Is the US over-militarizing its China strategy?

Last weekend, a leaked memo from four-star US Air Force Gen. Michael A. Minihan set Washington spinning, as Minihan predicted the United States would go to war with China in 2025. The proximate cause of this conflict would be a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Then on Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a planned trip to China after a Chinese balloon was spotted sailing across the northern part of the United States and over a US strategic missile base in Montana.

These are just more signs of an over-militarization of US China policy that dates to the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy of the Obama administration but has accelerated rapidly of late. In 2021, then Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. Phil Davidson warned of a Chinese move against Taiwan by 2027, a sentiment that has been echoed by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday as well as by both Democratic and Republican members of Congress.

Make no mistake: Many Americans see a war looming with China. And for many on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has focused more attention on a possible Chinese amphibious assault to take and occupy Taiwan. But few have questioned whether or not such an assault by China was feasible, what military capability would be needed for both the assault and subsequent occupation, what other options China has regarding assimilating Taiwan, and how such an operation might be prevented.

The answers to these questions will assist in determining whether or not the US has overly militarized its strategy and policy towards China. The preliminary analysis is that it has.

Lessons from history

Clearly, many classified studies and war games have been conducted into the prospect of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invading Taiwan. None has been made public even in the most general terms, including in the impressive Department of Defense report, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2022” delivered to Congress last fall.

War games are helpful in answering this question. But history may provide more valid answers. Three World War II campaigns are relevant: operations Overlord, Causeway, and Jubilee. Overlord was the landing at Normandy on June 6, 1944. About 180,000 British, Canadian, French, and American soldiers disembarked from some five thousand ships and small craft on the first day. Operation Causeway planned for four hundred thousand marines and soldiers and six thousand ships and small craft to invade Taiwan; it never happened, deferred by the invasion of the Philippines.

Operation Jubilee was the disastrous raid on Dieppe against the Nazis in August 1942. Approximately 10,500 allied troops, mostly Canadian, were carried in about 240 ships and small craft landing on the northern coast of France. The assault was immediately repulsed by the Germans with substantial British losses.

The last major amphibious operation under fire was Inchon during the Korean War in late 1950. During the 1991 Iraq War, the US Marines lobbied for an amphibious assault from inside the Gulf. That was denied as too dangerous. The Marines instead were used as a decoy force. With today’s precision weapons and ubiquitous surveillance, any amphibious operations would be even more difficult and costly.

By the numbers

While the exact size and capability of the PLA for conducting large-scale amphibious operations is uncertain, in general terms, China’s navy has about thirty thousand marines and a combined seventy large amphibious ships. China has two and is building a third helicopter assault ship that reportedly can carry about nine hundred marines. Taken together, these ships could carry perhaps fifteen to twenty thousand marines, and possibly as many as thirty thousand. 

The PLA also has six army amphibious combined arms brigades with a total of twenty-four-to-thirty thousand troops and up to fifteen Special Operations (SOF) brigades. However, as with airborne troops, deploying SOF across the Taiwan straits in helicopters raises logistics problems that restrict their use over such a distance and in uncertain weather conditions.

It can be argued that China’s large shipbuilding industry could turn out the thousands of smaller landing craft essential for an amphibious assault. However, those shipyards build big ships, and making any transitions would be time-consuming, expensive, and difficult to conceal.

From a Chinese perspective, an invasion would be a worst-case option. Greater pressure can be applied by threatening or imposing a blockade against Taiwan, cutting off access by sea and air, and by economic sanctions.  Grabbing small offshore islands belonging to Taiwan as leverage is well within PLA capabilities. Leninist doctrine has long called for regime change from within, as China could step up its attempts to use internal Taiwanese politics to effect a change.

And China could destroy or threaten to destroy Taiwan’s infrastructure under a rain of missiles after attempting a Dieppe-like assault to gain a foothold. But a traditional amphibious assault is more problematic.

Taiwan’s geography is unsuitable for those as well as amphibious operations, as it lacks the beaches of Normandy or Luzon. There are only a handful of landing sites on the west coast. Mountainous areas run the length of the 250-mile-long island, some topping ten thousand feet above sea level. While Taiwan does not train for guerrilla war, this difficult terrain would be very suitable for it. And Taiwan lacks the physical infrastructure to accommodate hundreds of thousands of invaders and support their logistical needs, the bulk having to come from the mainland.

Hence, to mount an opposed PLA amphibious assault to size and occupy Taiwan, China lacks, probably indefinitely, the military capability (power) and capacity (numbers).

Time for a strategy shift

A two year effort from 2017-2019 at the Naval War College called “Breaking the Mold” examined alternative means to implement the NDS. For the Indo-Pacific theater, a Mobile Maritime and Porcupine Defense for Taiwan was proposed in close concert with allies. That Japan is increasing defense spending is one indication of greater allied concern, as is the AUKUS program to provide nuclear submarines to Australia.

This Mobile Maritime strategy would confine the PLA to the first island chain running from Japan through Taiwan to Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. As in World War II in the Pacific against Japan, China would be blockaded and denied access to overseas access and resupply. It would be cut off from its Belt and Road outposts. And by Taiwan adopting a Porcupine Defense to make a PLA invasion too costly to consider, the United States would not have to spend as many resources in deterring and preparing for that contingency.

If an opposed-entry invasion of Taiwan is beyond China’s capacity, and it could be prevented by a Porcupine Defense of the island, what would be the consequences for US strategy? If Taiwan is not the immediate or even long-term danger spot the US believes it is, then is it time to ask if US strategy towards China has become overly militarized.

De-militarizing the China strategy

Tensions between China and the United States, if anything, are worsening. The specter of a world war has been raised with Taiwan as the cause célèbre. Rather than examining means to improve relations or to lower tensions, this focus on a Taiwan scenario has taken on greater importance and probability of occurrence. In this situation, the response has been for the United States to increase its emphasis on defense as the de facto policy and strategy. While this is understandable, it clearly has overly militarized US strategy at the expense of other options.

During the Cold War, the United States fought a war against China in Korea and believed that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was the surrogate enemy in Vietnam. The Nixon administration reversed this thinking with its “triangular politics” to offset the Soviet Union, culminating with then President Richard Nixon’s famous visit to China in 1972.

The United States needs to undertake a major review of its China policy to determine if it has become overly militarized and, if so, what are the alternatives. Further, are there positive steps that can be taken vis-a-vis China in the best interests of all concerned?

Too often in the past, instead of being the last option, military force, threatened or used, has become the default US position. The United States is at risk of repeating that error. It may well be that the PRC is indeed the greatest threat to the United States and its allies. However, a race to that judgment is ill-advised. Perhaps the Congressional-Executive Commission on China can fill the gap in shaping a strategy.

If it does, the commission needs to answer the question of whether the United States has overly militarized its response to China. If the answer is yes, the next question is to what degree should Russia be the centerpiece for US military thinking and strategy.

Harlan Ullman is an Atlantic Council senior advisor and UPI’s Arnaud deBorchgrave distinguished columnist. His latest book is The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD—How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large. He can be found on Twitter @harlankullman.

Further reading

Image: Handout photo dated July 18, 2022 of Lt. Eric Stein, right, from Carpinteria, Calif., and Lt. Brandon White, from Sharpsburg, Ken., shooters assigned to the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), launch an F/A-18E Super Hornet from the Royal Maces of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 27 in the South China Sea. US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group are now operating in the South China Sea. The vessels were moved to the area amid tensions between China and the US. China has signaled that it may take military action if Speaker Nancy Pelosi visits Taiwan. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Gray Gibson via ABACAPRESS.COM