“If the United States had to fight Russia in a Baltic contingency or China in a war over Taiwan, Americans could face a decisive military defeat,” stated a US Institute of Peace (USIP) study Providing for the Common Defense published in November 2018. The 71-page report is authoritative and notable since it is an assessment made by the National Defense Strategy Commission, co-chaired by US Ambassador Eric Edelman and former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead (retired) along with members of the commission, to include former Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox, Center for Strategic and International Studies Senior Vice President Kathleen Hicks, and others. While the report’s declaration that “Americans can face a decisive military defeat” is stark, its purpose is to warn about the possibility of losing a war so the United States can refocus efforts now to prevent that outcome from happening in the future.
To say that the United States could lose a war against China is not a deterministic statement that it will necessarily happen. An analogy that comes to mind is a driver who does not realize the car in front of him or her has slowed down. If a passenger warns the driver that he or she could hit the car in front, then giving the warning will help prevent the accident from happening. The driver could then slow down, or swerve out of the way. If the driver continues his or her course because he or she is not paying attention and if there is no warning, then there would be an accident. In a similar way, the publication Providing for the Common Defense is a warning for the United States to adjust to dealing with near-peer competitors such as Russia and China to prevent the United States from having to face a decisive military defeat over the Baltic region or Taiwan.
The USIP report offers its first vignette called “losing Taiwan” outlining a potential Chinese strike against Taiwan and subsequent US reactions. The prominent authors of the report offer a hypothetical scenario set in the future: “In 2024, China undertakes a surprise attack to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence. As Chinese forces launch air and missile attacks, cripple the Taiwanese Navy, and conduct amphibious landings, it becomes clear that decisive US intervention will be required.” The idea that China would first launch missile salvos at Taiwan to “soften the target” and then move toward amphibious landings is in line with the prediction from prominent studies such as the famous RAND Corporation study Air Defense Options for Taiwan and Project 2049 Institute researcher Ian Easton’s book The Chinese Invasion Threat.
At this point in the hypothetical scenario, the authors consider the limited number of US options to assist Taiwan. They note: “Unfortunately, America can no longer mount such an intervention at an acceptable cost. China’s missile, air, surface, and undersea capabilities have continued to grow as US defense spending has stagnated. Large parts of the Western Pacific have become “no-go” zones for US forces.” (Ibid) Their assessment is based on the recent phenomenon that China’s military capabilities have advanced significantly over the past two decades, culminating into what the US government calls China’s anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities. These are China’s collections of advanced radars, missiles, aircraft, naval vessels, and submarines positioned along its coast to try to deny the US military from operating within the first and second island chains in the West Pacific.
The USIP authors weigh the US decision to intervene to assist Taiwan’s defense. “The Pentagon informs the President that America could probably defeat China in a long war, if the full might of the nation was mobilized. Yet it would lose huge numbers of ships and aircraft, as well as thousands of lives, in the effort, in addition to suffering severe economic disruptions—all with no guarantee of having decisive impact before Taiwan was overrun,” according to the USIP report. (Ibid) Clearly, the decision for the United States to assist in Taiwan’s defense would have a great cost and consequence against such a capable and high-tech potential adversary such as China.
The US decision to not intervene to assist Taiwan would also have serious consequences, and result in “losing Taiwan.” The report explains, “Allowing Taiwan to be absorbed by the mainland would represent a crushing blow to America’s credibility and regional position. But avoiding that outcome would now require absorbing horrendous losses.” (Ibid) While Taiwan is not officially a US mutual defense treaty ally today, it was a treaty ally throughout the 1950s until 1979, so there is a history and sentiment of such a security guarantee between the United States and Taiwan. Even while Taiwan is not technically a mutual defense treaty ally, the US Congress mandates that “Taiwan shall be treated as though it were designated a major non-NATO ally.” This effectively gives Taiwan preference for the “transfer of defense articles and defense services” from the United States, but also reflects the heightened importance of Taiwan to the United States. Not to mention the negative signal that “abandoning” Taiwan would send to US allies in the region, particularly South Korea and Japan.
The authors of the USIP report Providing for the Common Defense critique an important aspect of the current US government plan to counter China and Russia. The authors refer to the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy (NDS), when the USIP report mentions, “The NDS asserts that DOD will ‘expand the competitive space’ but offers little evidence of how it will do so.” The USIP report elaborates:
The NDS also states that DOD will plan to employ the force “unpredictably” or “creatively” at the operational level. Horizontal escalation is one example of such an approach. Based on analysis reviewed by the Commission, the deterrent or coercive value of this approach appears limited. If China attacked Taiwan or Russia attacked the Baltic states, for instance, it seems unlikely that the United States could force its adversary to back down by applying pressure—military or otherwise—in secondary areas. Moreover, while the creativity implicit in seeking to “expand the competitive space” is laudable, force employment must be firmly grounded in foreign policy goals set by the civilian leadership, and it must deliberately integrate political-military considerations in order to avoid unintended or counterproductive strategic effects. (Ibid)
The USIP’s authors are pointing out that the United States will have trouble using the same tactic that China and Russia could use against the United States. While China and Russia can utilize “horizontal escalation” by attacking Taiwan or the Baltic region, the United States would have a harder time finding similar “secondary areas” of great value to China and Russia to pressure them to back down. While is laudable to think creatively in these ways, this line of reasoning provides limited policy options in reality.
From Fighting Low Tech Combatants to Countering High Tech Potential Adversaries
The USIP report highlights the growing security implications for the Indo-Pacific region caused by the rise of China and Russia, and offers recommendations for how the US can better compete against them in the region. The report states: “Of the five competitors and adversaries named in the NDS, four—China, North Korea, Russia, and terrorist groups—are active in the Indo-Pacific region. Deterring aggression in this region requires establishing a forward-deployed defense-in-depth posture.” (reference 4) The United States cannot rely on old tactics from past conflicts to prepare for this different set of new challenges in the region.
The United States is moving away from recent wars against relatively low-tech adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan, toward the possibility of waging war against high-tech major powers such as China and Russia. The USIP report is a warning for the United States to shift its mix of military capabilities to address such high-tech adversaries.
Specifically, the USIP report recommends how the United States should prepare: “Protecting US interests from China and Russia will require additional investment in the submarine fleet; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets; air defense; long-range strike platforms; and long-range ground-based fires.” (Ibid) The report continues, “Given the distances involved in the Indo-Pacific region, the United States will also need to expand and modernize its logistics capacity, particularly its tanker, strategic airlift, and military sealift fleets. (Ibid) There is an important role for US allies as well: “Allies can be helpful in this context by investing in maritime domain awareness, undersea capabilities, missile defense, precision guided munitions, and cyber capabilities.” (Ibid) All of these efforts by the United States and US allies are high-tech and therefore high-cost endeavors, far from what the United States was previously dealing with in the Middle East.
The US Institute of Peace report Providing for the Common Defense opened with a controversial and startling statement: “If the United States had to fight Russia in a Baltic contingency or China in a war over Taiwan, Americans could face a decisive military defeat.” It did not end there, since it provided robust analysis and serious recommendations for how the United States and its allies can work toward preventing this outcome of defeat. We should carefully consider the content of the USIP report, as it was a result of the input of prominent experts such as former US ambassadors, admirals, an acting deputy secretary of defense, a senior vice president at CSIS, and other notable contributors.
The report yields many implications for Taiwan. The same recommendations for the United States to improve its military capabilities to counter a high-tech major power threat apply to Taiwan as well. Taiwan should focus on air defense, submarines, and ISR as mentioned in the report. Taiwan should also double up its approach toward the United States government to continue to shore up US commitment toward Taiwan for being a beacon of democracy in the region, setting a positive example for others, and being a helpful US partner.
Like a driver being warned of upcoming danger so he or she can stop or swerve around it, the USIP report warns of defeat to ensure victory and offer a way forward for the United States to assist in Taiwan’s defense against the face of China’s growing aggression.
The main point: In a recent US Institute of Peace report, prominent former senior US officials warned that “Americans could face a decisive military defeat” against “China in a war over Taiwan.” Yet, their purpose is to provide serious analysis and recommendations for how the United States can prevent the outcome of defeat and instead ensure victory against such as capable and high-tech potential adversary.