Defending Taiwan: Think Globally and ‘Look Up’

December 9, 2021 Updated: December 19, 2021


U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said recently that Chinese air force movements toward Taiwan look like “rehearsals” for an invasion. It’s good that U.S. military leadership is finally realizing that Xi Jinping is serious when he says he’ll use force, if necessary, to seize Taiwan.

Yet, in recent years, whenever the U.S. military has “war-gamed” a fight with China over Taiwan, the United States has reportedly “failed miserably.”

But there are war games and there are war games. Depending on how you construct the scenario, things might turn out better for the United States.

You see, if the fight is confined to Taiwan and the surrounding area, the Chinese would have a significant advantage. They could deploy far more ships than the U.S. Navy and the same goes for aircraft. Chinese land-based missile and anti-aircraft batteries would further make things difficult for U.S. forces trying to “get in close” to help Taiwan. One wouldn’t envy a U.S. destroyer skipper who has two-dozen supersonic anti-ship missiles heading his or her way and arriving in 90 seconds.

Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force’s ballistic missiles, which are able to hit moving targets at sea, would give U.S. aircraft carriers much to worry about. The missiles are nicknamed “carrier killers” for a reason. U.S. bases in Japan and Guam, from where U.S. forces would be deployed to aid Taiwan, also would be receiving attention from Chinese missiles.

This just covers a few of the problems facing U.S. forces. Of course, the United States could strike some blows of its own. But if it’s just a fight between the Americans and the Chinese, and it takes place right around Taiwan, the United States would have a hard time.

However, expanding the battlefield to include, say, the entire globe would improve U.S. prospects considerably.

Here’s why:

China doesn’t produce enough food to feed itself, nor does it have enough energy or natural resources to power its economy. That’s why the Chinese are buying up Brazilian and Ukrainian farmland, Australian milk companies, and U.S. pork producers. The same goes for Chinese oil concessions in Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela, as well as mines in Africa and South America.

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Food trucks wait to enter China near Muse, Burma (Myanmar), close to the Chinese border with Burma’s Shan state on April 20, 2020. (Phyo Maung Maung/AFP via Getty Images)

China not only depends on seamless (and long) supply lines to import commodities and raw materials, but it also depends on the same supply lines to export manufactured products that earn the country vital foreign exchange—and keep people employed and the economy humming.

If the United States (and its allies and partners) “expand the battlefield” and cut off China from its overseas “assets,” as one Western expert put it: “Without these commodities arriving in China from around the world, the China we know and the Chinese know will not exist. … It will be 1.4 billion persons desperate for food, energy, commodities, natural resources.”

So if the United States were to muster the fortitude needed to impound or sink Chinese shipping and clamp down on air transport in and out of China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would be in dire straits.

The PLA, despite carrying out the largest and fastest defense buildup in recorded history—including progress toward a “blue-water” global navy—over the past 20 years, still can’t defend China’s overseas assets. And it will probably be another decade before PLA global power projection capabilities can do so.

Compounding Beijing’s problems, China also is vulnerable to U.S. financial sanctions that exclude China from the U.S. dollar network; Washington also could prohibit U.S. corporate business dealings with China.

So while the regime in Beijing might like its prospects in a straight-up (and confined) fight to seize Taiwan, it’s extremely vulnerable if the United States and other free nations “decouple” China from its overseas assets—and the convertible currency and inward foreign investment and trade that powers the Chinese economy.

But the United States shouldn’t breathe easy.

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A Long March-2F carrier rocket, carrying the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft with the second crew of three astronauts to China’s new space station, lifts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert in northwest China early on Oct. 16, 2021. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

If China can seize the high ground in outer space and the upper atmosphere—and threaten the United States with a surprise (and undefendable) nuclear attack, as well as blinding U.S. forces by taking out their satellites—it might be able to checkmate the United States. At that point, America’s existing conventional advantages, both kinetic and non-kinetic, wouldn’t matter much.

China’s recent tests of hypersonic delivery vehicles and the so-called Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) give the United States plenty to worry about in this regard. These are hard to track and hard to defend against—especially since they allow nuclear warheads to be launched from directions where U.S. anti-missile systems aren’t looking.

And, in another move to dominate the high ground, the Chinese (and the Russians) are aiming for offensive operations against U.S. satellites on which America’s defense depends. They have, in fact, already started interfering with U.S. space assets.

Earlier in 2021, Gen. James Dickinson, commander of the U.S. Space Command, spoke about the space threat to the United States posed by China and Russia in a congressional hearing.

“China is building military space capabilities rapidly, including sensing and communication systems and numerous anti-satellite weapons. … Similarly concerning, Russia’s published military doctrine calls for the employment of weapons to hold us and allied space assets at risk.”

Dickinson also submitted written testimony at the hearing.

“One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm,” he wrote. “Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites. China also has multiple ground-based laser systems of varying power levels that could blind or damage satellite systems. China will attempt to hold U.S. space assets at risk while using its own space capabilities to support its military objectives and overall national security goals.”

So far, the United States is apparently just playing defense in space, rather than building up the offensive capability to do to the Chinese (and the Russians) what they’re planning to do to them. According to one observer, the Biden administration’s response thus far has been “finger-wagging and scolding.”

Not exactly a winning approach.

One imagines a scenario in which Beijing makes its move on Taiwan and tells Washington to “stand back”—and that includes sanctions and attacks on China’s supply lines—or it will face satellite “blinding” and a nuclear attack “from above.”

This is, of course, something of a poker game if things reach this point. The Chinese might be bluffing or they might not. And it will take a certain type of U.S. president to call their bluff. But whoever it is, if the Chinese get “the high ground,” there will be a number of people telling the president that “Taiwan isn’t worth it” and to “let it go.”

So while the current focus is on Taiwan and the conventional hardware and capabilities needed to deter a Chinese assault, the United States would do well to prepare to “expand the battlefield” and hit China where it’s most vulnerable.

But the United States also needs to “look up” and do what’s necessary to dominate space and counter China’s hypersonic and FOBS capabilities that could potentially “checkmate” earthbound U.S. advantages.

Not surprisingly, U.S. military leadership knew of China’s developing hypersonic capabilities some years back and, by and large, ignored it.

One hopes they’ll do better this time.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine officer and a former U.S. diplomat and business executive who lived and worked for many years in the Asia/Pacific region. He served as a reserve head of intelligence for Marine Forces Pacific, and was the U.S. Marine attaché, U.S. Embassy Tokyo on two occasions. He is a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy.