corpuz

Negotiations between then-president John Kennedy and Soviet chairman Nikita Khrushchev were able to defuse the crisis, and the missiles were dismantled and removed. 

The US had quarantined Cuba, searched ships carrying missile parts and equipment, and mobilized its strategic forces.

DEFCON means Defense Readiness Condition. DEFCON has 5 levels of readiness, with DEFCON 1 the highest. DEFCON 1 means that nuclear war is imminent or has already started.

DEFCON 2 indicates that US armed forces are ready to deploy and engage in less than six hours. DEFCON 3 means the US Air Force is ready to deploy within 15 minutes.

A DEFCON alert anticipates some kind of nuclear threat. While a fight over Taiwan, for example, might not involve an immediate nuclear threat, the US would have to watch China and Russia’s behavior very intently because China has built up a huge nuclear missile force focused on Taiwan and Japan. 

If China threatened to use nuclear weapons, for example against US bases in Japan’s Okinawa or Guam, the US would almost certainly declare a DEFCON alert.

If China could not achieve an immediate victory, for example in a direct invasion of Taiwan, or found itself challenged not only by Taiwan’s military forces but also by US intervention in support of Taiwan, would China start to think about using nuclear weapons?

Even more to the point, how could anyone tell if China was readying nuclear forces for attack? 

Military vehicles carrying YJ-18 anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles drive past Tiananmen Square during the military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, in Beijing, China. Photo: Anna Ratkoglo / Sputnik via AFP

China’s intermediate-range ballistic missiles can be equipped with conventional warheads or with nuclear ones. Of course, China might choose to make it clear it was readying nuclear weapons as a means of deterring US intervention. Any such declaration would trigger a DEFCON alert.

Worse still, China has not entered into any arms control agreements with the US. There are no understandings of how to control any escalation, meaning there are no hotlines and no other agreed means to avoid any armed conflict, including nuclear.

Under current circumstances, China is a wild card player that could do almost anything. Its growing power and apparent confidence in its military presage a period of growing regional instability and threat.

The US also would have to worry about Russia, especially with eastern Ukraine reaching a boiling point. As such, President Biden’s assurances to Ukraine could not have come at a worse time.

The US has approached the China puzzle by acting as if it wants to contain China’s rising power. Containment is always tricky

In the European theater, NATO is part of the Western approach to containing the Soviet Union, now Russia, but the real stick in the closet is the nuclear capability of the US, UK and France

In East Asia, there is no NATO and there are no nuclear weapons other than America’s and China’s. Japan is a nuclear capable nation, but if it has nuclear weapons it hasn’t told anyone.

Japan has a vast supply of plutonium and has developed a ballistic missile capability, but is far from actually deploying nuclear weapons on its few space launch platforms.

Image from a flight test conducted by the US and Japan early last year which resulted in the first intercept of a ballistic missile target using the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA. Photo: US Navy via AFP / Leah Garton
Image from a flight test conducted by the US and Japan which resulted in the first intercept of a ballistic missile target using the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA. Photo: US Navy via AFP / Leah Garton

China cannot be assured that it can attack Taiwan at will without US intervention. Any American administration that declared, openly or secretly, it would stay out of any Chinese attack on Taiwan, would face a huge public outcry, bipartisan Congressional anger and perhaps even an attempt to impeach the president.

As the Biden administration has openly declared it will oppose China (although vague on details), the more likely steps will be the movement of US forces and some support for Taiwan initially, perhaps delivering military and humanitarian supplies similar to what the US did in the October 1973 Yom Kippur war.

How willing the US would be to do more militarily cannot be determined. What it is certain is that any unfolding conflict over Taiwan will require the US to activate all its forces in the region. All US bases would go on alert. 

The US would have to move nuclear aircraft carriers and AEGIS missile defense Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Ticonderoga class cruisers into battle positions, as would Japan and Korea.

US nuclear submarines, both attack and ballistic missile types, would need to go on urgent alert. Pilots and ground crews for US Jets such as the F-35, F-15, F-16 and specialized aircraft including AWACS would need to be called to base. Aircraft would need to be in the air constantly to respond to any attack on any US airbase. 

The US almost certainly would move B-52s and B-1 strategic bombers to Guam and keep them in the air during any crisis. US Marines might start to prepare operations to go to Taiwan’s aid. 

Taiwanese sailors salute the island’s flag on the deck of the Panshih supply ship after taking part in annual drills at the Tsoying naval base in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 2018. Photo: AFP / Mandy Cheng

Even if ultimately the US decides not to commit US forces, these and many similar steps would need to be taken almost immediately if there is an attack on Taiwan or US intelligence detects an imminent strike by China.

It is easy to see that limiting a war started by China will be very difficult. Despite what many analysts think, the US has formidable firepower available and the skill to use it. 

China has to plan on a general war with the US. The fact that a war could lead to a nuclear conflict cannot be dismissed. China’s leaders thus need to consider how far they want to go down a road that could lead to a great war and a massive tragedy for China and the world.