An invasion isn't the only threat from China that Taiwan and the US have to worry about
An armored personnel carrier of the Chinese Army during the Seaborne Assault Contest at the 2017 International Army Games in Russia, Aug. 9, 2017. Sergei Orlov \ TASS via Getty Images
Tensions over Taiwan have escalated in recent months, and US officials are warning of possible action by China.
These warnings focus on a possible attempted invasion by China, which has stepped up military activities in the region.
But Taiwan and the US face a threat on the verge of invasion: a Chinese blockade that could cut Taipei off from the world.
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Perhaps nowhere in the world are geopolitical tensions higher than on the Taiwan Strait today.
China last year tightened its rhetoric against the self-governing island, which Beijing regards as a breakaway province.
Chinese armed forces have conducted a series of live-fire drills apparently aimed at Taiwan, and Chinese military flights over the center line in the Taiwan Strait and into the Taipei Air Defense Identification Zone have reached record levels.
The US has sailed warships at least five times since President Joe Biden took office in January, sparking protests from Beijing. Japan has expressed support for Taiwan alongside the US, and Australia is reportedly considering how to help in the event of an invasion.
Much of the focus was on military preparations to deter or repel a Chinese invasion. While this focus is essential, it overlooks an important threat no major invasion escapes: a blockade.
"Joint blockade campaign"
Less than 3 miles separate the Chinese city of Xiamen in the distance and Taiwan's Kinmen Islands in the foreground, February 2, 2021. An Rong Xu / Getty Images
Although it is not known what an invasion of Taiwan might look like, such an action would almost certainly be extremely difficult and costly for all concerned. Whether China actually has the ability to invade is also hotly debated.
Taiwan's Ministry of Defense concluded last year that China was not yet in a position to launch a full-scale invasion. The latest Pentagon report on the Chinese military said that such an invasion would "likely place a burden on China's armed forces" and "pose a significant political and military risk" to Beijing.
But both reports confirm that China is able to block Taiwan. This blockade, dubbed the "Joint Blockade Campaign" by the Pentagon, would cut off Taiwan's air and sea transport and information networks.
"Such a blockade could be the main effort to avoid a landing attempt altogether or be part of a larger invasion campaign," Lonnie Henley, a retired US intelligence officer who served twice as Defense Intelligence Officer for East Asia, told the US China Economic and Security Review Commission in February.
The joint blockade campaign could also include "large-scale missile attacks and possible seizures of Taiwan's offshore islands" such as the Pratas Islands in the South China Sea, according to the Pentagon.
Invasions on Taiwan's islands of Kinmen and Matsu, both of which are populated, are also "within China's ability," the Pentagon said.
A tough block
Guided missile frigates with the South China Naval Fleet of the Chinese Navy during a live-fire exercise in the South China Sea in August 2018. Chinese Ministry of Defense
The effects of a blockade could be catastrophic, in large part because no one knows how long Taiwan could hold out.
Henley, who also served as a senior China analyst with the Department of Defense, says there are no studies of how quickly Taiwan would consume critical materials in a crisis, or the current status and viability of peacetime stocks or the potential for intelligence convoys for aid convoys .
"There is no assessment of what a blockade would have to endure to keep Taiwan alive, what types of material, in what quantities, or what Taiwan's domestic production of food, water, supplies and equipment might be under war conditions," Henley told the commission.
Cut off from the world, Taiwan could quickly run out of both military and non-military needs.
Breaking such a block would also be extremely difficult. China has the largest navy in the world, which, according to the Pentagon, consists mostly of modern ships with advanced weapons and sensors.
A Chinese H-6K bomber patrols islands and reefs in the South China Sea. Xinhua / Liu Rui via Getty Images
China's Navy and Air Force have the largest air forces in the region, with around 850 fighters, bombers and attack aircraft in China's eastern and southern theaters of war alone. China's air force is "quickly catching up with the western air force," says the Pentagon.
In addition to its surface fleet and aircraft, China can deploy around 60 submarines, and Pentagon maps even show that Taiwan is completely covered by China's anti-aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles.
Earlier conflicts - such as the Falklands War, which China has studied extensively - illustrate the difficulty of providing maritime supplies against only modest resistance.
Even if a large-scale invasion were defeated, the blockade problem would persist.
"China could continue the blockade operation indefinitely, even with the severely reduced force that remains after a failed landing and months of air and naval wear," Henley said. "US forces could probably get a trickle of relief supplies through, but not much more."
An 8-inch self-propelled artillery gun fires during a military exercise in southern Taiwan, May 30, 2019. SAM YEH / AFP via Getty Images
Blocking without invasion is a definite possibility, and it is uncertain how the world would react to a pure blockade scenario.
The Taiwan-US Mutual Defense Treaty, which is no longer valid, did not cover Taiwan's offshore islands, and no one is sure who would help Taiwan if it invaded or even blocked it.
Experts say Taiwan and the US will have to make both scenarios too expensive for China. While some efforts, such as upgrading equipment and preparing alliances (official or otherwise) can take years, some can be started relatively quickly.
"The best way to deter a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan is to prepare for it and make it clear to Beijing, and Xi Jinping in particular, that it would be really dangerous," Ian Easton, senior director of Project 2049 Institute, told Insider.
Amphibious tanks of the Chinese army land on a beach during a Sino-Russian military exercise near China's Shandong peninsula on August 24, 2005. China Photos / Getty Images
Effective stockpiling of everything from food and water to military equipment would be a priority for Taiwan. Especially important is the expansion of its missile arsenal, which is actually quite advanced and powerful. US-made missiles could fill the gaps Taiwan's domestic production cannot fill.
Another priority is maintaining a large and effective reserve force. On paper, Taiwan has about 2 million staff in its reserve system, but only about 770,000 of them can be considered fresh, and they only train five to seven days every two years.
Taiwan plans to expand this training to at least two weeks per year by 2024 and is currently piloting these changes, but only involves 3,000 reservists.
"They should have significant advantages - and they do - and one of them should have a very large, well-trained, mobilized reserve force," said Easton. "That would give them a tremendous advantage in the event of an attack, and today it's not there."
A U.S. Sailor aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Spruance examines a contact during a cross-strait transit, March 1, 2014. Lt. j.g. John Horne / US Navy
As Taiwan's closest partner, the US can also help prepare and deter at short notice.
While the US occasionally sends small military teams and senior officers to Taiwan, it does not send its most senior military personnel - the ones who command the US armed forces in the region and who would make critical decisions during a crisis.
"These are the types of people who might one day be on the phone with the President of the United States pretty soon, and they'll have to give military advice on a situation they won't understand very well because they ..." I've never been in the country they are talking about, "said Easton, author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia.
U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth, Dan Sullivan and Chris Coons will arrive at Taipei Songshan Airport in Taipei on June 6, 2021. Central news agency / pool via REUTERS
The US could send regional officials to Taiwan to better understand the realities on the ground and send a clearer message of support. It could also involve Taiwan in large-scale military exercises such as the biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise.
The US could also re-establish a military assistance advisory group on the island, consisting of military advisors as instructors and liaison officers to ensure that the Taiwanese and US military can integrate efficiently.
But there are also significant risks associated with these steps. China regularly protests against US interactions with Taiwan, which Beijing sees as violations of the US's so-called one-China policy, which aims to offset Washington's formal recognition of Beijing and its close ties with Taipei.
Efforts to better prepare Taiwan to defend against China are likely to anger Beijing, which the US could potentially see as an end to its "strategic ambiguity" about defending Taiwan - a change US officials warn against may make Beijing feel that there must be action.
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