The Centre for New American Security has just released a new report, which examines what might happen were China to seize outlying Taiwanese islands:
How could Taiwan and the United States respond if China seized one of Taiwan’s outlying islands, such as Pratas/Dongsha (hereafter Dongsha) in the South China Sea? Whereas the U.S. national security community has focused on defending Taiwan against Chinese invasion, China’s recent military activities suggest that this kind of coercion and limited aggression might be an equally urgent question. More worryingly, such a scenario could be a prelude or pathway to war involving China, Taiwan, and the United States.
To explore potential policy and strategy options to prevent such a calamity, the Gaming Lab at CNAS wargamed this scenario with Taiwanese, American, and regional experts. Worryingly, the game found few credible options for pushing China to abandon Dongsha and return to the status quo. However, the game found numerous areas where preparation and multilateral coordination—particularly in concert with Japan—could deter limited Chinese aggression against Taiwan.
During the game, the teams representing the United States and Taiwan struggled to compel a Chinese withdrawal from Dongsha without escalating the crisis. The team representing China avoided further escalation given its first-mover advantage, constrained territorial gains, and geographic proximity. In contrast, the U.S. team had to push its forces far forward in ways that were risky and would be difficult to sustain.1 Punitive non-military options, such as economic sanctions or information campaigns, took too long to produce effects and appeared too weak to compel China to abandon its gains.2 More aggressive military responses risked escalation to war, which both the U.S. and Taiwan teams wished to avoid. With few viable coercive options and the onus of escalation falling on the U.S. and Taiwan teams, the game reaffirmed the difficulty of rolling back territorial aggression of this kind.
Indeed, discouraging China from seizing Taiwanese territory before it happens is the most salient lesson of the game. The United States and Taiwan must begin coordinating today to build a credible deterrent against limited Chinese aggression or coercion toward Taiwan.3Doing so will help identify ways to make a territorial fait accompli by China—such as the seizure of Dongsha—too unpalatable to consider, while also communicating the U.S. commitment to defending Taiwan. This strategy will require advance planning and communication of joint responses and defenses against coercion and territorial aggression. Rather than scrambling to respond to a fait accompli, as occurred in this game, the United States and Taiwan should prepare to implement coordinated, whole-of-government deterrent measures quickly and ensure immediate consequences for Chinese coercion or aggression short of war.
The methodology used for the game is briefly described in the report:
Players consisted of multinational defense and policy experts as well as subject matter experts. These players comprised three teams: the Blue Team, representing the United States; the Green Team, representing Taiwan; and the White Cell/Red Team, which combined China experts, the adjudicators, and other important international actors. The game consisted of three moves over the course of two three-hour sessions. Each move required all teams to take at least one diplomatic, military, information, and economic action. Players were free to take any reasonable action, but they had to explain why they had chosen one specific action over another and what they expected the outcomes of each action to be. Although the teams were given objectives to prioritize, they had freedom to build and determine their actions. The three teams were divided into separate virtual rooms but encouraged to coordinate with one another as desired.
You will find a link to the full report here.
Commenting on the report, the Washington Post writes:
Chris Dougherty, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said U.S. officials have scrutinized what a full Chinese invasion of Taiwan might look like. For this exercise, he and his colleagues wanted to examine a scenario that was on a magnitude similar to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Dougherty, a former Army Ranger who served as a strategic adviser in the Pentagon for four years spanning the Obama and Trump administrations, said that seizing the land — also known as the Dongsha islands — would allow China to gauge the reaction of the international community. China’s status as an economic power, he said, makes it difficult for the United States to sanction Beijing on an open-ended basis.
“You either can play the game of the chicken and you can say, ‘I’m willing to get into a contest of risk-taking with you over Dongsha,’ which — let’s be honest — I don’t know that we are. Or, you can do this pillow-fighting policy, and you’re going to hit them, but not hard enough to deter them from doing what you want them to do,” Dougherty said.
The war game found that the best option was warning the Chinese ahead of time of consequences they would face for moving on the islands, with Japan playing a significant role, the report says.
“The U.S. and Taiwan teams made repeated inquiries about Japan’s position, suggesting that without Japan’s backing, the U.S. and Taiwanese negotiating position was weakened,” the report said. “In a potential conflict, a lack of unambiguous Japanese support for Taiwan in this context would undermine efforts to urge Chinese withdrawal and could set a precedent for future unchecked Chinese aggression in other territorial disputes, including those over Japanese territory, such as the Senkaku Islands.”