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21 April 2023

US Congress goes to “war” over Taiwan

The House select committee on China simulated war with the Chinese Communist Party over the island. The results were sobering.

By Katie Stallard

WASHINGTON DC – The war began on schedule at 7pm on Wednesday (19 April). Incensed by intelligence reports suggesting that Taiwan’s president was preparing to declare independence, China’s leader Xi Jinping had ordered his military to seize the self-ruling democracy by force.

Or at least this was the scenario presented to the members of the US house select committee on China this week in a tabletop wargame they took part in, during a private hearing on Capitol Hill. The exercise, designed by experts at the Washington-based think tank Center for a New American Security, was set in 2027 and designed to simulate the first week of a Chinese assault on Taiwan. The committee members were tasked with acting as national security advisers to the US president during the conflict, and assessing how the US should respond. The results were sobering.

Taiwan rapidly ran out of long-range missiles during the simulated conflict, with the US and its allies unable to resupply the island once the fighting had started. All sides had sustained significant casualties by the time the exercise stopped at the end of the first week. The global economy was also devastated, with markets plunging and international supply chains breaking down as maritime trade in the region ground to a halt.

[See also: The diplomatic battle for Taiwan]

“We are well within the window of maximum danger for a Chinese Communist Party invasion of Taiwan,” said Mike Gallagher, the Republican committee chairman, the day following the exercise. “And yesterday’s war game stressed the need to take action to deter CCP aggression and arm Taiwan to the teeth before any crisis begins.” He called for the US to expedite the delivery of backlogged weapons orders worth $19bn to Taiwan, step up training with Taiwanese forces, and shore up US military positions in the region.

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US policymakers have been increasingly focused on the threat to Taiwan since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine. They are concerned that Xi might seek to emulate his “dear friend” Vladimir Putin and invade the island territory. US military commanders have warned that China could soon have the capacity to stage an attack, with Admiral Philip Davidson warning in 2021, as the then-head of Indo-Pacific Command, that the Chinese military could attempt an offensive by 2027. Earlier this year, Mike Minihan, a US air-force general, wrote in a leaked memo to his officers that they must be ready to “fight in 2025”.

It’s important to note that these timelines appear to be based more on assessments of China’s improving capabilities, such as the country’s military modernisation – which Xi has ordered to be completed by 2027 – rather than any specific intelligence indicating an intent to attack.

[See also: Why Taiwan is already under attack – Audio Long Reads]

In fact, Xi has stressed repeatedly in recent years that “time and momentum” are on China’s side when it comes to Taiwan, which has been ruled separately since Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island with his remaining Kuomintang forces at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. (The Chinese Communist Party has never governed the territory.) Xi has merely said that the issue cannot be passed down “from generation to generation” and that Taiwan must be brought under Beijing’s control as part of the “national rejuvenation” of China, which is due to be achieved by 2049. But this is sufficiently vague and far off as to be malleable.

Critics of the incessant focus on timelines for a potential Chinese invasion argue that this misses the intensive pressure campaign against Taiwan that is under way. As I reported from Taiwan in March, the island is already being subjected to diplomatic and economic coercion intended to weaken and isolate the territory, as well as Chinese disinformation and political influence campaigns. Chinese fighter jets now cross the median line of the Taiwan Strait on an almost daily basis, forcing the Taiwanese military to scramble its own aircraft in response and depleting its already stretched resources. The People’s Liberation Army also staged military drills “encircling” Taiwan in early April following the Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with the US House speaker Kevin McCarthy in California.

In this context, it is easy to question the value of a group of lawmakers playing at war for a couple of hours on a Wednesday evening. But the experts who ran the simulation have said they were impressed with the thoughtfulness and seriousness with which the committee members approached the exercise, and the difficult decisions that would be involved in responding to a real attack. If nothing else, it forced a rare, bipartisan effort in Congress to put aside the usual bickering over domestic politics, however briefly, and focus instead on the gravity and the complexities of the threat to Taiwan.

[See also: Taiwan is already under attack]

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