Taiwan Tripwire: A New Role For The U.S. Army In Deterring Chinese Aggression

Loren Thompson

Senior Contributor

Aerospace & Defense
I write about national security, especially its business dimensions.

The island of Taiwan, home to the Republic of China, occupies a pivotal position in Washington’s Sino-centric defense strategy.

Geographically, Taiwan is the anchor of the so-called First Island Chain, which U.S. planners have identified as the most promising location from which to oppose Chinese naval moves.

Economically, Taiwan is an electronics powerhouse that hosts the world’s leading maker of advanced semiconductors and is the headquarters of the company that assembles all iPhones.

Politically, Taiwan is one of Asia’s most progressive democracies, with exceptional levels of achievement in education, civil liberty and healthcare (as reflected in its deft containment of the coronavirus threat last year).


U.S. Abrams tanks would likely play a key role in repulsing a Chinese amphibious landing.


But what most concerns U.S. military commanders in the Pacific is that Taiwan has been considered a renegade province by Beijing since the revolution that brought Communists to power in 1949.

The Chinese government has stated that it will “reunite” Taiwan with the rest of China peacefully if possible, and by force if necessary. Many observers believe the moment when the second option is exercised is fast approaching.

In recent weeks, both the outgoing and incoming commanders of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command have told the Senate Armed Service Committee that a potential Chinese military occupation of Taiwan is their most pressing concern in the region.

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The Economist warned on February 20 that “America is losing its ability to deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan.”

Given Beijing’s rapidly growing investment in military capabilities and Taiwan’s proximity to what used to be called Mainland China, the possibility of an assault across the hundred-mile Taiwan Strait is a real possibility.

As Brian J. Dunn observed in a seminal assessment for Military Review last year, “To defeat Taiwan and avoid war with America, all China needs to do is get ashore in force and impose a cease-fire prior to significant American intervention.”

Washington’s response to this danger for decades has been a case study in ambiguity.

On the one hand, it sells more weapons to the Republic of China than the rest of the world combined—everything from Abrams tanks to F-16 fighters to Harpoon anti-ship missiles—so that the country can defend itself against an onslaught by Beijing.

On the other hand, it has no formal commitment to defend the island nation, and withdrew its last troops from Taiwan after establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979.

So, although the military strategy of the Taipei government assumes an American response if Beijing attacks, it is not clear that would actually happen in a timely fashion.

The People’s Republic is, after all, a nuclear-armed nation with hundreds of warheads capable of reaching America.

Even if Washington decided to respond, the distances involved could prevent an adequate response in time to prevent Beijing’s forces from establishing a military fait accompli on the island.

Getting U.S. air or naval power to the island would not take long, but Brian Dunn argues that once Chinese forces are ashore, what Taipei will really need is U.S. armored brigades to support its small ground force.

Dunn proposes over half a dozen armored brigades be part of the U.S. response plan. But a force of that size can’t be stationed on the island without destroying any semblance of a working relationship with Beijing.

And if it can’t be stationed there, getting heavy ground forces in place after an invasion is launched could be logistically impossible.

While no one should under-estimate the value of U.S. air and naval forces in such a fight, without an early U.S. ground presence the invasion might well succeed is achieving Beijing’s tactical objectives.

What to do?

One time-tested solution would be to station a much smaller but nonetheless potent fighting force on Taiwan, to serve as a “tripwire” signaling U.S. commitment to the island’s defense.

A single U.S. Army armored brigade, numbering about 5,000 soldiers plus supporting artillery and air defense units would probably be sufficient.

Working in concert with indigenous forces, such a deployment could help to delay Beijing’s achievement of its tactical objectives until a more extensive U.S. ground force arrives.

The primary purpose of having such a force in place would not be to defeat the attacking force, but to compel it to engage in combat early on with the U.S. military.

The prospect of engaging U.S. troops from the beginning of a cross-strait operation would give Beijing pause to consider the potential for escalation—just as U.S. tripwire forces in Germany during the Cold War forced Moscow to confront the danger of a wider war.

Washington and its NATO allies have recently established a tripwire presence in the Baltic states, and some strategists regard the U.S. Army presence in South Korea as a tripwire posture too.

The basic idea is to signal resolve without tying down extensive forces in specific places.

A U.S. armored brigade, the heaviest ground formation America’s Army operates, would be a potent fighting force in its own right, but it would be even more potent as a signal to Beijing that Washington has no intention of abandoning Taiwan.

The Army currently has 15 armored brigades (ten active, five reserve), and having one such brigade on the island continuously would greatly assist in preparing for combat with local forces.

Of course, Beijing would protest bitterly at any such “violation” of the status quo, but given the many ways in which Beijing has failed to meet its commitments to Washington across a range of issues, it could hardly claim the moral high ground.

So using the U.S. Army as a tripwire to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan could be an effective way of averting what otherwise might become a major war during the Biden years.
分享 2021-04-08

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