Experts: Imminent China-Taiwan War Unlikely, Stress the Need for Prepared U.S. Defense

Experts: Imminent China-Taiwan War Unlikely, Stress the Need for Prepared U.S. Defense
View of the cityscape and skyline of Taipei, Taiwan photographed from Elephant Mountain (ynes95)

China is unlikely to engage in a war with Taiwan in the near future, though if it does, the U.S. military in the region is not ready, the Rand Corporation’s Policy Lab researchers said on Wednesday. 

 The Rand Corporation, a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges, held an online webinar on “China, Taiwan, and the United States: the Coming war?”  Timothy R. Heath, and David A. Ochmanek, senior international/defense researchers examined the U.S. role in protecting Taiwan and evaluated the chances of a major military attack from China on the island.

“There's currently very little incentive for China to risk a war over Taiwan," said Timothy R. Heath senior international researcher at Rand who has served in the U.S. government for 15 years. "What they're waiting for is for the U.S. to give up and decide that Taiwan is not worth it and cut a deal with Beijing that essentially ends U.S. obligations. That would make the problem much easier and dramatically increase the likelihood of a Chinese attack on Taiwan." 

The Chinese leadership consistently prioritizes domestic issues over Taiwan, especially in the light of slower-than-expected economic recovery after the pandemic. Policy documents issued by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) focus on the economy, crime, corruption, discontent, and governance.

 Recently, there has been notable speculation, fueled by comments from U.S. military officers that Chinese President Xi Jinping directed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to enhance its capability for a possible Taiwan attack by 2027. But in public the Chinese leadership underscores a preference for peaceful unification to maintain a delicate balance between domestic concerns and avoid a war that could severely disrupt the nation.

 “We as a nation and our allies should not be comfortable with the forces and postures and military capabilities that we have to deter and defeat aggression if their [Chinese] intentions might change,” said David Ochmanek who has worked as a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Force Development.

Experts agreed that the U.S.-China conflict if it occurs, would likely be prolonged, involve numerous nations picking sides, and extend globally. The U.S. allies would stand with Taiwan, while countries such as Russia, North Korea, and possibly some BRI partners would take China’s side, they said. 

If China decides to invade the island, the U.S. would have to stop it from landing forces in Taiwan, prevent airborne troop insertions, and address the risk of a blockade that could disrupt essential supplies for Taiwan. This puts a significant demand on American forces, considering China has been working on building military strength to limit U.S. operations in its region, leveraging its growing economy and technological advancements. 

Ochmanek believes that addressing these challenges goes beyond acquiring advanced equipment. The U.S. defense forces must alter their force posture, including base locations and deployment speed to reach the theater and airbase strategies. They need to adapt to a new joint operational concept for power projection, recognizing the urgency of potential conflicts in China's vicinity, with limited time for preparation.

“We may have days to do it because we're fighting in China's backyard,” he said. 

As the 2024 U.S. elections approach, concerns arise regarding its impact on the potential China-Taiwan conflict, particularly as certain Republican Party members question America's global involvement, advocating for an end to aid for Ukraine.

“What presidents say matters a lot in the calculations of adversaries. What we do vis-a-vis Ukraine will be read by the Chinese leaders and others around the world as an indicator of our willingness as a nation to continue to extend security guarantees to allies and partners around the world,” Ochmanek concluded.