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Taiwan’s existence has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since the party conquered the mainland in 1949. China’s efforts to coerce Taiwan — with the Taiwan Straits crises of 1954-1955, 1958 and 1995-1996, and many minor incidents over decades — failed because of China’s weakness and U.S. willingness to signal its military support for Taipei.

As China has grown more powerful, and as the exercises of August 2022 and April 2023 reveal, Beijing’s increased capabilities make a successful invasion far more likely. A probable third major military exercise, coming soon to demonstrate amphibious assault, will show that China has the significant pieces in place for an invasion of the island.

In the face of this, the U.S. has pledged to send Taiwan $345 million in unspecified weapons and other military aid to address “critical defensive stockpiles, multi-domain awareness, anti-armor, and air defense capabilities.” Until this announcement, President Biden had delayed using his drawdown authority for Taiwan. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) says we are arming Taiwan “with real capabilities to defend itself.” And as The Associated Press reported, China predictably said the military aid will not deter its will to “unify the island.”

It is paramount for U.S. security that the United States deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

Taiwan matters to U.S. security for four reasons. The first is economic: Taiwan has a vibrant, wealthy economy and is a superpower in computer chip production. Any damage to its factories, their destruction or conquest by China, would reverberate for many years throughout the U.S. and global economies. There may come a day when we are no longer dependent upon Taiwanese chips, but that day likely won’t be here for many years.

Second, Taiwan occupies key geopolitical real estate, as Beijing and Washington recognize. For China, it is a cork in the bottle of the first island chain, and so prevents the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) from easily accessing the Pacific and further expanding its power, from defending China’s ports from mining, and from sustaining the Sea Line of Communication from the East and South China Seas.

Third, in the realm of political warfare, Taiwan is a strong democracy. It demonstrates what China might have been had the Chinese Communist Party not come to power. Taiwan’s existence is a daily reminder of why the CCP is illegitimate.

Fourth, Taiwan is a symbol of U.S. credibility to resist China’s aggression and to sustain stability. Standing with Taiwan — as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did last August and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) did in April — provides a tangible indication that the U.S. will resist China’s expansion. We need to demonstrate we’ll do so with substantial U.S. and allied forces on the ground.

A future where Taiwan is conquered is one where the U.S. and allied economies are profoundly disrupted, America’s allies doubt its credibility, and China and other enemies are emboldened to undertake further aggression.

Viewed from the perspective of Taiwan’s contribution toward U.S. security, the Biden administration’s $345 million in aid is a welcomed gesture, no doubt, but sadly, one that’s insufficient given Taiwan’s national security contribution. It’s also not enough to meet Taiwan’s needs in the face of the threat it confronts.

There is the danger that China will attack Taiwan soon, first by seizing offshore small islands that are difficult for Taiwan to defend. That may be a first step to a larger attack. Or Beijing may decide to execute a “total attack,” through an airborne and amphibious assault coupled with an air and sea blockade of the island. This attack would be conducted by fifth-column forces on the island to hinder Taiwan’s response.

Unless Taiwan collapses immediately, an invasion by China will be a sustained campaign — but Taiwan’s arsenals will be depleted relatively quickly. Even the partial success of a blockade would make resupply from the U.S., Japan and other sources difficult to execute. A resupply effort comparable to Operation Nickel Grass, which resupplied Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, would be difficult because of contested airspace. Moreover, the U.S. arsenal of conventional munitions is already under great stress from the war in Ukraine.

The Biden administration must take Taiwan’s defense seriously — and do so immediately — to maximize its ability to deter an attack. The aid package proposed is a fraction of what’s required. Taiwan must have the ability to deter-by-denial — that is, to convince Beijing that Taipei has the ability to defeat a simultaneous blockade and airborne and amphibious assault. That’s necessary to affect CCP decision-making; China must believe that its military objectives will be denied.

Taipei must have secure command-and-control capabilities. China will try to decapitate the Taiwanese political and military leadership. Many in Washington may assume the U.S. will have the ability to come to Taiwan’s aid, but they might underestimate China’s capabilities and the fact that North Korea would likely work with China to generate a crisis that occupies the U.S. and Japan.

Under this scenario, depending on the timing of China’s attack, the U.S. might face multiple crises in Asia while war continues in Europe. The ability of the United States to address several crises at once would have been difficult during the Cold War, when the U.S. took this possibility seriously, and today that ability has atrophied.

U.S. military aid should be broadened and deepened to provide Taiwan with the conventional deterrent capability it requires to meet all avenues of attack. That’s substantial, and will require years to construct — time that Taiwan does not have. This underscores the immediacy of the need for action.

The Biden administration must treat Taiwan with the importance devoted to the central front in the Cold War — the locus of where the formidable threat is met by indomitable political willpower to respond, coupled with conventional and nuclear capabilities to deter-by-denial any attack.

NATO deterred a Warsaw Pact on its central front along the inter-German and West Germany-Czechoslovakia border with a robust conventional deterrent linked to the possibility of nuclear escalation. If Taiwan is the new central front, to provide the necessary deterrent today, the Biden administration must commit to hard measures that would permit Taiwan to deter China — that is, develop linkage to U.S. conventional and nuclear capabilities.

Bradley Thayer

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