How would America respond if China attacked Taiwan? The pressure to defend the island would be compelling, if not overwhelming. Washington nominally maintains a ‘strategic ambiguity’ towards the defence of Taiwan, but the two countries are linked in many ways and the Biden administration recently reiterated its ‘rock solid’ commitment to the island.
Beijing clearly wants to subordinate self-governing Taiwan. American credibility, meanwhile, is connected to its protection. The island is also militarily significant. Its fall would seriously undermine the defence of Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and open up the central Pacific to the Chinese military.
Beijing knows heavy sanctions and harassment are unlikely to force Taiwan to give up its freedom. A quick and decisive air and sea invasion would, though. And while China has spent the past 25 years allocating resources to getting ready to take the island, the US has unwisely focused on other things. Taiwan and Japan have also neglected their defences. As a result, in the event of an invasion, coming to the island’s aid would be extremely difficult. But it is still feasible.
In defending Taiwan, Washington’s goal would not be to comprehensively defeat China, but rather to defeat the invasion — to deny China its goal of subordination. America, Taiwan and any other partners willing to enter the fray would need to concentrate on stopping the invasion, putting every available hindrance in the way of China’s armada and aircraft. Think sea mines and anti-ship and anti-air missiles launched from various platforms on land, at sea and in the air. The defenders would also need to eliminate or eject any Chinese forces that managed to land.
If the resistance to invasion succeeded, China would face a choice: either try to escalate the war in ways that would very likely backfire, or to accept a limited defeat.
But meeting this standard of defence will be a tall order. To be able to effectively defend Taiwan — and by extension its other Asian allies — the US will have to drastically reduce its military commitments in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. There simply isn’t enough military capacity to defend Taiwan and other allies in Asia from China while simultaneously fielding a major presence elsewhere. This will leave a vacuum in these regions, which are important but pale in significance compared with Asia.
What does this mean for Britain? The US would of course expect support from the UK in the event of an attack on Taiwan. But Britain’s military capability in the Far East would be thin at most. Given that the UK’s strength lies in Europe and the Middle East, it would be best off taking a leading role in helping to build a stronger European defence of Nato. In a war over Taiwan, the UK could help address Chinese forces in other theatres, perhaps alongside India’s efforts. But together with other western European countries, it would need to concentrate on ensuring that Russia and Iran did not see an opportunity to exploit America’s focus on Taiwan.
We have left the post-Cold War world and are now fully immersed in an era of new great-power rivalry. The best way to avoid the horrors of a war in these circumstances is to consider carefully how to deter conflict — and, if necessary, to prevail in it.
Elbridge Colby is the author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict. As a Pentagon official, he led the development of the 2018 US National Defense Strategy.