Talking Points

China's ominous incursions over Taiwan

Over the past four days, Taiwan has reported a series of incursions by Chinese fighter jets into its air defense zone, with the largest one yet, involving 52 aircraft, taking place on Monday. Taiwan has scrambled its own fighter jets to ward off the Chinese planes, while the United States issued a statement on Sunday urging China to stop its "provocative" actions.

Just what is China up to? A Taiwan-based source quoted by Reuters speculates that "the Chinese planes were possibly conducting simulated attacks on U.S. carrier fleets, drills … that China has repeatedly carried out near Taiwan in the past few months." That may well be, but if it is, it could be a prelude to an attempted Chinese invasion of the island — an event that China may opt to undertake sooner rather than later because of the new defense alliance between the U.S., U.K., and Australia that includes the sale of American nuclear submarines to Canberra, a move that changes the balance of power in the region. Those subs won't arrive for years, and Beijing may be convinced it makes sense to act before their delivery.

How should the U.S. respond if China launches an invasion of Taiwan? The consensus view in Washington seems to be that we should come immediately to Taipei's defense, putting us at war with Beijing in the South China Sea in order to repel the assault. But would the U.S. prevail in such an armed conflict?

The answer is less obvious than many Americans presume. Indeed, a wide range of analysts have looked at the question in recent years and come to the conclusion that the U.S. military could well lose such a war. The reasons why are straightforward: Taiwan is a little over 100 miles off the Chinese coast but nearly 7,000 miles from the continental United States; China has been heavily investing in weaponry ideally suited to launching an amphibious assault; and our main platform for defending against an invasion will be aircraft carriers, which would be highly vulnerable to retaliatory (or pre-emptive) strikes.

That doesn't mean the outcome of a war with China over Taiwan is certain. Far from it. (It's even possible that the U.S. and China could both lose such a conflict, with the American military unable to stop and repel the invasion but the Chinese unable to hold the island.)

But what is certain is that an American defeat would instantly demote us to the status of a second-tier military power in the Western Pacific, with all kinds of reverberating geopolitical consequences in the region and potentially around the world.