Dividing the Taiwan question––does or should, and, if so, does America currently possess the wherewithal to help Taiwan successfully repel a Chinese attack––the first needed determination is whether the US should defend Taiwan, and that determination must be made anew every time the question comes up, just as it would be made anew in the hour of decision by any U.S. President and his chosen advisors.

There are many considerations to take into account in making that decision. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) possesses nuclear weapons and that its leadership is at present centralized as never before by Xi Jinping. Mao had even more authority for much of his career but lacked today’s communications, command, control and intelligence (C3I) technology. Xi is the irascible product of a deeply traumatic childhood and desperately precarious adolescence and youth. Many in his exact position, including a half-sister, died of malnutrition and neglect as Xi might easily have done in horrid Liangjiahe village in barren Yan’an of impoverished Shaanxi province. Xi’s failure to deliver Taiwan after boasting so loudly of China’s risen power might lose him his job, and very likely more than that, given his own extremely cruel treatment of fallen leaders.

Given those factors, President Biden’s decision in the face of an imminent or actual onslaught would certainly be the most weighty decision made by any president in the relatively short history of the American presidency. In the meantime, the military risks increase every day because the naval/air strength of the PRC increases every day.

The stakes are straightforward: defend Taiwan against an invasion actually underway, initiating a process in which the U.S. would certainly expand its own efforts if needed, as would the PRC, with no true, absolute certainty that the nuclear inhibition would remain in effect; or else, allow the PRC to occupy Taiwan, thereby establishing the PRC’s hegemony over East Asia—unless the Japanese themselves were to join the fight while still underway, and with escalating force while fully mobilizing at home, thereby defining Taiwan as nothing more than a weak outpost of fortress Japan (unimaginable a decade ago, such a sequence is possible now, and even probable now that high-level decision makers are discussing the possible role of Soryu-class attack submarines in the defense of Taiwan).

Whether the government of Taiwan deserves to be defended at great cost and with greater risks is irrelevant of course, and that is very fortunate for the Taiwanese government because the answer must be a resounding no!

First, the Taiwanese have broken their longstanding agreement with the United States (formed with their prior Kuomintang leaders) whereby they would reduce tensions by holding never-ending but calming unification talks with Beijing, while the U.S. undertook to prevent PRC attacks, or defeat them. Now only the U.S. reassurance stands, but not Taiwan’s risk-reducing diplomacy. 

Second, the Taiwanese have steadfastly refused to build up serious defense forces, i.e., distributed territorial and coastal defenses manned by reservists who have gone through intensive initial conscript training (a hard 6 months at least) followed by short annual refreshers. That is what serious small countries do, e.g., Israel, or Finland, which is ready to outnumber any invading Russian army with more than 600,000 refresher-trained reservists.

By contrast, Taiwan with more than four times the population, has half as many reservists who have received any recent training to speak of. In fact, Taiwan does not even have coastal (missile) artillery units manned by local reservists to capitalize on its island geography, by covering every invadable coastal segment with multiple batteries of anti-ship missiles of different ranges (all locally producible under license, or home-made).

What the Taiwan (“Republic of China”) armed forces do have are lots of high-ranking officers (the IDF gets along with a single, lonely three-star general) and expensive “Great-Power” style weapon-systems (jet fighters, battle tanks, warships) destined to be destroyed by the initial missile strikes of a PRC offensive. Perhaps the best example of the hopeless formalism that cripples Taiwan’s military capability is the current effort to build eight ocean-going submarines budgeted at $2 billion each that will be operational someday, using resources that could have produced many more small coastal-defense submarines that would be ready now. But the latter would only be useful to defend Taiwan, while the Republic of China navy, as it calls itself, wants the Big Power token of ocean-going submarines.

President Biden has affirmed the “U.S. commitment” to Taiwan but within his administration there are officials who do note that the U.S. has declared that Taiwan is a part of China, so that the U.S. would be fighting to defend not Taiwan per se, but the independence of its government, which is indeed so independent that it refuses to make the task any easier by adopting a conciliatory diplomacy or, alternatively, a serious national-mobilization defense, my own preference by far.

Fortunately, the second question is easily disposed of: yes, the U.S. can defend Taiwan (though not necessarily its islands actually within the Bay of Xiamen) given the mostly theoretical nature of PRC naval and aerial capabilities: yes the PLAN operates many warships, but their crews and their chiefs are still trained more to look good than to fight effectively; and yes, the PRC too has a “Fifth Generation” stealthy fighter, but its J-20 is still very much a work in progress.

The one thing the PRC does have are very large numbers of vessels in toto, between the PLAN formal navy, its large Coast Guard, and still more numerous paramilitary vessels….and that is why the absence of a Taiwan coastal (missile) artillery manned by local reservists everywhere is so damnable.

Nevertheless, if President Biden were to so decide, U.S. forces could definitely defeat an invasion of Taiwan; but then the decision to resort to nuclear weapons to nullify that outcome, or accept a defeat likely to be politically fatal for himself, would rest with Xi Jinping…

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