Championing Responsible National Security Policy

The Pentagon's China Syndrome

The U.S. military always creates a powerful foe
(Photos: Getty Images; Illustration: Leslie Garvey / POGO)
“Although initial operations might have to be conventional for political reasons, atomic strikes against the Chinese mainland would eventually be necessary if the Chinese Communist move was to be stopped effectively and quickly.”

That’s how U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff reportedly reacted in 1958, after the country then commonly known as Red China launched artillery strikes on Great Kinmen Island, about five miles off the Chinese coast. Like other italicized excerpts to follow, it comes from a once-top secret 1966 RAND Corporation study into the crisis, released in full by Daniel Ellsberg in 2017. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) eventually backed down from its quest to seize the Taiwan-controlled territory. But China was a poor, agrarian nation 63 years ago, not the economic and military giant it has become over the past two generations. And the U.S. is not the superpower it was in 1958, either.

China is no longer interested in merely taking the 60-square miles of the Kinmen islands (also known as Quemoy), but Taiwan, as well. Beijing has viewed the 14,000-square-mile island as a renegade province ever since Chairman Mao Zedong’s communist revolution took over the mainland in 1949. Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Nationalist government moved to Taiwan, roughly 100 miles out in the Pacific. They established a pro-Western government. Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, today is a thriving democracy and home to the globe’s largest silicon-chip contractor, vital to producing everything from iPhones to automobiles.

According to a Foreign Policy analysis, Mainland China’s military is 10 times bigger than Taiwan’s. But the most important weapon in Taiwan’s arsenal is the line in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act declaring that the U.S. will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means … a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” The U.S. has tried to have it both ways by hinting it will defend Taiwan from Chinese attack, without explicitly saying so. Leaders in Washington believe this tentative commitment (which, like military intelligence, is somewhat of an oxymoron) will restrain Taiwan’s push for true independence, while deterring China from attacking.

“A public commitment to the defense of the [Kinmen islands] was also to be avoided so that the additional GRC [Government of the Republic of China] leverage on the United States would not be present.”

The term of art among foreign policy professionals for this balancing act is “strategic ambiguity.” The rest of us can think of it as the “fog of (uncertainty that could lead to) war.” That policy has come under attack from some on Capitol Hill. In February, seven Republican lawmakers introduced what they call the “Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act,” committing the U.S. to use military force against China if Beijing attacks the island. Taiwan is “becoming the most dangerous flash point in the world,” the Council on Foreign Relations said in February. “The most dangerous place on Earth,” the Economist’s cover echoed in May. Since last year, China has routinely sent warplanes toward Taiwan, scrambling the island’s defenses, despite Chinese President Xi Jinping’s October 5 assurance to U.S. President Joe Biden that China will continue to abide by the Taiwan Relations Act. Nonetheless, Washington is taking no chances. U.S. officials acknowledged October 7 that a small number of U.S. military troops have been on the island for at least a year, training Taiwanese forces. The same day, the CIA announced it has set up a “China Mission Center (CMC) to address the global challenge posed by the People’s Republic of China.” Tensions keep escalating, along with the chance of war, either deliberate or accidental.

The U.S. waged the Cold War against an inflated Soviet threat for nearly a half-century until it collapsed. Then it exaggerated the war on terror for 20 years. Following the Afghan debacle, the U.S. military is focusing on China to ensure its continuing fiscal fortunes.

So, once again, Pentagon officials are weighing the options to try to ensure that China would fail if it tried to take Taiwan by force. This is what military planners do: they plan for war. They were doing it, secretly, in 1958, and they’re doing it, secretly, in 2021. Chances of a war over Taiwan’s fate are growing.

“The United States must stand firm with conventional weapons as long as possible but then must be prepared to use nuclear weapons. Otherwise we would lose the whole world within three years.”

U.S. Navy Admiral John Aquilino, who commands all U.S. forces in the Pacific, said in March that he believes a Chinese military attack on Taiwan “is much closer to us than most think.” His predecessor predicted China could strike within six years.

Balderdash, others counter. For better or worse, the world’s two largest economies are locked in a chilly marriage, each too heavily dependent on the other to risk war. Put bluntly, a Chinese decision to invade Taiwan, via bombs, or choke it, via a blockade, would be very bad for business. Like gravity, big money can invisibly move things or, more importantly, keep them in place: an analysis from December 2020 estimated that U.S. investors held $100 billion of Chinese debt and $1.1 trillion in Chinese stocks; Chinese investors hold $1.4 trillion in U.S. debt and $720 billion in U.S. stocks. Meanwhile, China is dredging up islands in the South China Sea and setting up military outposts on them to extend its reach into those trade- and mineral-rich waters.

China’s anti-access/area denial strategy is designed to keep the U.S. Navy away from its shores.

The last time the two powers tussled militarily over major strategic issues was in 1996, when a pair of U.S. aircraft carriers muted China’s push to sway Taiwan’s first democratic election. Such U.S. gunboat diplomacy likely won’t suffice a quarter-century later. U.S. flattops are increasingly vulnerable to China’s carrier-killing missiles. That’s a key part of China’s so-called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) force, designed to keep U.S. firepower far from China’s shores. The Chinese military is “designed to inflict more casualties in the first 30 hours of combat than we’ve endured over the last 30 years in the Middle East,” Air Force General Mark Kelly, chief of the service’s Air Combat Command, said in September.

The U.S. has been shifting its military muscle from Europe to the Pacific ever since China’s rise — and increasingly aggressive policies — became clear. That includes working more closely with China’s nervous neighbors like Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam — Vietnam! The U.S. struck a deal for nuclear-powered submarines with Australia in September. That upset the French, who thought they had a $60 billion dozen-diesel-sub deal sewn up with the Australians. The Washington-Canberra compact was part of a new coalition, with the U.S. and Australia joining forces with the United Kingdom in the so-called AUKUS alliance, plainly created to keep China cornered.

While China’s economy is set to top America’s sometime this decade, it lags far behind the U.S. when it comes to military might. But that’s also irrelevant: one of Xi’s top military goals is the “complete” of China, including Taiwan. But Taiwan isn’t interested. To do so by force, China doesn’t need a global military force like Washington’s. “Taiwan is like two feet from China. We are 8,000 miles away,” then-President Donald Trump reportedly told a Republican senator in 2019. “If they invade, there isn’t a f---ing thing we can do about it.”

Such thinking sends chills down the spines of those who believe the Taiwan Relations Act means the U.S. is committed to try to thwart any such Chinese move. But that might not be a winning strategy. “The only scenario in which we surrender the military advantage [over China] is if we foolishly choose to fight China over Taiwan,” retired Army officer Daniel L. Davis wrote in August. In that case, things could quickly spiral out of control.

Like two punch-drunk boxers after several grueling rounds of conventional war across the Taiwan Strait, the nuclear option might be all that’s left. “We need to ask whether the United States would use nuclear weapons first in a Taiwan Strait conflict if the conventional phase of that war was heading strongly in China’s favour?” a May report from the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament asked. “Taiwan’s absorption would imply that Washington had been defeated by China in East Asia.

The USS Barry, a guided-missile destroyer, cruises through the Taiwan Strait in November 2020.
(U.S. Navy photo by Lieutenant Junior Grade Samuel Hardgrove)

The rhetoric is ramping up. “The biggest source of chaos in the present-day world is the United States,” Xi reportedly said in February. “The United States is the biggest threat to our country’s development and security.” The stakes are far bigger today than they were back in 1958 or 1996. Xi seeks the “revival of the Chinese nation” that could eclipse the democratic-capitalist system, led by the U.S., which has been the world’s economic colossus since World War II.

China’s view is that the U.S. is in decline, and it doubts the American commitment to Taiwan’s defense. That only adds to U.S.-Chinese instability. A recent editorial in the state-affiliated Global Times newspaper warned Taiwan’s leaders not to rely on the U.S. “From what happened in Afghanistan,” it said, “they should perceive that once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours and the U.S. military won’t come to help.”

Don’t bet against the U.S., Biden warns. “China has … an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the word, and the most powerful country in the world,” he said in March. “That’s not going to happen on my watch.” Biden has also made it clear Taiwan is a priority for the U.S., repeatedly mentioning it in communiques and statements following meetings with foreign leaders.

Three days into the Biden administration, his State Department urged China “to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives.” The Congressional Research Service noted in a July report that “senior Biden Administration officials have used blunt language to warn China against any use of force against Taiwan.”

In August, the State Department approved the sale of an estimated $750 million in howitzers and other artillery equipment to Taiwan. The Biden administration’s first such deal with Taipei, it said it would bolster Taiwan’s “continuing efforts to modernize its armed forces and to maintain a credible defensive capability.” Taiwan hailed the news, saying it “demonstrates the U.S. government’s commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act.” China warned such sales could “cause more damages to China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

A sailor keeps watch aboard the USS Ronald Reagan as it sails through the South China Sea in September 2021.
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman George Cardenas)

China-watchers are nervous. “U.S.-China relations are already at their worst point in decades, and the administration’s strikingly confrontational approach is likely to make things worse, while damaging other U.S. interests in the process,” foreign policy expert Jonathan Tepperman warns. “As it reveals itself, the nascent Biden Doctrine is turning out to be far more dangerous than most analysts — or the administration — seem to appreciate.

Unsurprisingly, the Pentagon and its allies maintain there is only one way to counter the growing China threat: more money. This echoes similar calls a generation ago warning of the hordes of 10-foot-tall Soviet soldiers ready to hop in the T-72 tanks and conquer Western Europe. “China is the pacing threat for us in uniform,” Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in July. “We are gearing our capabilities, our programs, our training, our skills, our activities, et cetera, militarily with China in mind. There’s no question about it.”

Some in the U.S. military say war between China and Taiwan, and the subsequent risk of U.S. — and maybe NATO — involvement is inevitable. “To us, it’s only a matter of time, not a matter of ‘if,’” U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Mike Studeman, the Pentagon’s top intel officer for the Pacific, said in July.

Critically, China has recently begun upping its nuclear game. The U.S. is concerned over what appears to be a major expansion in China’s land-based nuclear-missile silos. Historically, China’s nuclear arsenal has been less than 10% of those possessed by the U.S. and Russia, but the new ICBM fields in China suggest that may be changing. “The public has discovered what we have been saying all along about the growing threat the world faces and the veil of secrecy that surrounds it,” U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the Pentagon’s nuclear forces, tweeted after non-governmental scientists revealed their existence.

China appears to be increasing its nuclear firepower.

China has long been content with a small nuclear force — a so-called second-strike deterrence posture — designed only to retaliate. But it increasingly looks like China wants to join the U.S. and Russia as a big-league nuclear power, with all the instability that entails. “The destabilizing dynamic originating from the PRC’s rapid and opaque nuclear build-up cannot be ignored,” Bonnie Jenkins, the undersecretary of state for arms control, recently warned NATO colleagues in Denmark. “The unfortunate reality is that the United States and the PRC do not have the benefit of the same mature arms control relationship that we have with Russia, which was forged through decades of Cold War nuclear competition and cooperation.”

Admiral Charles Richard, who oversees U.S. nuclear weapons as chief of U.S. Strategic Command, said in August that China’s investment in atomic arms is a “strategic breakout” that will soon give Beijing the power to carry out “any plausible nuclear” strategy it wants. The “explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I describe as breathtaking,” he added. “Frankly, that word, breathtaking, may not be enough.” Bottom line: China is striving to be able to do to the U.S. what the U.S. has long been able to do to China. Or, as Richard puts it: “China has correctly figured out, you can’t coerce a peer — in other words, us — from a minimum deterrent posture.”

“It is estimated that combined U.S./[Republic of] China capability to defend the OSI [Taiwan off-shore islands] without discretionary use of nuclear weapons would be costly and probably ineffective. Less forceful alternatives in the long run would prove disastrous.” – Top U.S. Air Force general in the Pacific, August 26, 1958

But how real is the threat? The U.S. military has a history of accentuating the negative when it comes to future wars. It “lost” a war-gaming exercise last fall that reflected a battle for Taiwan. “Without overstating the issue, [the U.S.] failed miserably,” Air Force General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said July 26. “An aggressive red team that had been studying the United States for the last 20 years just ran rings around us,” Hyten said. “They knew exactly what we’re going to do before we did it.” Of course, you should take such assessments with a grain of salt. This is the same military, after all, that said it was making progress in Afghanistan for the past 20 years.

Such Pentagon exercises are used to justify the need for new weapons, both unbought and unthought. “The U.S. Air Force repelled a Chinese invasion of Taiwan during a massive war game last fall by relying on drones acting as a sensing grid, an advanced sixth-generation fighter jet able to penetrate the most contested environments, cargo planes dropping pallets of guided munitions and other novel technologies yet unseen on the modern battlefield,” Defense Newsreported in April. “Many key technologies featured during the exercise are not in production or even planned for development by the service.”

But it’s not only new weapons that are needed to meet the Chinese threat. The Pentagon already has upgrades in the works for its still-not-ready-for-full-scale-production F-35 fighter, built by Lockheed Martin. Pratt & Whitney, which makes the F-35 engine, is also pushing for defense dollars to improve its performance against putative Chinese threats. “Now is the time we need to get the requirement in place, the funding, and then start the program,” a Pratt & Whitney executive toldDefense News in August.

As it did with the Soviet Union, the Defense Department is taking legitimate concerns about another nation’s military and turning them into cartoon caricatures to boost military spending.

Then there’s the on-going PR offensive. Congress requires two annual reports detailing the Chinese threat, economic and military. “The PRC continues to signal its willingness to use military force against Taiwan,” the most recent Pentagon report, released in September 2020, said. “In the event of a protracted conflict, China might choose to escalate cyberspace, space, or nuclear activities in an attempt to end the conflict, or it might choose to fight to a stalemate and pursue a political settlement.”

In a war of words that could explode into real war overnight, words matter. Like the infamous Soviet Military Power books published regularly in the 1980s to justify the Reagan administration’s huge defense-spending surge, the Pentagon’s Chinese model contains some whoppers. “The PRC has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants,” the 2020 report says. “In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020.”

Given that any U.S.-Chinese war is going to be Navy-centric, that’s big news — if true. “I have big issues with this simplistic argument,” Michael O’Hanlon, a longtime Pentagon watcher at the Brookings Institution, countered. “The United States has much larger and more sophisticated ships than China. … America’s Navy remains way ahead in tonnage — still by a factor of at least two-to-one over China’s. It is ahead by at least ten-to-one in carrier-based airpower” [emphasis in the original]. Nonetheless, the Pentagon’s illusion persists. The Chinese “have the largest Navy in the world,” Richard, the Pentagon’s nuclear war-fighting chief, parroted in August.

As it did with the Soviet Union, the Defense Department is taking legitimate concerns about another nation’s military and turning them into cartoon caricatures to boost military spending. “Pentagon brass and defense corporations don’t want to see flat or reduced budgets, and need justification to continue to request high budgets,” Marine veteran Dan Grazier at the Project On Government Oversight recently noted. “Raising the specter of a China threat gives them reason to request more money.”

Congressional support for more money is bipartisan, even as U.S. military spending tops the Cold War average. The defense budget tells the American people and allies that although we say China is a threat, we are not taking action to respond,” Representative Elaine Luria (D-VA), a Navy veteran who represents a Navy-dependent district, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in July. “Congress has a duty to close the ‘say-do’ gap, whether through increased funding or redirecting other Pentagon dollars, and to provide the resources needed to deter China.” Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI), a Marine veteran, warned in July that “we don’t have that long” to build a naval fleet to counter China. “We have to act with a sense of urgency.” His district is home to one of the two shipyards building the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships.

“Prepare Now for War in the Pacific,” read the headline over a Gallagher column in July’s Proceedings, a pro-Navy magazine published just down the street from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. “Naval logistics must be able to deliver weapons, spare parts, food, fuel, and people in contested environments,” Gallagher wrote. “If we fail to reverse current trends, we are going to wake up one day and we will have either lost a war or abandoned Taiwan.”

Fact is, if war comes to the Pacific, the Marines say they won’t be able to rely on their long-standing logistical pipeline to keep leathernecks there supplied. “If they’re able to contest and really choke us off logistically, they’ll take us to our knees,” General David Berger, the Marine commandant, said in September. “The only thing I’m going to fly you in? Ordnance. And maybe JP [Jet Propellant] to refuel some aircraft, but it’s just fuel and bullets, that’s what I’m going to resupply. The rest you’re going to have to forage.”

U.S. Marine Corps, meet Gilligan’s Island.

“We have to recognize that we’re going to have to increase defense spending to keep up with the pace from China,” Representative Mike Rogers (R-AL), the senior GOP member of the House Armed Services Committee, said last spring. “They’re establishing their presence around the globe in strategic positions, and we just can’t ignore it unless we want to become subordinate to them, and I don’t think anybody in this country wants to do that.”

Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson conducts night-time flight operations on the ship's flight deck, Oct. 4, 2021.
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Tyler Wheaton)

There is a silver lining here for the makers of gold-plated weapons: the prospect of a war over Taiwan is the best argument going for increased U.S. defense spending. You can hear echoes of President Ronald Reagan hyping the Soviet threat to more than double the Pentagon’s budget from $135 billion in 1980, the year he was elected, to $303 billion by the time he left office eight years later. The debate at the highest levels may be over nuclear weapons, but that’s not where the money is. The money is in conventional forces. Yet those tanks, ships, and airplanes are basically rendered irrelevant when each side has nuclear weapons.

“We will require atomic strikes on the Chinese mainland to effectively and quickly stop Chinese Communist aggression.– U.S. Navy position paper, August 24, 1958

But both sides have way too much to lose to risk it all with atomic weapons. Assuming Taiwan is a vital U.S. interest, the Pentagon and its allies maintain that the only way to keep the nuclear genie in its bottle — is to spend enough money on non-nuclear weapons to keep China away from Taiwan. “Exaggerated estimates of the military challenges posed by China have become the new rationale of choice in arguments for keeping the Pentagon budget at historically high levels,” arms expert William Hartung wrote in a September report. “The most likely impact of the shift towards China will be to further tighten the grip of major weapons makers like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and Raytheon Technologies on the Pentagon budget.”

Think of it as the ultimate military-industrial-complex con: unrestrained spending for a war that will never be fought.