Although proximity to China presents its most obvious military dilemma, American observers agree a theoretical battle for Taiwan would be no cakewalk for China.
“Look, 80 nautical miles of water, mountainous, inhospitable terrain, unfavorable sea conditions—this is D-Day times about six,” says Schriver. “Add to that anti-ship cruise missiles and sea mines, then [consider] this is a PLA that hasn’t seen combat since 1979.”
Others make the case that China has plenty to lose—even from a successful attack. “If you escalate to the point of using missiles, you risk gaining the objective by destroying it,” says Cordesman. “It’s not that simple.”
The United States isn’t obligated by treaty to come to Taiwan’s defense militarily. Yet none of this answers the big question—if it had to, could the United States defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan?
“The answer is no, because there won’t be a traditional war in the Pacific region,” says Cordesman. “The problem for everyone is how much things have changed, how many uncertainties exist…. In many ways, the competition between the U.S. and China is like a game of three-dimensional chess where there are no fixed rules. The difficulty is China isn’t simply competing in military terms, it’s competing in economic [and civil] terms and the U.S. hasn’t addressed those nearly as much as it has the military ones.”
A recent shift toward that perspective is a work in progress that leaders in both the United States and Taiwanare clearly committed to. Nevertheless, last year Taiwan President Tsai Ingwen, who has spearheaded a major military buildup, admitted that U.S. troops are now in Taiwan to train their Taiwanese counterparts. In December, Voice of America reported the United States had nearly doubled its military personnel stationed in Taiwan in 2021, from 20 to 39.