China-Taiwan: Notes on a war game

NBC’s Meet the Press Reports published a new online episode this past week in which the network sponsored a war game for a China-Taiwan scenario developing in 2027.  The episode, entitled “War Games: Battle for Taiwan,” and hosted by Chuck Todd, can be accessed here.

These are just a few notes on a topic that needs a much more in-depth treatment.  But it’s worth registering some top-level comments as this subject garners more and more attention in the coming days.

I would say at the outset that criticism here isn’t intended in any way to mock the effort made to hold the war game and put it together for presentation.  It’s a tough proposition for anyone, and summarizing the results is invariably a matter of choosing and framing priorities, regardless of who’s doing it.  NBC has selected “Red” (China) and “Blue” (U.S.) teams with credentials, and gotten its big think-tank assist from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which is considered left-leaning but moderately so, as these things go in 2022.

I do think we’ll find that the approach to the war game scenario, presumably attributable to CNAS, is largely old-think and somewhat bore-sighted.  If it’s actually 2027 before China makes a big move on Taiwan, significant assumptions will have changed by then.  (As some should have changed already.)

Let’s start off the notes with that point.  It’s doubtful that China will fail to move before 2027.  Defining and identifying the nature of the “move” is key here, and it’s probably a fatal error to assume that political and military conditions will remain static between now and 2027, such that a massed assault to establish a beachhead in Taiwan is “the” move that signals a Chinese operation has begun.

China is more likely to continue moving around Taiwan’s perimeter, as China has been doing for years, to increasingly build up an intimidating correlation of forces designed to induce anxiety and will-weakening in Taiwan. Beijing would like to induce Taipei to fall, with a smaller and ideally less abrupt and overt military push from China.  Resetting the overall “correlation of forces” for the calculations of both Taiwan and Taiwan’s backers is the grand strategic approach.

That means a move on Taiwan will not be a single-focus, straightforward excursion across the Taiwan Strait.  This is an important point for which I saw no development in the war game.  For one thing, it’s quite likely — especially if China really doesn’t make a move for another five years — that the Xi regime will plan to accomplish more than merely subjugating Taiwan with any military effort that breaks the “peace” outright.

Additional goals would include gaining, effectively, full dominance of the South China Sea, establishing a basis for holding an armed veto over the Strait of Malacca, and making the disputed Senkaku Islands Chinese territory as a fait accompli.

If Xi feels emboldened enough, ensuring that the status of the Korean Peninsula will not change to China’s disadvantage — or changing it outright in China’s favor (i.e., thoroughly neutralizing South Korea as independent and aligned with the U.S.) — would be another high-priority goal.

An important condition that would need to shift to establish such geopolitical realities is the strength, latitude, and agility of the U.S. posture in East Asia.

This is where the war game makes a tactically aware start with Chinese bombardment of Guam and the Northern Marianas.  But the game leaves out other indispensable factors.  Chief among them are the operational significance of China’s existing infrastructure preparations in the South China Sea (SCS), China’s gain of a foothold in the open Pacific with the new security agreement with the Solomon Islands (scroll to segment “China busts out”), and the quietly growing option of pincering the Strait of Malacca from Burma/Myanmar, in progress since the coup there in February 2021.

Beijing already has preparations underway for outmaneuvering the current balance of the U.S. posture in the Far East.  I think the NBC war game correctly understands, with its envisioned Chinese attack on Guam and the Northern Marianas, that China would want to knock us off balance in this regard.  But the game misses the mark on the scope of China’s vision for such a move, and on when and how the move would be made.

Regarding the how, I’m not so sure it would be done with missile strikes.  I’d be looking for asymmetric attacks and the use of special forces, for such relatively simple tasks as rendering U.S. infrastructure non-functional.  Inflicting attrition on our fleet — enough to keep us from executing our own operational plans effectively — could be achieved largely through such means as well, although some level of attrition would probably be attempted through engagements at sea, using both conventional and asymmetric approaches.

The same may be said of our Air Force component.  Another obvious target would be the set defined as command, control, communications, intelligence, information, and reconnaissance — key to targeting, rapid decision-making, and effective combat.

If it were done stealthily enough, there could well be a lag in our formal, actionable understanding that we were under attack.

That is a very real prospect.  But the war game seemed to basically take the opposite perspective:  that we would not only know we were being attacked, and know who was doing it, but that in the span of 7-8 days China would escalate from overtly attacking Guam (and Japan) with missiles to overtly attacking Hawaii, attempting overt attacks on the U.S. West coast, and performing a nuclear test in the Western Pacific, as a highly combative “warning.”

A view of the results of the initial segment — “Move One” — of the China-Taiwan war game sponsored by NBC’s Meet the Press Reports. Here China has retaliated for U.S. support of Taiwan by attacking U.S. bases with major concentrations of American forces. All graphics, “War Games: Battle for Taiwan” video; link in text.
In Move Two, China attacks the U.S. in Hawaii, as well as attacking military targets in Japan, the Philippines, and Australia, which have offered basing/infrastructure for conflict activities.
Move Three sees China attack Hawaii again, and attempt attacks on Alaska and California. This graphic depicts an escalation, of course, as attempts to attack U.S. interests reach to the North American continent.
However, Move Three’s major escalation is a nuclear “test” off the U.S. West coast intended as a warning from China.

The timing of stealthier, less attributable attacks would probably be before an overt move on Taiwan.  That said, if stealthier attacks are to be made on U.S. installations in the region (including those in Japan), they would probably be made on Taiwan as well — along with the Philippines, Singapore, and Australia.

Aside from the attacks tethered to earthbound locations, there would of course probably be attacks on our space-based assets.  Cyber attacks on the command infrastructure inside the U.S. should be expected.  If China has built up to a move with broader objectives than just investing Taiwan, then preoccupying the U.S. and Japan, as well as other regional allies, with internal crises like major interruptions to power and energy supplies is likely.

A few other thoughts, based on the war game and the comments about it recorded in the video.  One is that there’s a comment about blockading China once Beijing has launched an attack on U.S. assets.  If that’s a serious point, the war-gamers appear to lack understanding of what a vast undertaking it would be to blockade China.  The combined deployable assets of the U.S., Japan, and Australia are not adequate for that purpose, and in any case they would have a tremendous job to do without mounting a blockade.

Another is that, in the separate video entitled “Inside a real-life war game: China and U.S. square off over Taiwan” (accessible via the link at the top), retired Admiral James Stavridis comments that he would really like to get the one-time U.S. bases in the Philippines back (he mentions the big Navy base at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base.  We wound down operations there and closed both of them, at Manila’s behest, in the 1990s).

I’d certainly agree with the admiral that having those bases in operation again would make a defense of Taiwan easier.  The Philippines would probably point out that it would also paint a big target on their islands, and they would want better assurances than they’re likely to receive that they’d be defended in the run-up to any conflict.

U.S. passivity while China has fortified, armed, and even artificially built out the islands and reefs of the South China Sea is not a token of credibility for such assurances.

In general, in fact, U.S. opinion lags badly in understanding that China wants to treat the entire South China Sea as if it’s Chinese territory rather than a shared maritime space.

If the Philippines are involved in any defense of Taiwan — as they are in the NBC war game, with USAF aircraft using bases there — China’s arming of the SCS islands will inevitably come into play.  That’s something the war game seemed to ignore.

At any rate, the Chinese-armed SCS is ignored alongside the importance to the U.S. and our allies of an open Strait of Malacca and a Singapore free of intimidation and extortion.  China understands that point well, and won’t fail to seek to turn it against us.  (See the mention above of China developing a flanking position through Myanmar.)

A final point is the discussion by the war game’s Red Team of a “HEMP shot,” or high-altitude electromagnetic pulse detonation near or over the United States.  That’s certainly possible, and although the effects weren’t really elaborated on, they could be devastating.

But this seems like another case of thinking behind the power curve.  North America is so penetrated already by Chinese-sourced IT components that similar effects could probably be achieved without a single action so overt and spectacular.  Maybe China would use a HEMP shot to punctuate an ongoing info and electromagnetic campaign; i.e., to clarify for some Chinese informational purpose that it’s coming from Beijing.  But I’m not convinced, in that event, that Xi would use just one as a warning.

Methodical escalation — warning shots followed by “gradual” ramp-ups —  was always a kind of Robert McNamara vision shared by no one but himself.  There’s no reason to imagine China would employ the model.  China likes to prepare overwhelmingly advantageous conditions first, and then move when there’s little left for an opponent to do about it.  That’s what we should be looking for — and preparing and deterring for.

Feature image:  Overhead shot of the war game’s Blue Team consulting around a map of the developing China-Taiwan conflict.  Meet the Press Reports video, NBC.

 

4 thoughts on “China-Taiwan: Notes on a war game”

  1. I believe China is too smart for any of this. Their strategy is boa-constrictor like, not kinetic. I suspect that the end game for Taiwan ends peacefully, or at worst, with a Chinese blockade on it’s trade.

  2. We are talking a time game. China has been living on western shortsighted greed, it’s immense population, and kited checks. At some point the Emperor Xi is either challenged by his oligarchy, comes to a natural end, or an unnatural end (an oligarchical challenge of another type). China’s economy is built on labor at near or slave compensation levels, wide open unregulated manufacturing, and Government ownership of all assets (so that true values will never really be known).

    An invasion of Taiwan would result in much the same mess as Tsar Pootie Poot’s ill-fated invasion and attempted reabsorption-by-force of Ukraine (a nation-state that he and many revanchist NeoSoviet Russian imperialists never really accepted). The “Tankies” are out in force absorbing and spewing FSB Propaganda like its easy money. The Emperor Xi sees this self-induced disaster and is unlikely to repeat it on his own behalf. Especially with a serious amount of water and limited amphibious naval capabilities available to him.

    Yes, he could bomb the bejabbers out of Taiwan, wreck its economy and kill lots of people but what does that get him in the long run (and the Chinese are all about the long run)? That question begs to be answered as a straight up query, not some rhetorical flourish. Just what exactly does Xi and his ruling oligarchy need with Taiwan, other than some far historical imperial impulse similar to Tsar Vladimir’s? Does that cost, and it would be atrociously high and risk WWIII in the Pacific – wrecking China’s markets and destroying its customer base- factor into his calculations? Is The Chinese version of Imperial Chauvinism the same as the Russian insanity?

    So, the war game looks like a big “Risk” board. Does Xi have loaded dice?

    None of these scenarios make much sense in the grander scheme of things. All might result in the fall of Taiwan, yes. But nothing is accounting for what would be extant on the other side of the rapidly escalating all-out war. One that no one would win, only survive – barely.

    A nuclear attack on the US would be Chinese suicide, and result in more than a few boomers with empty magazines and a huge part of Chinese industrial cities left in glowing piles of ruins. Just like Poots threatening to commit suicide by pushing the big red button, Xi-wee would be doing the same thing. The roaches would win, I suppose.

    If the Chinese did contemplate attacking Taiwan it would be seriously before 2027. The American electorate is rapidly shifting right, with the massive failures of the Deep State Regime fronted by demented puppet Zombie JoeyB. If anything like you have outlined and talked about, here, was done it would have to be when the US government is most feckless and weak; either the Zombie or the Acid Queen fits that bill. So, the super Risk game is a shaped piece of propaganda produced by the Democrat Party and its propaganda organs to make the Zombie look less like a reanimated corpse and more like a reluctant warrior. Hey! The Orc King!

    (Oh, and an EMP strike over the West coast wouldn’t net much… they’ve already mostly destroyed their energy grid anyway.) The CCP has already bought off and compromised most of Leftist America…. why get the Chamber of Commerce all upset?

    I vote for the other way from above… if they want Taiwan, it’ll be a bloodless strangulation, not a war.

    -OAB

  3. Short and mid term Emperor Xi the Pooh might succeed, but long term everyone pulls out of communist China and refuses to do business them.

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