One Year After Indo-Pacific Command’s Prediction About Taiwan, Where Do We Stand?

COMMENTARY China

One Year After Indo-Pacific Command’s Prediction About Taiwan, Where Do We Stand?

Mar 10, 2022 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Brent Sadler

Senior Research Fellow, Allison Center for National Security

Brent is a Senior Research Fellow for Naval Warfare and Advanced Technology in the Allison Center for National Security.
Commander of U.S. Strategic Command Admiral Charles Richard testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing March 8, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Many in Washington have settled into the unfortunate mindset that American economic heft alone is large enough to deter Chinese and Russian aggression.

China has assiduously built a modern military that now is eclipsing our capacity to control and win a conflict in Asia.

Hardening the homeland to sustain a wartime economy and bolstering our military is the surest way to deny China victory and prevent a costly war.

A year ago, on March 9, Indo-Pacific Command’s Adm. Philip Davidson warned us that danger—in terms of a Chinese attempt to take Taiwan—was closer than most thought. “Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions,” he said, adding that he thought Beijing would move against the island “during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.”

Remarkably, this warning from the man who would have been responsible for leading our forces in defense of Taiwan went largely ignored. A week later, even as China conducted threatening air operations around Taiwan and Russia kicked off what would turn out to be a yearlong military buildup along the Ukrainian border, a bipartisan group in Congress argued for cutting U.S. defense spending by up to 10%.

Many in Washington have settled into the unfortunate mindset that American economic heft alone is large enough to deter Chinese and Russian aggression. Russian President Vladimir Putin disproved this notion on Feb. 24 when he invaded Ukraine. But the fact is that, for more than a decade, both China and Russia have worked to sanction-proof themselves from the U.S. We will see how effective Moscow’s efforts have been in the coming months. Meanwhile, Beijing is closely watching the Western sanctions strategy unfold and no doubt deciding what steps they should take to inoculate themselves from that strategy.

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Another disturbing fact is that U.S. power—both economic and military—is relatively weaker than it was during the Cold War. Now that the Great Power Competition has resumed, Washington will need to manipulate the levers of national power—diplomatic, economic and military—more coherently to provide an effective deterrent to our competitors.

What’s needed most is a realistic, coherent strategy—especially for checking China. Perhaps this is what the Secretary of Defense means when he talks about the Administration’s yet-to-be-unveiled strategy of “integrated deterrence.” Whatever that may mean—and its efficacy certainly hasn’t been demonstrated regarding Russia—no deterrence strategy can succeed without critical investments in hard military power.

That’s especially true when dealing with China, our most potent adversary by far. Backed by an economy that can sustain it in a long war, China has assiduously built a modern military that now is eclipsing our capacity to control and win a conflict in Asia. Given Adm. Davidson’s warning, and given that it takes several years to build modern military warships and grow our withered industrial capacities, our leaders need to act now to be prepared for a conflict shaping up for 2027.

So, what exactly will that take?

For one thing, realistic investments that build our military capacity to the necessary levels by 2025, not a generation from now. The Navy’s top officer, Adm. Mike Gilday, recently called for growing today’s fleet of 295 ships to over 500 ships by 2040. Not fast enough. The danger is more pressing. Distant timeframes indicate a lack of urgency unless the balance of this new fleet is delivered this decade.

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Second, the nation needs to get serious about growing an industrial base able to build and, in the event of a yearslong war with China, repair damaged ships. We also need to ensure that the nation has the shipping and resources needed to sustain a wartime economy. Today, we are overwhelmingly reliant on foreign merchant ships and crews. To appreciate the scale of this dependency, consider this: Every year, thousands of commercial ships call at U.S. ports, delivering what it takes to keep our lights on, our cars fueled, and food on the table. Yet there are only 157 U.S. flagged and crewed merchant ships that we could rely on in times of war.

Third, training and exercising the fleet is as critical to success as increasing ship numbers and industrial capacity. No matter how advanced a fleet’s warships or weapons may be, it will not be effective unless it is well crewed and practiced in war-fighting. The Navy needs more resources for training so it can conduct more fleet-level exercises and operational experiments—such as the manned and unmanned teaming fleet experiment UxS IBP 21 held last April.

Hardening the homeland to sustain a wartime economy and bolstering our military is the surest way to deny China victory and prevent a costly war. The window to get serious about our defenses is rapidly closing.

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times

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