In three days, China can seize Taiwan – and the United States will be too paralyzed by political turmoil to stop it.
Start a Homeland Security degree at American Military University.
That’s the argument made by two former top U.S. officials, who crafted an elaborate scenario to illustrate what might happen unless the U.S. prepares for conflict with China.
Retired Admiral James Winnefeld Jr., who served as vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 to 2015, and Michael Morell, who twice served as acting CIA director in the Obama administration, penned the scenario in an article for U.S. Naval Institute magazine Proceedings.
Here’s the scenario, as envisioned by Winnefeld and Morell:
It is January 2021, and the Chinese Communist Party is desperate. Covid-19 has wracked the economy, U.S economic sanctions over Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong has damaged trade, and Taiwan’s leaders are muttering about declaring Taiwan an independent nation.
Meanwhile, a disputed November 2020 U.S. presidential election is mired in court challenges over who should occupy the White House. Looking for a way out of China’s domestic difficulties, Chinese president Xi Jinping and his Politburo colleagues see an opportunity.
Operation Red Province begins with major Chinese military exercises in December 2020. The West, distracted by Covid-19 and U.S. politics, dismisses this as mere saber-rattling.
“The operation unfolded quickly, beginning on the evening of 18 January, two days before the scheduled—and still in-doubt—U.S. presidential inauguration,” Winnefeld and Morell write. “A message was transmitted to Taiwan’s leaders that they had the option of immediate peaceful capitulation or armed coercion.”
At the same time, Chinese spies and special forces seize key Taiwanese installations, while cyberattacks disrupt Taiwan’s power grid and public media. Chinese amphibious forces capture Taiwan’s offshore islands, including Quemoy and Matsu, while Chinese submarines blockade Taiwan.
“Chinese media highlighted the presence of thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles in launching positions capable of targeting key facilities on Taiwan,” the scenario postulates. “An immediate sea and air blockade of the island was announced, pending Taipei’s decision on Beijing’s ultimatum. At the same time, the PLAN’s [Chinese navy’s] amphibious forces—including an enormous number of fishing vessels quickly pressed into service—got underway in preparation for landing Chinese ground forces on the island’s west coast, and air defense ships extended their umbrella over the island’s airspace.”
The military action is accompanied by a global diplomatic and social media offensive to neutralize the possibility of foreign intervention. Westerners are asked why they should risk their well-being for Taiwan, East Asians are told that their future depends on China’s “benevolent leadership,” and the rest of the world is threatened with loss of Chinese trade and investment. To stiffen the message, a Chinese cyberattack triggers power outages in Indianapolis.
As the Pentagon prepares to send forces to the region, the U.S. National Security Council is riven by indecision. Not responding militarily would damage American prestige, but some officials fear that rather than defending Taiwan, the U.S. will end up mounting a costly effort to liberate it from Chinese occupation.
“On the morning of 20 January in Taiwan—still late in the evening of the 19th in the States—Taiwan’s government realized that, while the Taiwanese Armed Forces remained capable of putting up stiff resistance for a limited time, U.S. forces would require too much time to be brought to bear,” the scenario says. Taiwan capitulates, and a new pro-Beijing government takes power.
Finally come the inevitable recriminations. U.S. intelligence officials complain that America spent decades focusing on counterinsurgency instead of preparing for conflict with a major power like China.
“In the end, the conflict for which the United States, and in particular the American military, prepared for so long and for which it provided billions of dollars in military hardware to Taiwan, had been lost before it started,” the scenario concludes.
When contemplating a scenario like this, it’s important to remember that the authors are being more polemical than predictive. The scenario is crafted to make a specific point.
In this timeline, China does everything right, Taiwan is weak militarily and spiritually, and the U.S. is just a hapless, paralyzed bystander enmeshed in its domestic affairs. These events could theoretically happen in 2021, especially if the 2020 U.S. elections are as bitter as some fear. But any Chinese general who advocates invading Taiwan – and risking war with the U.S. – on the basis of these rosy assumptions deserves to be jailed or worse for incompetence.
But the scenario does illuminate certain issues, namely that Taiwan’s long-term security – and America’s ability to contain Chinese expansion – rests on two pillars. One pillar is that the U.S. retains sufficient and appropriate military power to deter China from grabbing Taiwan, disputed islands like the Japanese-held Senkakus, or wherever else Beijing asserts its primacy.
The second pillar is that the U.S. has sufficient political will to convince China’s leaders that it will use that military power if need be. Which means that a disputed 2020 presidential election could have severe ramifications thousands of miles across the Pacific.