Could the U.S. and China actually go to war over Taiwan? Imagining the unimaginable.

One way to avoid conflict may be to understand just how destructive it would be.

It’s an open question whether the U.S. would come to its longtime ally Taiwan’s aid; if the United States got involved, we would see a scenario the world has managed to avoid over the 75 years since the introduction of the atomic bomb: direct exchange of fire between two nuclear-armed superpowers.

“Disabuse yourself of the notion that war with China is going to be like anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes,” said David Ochmanek, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration who is now a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation.

China’s desire to retake Taiwan goes back decades

While still far from inevitable, this nightmare scenario has never seemed more likely. Beijing has sought control of Taiwan, which it considers a wayward province, ever since 1949, when fleeing Chinese nationalist forces set up a government on the island.

“If you’re sitting in Beijing, it’s pretty clear that anything short of direct military force is not going to be adequate,” Elbridge Colby, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Trump administration, told Grid. “In fact, the trajectory is moving exactly in the opposite direction.”

None of these developments suggests that Xi has made the decision to take Taiwan by force. But Xi has described reunification with Taiwan as a core component of a larger political project called the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (think, “make China great again”) due to be completed by the People’s Republic’s 100th anniversary in 2049. Time and again, he has publicly tied his own political fortunes to the goal.

The view from Washington

The hard line from Beijing is met regularly by a hard line in Washington. As part of a larger shift toward “great power competition” with China, both the Trump and Biden administrations have elevated Taiwan as an issue.

Technically speaking, the U.S. does not recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. The island is part of China under a long-held formulation known as the “One China” policy, but the U.S. is also bound by law to provide aid for Taiwan’s defense. The U.S. — under Republican and Democratic administrations alike — has long been deliberately coy about what it would do if China invaded, under a policy known as “strategic ambiguity.”

Prelude to attack

Analysts and former officials told Grid they envision a range of scenarios for how the first few days of a conflict over Taiwan might play out. War-gaming is always fraught with hypothetical and shifting scenarios, but several common threads emerge.

A Chinese landing on Taiwan would “be the most complex operation in modern military history,” said Michael Beckley, a professor at Tufts University and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies U.S.-China competition.

For China, the goal in these early days would be to sow as much chaos as possible to either soften Taiwan for invasion or, better yet from Beijing’s point of view, convince its leaders and people that it’s not worth fighting at all.

What will the U.S. do?

No question preoccupies leaders in Taipei, Beijing and Washington more than this: How will the U.S. respond?

Taiwanese military estimates suggest its forces might hold out on their own against China from two weeks to about a month. Even that may be optimistic. If the U.S. enters the fray, it becomes a much fairer fight. And it raises the most critical strategic questions for Beijing.

Of course, one act of aggression under these circumstances would almost certainly beget another — and the Chinese know this. Attacking U.S. forces, particularly forces on U.S. territory in Guam, would all but guarantee an American military response.

But if the U.S. president does decide that defending a democratic ally and halting China’s military expansion is worth the fight, China will have lost a crucial opportunity to strike an early blow and will face a much tougher fight once the Americans show up. (Worth noting: Unlike the U.S. military, the PLA has virtually no combat experience. China has not fought a major war since an ill-fated invasion of Vietnam in 1979.)

Assuming U.S. forces are not badly damaged in an initial onslaught, the Americans have a range of options for striking China in the early days of a Taiwan invasion. It might be days before they reach the area — depending on advance intelligence and positioning — but U.S. submarines, surface ships, aircraft and cruise missiles would likely sink a significant number of China’s amphibious craft during the crossing of the strait. As of 2017, RAND estimates showed that U.S. submarines alone could destroy almost 40 percent of the Chinese amphibious fleet during a weeklong conflict, though China’s defenses in this area have improved significantly since then. If they were able to penetrate Chinese airspace, U.S. aircraft could attack those 40 Chinese air bases within range of Taiwan, though this would represent a significant escalation. Beyond conventional warfare, the U.S. and China could also carry out attacks on each other’s satellites and cyberattacks in the early days of a conflict.

The crossing

The most dangerous part of any invasion from the Chinese perspective would be the actual crossing of the 100-mile strait. “I certainly wouldn’t want to be in one of those Chinese transport crafts, puttering across the Taiwan Strait for eight hours,” Tufts University’s Beckley told Grid. While the Chinese would pound Taiwan’s coastal defenses during the initial air assault, they would be unlikely to eliminate them. Several analysts noted that the vaunted U.S. Air Force had a difficult time eliminating Iraqi and Serbian mobile missile batteries during the Gulf and Kosovo wars; Taiwan’s military is far more advanced.

During this period, the China-Taiwan air war would continue to be intense. “There’s no real way to not be vulnerable during the actual amphibious invasion,” Cristina Garafola, who researches the Chinese military at RAND, told Grid. “You’re basically sitting ducks for anti-ship cruise missiles or Taiwanese aircraft. So I think the [PLA air force] and the PLA navy’s aviation branch would have a key role in making sure those ships made it across to Taiwan with as few casualties and as little damage as possible.”

When China’s ships actually land on Taiwan’s beaches, they’re likely to be met with mines, nets and traps along the shoreline. In one of the more vivid sections of his book, Easton cites PLA military documents that describe Taiwanese plans to create “sea walls of fire” by pumping oil into the shallows and lighting it aflame. (These reports are unconfirmed.)

China’s best bet for moving troops and supplies onto the island will be to seize a port. That means the Taiwanese may have to take the drastic step of destroying their own ports to prevent a landing.

“[The Chinese] have to have that combo of sufficient combat power ashore plus air superiority,” said Chris Dougherty, a senior fellow at CNAS, who has designed numerous Taiwan war simulations. “In almost all of our war-games, there’s a big scramble to see if Taiwan can destroy their ports and their airports fast enough.”

There’s precedent for such operations — the retreating Germans left the port of Cherbourg in ruins to deny the allies a base of operations after D-Day — but the scale and implications of the task should not be downplayed: Taiwan’s largest port, Kaohsiung, is among the 15 largest in the world, handling a larger annual volume of shipping than the Port of Los Angeles.

The land war

As Eric Heginbotham, a researcher on Asian security issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes, the longer a conflict drags on, the tougher it becomes from Beijing’s perspective: “Once you start lethal action, then Taiwan begins to mobilize its reserves. And as long as that ground campaign is going on, your fleet has to be anchored off the coast where it is vulnerable. Any chance for success really does count on a quick, relatively quick occupation.”

Meanwhile, a drawn-out conflict would give Taiwan’s allies — the U.S. but also potentially Japan or Australia — more time to organize support and chip away at China’s air superiority. “Over time, we will have superior aircraft, superior pilots,” Ochmanek said. “I say to people, you can’t win this war in a week, but you can lose it in a week.”

So what happens if — in war-game parlance — the “blue” team stands up, Taiwan mobilizes its reserves, and the U.S. and other allies provide air and naval support? In all likelihood, China still would land a large number of troops on the island, but after that many of the scenarios and planning documents grow vague. It’s been decades since the world has seen mechanized ground combat in urban areas between two heavily industrialized powers, said MIT’s Heginbotham: “Honestly, I think it looks a lot like it always has or has for the last 100 years — which is bloody and slow.”

CNAS’s Dougherty said that war games that get to the ground war stage often settle into a “kind of stalemate” in which the Chinese have control of the air but the Taiwanese are dug in with armor and artillery. “The Chinese can make some headway when they have extra air superiority, when we don’t have fighters up. But then, every 12 to 18 hours, we get a big sortie of bombers, and they get pushed back again. And it kind of goes back and forth like this over the course of days and days and days.”

No refuge for civilians

Less discussed in the war games and white papers is the potential impact on Taiwan’s civilian population. Beyond the fighting itself, the damage could prove catastrophic. Taiwan imports much of its food, fuel and medicine, and an extended blockade could have devastating humanitarian consequences.

In his book, Easton notes that civilian casualties are hardly mentioned in the PLA documents he studied. He told Grid that on a recent trip to Taiwan, he couldn’t help but think about which of the places he was visiting would be targeted in the event of war: “When you do this kind of research, it changes the way you look at the world. The whole country is going to be a war zone.”

With a population of 23.5 million in an area a bit bigger than Maryland, Taiwan is one of the densest countries on Earth and is particularly so along its west coast, where Taiwan’s main military installations are located and where the fighting is likely to be most intense.

“Our military bases are in our cities,” Wu told Grid. “Our communications networks, our infrastructure, our power plants, those are all strategic targets. All those nodes are in urban environments. We all recognize that if conflict breaks out, there are no safe zones.”

The nuclear question

To some of the experts, these grim scenarios are actually good news, in that China is unlikely to embark on a mission that has a good chance of turning into a gruesome stalemate. The problem, given the importance of reunification as a goal for the Chinese state, is the difficulty of getting Beijing to back down.

“How many times does Xi Jinping have to say that the destiny of China is to reunite Taiwan with the mainland before people are convinced that he really means it?” Ochmanek asked. “Once they commit to this course of action, they have a lot riding on it.”

Beckley is skeptical that war would remain limited. He worries about a scenario in which “both sides assume the other side would never go nuclear. And so, it’s OK to just hit them as hard as you want with conventional forces, because there’s a fire break between that the nuclear realm.”

Colby accepts that the risk of nuclear escalation is real but said it shouldn’t deter the U.S. from defending Taiwan. “If we are completely convinced that a limited war is impossible, and the Chinese believe that it is possible, then they will checkmate us every time,” he said. “At some point, we have to be willing to fight a war under the nuclear shadow. My view is the best way to avoid testing that proposition, which I absolutely don’t want to do, is to be visibly prepared for it.”

For some U.S. analysts and policymakers, the risks to Taiwan (and in a nuclear scenario, the risks to everywhere else) are an argument for bolstering support for the island, making an invasion seem as unappealing a prospect as possible to Beijing. For others, the risks involved in defending Taiwan are simply too great, and the U.S. should cut the island loose from its strategic priorities. Either way, it’s best for all involved if these scenarios remain theoretical.


In the end, these scenarios are influenced — in Beijing and Washington both — by politics and long-standing principles. For China, it’s that article of faith about Taiwan, and “One China,” which has recently been married to a position of geopolitical and military strength. For the U.S., it’s the defense of an ally and an increasingly vigilant stand against China and its regional ambitions. Neither side wants war. Neither side has shown any interest in standing down. The war-gamers are still in business.

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