Expert Panel Report: Taiwan and the Future of U.S. Defense Strategy in Asia

Image Source: The Hill

On Friday, October 28th, the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues and The Walsh School of Foreign Service’s Asian Studies Program jointly hosted a panel entitled “Taiwan and the Future of U.S. Defense Strategy in Asia.” The event featured Georgetown Professor Caitlin Talmadge,who recently wrote an article with Brendan Rittenhouse Green entitled “Then What? Assessing the Military Implications of Chinese Control of Taiwan.” Professor Talmadge discussed the article, which assessed the repercussions of a potential Chinese capture of Taiwan, and received comments from  the other panelists.

Professor Talmadge indicated that a Chinese seizure of Taiwan would improve China’s ocean surveillance capabilities and their submarine program’s capacity to inflict damage on U.S. surface forces in the event of hostilities. Currently, Chinese naval forces are generally confined within the first island chain in the South China Sea, and control of Taiwan would allow them to break out of that natural barrier. Immediately, this would bring a challenge to the U.S.’s ability to control chokepoints in the island chains to contain China. According to Professor Talmadge, this breakout would allow Chinese submarines to extend into the deeper waters near the Philippines, where they would be harder  for U.S. surface vessels to detect.. In addition to the submarine advantage that Taiwan would offer China, the Taiwanese coast offers ample places to install passive acoustic sensors, which assist in targeting for China’s hypersonic missiles. Ultimately, Professor Talmadge acknowledged that the military value of Taiwan for China’s navy is only one input into a complex issue, but highlighted that there was a military cost for the U.S. in not defending Taiwan in the event of an invasion.

Professor Talmadge was joined by Mike Mazarr of RAND Corporation. Dr. Mazarr pointed out that the strategic importance of Taiwan is largely relative to its other ambitions; if China invaded Taiwan, it probably would not extend its ambitions of conquest to other Pacific nations. Thus, would the marginal change in military positioning be worth the cost of defending Taiwan? Even in regard to China’s improved military position, the implications are hard to extrapolate as the U.S. would certainly find ways to adapt to the change in the status quo. According to Dr. Mazarr, the tactical implications of a Chinese Taiwan are of less significance than the signal that defending (or not defending) Taiwan would send to U.S. allies.

Stacie Pettyjohn of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) also contributed her expertise to the conversation. Tactically, Dr. Pettyjohn argued that the benefit of passive acoustic sensors is not in their ability to generally locate American naval assets, but comes at the end of the “kill chain,” in the precise targeting of submarines or ships. According to Dr. Pettyjohn, the most significant change if China controlled Taiwan would be China’s “unbottling” from the first island chain. Within their proximate area, China would have increased mobility and power projection, but any further ambitions, such as against Japan or U.S. Pacific surface forces in the Pacific, would continue to be difficult.

The final participant in the discussion was James Malvenon of Peraton Labs. Dr. Mulvenon emphasized the complexity of the Taiwan question, with the military benefits being only one consideration in the decision to defend Taiwan against possible PRC aggression. Dr. Mulvenon’s analysis is that military consequences of a PRC-controlled Taiwan shift the calculation, but only marginally. He emphasized a point made by Dr. Mazarr’s question: to what end would the PRC make an aggressive campaign? The most significant consequence would be a solidification of China’s sphere of influence, barring unforeseen expansion further into the Pacific.

This discussion, superbly moderated by Georgetown’s Evan Medeiros, the Penner Family Chair in Asian Studies, served as excellent analysis and provided ample considerations for those listening in. Ultimately, the major questions that seem to remain are how the U.S. and allies would adapt to Chinese tactical benefits from acquiring Taiwan, and what China’s end goals would be. Overall, the military ramifications of a PRC-controlled Taiwan are part of a much broader question of signaling and diplomatic calculations for the U.S. and its partners. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.