Beijing may be deterred if it is clear that moving its naval and air force assets to attack Taiwan puts them at risk of humiliating losses.
“If China is going to start a war, they are going to do it on their terms. All of our wonderful stuff won’t get there in time. You need to get your stuff there on Day Zero of the fight,” Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, a former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told me last fall.
China has escalated “gray-zone” attacks against Taiwan in recent months. “Gray-zone” activity advances a state’s objectives outside the realm of accepted diplomacy, but below full military conflict. This can include disinformation campaigns, political or economic coercion, cyberattacks, or using proxies.
The United States, Japan, Australia, and other regional allies should counter Chinese gray-zone provocations with ones of their own. They need to have military assets at sea, in the air, and on the ground on Day Zero, or Taiwan would be quickly seized in the event of a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invasion.
Beijing may be deterred if it is clear that moving its naval and air force assets to attack Taiwan puts them at risk of humiliating losses. Placing equal and opposite pressure against the Chinese regime is the only way to keep its aggression at bay. The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t respect weakness.
The United States and Japan can play a key role in the area of deterrence. Taiwan has one of the freest democracies in East Asia. Its government has been a friend to the United States since World War II when American fliers signed up with the Flying Tigers to help it resist the Japanese occupation. Allowing the Chinese Communist Party to occupy the island and jail its democratically elected leaders would leave an indelible global blot on U.S. credibility. It would tell our allies including Japan, Australia, South Korea, Poland, and the Baltic States that U.S. mutual defense commitments are worthless.
The Chinese Communist Party-linked Global Times noted that the PLA counts on air supremacy to keep aid from reaching Taiwan in time; consequently, it’s essential for the United States and its allies to quickly gain the upper hand in Taiwanese airspace.
If an invasion were to occur, it would likely happen on the Western side of the island. Taiwanese forces would be spread across that side, and the PLA could use a flanking maneuver to strike the less defended eastern side of the island.
Recent People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) exercises in this area with fighters, anti-submarine warfare aircraft, KJ-500 early-warning aircraft, and H-6K bombers suggest this could be part of its strategy.
Japan could help prevent this. The Japanese island Yonaguni, located approximately 120 miles off the east coast of Taiwan, already has a long-range radar station. The island could act as an unsinkable aircraft carrier, closing off Taiwan’s east coast from naval assaults or a blockade. The U.S. military could consider deploying a ground-based version of its Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) to deter Beijing’s surface combatants.
The United States should also consider developing longer-range anti-aircraft missiles that could saturate Taiwan’s airspace from Yonaguni, not unlike Russia’s S-400 missile defense system that has a 250-mile range. Its current Patriot anti-aircraft missile has a mere forty-six-mile range, which is inadequate for deterrence. The uprated system would help the U.S. Air Force in areas where it faces peer-level competition from either Russia or China. A longer-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) could deny access to aircraft flying in Taiwan’s airspace and over international waters off Taiwan’s coast.
To test this theory, I ran a simulation in Command: Modern Operations, a war game used by defense professionals and the Department of Defense. I placed an S-400 on Yonaguni due to the lack of a comparable U.S. or Japanese surface-to-air missile system, and it knocked out PLAAF H-6 bombers and other PLAAF early warning aircraft over waters to the West of Taiwan.
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