Taiwanese military strategists need to improve their ability to resist “any sort of amphibious invasion” from mainland China, according to President Trump’s national security adviser.
“Taiwan needs to start looking at some asymmetric and anti-access area denial strategies,” Robert O’Brien said during a teleforum with the Aspen Institute. “And really fortify itself in a manner that would deter the Chinese from any sort of amphibious invasion or even a gray zone operation against them.”
O’Brien’s exhortation comes just days after State Department officials alerted Congress to a plan to sell Taiwan a $2 billion package of coastal defense cruise missiles. That sale still has to go through a congressional review, but China’s saber-rattling in the Straits of Taiwan has stoked American worry that Beijing might seek to conquer the island by force.
“I’m pretty worried,” said Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official who helped craft the Defense Department’s national defense strategy in 2017 and 2018. “It’s a serious problem right now, and it could get worse in the next couple of years. It’s a near-term problem.”
Those risks may be exacerbated by uncertainty about whether the United States would intervene to defend Taiwan, particularly at a time when American lawmakers suspect that Beijing has developed a military with the capacity to defeat U.S. forces in a regional conflict.
“In the eventuality of China actually trying something with Taiwan, do you believe that the U.S. will go out there and defend Taiwan?” an Indo-Pacific official said. “So this is the question being asked by many people.”
That question continues a theme of Trump’s presidency, as officials from allied countries have expressed misgivings in private about how he would react in a crisis — sometimes troubling even members of his own administration.
“We are the leaders of a global alliance, and you’ve got to appear to be more reliable than that,” a senior U.S. official said of the president’s stewardship of American alliances. “People don’t think he’s crazy like a fox. Maybe they’re wrong. But due to the undisciplined behavior, the tweeting and so forth, that’s not the impression he’s given people … [people think] that he’s erratic.”
Chinese Communist officials have avoided major conflicts for decades, but their desire to confirm such global distrust in American promises could make the idea of an invasion more attractive, according to Colby.
“China will want to make an example of a country that has strong ties, either an alliance or quasi-alliance, with the United States — which Taiwan effectively does,” the former Pentagon strategist said.
A victory there would bring a cascade of advantages. Taiwan’s geographic location — off the coast of mainland China, south of Japan, and north of the Philippines — makes it “a cork” for China’s ability to conduct military operations in the Pacific. “If the Chinese take over Taiwan, suddenly, they no longer have to plan [for] attacking Taiwan, and then, they can project military power outward from the island of Taiwan,” Colby said.
Trump’s national security team has attempted to send diplomatic signals to deter an attack in recent months. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently declared that the U.S. would be a “good partner for security” to Taiwan in the event of an attack, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper likewise has sought to warn off Beijing.
“I’m confident we would prevail today in any conflict,” Esper said last week.
An invasion would be painful for the aggressors, even without U.S. intervention, O’Brien stressed. “It’s a hard operation for the Chinese to do,” he said. “We don’t comment about what our militate plans are, how we would respond in that circumstance, but we’ve got a lot of tools in the toolkit if we got involved that could make that a very dangerous effort for the Chinese to engage in.”
For now, the uncertainty principle is holding. “They’re aware that nobody’s going to invade to protect Xinjiang,” the senior U.S. official said, referring to the region where Chinese Communist officials are abusing ethnic and religious minorities. “They’re not sure about Taiwan, and they don’t do it.”