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A nation must think before it acts.
Editor’s Note: This article expands upon ideas discussed in Lonnie Henley’s recent research report, Beyond the First Battle: Overcoming a Protracted Blockade of Taiwan. To read that report, please visit the website for the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.
Much has been written on whether war with China is likely and whether Beijing has a timeline for invading Taiwan. When it comes to what such a war would look like, however, the focus is almost exclusively on the early days or weeks of the conflict, defeating a Chinese attempt to land on Taiwan and countering Chinese threats to American forces. Virtually no one looks past those first weeks, at what happens after the United States repels the landing. The country is in severe danger of winning the first battle only to lose the war.
If Xi Jinping or a future Chinese leader goes to war over Taiwan, it will be in the full knowledge that he is risking both China’s future and the survival of the Chinese Communist Party regime. Win or lose, the conflict would devastate China’s economy, disrupting trade, destroying infrastructure, and opening decades of extreme hostility with the United States and its allies. Having argued to the Chinese people that the situation in Taiwan was critical enough to require such enormous sacrifice, accepting defeat would not be an option. If the amphibious landing failed, and Beijing could not find a political formula they could sell as victory despite the military failure, then they would be forced to continue the conflict by whatever means possible.
There is a risk that Beijing would escalate to a limited nuclear strike at this point, despite their avowed policy of never being the first to use nuclear weapons. If they refrain from nuclear use, then the most effective course of action remaining is a prolonged blockade of Taiwan to starve the island into submission. Unfortunately, the United States (and the people of Taiwan) has little ability to break such a blockade.
This would not be a traditional blockade, intercepting ships at sea and turning them away from Taiwan. There could be some of that in the early days, but weeks into the conflict, after the United States had brought sufficient force to bear, the People’s Liberation Army Navy would not have enough ships surviving to attempt a picket-line blockade. But the Chinese military does not have to stop ships crossing the Pacific; it only has to stop them getting into port in Taiwan, and both the terrain and the remaining military balance would be strongly in China’s favor.
The key fact is that Taiwan is extremely mountainous, and the few small ports on the east coast of the island have very tenuous connection to the populated areas on the western plain. Delivering the amount of fuel, food, munitions, and other vital supplies to keep Taiwan alive through a protracted conflict is only possible through the much larger west coast ports, directly opposite the Chinese coastline a hundred miles away.
China’s long-range strike assets would have been expended in the first weeks of the war or destroyed by US forces. But a large inventory of shorter-range weapons would remain to prosecute the blockade. The Chinese military would use artillery, land-based anti-ship missiles, patrol boats, mines, and older fighter aircraft to destroy port facilities, block the approaches, and bombard cargo ships attempting to enter port, all under the protection of air defense systems along the coast. Any mines and obstacles we cleared during one convoy operation could be reseeded immediately once we pulled back to stage the next.
A parallel air blockade would be enforced by long-range surface-to-air missiles as well as People’s Liberation Army Air Force fighters. Advanced stealth aircraft could probably get through, but not large, slow, and highly-visible cargo jets. Even if US forces disabled China’s air defense systems, aircraft could not deliver the tonnage needed to keep Taiwan in the fight.
Neither the force the United States has today, nor the force the military services are building for the 2030s and beyond, is capable of breaking this blockade. Keeping Taiwan alive requires getting hundreds of tons into port, day after day, month after month, under heavy Chinese attack. The United States does not have nearly enough mine-clearing capacity. It does not have warships suitable for an intense, close-in, long-duration fight. It does not have the number or type of systems for prolonged attrition warfare, or the munitions inventories to sustain it. The American military has a force postured for long-range precision strike, excellent for sinking amphibious landing ships, but not for getting cargo into port.
The US services, especially the Navy and Air Force, have invested heavily in preparing to fight the first battle against China, to operate our ships and aircraft within China’s strike range and crush an attempted invasion. But then what? If American forces are not ready to fight the rest of the war, then Taiwan will be devastated, a great deal of blood will be shed on all sides, the US and global economy will suffer enormous harm, all in a failed attempt to prevent an American client from being defeated and occupied. If America is willing to fight this war, then it must be ready for more than the first battle.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.