A Taiwanese Special Forces soldier during a drill. Photo: Agencies

US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin said the other day that Chinese air force movements towards Taiwan look like a “rehearsal” for an invasion. 

It is good America’s military leadership is finally realizing that Xi Jinping is serious when he says he will use force, if necessary, to seize Taiwan. 

Yet, in recent years whenever the US military has “war gamed” a fight with China over Taiwan, the Americans reportedly have “failed miserably” or in military-speak “got their asses handed to them” every time. 

But there are war games and there are war games. Depending on how you construct the scenario things might turn out better for the United States.

You see…if the fight is confined to Taiwan and the surrounding area the Chinese have a big advantage. They can deploy far more ships than the US Navy can, and the same goes for aircraft. 

Chinese land-based missile and anti-aircraft batteries will further make things difficult for US forces trying to “get in close” to help Taiwan. One doesn’t envy a US destroyer skipper who has two dozen supersonic anti-ship missiles coming his way and arriving in 90 seconds. 

And the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force’s ballistic missiles able to hit moving targets at sea will give US aircraft carriers much to worry about. The missiles are nicknamed “carrier killers” for a reason. 

US bases in Japan and Guam from which American forces would be deploying to aid Taiwan will also be getting Chinese missile attention.

This just covers a few of the problems facing US forces, and the Americans can of course strike some blows of their own.

But if it’s just a fight between the Americans and the Chinese, and it takes place right around Taiwan, the Americans will have a hard time.

However, expand the battlefield, say, to include the entire globe, and the United States’ prospects improve considerably.

Here’s why: The PRC does not produce enough food to feed itself, nor does it have enough energy or natural resources to power its economy. That’s why the Chinese buy up Brazilian and Ukrainian farmland, Australian milk companies, and American pork producers. 

The same goes for Chinese oil concessions in Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela and mines in Africa and South America.

A March 24, 2021, aerial picture of container cranes and containers at the Lianyungang Port Container Terminal in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province. Photo: AFP / Hector Retamal

China not only depends on seamless (and long) supply lines to import commodities and raw materials, but it also depends on the same supply lines to export manufactured products that earn vital foreign exchange – and keep people employed and the economy humming. 

If the Americans and their allies and partners “expand the battlefield” and cut off China from its overseas “assets”, as one Western expert puts it: “without these commodities arriving in China from around the world the China we know and the Chinese know will not exist…it will be 1,400,000,000 persons desperate for food, energy, commodities, natural resources.”

So if the US musters the fortitude needed to impound or sink Chinese shipping and clamp down on air transport in and out of the PRC, the Chinese Communist Party will be in dire straits.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), despite carrying out the biggest, fastest defense buildup in history – including progress towards a “blue-water” global navy – over the last 20 years still cannot defend China’s overseas assets.  And it will probably be another decade before PLA global “power projection” capabilities can do so.

Compounding Beijing’s problems, China is also vulnerable to US financial sanctions that could exclude the PRC from the US dollar network.  And Washington might also prohibit US corporate business dealings with the People’s Republic of China in a conflict scenario. 

So while Beijing might like its prospects in a straight-up (and confined) fight to seize Taiwan, it is extremely vulnerable if the United States and other free nations “decouple” China from its overseas assets – and the convertible currency and inward foreign investment and trade that powers the Chinese economy.

But the Americans should not breathe easy.

If China can seize the high ground in outer space and the upper atmosphere — and threaten the US with surprise (and undefendable) nuclear attack – as well as blinding US forces by taking out their satellites – it might be able to checkmate the Americans. 

At that point, America’s existing conventional advantages, both kinetic and non-kinetic, won’t matter much.   

A surface-to-air missile is fired from a missile launcher by the air force under the PLA’s Southern Theater Command during an air defense training exercise. Photo: eng.chinamil.com.cn / Zhang Hengping and Yuan Hai

China’s recent tests of hypersonic delivery vehicles and the so-called Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) give the Americans plenty to worry about in this regard. 

These are hard to track and to defend against – not least as they allow nuclear warheads to be launched from directions where American anti-missile systems aren’t looking.

And in a further move to dominate the high ground, the PRC (and the Russians) are aiming for offensive operations against US satellites on which America’s defense depends. They have, in fact, already started interfering with US space assets

Earlier this year, the commander of the US Space Command, General James Dickinson, stated in a congressional hearing: 

“China is building military space capabilities rapidly, including sensing and communication systems and numerous antisatellite weapons….Similarly concerning, Russia’s published military doctrine calls for the employment of weapons to hold us and allied space assets at risk.”

In his written testimony, Dickinson added:

“One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm. Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites. China also has multiple ground-based laser systems of varying power levels that could blind or damage satellite systems.  China will attempt to hold US space assets at risk while using its own space capabilities to support its military objectives and overall national security goals.”

So far, the Americans are apparently just playing defense in outer space – rather than building up the offensive capability to do to the Chinese (and the Russians) what they are planning to do to them – and more. 

According to one observer, Team Biden’s response so far is “finger-wagging and scolding.” Not exactly a winning approach.

One imagines a scenario where Beijing makes its move on Taiwan and tells Washington to “stand back” – and that includes sanctions and attacks on China’s supply lines – or it will face “blinding” and nuclear attack “from above.” 

This is, of course, something of a poker game if things reach this point. The Chinese might be bluffing, or they might not. And it will take a certain type of president to call their bluff. 

President Biden is presiding over a nation facing a growing credibility crisis, Photo: AFP / Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Mr Biden perhaps isn’t that president.  But whoever it is, if the Chinese get “the high ground”, there’ll be any number of people telling him that “Taiwan isn’t worth it” and to “let it go.”

So while the current focus is on Taiwan and conventional hardware and capabilities needed to deter a Chinese assault, the United States would do well to prepare to “expand the battlefield” and hit China where it is most vulnerable. 

But the US also needs to “look up” and do what is necessary to dominate outer space and counter China’s hypersonic and FOBS capabilities that potentially “checkmate” America’s earthbound advantages. 

Not surprisingly America’s military leadership knew of the PRC’s developing hypersonic capabilities some years back, and by and large ignored it. One hopes they do better this time.