Zhang Yilun is a research associate and administrative officer at the Institute for China-America Studies.
Edit (August 21, 2022): A Chinese-language version of this article was originally published on meizhong.report. You can read the Chinese-language article here.
Tensions over Taiwan have reached a boiling point in U.S.-China relations over the last four years. The issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty was an expected hot topic of discussion in recent bilateral diplomatic discussions and also at international forums such as the Shangri-La Dialogue, with Beijing sending consistent warnings of serious reactions should the U.S. “interfere” in Chinese domestic affairs. So when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan earlier this month, it was no surprise that Beijing responded with a new round of military drills by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) around the self-claimed island.
Perhaps a bit more unexpected was how, as part of its response to Speaker Pelosi’s visit, China suspended high-level military dialogues with the U.S. This rising tension over Taiwan during a time when the two great powers lack effective security communication channels raises significant concerns over an open conflict between China and the U.S. The potential snow-balling consequences of these suspensions should not be underestimated.
Incidentally, wargames simulating armed conflict between Beijing and Washington over the Taiwan Strait have also gained national attention in recent months. Despite their headline-catching findings, the two wargame projects—one held by Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and the other by Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)—can dangerously mislead American policymakers and public to misunderstand the risk and current state across the Taiwan Strait. Both the CNAS and the CSIS wargame projects relied on assumptions about strategy and military doctrine that are unwarranted, impractical, or outdated. Meanwhile, the methods used to conduct these wargames were likely more entertaining than they were accurate and constructive.
The first assumption in both the CNAS and the CSIS wargames is that both presume that, should a Taiwan contingency happen, the U.S. and Japan will automatically join forces to intervene militarily (an assumption which is acknowledged in other reporting on the wargames). While it is formally up to the U.S. Congress to decide whether or not the U.S. should declare war, and for the U.S. President to decide whether or not the U.S. should conduct military intervention operations, it is risky to presume that Japan will simultaneously join its ally in the intervention of any Taiwan conflict.
Japan’s decision-making on this issue is neither clear-cut nor properly understood. It is true that the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s commented last year that “[a] Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency”, a phrase constantly used to show Japan’s support of Taiwan and commitment to engage China in a conflict over Taiwan. The argument, while appearing to arouse democratic camaraderie, was in fact based on a very non-ideological but realistic security concern. The concern is not China using force against Taiwan, but China hitting American military facilities on Japanese soil. Were that concern not present, it would be up to the Japanese leaders, inevitably influenced by the public, to decide whether they want to engage in an armed conflict alongside the United States against China. The U.S. cannot necessarily count on Japan to willingly jumping into the hazards of war simply based on a sense of camaraderie and allied partnership.
The second problematic assumption is that China would rely on its long-range precision strike capability to preemptively hit U.S. military targets in the Indo-Pacific. As early as the early 2010s, when the DF-21D was labeled by security analysts as the “carrier killer”, there were already calls advocating for greater awareness of China’s precision strike threat in a Taiwan contingency. This is likely why both the CNAS and the CSIS wargames initiated the hypothetical conflict with a preemptive strike from China.
However, such assumptions are outdated in 2022 due to the rapid development of Chinese military technology. After a decade of modernization that prioritized high-tech electronic warfare (EW), it would be more efficient for China to use its EW units and land-based EW facilities to disable, instead of dramatically wipe out, Taiwan’s defense capabilities. And these EW capabilities are already strategically located on Hainan Island and are potentially on China’s Eastern coastline. Meanwhile, China’s airborne EW platforms, including the J-16D, Y-8 EW and Y-9 EW, or even EW-enabled drones, can be dispatched South of the Luzon Strait and East of the East China Sea to establish aerial jamming fields to counter U.S. facilities and jam U.S. communications and surveillance along the First Island Chain. In such a case, there is less need to launch missiles that would kill American soldiers and risk war with other U.S. allies.
While all the above-mentioned EW formats and China’s decade-long EW training can all be found in public reports, the two wargame projects rather bizarrely lack of any mention of China’s EW capability and, therefore, turned a 2020s high-tech cross-domain joint military operation into an oversimplified tabletop showcase.
Moreover, should China adopt the less violent but more capable EW approach in this 21st century context, can U.S. policymakers rally enough public support without loss of life? Given its location, U.S. mediation over Taiwan issues cannot be justified as merely self-defensive. Furthermore, the underestimation of China’s current military capability and military doctrine will gravely mislead U.S. decision-makers as well as the public on the severity of a U.S.-China armed conflict over Taiwan.
Third, and finally, both wargames presumed that the PLA would deploy its surface combatants and submarines to carry out an A2/AD mission around Taiwan and China could reach its nuclear arsenal to deter further U.S. intervention. That is simply not how A2/AD and deterrence work. As mentioned before, with EW capability, a blockade line in the 21st century should not be considered as a 1960s Cuban Missile Crisis type static blockade. China would not use its precious dual-carrier groups to form a “maritime great wall”, they are instead meant for extending China’s combat outreach further into blue water regions.
In addition to not including whether U.S. long-range precision-strike capabilities is capable of striking moving PLA targets under a highly disadvantageous electronic magnetic environment, neither of the wargames specified the role of China’s two aircraft carrier groups, which will be combat-ready by 2026, or the role of China’s strategic submarine forces. It would be absurd to seriously consider that the Chinese aircraft carrier strike groups are not seeking to project airborne control and maritime deterrence beyond the First Island Chain during a Taiwan conflict. Should that happen, China does not need to to deter the U.S., the fact that China’s fast progressing submarine force could navigate freely in the Pacific serves that purpose.
While these two wargame projects were not meant to encompass all potential outcomes of U.S.-China military clash over Taiwan, they are nevertheless important and direct case studies designed to help American policymakers and the public to better understand the evolving security dynamics between China and the U.S. over Taiwan. These three inaccurate assumptions that were applied to these two wargames, if unintentional, show that many Washington security experts lack an understanding of trending military doctrines and how modern warfare should be fought at sea. Key research generated from outdated understandings of Chinese strategy could unknowingly build overconfidence among the American public and policymakers, and increase the risk of hot war over Taiwan.
Accurate fact-based computer simulations, instead of outdated tabletop-style, dice-determining, and simplified showcase game of wars, should be incorporated into research on this serious topic.