US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi could visit Taiwan on August 2, and China is unsettled by the possibility. While Pelosi’s official itinerary does not mention Taiwan and focuses on other Asian allies such as South Korea and Japan, two sources quoted by Reuters say that Taiwan is on the list. China insists there will be serious consequences if Pelosi travels to Taiwan – especially if the speaker encounters Taiwanese independence activists.
Chinese Minister of Defense Zhao Lijian released a statement filled with the usual bravado and veiled threats he is known for. “We would like to tell the United States once again that China is here, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will never stand idly by, and China will adopt resolute responses and vigorous countermeasures to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
What could China do? Thinking through the terrible
This rhetorical confrontation raises the question of what China is prepared to do militarily against Taiwan, or even against the United States. The most likely scenario is that China would fly warplanes into the Taiwan Air Defense Zone during Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. In June, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force piloted 29 aircraft in the air zone of Taiwan. These flights usually feature various fighters and H-6 bombers, as well as electronic warfare aircraft, airborne command and control aircraft and anti-submarine aircraft. The fighters could send a more serious message by testing missiles around Taiwan. They could even mount a small kinetic show of force attack by dropping a small number of bombs or firing a limited number of missiles at military targets in Taiwan such as anti-aircraft systems and airbases.
In a second scenario, China could order its navy to blockade Taiwan’s critical ports. They certainly have enough ships for such a mission, with 350 warships and 130 coastguards ships, as well as an assortment of fishing vessels that populate the armed marine militia. A blockade would begin with a Chinese carrier battle group securing the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese Communist Party has announced that the People’s Liberation Army Navy is already carrying out live fire drills near the Pingtan Islands, off Fujian Province. It is the closest part of mainland China to Taiwan. A blockade would allow China to cut off arms supplies to Taiwan. It could also stop and inspect imports and exports to the country, causing a disastrous shock to Taiwan’s economy.
Next on the escalating ladder is an all-out amphibious attack to invade Taiwan. It would be the most serious operation possible – PLAAF planes would strike coastal military targets with missiles and bombs. So, hundreds of ballistic missile launchers on the east coast of China would soften the landing zones for an invasion.
China could also use fighters and bombers to launch an attack and then use ground launchers to test or detonate missiles on Taiwanese territory. China could then halt hostilities in place, with its amphibious landing ships ready to depart. This feigned attack would send another message to the world that China is extremely serious on the Taiwan issue.
How would the United States react? First, there would be a major deployment of US surface ships, including at least a carrier group and submarines. American ships are already in the East and South China Seas. From there, the US government’s national command authority should decide what to do next. The White House would convene a meeting of the National Security Council for further consultations. If China really did attack Taiwan in a kinetic way, the Council would have a tough choice: either intervene or stay back and see how serious the attack on Taiwan is. The United States would likely send weapons to Taiwan as quickly as possible, although a blockade would limit that effort. From there, rules of engagement should be devised so that U.S. Navy leaders know how to proceed. If fired, the US Navy would obviously respond in kind. The next step would be for US President Joe Biden to contact Chinese President Xi Jinping, ask for a ceasefire and try to maintain some sort of peace between China and Taiwan.
The most likely choice
The blockade option is China’s most likely recourse. It achieves many tactical and strategic goals for Beijing. They have enough ships to blockade key ports, and the United States would be less likely to intervene. A fire war would not be necessary to bring economic ruin to Taiwan.
China could be bluffing, sparking a simple war of words over Pelosi’s possible visit. Military options for China are on the table, but a full-blown attack on Taiwan is less likely than a blockade.
American options are poor, other than a show of force with one or two carrier battle groups. With so many ships and planes in the area, accidents or miscalculations could lead to gunfire. It could start a wider war. Hopefully China will refrain from the blockade or other provocations, and the United States can continue to guarantee freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific without resorting to force.
Now as 1945 Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. EastwoodPhD, is the author of Humans, Machines and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an emerging threat expert and former US Army infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.