Are the United States and Russia headed towards a nuclear conflict over Ukraine?
Taiwan Is Not Ukraine
In the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, scarcely a news segment went by without someone mentioning what this invasion means for the future of Taiwan. The usual line of argument was that Russia was only able to invade because of America’s weakness and that China will now feel emboldened to attack and conquer Taiwan, possibly at any moment. This point would then follow with calls for the US to officially recognize Taiwan, to give explicit security guarantees, and even to station troops on the island.
All of these points are based on a false equivalence and a failure to understand just how truly different Ukraine’s and Taiwan’s situations are. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be an immensely complicated affair, and the US options for intervention are quite limited. It would be the height of foolishness to rush into making policy based on two cases that are so alien to each other.
To begin with, Taiwan and Ukraine face an entirely different set of strategic circumstances. Ukraine has a vast border and terrain ideally suited for invasion, hence why Russia is attacking it on four fronts simultaneously. In contrast, Taiwan is an island separated from mainland China by roughly 100 miles of the Taiwan Strait. Chinese military planners only consider the weather conditions in the strait to be suitable for the large-scale operations that would be required for such an invasion for two relatively short windows from late March until the end of April and late September until the end of October.
Further complicating this fact is that thanks to decades of geoengineering, Taiwan only has 14 beaches suitable for large-scale landing operations which are all heavily defended. In total, less than 10 percent of Taiwan’s coast is suitable for landing operations. In contrast to Ukraine, which must fight on multiple fronts along its vast border, Taiwan would be able to swiftly concentrate its defenses and outnumber any Chinese forces that managed to make it across the heavily mined and defended strait.
The difficulties imposed by the need to cross the Taiwan Strait cannot be underestimated. Tens of thousands of Russian troops poured across the Ukrainian border on multiple fronts simultaneously when the invasion began. China, by contrast, does not have anywhere close to that capacity. The most recent findings from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission estimate that using all of its sea and airlift capacity, China would only be able to transport a maximum of less than 30,000 troops on the first day of the invasion. This number is the maximum before factoring in the inevitable losses that Chinese landing vessels would face while crossing the heavily mined strait under a hail of missiles and artillery from shore-based defenses and that Chinese air assault forces would face from Taiwan’s formidable air defense capacity. Even assuming no losses, China would likely be able to transport less than 20,000 troops a day after the beginning of the invasion.
Given that Chinese military planners estimate that it requires a force of one million strong for the entire invasion, it is clear that China does not yet possess the lift capacity needed to get enough of its forces across the strait and secure a beachhead. Thus, the panicked fears dashing around social media that China might choose to invade any day now are unrealistic in the extreme and the signs of such a required build-up would be obvious well in advance.
There are also crucial geo-strategic differences between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the China-Taiwan situation that would prevent China from marshaling this necessary manpower. Russia was able to undertake this invasion in large part because it reached an understanding with China that allowed it to transfer numerous forces from the Russian far east, where Russian forces are at their lowest levels perhaps since World War Two. While China did resolve all border disputes with Russia in the 2000s and now has some degree of a cooperative partnership, China has a vast 14,000-mile-long border that is still contested with many of its neighbors, most notably India and Vietnam.
China and India both occupy huge swathes of land claimed by each other and as recently as 2020 there were several dozen deaths due to clashes between forces in the region. Given that roughly half of China’s military forces are already occupied manning its vast border or garrisoning cities to keep order, China would not be able to reallocate troops for an invasion the way Russia has been able to do.
Taiwan has the military capacity to deter and if necessary, resist invasion. Chinese landing forces would face a non-stop wave of destruction. Taiwanese missiles would rain down on assembly areas; Chinese ships would be ripped open by thousands of naval mines deployed to the strait; Taiwanese naval vessels and aircraft (many of which are defended from attack in bunkers built into mountains) would sally forth to harass the fleet; and finally, the landing force would face withering fire from shore defenses.
If Chinese forces managed to establish a beachhead, their troubles would only be beginning. Taiwan can theoretically field over 2.5 million troops, in addition to a million more civil defense personnel. The limited number of landing zones means that Taiwan can swiftly rush overwhelming force to any beachhead and outnumber the defender. For context, in World War II the Allies estimated that they would need a force ratio of 5:1 to overpower the Japanese defenders of Taiwan (then called Formosa) and that they would sustain 150,000 casualties.
Landing zones would be flooded with oil and other flammables and chemical processing plants, which are concentrated near some of the potential landing zones, could be destroyed to cover the beachhead in a cloud of toxic fumes. If the Chinese managed to break out, they would then face a long-prepared defense in depth. Every foot of ground would be bitterly contested and casualties in bitter urban warfare would be astronomical.
Chinese military planners recognize what a difficult undertaking such an invasion would be, and how its potential for colossal failure could threaten the regime’s grip on power. Hence why, despite their rhetoric, they have not even started to make the costly military investments that would be required for such an invasion to be possible.
This is fortunate because it is clear that America would actually be able to do very little in the face of a cross-strait invasion and none of the proposals being bandied about to officially recognize Taiwan or to provide security guarantees would change that fact.
Taiwan is roughly 6,000 miles away from the mainland United States and only about 100 miles away from mainland China. Any superpower war would be fought on China’s home turf with all the advantages that entails. Thanks to China’s anti-area/access denial capabilities, it can credibly threaten to sink any US vessel within 500 miles of the Chinese coast. Not only that, but US war game scenarios have found that within hours of the start of a war with China, Chinese missile forces would likely be able to launch critical strikes on US forces in Japan, destroying hundreds of aircraft on the ground, sinking most of the US fleet in a Japanese harbor, and severely damaging command and logistical facilities.
Even without considering China’s robust defensive capabilities, it is questionable how ready the U.S. Navy is for engaging in the kinds of operations that would be required to wage a naval war in East Asia. A 2021 study commissioned by members of Congress reported that after nearly three decades without a peer competitor the Navy has turned into a floating bureaucracy, more concerned with shuffling papers around and managing media headlines than it is with preparing to fight and win potential wars.
A Government Accountability Office report issued in June of 2021 raised similar concerns about the Navy’s battle damage repair capacity, noting that the system is a bureaucratic muddle and is already at or exceeding its peacetime maintenance capacity. As one observer noted, it is easy to tell the difference between American and foreign vessels because the American ones are covered in rust and look terrible. If the Navy can’t even keep ships repaired during peacetime, how can we expect it to repair dozens of stricken vessels on the other side of the planet during a war?
Though perhaps such repair capacities wouldn’t be maxed out if the Navy could put out fires and avoid crashing into giant freighters in the open ocean. In 2020, the Bonhomme Richard was completely lost due to an arson fire that was not contained because of a lack of training and sloppy maintenance and safety protocols. A 2019 report from ProPublica investigating a series of deadly naval crashes found that “The fleet was short of sailors, and those it had were often poorly trained and worked to exhaustion. Its warships were falling apart, and a bruising, ceaseless pace of operations meant there was little chance to get necessary repairs done.”
The simple truth is that any war with China will largely be a naval conflict. Given China’s defensive capabilities and capacity to neutralize American bases in Japan, combined with the inexperienced, disordered, under-maintained, and overworked status of the Navy, it seems likely the US would be met with disaster were it to attempt a forceful intervention in a cross-strait conflict in the near future.
Fortunately, there are several low-cost and low-risk options available to US policymakers that can help bolster Taiwan’s ability to deter and if necessary, repel a Chinese attack. The Taiwanese reserve force is a great asset, but it is in serious need of reform and the volunteer force is struggling to meet recruitment thresholds. The U.S. can provide incentives and training opportunities here in the U.S. without the risk of escalation entailed in deploying a training mission to Taiwan itself. Similarly, Congress can use its power to approve arms sales to force Taiwan to confront the strategic realities of its situation and focus more on acquiring cheap yet effective weapons, such as drone swarms and mines, rather than vanity systems, such as more F-16s and Abrams tanks. These are low-cost and low-risk ways to bolster Taiwan’s ability to deter and resist without dangerously escalating tensions with China.
It is crucial that American policymakers understand the limited options the US has when it comes to intervening in a cross-strait invasion and that they avoid attempting to bluff China in the manner that has so clearly failed with Ukraine and Russia. By focusing on selling Taiwan the appropriate weapons for its defense and cooperating in training and recruitment incentives, the US can avoid risking war with nuclear-armed China and make clear to Taiwan that it must take full responsibility for its own defense. Taiwan is not Ukraine, and if it takes the proper actions, it can avoid Ukraine’s tragic fate.