Relax, boys and girls: China won’t invade Taiwan, and the U.S. Navy won’t engage Chinese forces any time in the foreseeable future. It’s a scam, a goof, a Muppet show, whose point is to cover up the incompetence and corruption which led the Pentagon to spend trillions on obsolete weapons. We lost the South China Sea years ago. We’re in roughly the same position as Britain was in Singapore in late 1941, except that unlike the feckless British, we know it. We just can’t admit it.
The U.S. Department of Defense has known since no later than 2012—when I consulted for the late Andrew Marshall at the Office of Net Assessment—that Chinese surface-to-surface (STS) missiles can destroy U.S. aircraft carriers, or any other military asset that isn’t submerged. Not until recently did the U.S. military concede this in official assessments.
In contrast to the Reagan Administration, which made missile defense a priority, we’re doing little to counter China’s formidable capabilities. We can’t test defenses against hypersonic missiles, because we can’t even launch a hypersonic missile. Lockheed junked its flagship hypersonics program last March.
China is under no time pressure to take military action. From a military standpoint, a seaborne landing like the Normandy invasion of December 1944 would be senseless. Taiwan has storage capacity for 11 days of natural gas consumption. A Chinese blockade would force Taiwan’s surrender in short order.
The Pentagon knows this, and isn’t stupid enough to stumble into a firefight. Nonetheless, American commanders talk as if Chinese soldiers are about to hit Taiwanese beaches. In March 2021, Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Philip Davidson, Pacific Fleet commander, warned that China might invade Taiwan by 2027. Chief of naval operations Michael Gilday, said he could “not rule out” a Chinese attempt to invade as early as 2023.
Really? Why indeed would China risk military action of any kind in the Taiwan Strait? For the time being, China is getting everything it wants from the island. Taiwanese investment on the mainland is running at $4 billion a year and rising. Taiwanese chip engineers built China’s chip fabrication plants.
Leave aside the risk of a nuclear exchange—depicted chillingly in Admiral James Stavridis‘ thriller 2034—the least consequence of any kinetic confrontation would be a global economic slump due to trade restrictions.
China has a decisive advantage in its home theater, and it’s growing. It can deal with Taiwan whenever it wants. “The conventional arm of the PLARF is the largest ground-based missile force in the world, with over 2,200 conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles and with enough antiship missiles to attack every U.S. surface combatant vessel in the South China Sea with enough firepower to overcome each ship’s missile defense,” as Maj. Christopher J. Mihal wrote in 2021 in a U.S. Army journal.
“The [People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s] ground-based missile forces complement the air and sea-based precision strike capabilities of the PLAAF and PLAN,” the Pentagon’s November 29,2022 report, ”Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” found. “The PLARF continues to grow its inventory of DF-26 IRBMs, which are designed to rapidly swap conventional and nuclear warheads. They are also capable of precision land-attack and anti-ship strikes in the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea from mainland China.
And that doesn’t take into account Chinese hypersonic missiles, against which there is no defense; hypersonics fly as fast as the anti-missile missiles that are supposed to intercept them. “China has tested and deployed a new longer-range hypersonic missile that is probably able to evade U.S. defenses, according to an overlooked top-secret document among those recently leaked. Now, the public can see what the American intelligence community already knew: China is quickly improving its capacity to strike thousands of miles from its shores and prevent the United States from intervening,” Josh Rogin reported last April in the Washington Post.
One circumstance, and one only, would prompt China to take military action against Taiwan, and that is a move by the island toward sovereignty. It mounted a de facto two-day blockade of Taiwan in August 2022 during then-House Speaker Pelosi’s visit. In China’s calculus, the Speaker of the House is second in line to the president, and Pelosi’s visit raised the prospect of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.
As long as China can maintain the diplomatic fiction that Taiwan is a renegade province that belongs to China, it will eschew the use of force. But Beijing would view American support for an independent Taiwan as an attempt to break up China, as the imperialist powers did during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and respond with all the power at its disposal.
If we don’t want a war, all we need to do is preserve Taiwan’s status quo.
In sad emulation of great powers of the past, the United States has invested in the wrong kind of weapons for a kind of war that won’t be fought again. Battleships took the lion’s share of every combatant’s military budget before World War II, and as Victor Davis Hanson observes in The Second World Wars, Germany and Japan made the mistake of building battleships rather than carriers, and that probably cost them the war. After Japanese bombers sunk four U.S. battleships at Pearl Harbor and two British capital ships near Singapore in December 1941, no navy ever laid a battleship keel again. The aircraft carrier ruled the seas for half a century. Now missiles have made the carrier obsolete.
Under Reagan, the federal development budget (building weapons prototypes) comprised 0.75 percent of GDP, compared to a paltry 0.25 percent today. If we want to restore the technological edge of America’s military, we need to mobilize our national resources and fund R & D on Reagan’s scale. That requires a radical shift in defense priorities from forever wars to high-tech weaponry. That’s the right thing to do, but it would take years to achieve in the best-case scenario.
In the meantime, trash-talking China will get us nowhere. The kind of “denial” that applies to our national debate over Taiwan has more to do with Freud than Clausewitz. It’s time to stop posturing and start rebuilding.
David P. Goldman is Deputy Editor of Asia Times and a Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute. He formerly was global head of debt research at Bank of America.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.