The United States, after months of war, is finally standing up a command specifically designed to assist Ukraine.
This formalizes the ad hoc efforts President Joe Biden’s administration and America’s allies have conducted since the Russian invasion began. Through a stroke of luck, American recalcitrance and Washington’s typically glacial reaction time did not condemn the West to a stunning geopolitical catastrophe.
Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan’s prospects under military pressure are highly problematic. The US must stand up an equivalent command for Taiwan, one that expedites arms transfers and facilitates joint training and planning between Taiwan and American Indo-Pacific allies.
The planning done before a conflict will be essential to Taiwan’s survival and America’s strategic interests.
More luck than good judgment
Good fortune shone on the Western coalition in late February. In the late autumn, American and British intelligence confirmed that Russia’s latest force buildup around Ukraine was a prelude to a full-scale invasion, not a “bite at the Ukrainian apple” as the Eastern Europeans liked to say, or a bit of political-military grandstanding meant to coerce a recalcitrant Ukrainian government back to the Minsk II accords.
As Europe dithered and avoided engagement, the US and the UK, almost alone, accelerated arms sales, providing Ukraine with a wealth of portable anti-tank and anti-air weapons, and feeding Ukrainian planners intelligence on the impending Russian invasion.
When the war began on February 24, Ukraine’s military was reasonably well prepared. Ukraine shifted its air defenses, launched its aircraft, and avoided significant damage during the initial Russian barrage. Even then, luck was involved: If Ukrainian positions had collapsed around Chernihiv in the face of Russian numerical superiority, Kiev would have been pressed far harder.
Similarly, Ukrainian forces held near Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rih. They repulsed a Russian attack on Voznesensk, solidifying its position in the south.
By early April, the contours of the current war were in place: Ukrainian forces pushed Russia back from around Kiev and settled into a long-term attritional struggle in the Donbas and throughout the south. Ukrainian planning leveraged the country’s geography, social resilience, and population to delay and then overturn the Russian advance.
These conditions gave the West five months, from April to August, to transfer high-end weapons systems to Ukraine, ranging from long-range rocket artillery and modern guided barrel artillery to tanks, armored vehicles, air defenses, and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs, or combat drones).
It also allowed the West to stand up various training initiatives for Ukrainian soldiers, and to interface at an increasingly robust level with Ukrainian planners, staff systems, and military intelligence. Almost all this work occurred after February 24, and indeed, after early April.
The first month of the war gave the West the breathing space it needed to put all the long-term support systems in place required for an extended confrontation. Perhaps this time could have been used more efficiently, but the formalization of support mechanisms through this new American-led command is a success.
Taiwan in Xi’s sights
The US and its allies now face another war in the foreseeable future. Chinese President Xi Jinping is almost guaranteed to win a third term at the upcoming 20th Communist Party Congress.
He is likely to appoint a variety of key supporters to major posts, prioritizing loyalty over competence, and violating the Communist Party of China’s informal age restrictions to ensure his control over China for the next decade – he may step back from Paramount Leadership in 2027, but is unlikely to cede control completely until 2032.
At the apex of his power, Xi is poised to execute what he regards as his great historical task, the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. The greatest tangible step toward this is the invasion and subjugation of Taiwan.
It would end the Chinese Civil War, demonstrate the CPC’s absolute superiority over China, and provide the People’s Republic and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) the ability to project power into the Philippine Sea and Western Pacific.
Taiwan is not the end of Chinese ambitions, but the beginning. Another war is likely within the decade after a Taiwan invasion, following the global economic cataclysm it will trigger. Nevertheless, invading the island republic would solidify Xi’s legacy as the greatest Chinese statesman in modern history, greater even than Mao Zedong.
The PLA is far more capable of executing an invasion than Western commentators suspect. War is a close-run thing, an unpredictable non-linear engagement between dynamic combatants. No planner or analyst can create even generic probabilities of victory or defeat between evenly matched adversaries.
China is evenly matched with Taiwan and the US coalition. The PLA suffers from integration issues but compensates with mass. It lacks traditional amphibious assault ships but compensates with civilian support.
The US has several exquisite high-end systems, but many lack the range needed effectively to shape a Taiwan contingency. The US has a coalition, but there has been scant clear planning between the US and its allies for Taiwan’s defense.
China is no longer deterred. It seeks an opportunity and will capitalize when it sees trends shift in its favor, perhaps even if only marginally.
Coordinated preparation crucial
Taiwan’s geography does not speak to an extended defense akin to Ukraine’s campaign. Taiwan is small, its population concentrated. It lacks the strategic depth of Ukraine, a massive country with a land border with multiple NATO members.
It cannot utilize interior lines like Ukraine – its reserves will be vulnerable to Chinese fire throughout the country. And as it stands, it lacks the military equipment or civilian supplies of food, fuel, and medicine to survive a long-term war.
In the heat of combat, if the US commits to Taiwan’s defense, providing it with supplies will be a strain on an already overtaxed logistics system. Similarly, joint defense planning on the fly, as occurred in Ukraine, will not be possible.
This is not simply an issue of greater arms sales, although arms sales will help. These arms must be delivered rapidly, within weeks to months, not years. Taiwan has received legislative commitments for a variety of military items, but it has yet to receive even equipment authorized in 2020.
The solution is not only to prioritize Taiwan in foreign military deliveries – alongside Ukraine, of course – but to do so under a coherent command system. The US Indo-Pacific Command should stand up a Taiwan assistance center, perhaps named a Taipei Military Coordination Command for political purposes.
This would centralize and streamline all military assistance deliveries to accelerate their acquisition in Taiwan. It would also serve as the natural contact point for American, Taiwanese, Japanese, and other allied military officials to conduct robust joint planning for a Chinese invasion.
American political and defense circles now acknowledge the possibility of conflict with China but remain wholly unimaginative in their conviction that it is many years away. Nothing suggests that a greatly empowered Xi Jinping shares the same timetable.
A coordinated command center followed by the urgent delivery of weapons is critical to Taiwan’s defense.