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China's threat to Taiwan needs more scrutiny

By
Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Chinese soldiers stand in formation as they wait to march back to their barracks in Beijing on March 19. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
Chinese soldiers stand in formation as they wait to march back to their barracks in Beijing on March 19. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

Over the past week, the testimony of America's two most senior admirals in Asia, Philip Davidson of the Indo-Pacific Command and John Aquilino of the Pacific Fleet, before Congress was chilling.

Both cited the growing threat of China to the region and especially to Taiwan. Aquilino contended that a Chinese "military takeover" of Taiwan some time in the future was one of his greatest concerns.

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These warnings must be taken very seriously given China's crackdown in Hong Kong. More importantly, these warnings and the assumptions or assertions underlying them must be rigorously scrutinized and challenged. No matter the credibility, too often the United States has greatly exaggerated the nature of threats and at least twice gone to war over reasons that proved wrong.

In August 1964, after North Vietnamese PT boats allegedly staged a second attack against two U.S. Navy destroyers (USS Maddox and Turner Joy) in the Tonkin Gulf, President Lyndon Johnson got from Congress the resolution to use force opposed by only two votes. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution trapped the United States in the Vietnam quagmire it finally lost at the cost of 68,000 American and countless Vietnamese lives. But the second attack never occurred; and the first was the result of a local North Vietnamese commander acting without authority.

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Thirty-eight years later, by a large majority, Congress passed the Authorization to Use Military Force to deprive Iraq and Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction it did not possess. The region was thrown into geostrategic turmoil that has yet to be settled.

Today, the United States is engaged in a great power competition with not one but two nuclear armed powers -- China and Russia -- in which the aim of strategy is to compete, deter and, if war comes, defeat both. Yet, so far, specific requirements have not been fully translated in how to compete, deter and defeat.

Both political parties and Congress are in agreement about the Chinese threat. However, consensus on the nature of the threat and its political, economic, ideological and military dimensions is lacking. A thorough assessment of Chinese policies and options toward Taiwan is essential.

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To that end, a number of questions must be addressed. First, what is meant by a "military takeover?" Is it a direct military amphibious assault and a 21st century version of the Normandy landing but on cyber and modern electronic steroids? And does China possess, or will it possess, the actual capability needed for a full scale opposed invasion of Taiwan that could require hundreds of thousands of troops given that during World War II, U.S. plans for retaking the island demanded 4,000 ships and 400,000 soldiers and marines.

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Of course, China could threaten massive physical, cyber or financial destruction as leverage or other threat that will not require a massive opposed assault. Will China subvert the government from within for a regime change in Taiwan? Will China use economic and other forms of pressure? Or will China threaten a blockade or quarantine or measure well short of war to force reunification?

Finally, what are the range of options to ensure Taiwan's independence not just for Taiwan but for the United States and other possible allies? Would the U.S .Congress vote to go to war over Taiwan and would the public support the use of force to respond to Chinese aggression? What options short of war are available?

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Would any allies join us in protecting Taiwan, and if so, under what circumstances and with what capabilities? Can any of this be agreed to in advance, and is that wise?

Should the Taiwan Relations Act and other agreements be modified or remain based on strategic ambiguity? Would a presidential declaration that the United States would come to Taiwan's assistance if attacked enrage, engage or deter China's intent to "reunfiy" the island? Should Taiwan be allowed to buy more advanced military systems to prevent any Chinese attack? Would Taiwan consider a nuclear option to avoid the fate of Hong Kong?

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Finally, how and where can the Pacific Deterrence Initiative be applied specifically to a Taiwan scenario? Or is PDI self-defeating by reinforcing the likelihood of an outcome we do not want, namely provoking China to assimilate the island with or without the use of force?

These and other questions should be the subject of broader public examination to avoid falling into the trap of either exaggerating or underestimating China's actual capability, intentions and options vis a vis Taiwan.

Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist and author of the upcoming book "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endangered, Infected, Engulfed and Disunited a 51% Nation."

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