This Wargame Shows there are No Winners in a War Over Taiwan
War is a terrible game to win. That’s what the Center for Strategic and International Studies determined when they tested how a Chinese invasion of Taiwan might unfold in their new wargame exercise. In most of the game’s 24 scenarios, the U.S. and its regional allies succeeded in defeating a Chinese invasion, but the study reports that all of those victories “came at a high cost.” According to the study, if China invaded Taiwan, all sides would suffer thousands of combat deaths, economic turmoil, and the grim prospect of political instability on Mainland China.
The best way to avoid the terrible prizes of “victory” is to deter a conflict from occurring. Deterrence does not mean dumping trillions more dollars into military hardware that won’t survive the opening stages of battle. It means ensuring that China knows a war over Taiwan would be costly. Every able-bodied person in Taiwan must be prepared to fight to push an invading army back into the sea. Building a more than capable Taiwanese military will require an urgent training overhaul only Washington can provide.
Taiwan is a de-facto self-governing island that for nearly eight decades has persisted as the most sensitive issue in U.S.-Sino relations. For much of its history, Taiwan was an autonomous safe haven for merchants, pirates, and political refugees fleeing persecution in Mainland China. This legacy gained new significance in 1949 when the nationalist Kuomintang government fled to the island after suffering a military defeat at the hands of the communists during that country’s civil war. Taiwan is now a core U.S. security and technological partner confronted with a growing threat of invasion by Beijing who considers the island a separatist province.
CSIS’ wargame is the first publicly available study examining critical operational dynamics and their impacts. It is also the first to boldly speculate the long-term impacts of a war. The study notes that the “United States might win a pyrrhic victory, suffering more in the long run than the (defeated) Chinese.”
In the past 22 years, the United States suffered 7,054 combat deaths against largely disorganized and poorly equipped insurgents and extremists in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Against a nuclear-armed China, the wargame averaged 6,960 American casualties with a high-end estimate of 10,000 in a matter of weeks.
But the damage doesn’t stop with thousands dead on both sides. When the losses of expensive military equipment are accounted for, you may also consider the American taxpayer a casualty. America’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, cost around $13 billion to build not counting the cost of filling it with fighter jets and other equipment. In an era of dwindling appetite to commit U.S. forces abroad, the high price tag of peace alludes to the herculean political effort that will be required to bolster and sustain domestic support for conflict. A difficult reality made more challenging by the fact that most Americans cannot even find Taiwan on a map.
Taiwan is predicted in nearly every scenario to survive as an autonomous entity, albeit in rough shape. Taipei would be left to defend a shattered economy with no functional utilities, which, in Taiwan’s sub-tropical climate, means a rapidly devolving humanitarian crisis for its 23.5 million inhabitants.
A study by the Rhodium Group notes that a conflict over Taiwan would have global consequences. Even under conservative estimates, the world would suffer immense global economic disruptions. After fighting its largest trading partner, Washington would likely be in the unenviable position of subsidizing Taiwan’s reconstruction amidst a weakened economic outlook at home.
Perhaps most unsettling is the prospect of political instability on Mainland China. Beijing, and by extension Xi Jinping, places immense political capital behind the promise to one day reunify Taiwan. The economic fallout coupled with a losing war effort could make the ‘white paper’ protests look like a book club meeting. Love or hate the Chinese Communist Party, they provide vital services including water, electricity, and sanitation for 1.5 billion people. The rapid implosion of the Chinese state would translate to 20% of the world population descending into an unparalleled food and energy crisis unseen in the 21st century, severely weakening the United States in the process.
Washington and Beijing should carefully deliberate if they can stomach the potential for protracted instability to achieve decisive results in a mere weeks-long engagement. The most assured way to avoid avoiding who will become the biggest loser is to prevent a conflict from ever materializing. Taipei must be able to deter Beijing from crossing the Strait and is in desperate need of military training. Washington should deliver it — and fast.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.