China’s jet fighter incursions into Taiwan airspace keep escalating

“China sent 38 warplanes into the skies around Taiwan on Friday, the highest number of Chinese military aircraft to breach the island’s Air Defense Identification Zone in a single day since Taipei began publicly reporting such activities last year,” CNN reported on Friday night, October 1, 2021. (Read story here.)

These incursions have become commonplace, and now are becoming larger and more frequent. What is China up to?

My guess is they want to get Taiwan controllers so accustomed to seeing them that they won’t recognize the attack when it comes.

China is dead serious about taking over Taiwan by military force. They speak of the island, the South China Sea, and other disputed territories in “sovereignty” terms. That word carries heavy implications. It means they consider those places part of China, their territory, which they’ll defend against outsiders.

Not long ago, China’s top military official suggested his government believes war with the U.S. is inevitable. Then, in cadence, a Chinese diplomat recently suggested his country’s policy against first-use of nuclear weapons is obsolete; and while he didn’t allude to specific potential targets, the obvious ones are Taiwan’s defenses, any U.S. carrier battle group in the area, and the U.S. air base on Guam from which bomber strikes would be flown in support of Taiwan’s defenders.

Is China crazy enough to use nukes against U.S. military forces?

I wouldn’t rule it out, because they would consider the U.S. rushing to Taiwan’s defense as an attack on their homeland, inasmuch as they consider Taiwan part of their homeland, and the fact we don’t is immaterial to them. I suspect they might even preemptively take out key U.S. military assets in the region in their opening salvo, to pave the way for the conquest of Taiwan and increase the likelihood of a quick victory.

What about a U.S. response? Well, China is rapidly expanding their inventory of ICBMs, silos, and strategic nuclear warheads, and why would they do that, except to deter the U.S. from responding to tactical nuclear strikes against our forces by credibly threatening U.S. cities. They might gamble that no U.S. president would run that risk, especially if Taiwan fell quickly and there was nothing left there for us to defend.

But that could be a miscalculation, because it would be hard for a U.S. president not to respond to a Pearl Harbor-like attack that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel. The political pressure at home to retaliate would be immense, perhaps irresistable.

I assume the Pentagon wargames this stuff, has weighed various scenarios, and has plans in place for possible contingencies. They’d better. Our military and civilian planners need to think this through before it happens, because there won’t be time when it does, so that our decision-makers don’t have to react ad hoc.

I suspect a crisis could happen on President Biden’s watch. China’s Xi, who is far more aggressive than his predecessors, seems in a hurry. Some experts think he’ll attack Taiwan within the next 5 years. China is engaging in a very rapid military buildup, including a large expansion of its land-based ICBM force, whose only use is to attack the continental United States. They could only be doing that to deter a U.S. response to an attack against our military forces and bases in the region.

And if Beijing senses that leadership in Washington is distracted or weak, they might be tempted to try catching the Americans off guard, hoping to present our leaders with a fiat accompli before they can react. It’s hard to imagine anything more dangerous, because that’s when ICBMs are most likely to fly back and forth.

However the wheels are turning over in Beijing’s minds, the gradual and steady increase of Chinese jet fighter intrusions into Taiwan airspace isn’t random or casual. These flights are carefully planned, and they mean something.

The U.S. isn’t helpless. If regional deterrence no longer works, and it appears to be failing, we might not be able to save Taiwan, but we don’t necessarily have to. We could make China a pariah nation. We could cut off trade and ties with them, and persuade our allies to do the same; exclude them from global finance; and ban travel between our countries. No longer would their tourists come here; no longer would their students attend our universities; no longer would they sell anything to us. (Note: China, possibly anticipating this, is already shifting their export-based economy to a domestic-consumption economy.)

We don’t have to respond militarily to make them pay. But there’s a line which, if crossed, I’m sure we would. Our nuclear deterrence policy is clear and unambiguous. Its effectiveness depends on adversaries not doubting we will push the button if they do. The question is, would an American president kill millions of Chinese, if millions of Americans were killed? That would be an awful decision for any person with a conscience to make, but he or she would have to. To do otherwise would invite more attacks, and from a strategic standpoint, if our country was devastated we couldn’t afford to leave the attacker intact.

Let’s hope President Xi and his advisers come to that conclusion, and if they’re planning a war, they have a stopping point. And we do, too. Which is why our response to such a contingency has to be planned ahead of time, not knee-jerked under the pressure of events. With this incursion becoming more taunting almost weekly, I do fervently hope that someone in Washington is thinking about all of this.

Update (10/2/21): China sent 39 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense zone on Saturday, 1 more than on Friday, Reuters reported here. “China has stepped up military and political pressure to try to force Taiwan to accept Chinese sovereignty,” Reuters said, while “Taiwan says it is an independent country and will defend its freedom and democracy.”

Related: A former U.S. defense official, in an article written for Foreign Affairs magazine in June 2020, said the risk of a U.S.-China war is the highest in decades and growing, due to a “uniquely dangerous mix of growing Chinese assertiveness and military strength and eroding U.S. deterrence.” While noting neither country wants conflict — an assessment I’ve seen from other writers — she warned they could “all too easily stumble into” a war “sparked by Chinese miscalculation.” She argues the U.S.’s response to China’s growing power and influence has been inadequate, and that “spells trouble for deterrence.” China is developing capabilities “designed to prevent the United States from projecting military power into East Asia in order to defend its interests or allies.” The article goes into detail about this. A perception of U.S. weakness or lack of resolve, she says, could lead Beijing leaders to “conclude that China should move on Taiwan sooner rather than later,” with the aim of achieving “a fait accompli that a weakened and distracted United States would have to accept.” She describes what she thinks the U.S. needs to do. The article is here but you may need to sign up for email newsletters (and subscription sales pitches) to access it.

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  1. Mark Adams #

    China is likely to get a rude awakening. The United States in the 50s played with the idea of a nuclear armed Taiwan. The program went pretty far until the US changed its mind though the Taiwanese continued researching until the US put the kabosh on further secret research. Taiwan is technically capable of being a nuclear armed nation. So are Japan, Australia. South Korea, and India already is. China nationalism and history are encouraging its neighbors to develop their military systems. It is unlikely Taiwan is the sole strategic target of the CCP.
    At some point Taiwan is going to splash Chinese aircraft. China has had the capability to invade and it has been a question of how how high the cost to China would be, and so far the matre de bill has been to high often just based on Taiwanese capabilities and China wants to occupy what is there rather than radioactive ruins.
    The Chinese are not crazy, but their real willingness to use nukes is part of the Soviet Unions military strategic theory and Maos thoughts on the true communist struggles. Maos thoughts should make us uncomfortable. And our diplomats maybe unwilling or being prevented from using the language the Chines need to hear or are too enamored with their own propaganda.

    Telling the Chinese if they don’t want Taiwan to have a nuclear ICBMs perhaps they should reconsider their sovereignty claims. That will definitely upset them.

  2. Roger Rabbit #

    China has said a nuclear Taiwan is a “red line” for them. I’m sure they mean it. From their perspective, nukes in Taiwan are to them what nukes in Cuba were to us. Taiwan and Cuba are very similar in many respects, but the Taiwan Strait is harder to cross than the Florida Strait, and getting an invading army across it is a capability that China never had, but they’re working on it. The big unanswered question is whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan; some of our experts doubt we could. One of the most dangerous aspects of this is that a failed attack on Taiwan could bring down the CCP regime, which makes it likely they would resort to nuclear weapons to prevent a defeat.

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