WASHINGTON — For years, deliberate “strategic ambiguity” in Washington’s China policy left it unclear how the United States would respond to a full-scale, amphibious invasion of Taiwan.
But an equally difficult question—perhaps more difficult, in the minds of many senior White House and defense officials—is how to respond to a slow squeeze on the island, in which Chinese forces cut off much access to it, either physically or digitally.
That question may soon be tested for the first time in a quarter of a century. China’s announcement during President Nancy Pelosi’s visit that it would begin live-fire military drills at six locations surrounding the island could set up the biggest crisis in the Taiwan Strait since 1996, when President Bill Clinton ordered US aircraft carriers to narrow.
But those drills were much farther from Taiwan’s shores than the series the Chinese government has warned sailors and aircraft it plans. And it took place in a much more favorable strategic environment, when China’s entry into the global economy was supposed to alter its behavior, and when Mr. Clinton was telling Chinese students that the spread of the Internet would encourage freedom and dissent. It was also when China’s military paid a fraction of the punch it now boasts, including anti-ship missiles deployed to prevent US warships from approaching.
Administration officials say that based on their estimates, a complete cutoff of access to Taiwan is unlikely — in large part because it would hit China’s own economy during a period of severe economic slowdown. On Friday, the Group of 7 industrialized nations, the core of the Western alliance, warned China not to overreact to Ms. Pelosi’s visit, a clear attempt to suggest that China will be widely condemned for overreacting, as Russia will be for its invasion of Ukraine.
But U.S. officials say they are concerned that events in the coming days could trigger an unintended conflict between Chinese and Taiwanese forces, especially if the Chinese military fires a missile over the island or if an incursion into disputed airspace leads to collision in the air. Something similar happened 20 years ago, when a Chinese military aircraft collided with an American intelligence-gathering plane.
As the military drills began early Wednesday, White House and Pentagon officials were closely monitoring the situation, trying to figure out whether China was sending forces to each of the areas near Taiwan’s coast it has declared closed. But their assessment was that China’s strategy is to intimidate and coerce, without provoking direct conflict.
Outside experts were more concerned that the exercise could escalate.
“This is one of those scenarios that is difficult to deal with,” said Bonny Lin, who ran the Pentagon’s Taiwan office and held other defense posts before moving to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, where she heads China Power Project. “If a military exercise turns into a blockade, when does it become clear that the exercise is now a blockade? Who should be the first to answer? Taiwan forces? The United States; It is not clear.”
A blockade-turned-exercise is one of several scenarios being “war-gamed” in Washington regularly as US officials try to map out options before a crisis hits. But nothing really replicates a real confrontation.
Mr. Biden, his aides say, should try to walk the fine line between avoiding diplomacy with the Chinese and avoiding escalation.
It is even more complicated than the ongoing debate over how to help Taiwan become a “hedgehog,” or a country too well defended for China to invade. For all the talk of F-16 sales to Taiwan – its fleet is supposed to reach 200 fighters by 2026 – there is growing concern that Taiwan is buying the wrong kind of equipment to defend itself and needs to learn some lessons from Ukraine.
It’s hardly a new conversation. Two years ago, a senior defense official, David F. Helvey, warned that as China’s ability to choke the island grows, Taiwan itself can, “through smart investments, send a clear message to Beijing that society of Taiwan and its armed forces are committed to the defense of Taiwan.” But he warned that the sums the Taiwanese government was committing to acquiring new defense technology were insufficient for a resilient defense.
The result has been a steady drumbeat from Washington urging Taiwan’s leadership to invest less in expensive F-16 fighters and more in what Mr. Helvey called “big numbers of small things,” the formula that later helped Ukraine resist to the Russian forces.
This list includes mobile cruise missiles for coastal defense, naval mines, small fast attack craft and mobile artillery.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has expressed support for the so-called “asymmetric” strategy and has moved in recent years to increase the defense budget and buy many of the small, mobile weapons that US officials have recommended, such as Harpoon missiles. However, it has occasionally met resistance from some Taiwanese military officials, who argue that some conventional weapons systems are still necessary to prepare for different scenarios. They also argued that without an express security guarantee from the United States, it would be too dangerous for Taiwan to give up its lethal weapons.
That view has changed somewhat in recent months, as the war in Ukraine has shocked Taiwan’s military and public, prompting a greater embrace of the “beetle” strategy. But that war has also depleted inventories and strained production capacity among American and allied defense contractors, meaning Taiwan may have to wait several years. And this delay gives China an opening.
In addition, Taiwan’s defense budget hovers around $17 billion a year, although it has pledged to spend an additional $8 billion on equipment over the next several years. By comparison, Congress recently doled out $52 billion in aid to Ukraine — which lacks the revenue streams of Taiwan to pay for its own defense — and China spends on the order of $230 billion a year.
Some also say that what Taiwan needs from the United States is not just arms sales, but other forms of support, ranging from military technology to operational exchanges and training.
While Taiwan’s military is sometimes allowed to participate in defense symposiums, it is rarely invited to participate in major multinational military exercises because most countries do not officially recognize it as a nation. And while Washington has gradually stepped up training of Taiwanese forces on the island and in the United States in recent years, the island’s conscription and reserve program are still seen as insufficiently rigorous.
“The US could help us learn how to train more effectively and mobilize reserve forces faster,” said Ou Si-fu, a researcher at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a think tank linked to the ministry. Defense of Taiwan. “They could also be more helpful in terms of technology transfer, to support our domestic weapons development programs.”
Of course, defense against invasion bears little resemblance to defense against a blockade. Executing a blockade is even more difficult.
“The threat of a blockade and the actual initiation of a blockade are two very different things,” said Eric Sayers, a former senior adviser to the US Pacific Command who is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Mr Sayers said China has long had the ability to effectively encircle Taiwan if it chose to, so the ability itself is no surprise.
“Despite all the threats Beijing has made in recent weeks, it would still be very difficult for the PLA Navy and costly for China’s economy to maintain the blockade for any length of time,” Mr Sayers added, referring to People’s Liberation Army. . “What hurts Taipei’s economy has a similar effect on Beijing.”
Mr. Sayers continued, “What is most important about China’s response is that it gives us a preview of how the PLA could exercise an indirect blockade against Taiwan in the future to increase pressure near an election or another political crisis”.
“Instead of announcing a military blockade, they can announce an extensive military exercise around Taiwan that closes or disrupts shipping lanes for 30, 60, 90 days. This makes it less of a military operation and more of a form of legal warfare to justify an indirect blockade for a duration that Beijing can manipulate.”
Others say the United States could do more to bolster Taiwan’s security by helping it integrate better into the global economic system. Taiwanese officials and analysts argue that strengthening trade ties and possibly passing a bilateral trade agreement could help the island reduce its dependence on China, its biggest trading partner. But China would no doubt consider it an act of aggression.
The geopolitical risks of Taiwan’s reliance on the Chinese market emerged this week when, hours after Ms Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, Beijing decided to suspend exports of natural sand to the island – key to construction – and banned imports from Taiwan of certain types of fruit and fish.
“Economic security is so important to Taiwan’s survival as a democracy,” said Vincent Chao, former political director at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Mission Office in Washington.
Differentiating US support for Taiwan from arms sales is critical not only to better defend against China, but also to boost the morale of a fellow democratic partner, said Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, a defense think tank. research group in Arlington, Virginia.
“We shouldn’t just be stuffing them with guns and robbing them of their agency in setting their own defense requirements,” Mr Stokes said. “What Taiwan needs most from the US is to be treated, as much as possible, given the restrictions, as a normal, respectful partner.”
Eric Schmidt contributed reporting from Washington.