US think tank says China would probably lose if it tries to invade Taiwan

But even a short conflict would wreck the economy, which would be bad news for semiconductor supplies

Three years from now, hypothetically, China launches an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. It does not go well, according to a top Washington think tank report.

While the Taiwanese military is able to prevent initial invaders moving beyond beachheads, US Naval forces and aerial bombardments quickly cripple the Chinese naval fleet, aided by strikes from the Japan Self-Defense Force. 

Chinese ground forces, stuck on Taiwan's shores without supplies, quickly crumble, and in the course of about three weeks the invasion is defeated. All sides suffer extensive losses, leaving Taiwan in a shambles and its economy wiped out. 

That's how a US-China war over Taiwan would play out, according to researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Over the course of two dozen war simulations they concluded that, in most scenarios, the US and Taiwan achieve a Pyrrhic victory.

Equipment losses would be staggering, CSIS experts believe, including the destruction of two aircraft carriers "in all iterations of the base scenario," the report claims. In other words, the nuclear option.

The CSIS report on its simulation also predicts very high combat fatalities. The US lost three servicemen a day at the height of the its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Vietnam, that number was around 30. During World War II 300 US soldiers died daily. In most scenarios for a Taiwan conflict, US deaths (not wounded casualties) would average 140 per day.

"The United States would sustain as many personnel casualties in a month of such conflict as in 20 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," the researchers argued. "Even if the United States prosecuted the war to a successful conclusion, a narrative of disillusionment might emerge. US policymakers and Americans might question whether the sacrifice had been worth preserving Taiwanese independence and democracy." 

Sequential 'ifs' not great for a win condition

The CSIS's boffins found four necessary conditions to ensure defeat of a Chinese invasion.

First, Taiwanese forces "must hold the line" and not cede ground to Chinese landing parties. Currently, however, Taiwanese ground forces have "severe weaknesses," the report observes. "Taiwan must fill its ranks and conduct rigorous, combined arms training." 

Second, and fundamental to ensuring the first condition is met, is the fact of Taiwan's geography. There's no overland route to deliver supplies to Taiwan's military - whatever it has when China invades is what it'll have until friendly forces can resupply it over the Pacific. 

All of that amounts to nothing without the third big if: Tokyo must allow the US to launch combat operations in defense of Taiwan from Japanese soil. 

"The ability to operate from US bases in Japan is so critical to US success that it should be considered a sine qua non for intervention," the report concluded, arguing that if US fighter jets and bombers have to launch from more distant Air Force bases such as that on Guam, it'll mean they're too far away. 

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And in simulations where the Japanese Self-Defense Forces opt not to participate, the balance of power tips heavily in China's favor.

Fourth, the US needs to be able to strike China's fleet quickly, en masse, from outside China's defensive zone. To do that, the Navy needs more long-range, anti-ship cruise missiles and bombers – which, of course, need to be near enough to Taiwan to make a difference.

This all, of course, assumes the war remains conventional.

No nukes, but they can't be ruled out

In its report, the CSIS indicated that it wanted to run Taiwan invasion scenarios because past simulations conducted by the US government were classified, not rigorously structured, or are too narrow in scope. 

"Therefore, this CSIS project designed a war game using historical data and operations research to model a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan in 2026," CSIS said. Analogies to past military operations were employed, as were data points about weapons that haven't seen field deployment. 

But what of the potential use of nuclear arms? That's simply not a part of this scenario, CSIS said. 

"Although this project focused on conventional conflict, many analyses of an invasion have nuclear play," the report said. The think tank opted not to consider nuclear options, but the US government considers the threat is real.

 A Pentagon report last year indicated the US government was concerned about the growth of China's nuclear and ballistic arsenal, though China maintains it has a no-first-strike policy, and that no one is at risk of a Chinese nuclear strike unless it is retaliatory. 

"No one knows what those escalation dynamics [for a nuclear strike] would be," the report continues. To deter nuclear retaliation, the CSIS recommends that military forces focus on anti-ship attacks and avoid striking the Chinese mainland, which could risk worsening the conflict.

Threats are already escalating

Taiwan is home to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC – the largest producer of semiconductor chips in the world, and supplier to some of the largest tech companies on the planet. That makes it a key US ally. 

One Chinese economist argued that China should invade Taiwan and seize control of TSMC if the US imposed sanctions on it akin to those placed on Russia in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo warned the loss of access to Taiwanese chips could devastate the US economy. 

A visit by former Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to the island last year to reiterate US support for Taiwan did little to ease tensions either. Nor did China's violation of Taiwan's airspace in late December 2022

A bill is working its way through the US Congress that would allocate billions of dollars to Taiwan for military aid, as well as re-classifying Taiwan as a "major non-NATO ally." That would give the US permission to enter into stronger military agreements and sell the country arms, though it's unclear if President Biden would support the measure. 

As to whether the US should defend Taiwan in the first place, the CSIS stated that it's not taking a position. It is arguing, however, that there won't be any winners in a war over Taiwan. The best goal, therefore, is deterrence – but the US needs to step up its efforts in that department, CSIS said. 

"If China believes that the United States would be unwilling to bear the high costs of defending Taiwan, then China might risk an invasion … To be deterred, China must doubt their ability to prevail through force of arms," the report concludes – "but it will require planning, some resources, and political will." ®

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