WASHINGTON – For years, the deliberate “strategic ambiguity” in Washington’s Chinese policy has 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 have cut off much of access to it, physically. or digitally.
This question may soon be tested for the first time in a quarter of a century. China’s statement during President Nancy Pelosi’s visit that it would begin live-fire military exercises in six locations surrounding the island could create the largest crisis in the Taiwan Strait since 1996, when President Bill Clinton ordered American aircraft carriers to do so. strict.
But those drills were significantly farther from the shores of Taiwan than the series the Chinese government warned of sailors and planes it planned. And it took place in a much more favorable strategic environment, when China’s entry into the global economy should have changed its behavior, and when Mr. Clinton told Chinese students that the spread of the Internet would foster freedom and dissent. . It was also when the Chinese military has amassed a fraction of the punch it now boasts, including anti-ship missiles developed to deter American warships from approaching.
Administration officials say that, based on their assessments, it is unlikely that access to Taiwan can be completely cut off, largely because it would hurt the Chinese economy at a time of severe economic slowdown. On Friday, the Group of 7 Industrialized Nations, the hub of the Western alliance, warned China not to take revenge for Ms. Pelosi’s visit, clearly an attempt to suggest that China would be broadly condemned for overreacting, precisely. as was Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
But American officials say they are concerned that the events of the next few days could trigger an unintended confrontation between Chinese and Taiwanese forces, especially if the Chinese military launches a missile on the island, or if a foray into the disputed airspace leads to a mid-air conflict. Something similar happened 20 years ago when a Chinese military plane collided with an American intelligence-gathering plane.
At the start of the military exercises Wednesday, White House and Pentagon officials were closely monitoring the situation, trying to figure out if China was sending forces to each of the areas near the Taiwan coast that it declared closed. But their assessment was that China’s strategy is to intimidate and coerce, without triggering a direct conflict.
Outside experts were more concerned that the exercise might escalate.
“This is one of the tough scenarios to deal with,” said Bonny Lin, who headed the Taiwan desk at the Pentagon and held other defense positions before moving to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, where he heads the China Project. of power. “If a military exercise passes to a blockade, when does it become clear that the exercise is now a blockade? Who should be the first to respond? The Taiwanese forces? The United States? It is not clear.”
An exercise turned into a bloc is one of many scenarios that are routinely “guerrilla” in Washington as US officials try to chart options before a crisis erupts. But nothing really replicates a real-life comparison.
Mr. Biden, aides say, should try to walk the delicate line between avoiding bowing to the Chinese and avoiding escalation.
It is even more complicated by the ongoing debate over how to help Taiwan become a “porcupine”, or a country too well defended to be invaded by China. Despite all the talk about F-16 sales in Taiwan (its fleet is expected to hit the top 200 fighter jets by 2026), there is growing concern that Taiwan is buying the wrong kind of defense equipment and that it needs to learn something lessons. from Ukraine.
It is certainly not a new debate. Two years ago, a senior defense official, David F. Helvey, warned that as China’s ability to suffocate the island increases, Taiwan itself can, “through smart investment, send a clear signal to Beijing that the company Taiwanese and its armed forces are committed to defending Taiwan. ”But he warned that the sums the Taiwanese government was making efforts to acquire new defensive technology were insufficient for a resilient defense.
The result was a steady drum beat from Washington urging Taiwan’s leadership to invest less in expensive F-16 fighters and more in what Helvey called “a great number of little things,” the formula that he later helped Ukraine resist Russian forces.
This list includes mobile cruise missiles for coastal defense, naval mines, small fast attack boats and mobile artillery.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has expressed support for the so-called “asymmetric” strategy and in recent years has moved to increase the defense budget and purchase many of the small mobile weapons that US officials have recommended, such as the Harpoon missiles. . But he has at times met with resistance from some Taiwanese military officers, who argue that some conventional weapon systems are still needed to prepare for different scenarios. They also said that without an explicit guarantee of security from the United States, it would be too risky for Taiwan to give up its lethal weapons.
This view has changed slightly in recent months as the war in Ukraine rocked Taiwan’s military and public opinion, prompting a greater embrace of the “hedgehog” strategy. But that war also ran out of stock and strained production capacity among American and allied defense contractors, meaning Taiwan may have to wait several years. And that delay gives China an opening.
Additionally, Taiwan’s defense budget is around $ 17 billion a year, although it has pledged to spend an additional $ 8 billion on armaments over the next few years. By comparison, Congress recently allocated $ 52 billion in aid to Ukraine – which doesn’t have Taiwan’s revenue streams to pay for its defense – and China spends on the order of $ 230 billion a year.
Some also say that what Taiwan needs from the US is not just arms sales, but other forms of support, ranging from military technology to operational trading and training.
Although the Taiwan military is sometimes allowed to participate in defense symposia, it is rarely invited to participate in large multinational military exercises because most countries do not officially recognize it as a nation. And while Washington has gradually stepped up the training of Taiwanese forces on the island and in the United States in recent years, the island’s compulsory military service and its reserve program are still considered insufficiently rigorous.
“The United States could help us learn how to train more efficiently and mobilize reserve forces faster,” said Ou Si-fu, a researcher at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, an affiliated think tank. to the Taiwan Ministry of Defense. “They could also help more in terms of technology transfer, to support our indigenous weapons development programs.”
Of course, defending against invasion bears little resemblance to defending against a bloc. Executing a block is even more difficult.
“Threatening a lockdown and actually starting a lockdown are two very different things,” said Eric Sayers, a former senior adviser to US Pacific Command and a member of the American Enterprise Institute.
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 the Chinese economy to maintain a blockade for a long period of time,” said Sayers, referring to the People’s Army. of liberation. . “What harms Taipei’s economy has a similar effect on Beijing.”
Mr. Sayers continued: “The most significant thing about China’s response is that it is giving us a preview of how the EPL could field an indirect blockade against Taiwan in the future to increase pressure in the run-up to elections or other political crises.” .
“Instead of announcing a military blockade, they can instead announce an extended military exercise around Taiwan that closes or disrupts sea routes 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 US could do more to strengthen Taiwan’s security, helping it integrate better into the global economic system. Taiwanese officials and analysts say strengthening trade ties and the eventual approval of a bilateral trade deal could help the island reduce its dependence on China, currently its largest trading partner. But China would undoubtedly see it as an aggressive act.
The geopolitical risks of Taiwan’s dependence on the Chinese market were revealed this week when, hours after Ms. Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan, Beijing decided to suspend exports of natural sand to the island – key to the 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 Representative Office in Washington.
Diversifying American support for Taiwan from arms sales is critical not only to better defend against China, but also to lift the spirits of a fellow Democratic partner, said Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, a defense research group. in Arlington, Virginia.
“We shouldn’t just stick their guns down their throats and rob them of their agency in terms of determining what their defense requirements are,” said Mr. Stokes. “What Taiwan needs most from the United States is to be treated, as far as possible given the constraints, as a normal partner with respect.”
Eric Schmitt contributed to the reporting from Washington.