After members of the House’s committee on China participated in war games simulating a Taiwan invasion, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), the committee chair and new face of China hawks in Congress, said the U.S. must arm Taiwan "to the teeth" to avoid a Chinese attack on the island.
Members of Congress participating in war games is unusual and demonstrates how the US is preparing for a future war with China. Unlike Ukraine, President Biden has vowed to send troops to fight in Taiwan if the island is invaded, and US military leaders are speaking openly about the fact they are getting ready for a direct clash with the People’s Liberation Army.
Often missing from the conversation is that – just like a direct war between the US and Russia – a head-on conflict between the US and China risks nuclear escalation. While Beijing has a vastly smaller nuclear arsenal than Russia, they have enough nuclear-tipped ICBMs that a nuclear exchange between the US and China could end life as we know it.
Gallagher and his cohorts insist they are trying to prevent a war with China. They want to ramp up arms sales, provide unprecedented military aid, and increase diplomatic and trade ties with Taiwan in the name of "deterrence." But China’s recent actions and rhetoric show that the increasing US military and diplomatic support will not deter China but will provoke China.
The most blatant example was when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) decided to visit Taiwan in August 2022 despite very strong warnings from China. Beijing views high-level contacts between the US and China as an affront to Washington’s one-China policy, and such diplomatic meetings are arguably more provocative in the eyes of Beijing than the US shipping F-16s to Taiwan.
In response to Pelosi’s visit, China launched unprecedented military exercises. For the first time, the PLA fired missiles over Taiwan and simulated a blockade on the island. Since then, China has kept up the military pressure on Taiwan and now regularly sends planes across the median line, an unofficial barrier that separates the Taiwan Strait.
According to Japan Times, China flew 302 sorties across the median line in August 2022. Between 1954 and August 2020, China flew across the barrier only four times. From September 2020 until Pelosi’s visit, Chinese warplanes made the flight 23 times.
The slight uptick in Chinese flights across the median line between September 2020 and Pelosi’s visit can also be explained by US diplomatic visits to Taiwan. In August 2020, President Trump sent then-Health Secretary Alex Azar to Taiwan, the highest-level US cabinet official to make the trip since Washington severed diplomatic relations with Taipei in 1979. The following month, Trump sent Keith Krach, who was serving as an undersecretary of state at the time. The trip made Krach the highest-level State Department official to visit Taiwan since 1979. It was around this time that Taiwan’s Defense Ministry began reporting frequent Chinese military flights in its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).
Despite the clear pattern that high-level US contacts are provoking Chinese military action, they haven’t stopped. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in California provoked the largest Chinese show of force around Taiwan since the Pelosi exercises.
Beijing has also responded to the growing military ties between the US and Taiwan. In December 2022, President Biden signed into law the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. The bill included military aid for Taiwan and other measures to increase US support for the island. China responded by conducting major drills around Taiwan, which the PLA described as a "resolute response to the escalating collusion and provocation by the United States and Taiwan."
The lesson from China’s actions is that increasing US support for Taiwan will bring more Chinese military pressure on the island. Gallagher and the rest of the China hawks draw precisely the wrong lesson and point to China’s military activity as a reason to boost ties with Taipei, pitting the US and China is a cycle of escalation.
Chinese officials have made clear that they believe if the US doesn’t change course on its Taiwan policies and overall military buildup in the Indo-Pacific, it will lead to war. "If the United States does not hit the brake, but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing, and there surely will be conflict and confrontation," Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said in March.
The US is not hitting the brake as Taiwanese media has reported 200 US troops have been deployed to Taiwan, marking the largest known US military presence on the island in decades. Taiwan’s defense minister recently said Washington and Taipei are discussing the US providing $500 million in "free" weapons. The US has always sold weapons to Taiwan since the diplomatic shift in 1979 but has not provided weapons free of charge, making the potential weapons package unprecedented.
The Biden administration constantly claims it does not want to change the status quo across the Taiwan Strait, but these policies are doing just that. The US needs to back way down on its support for Taiwan and seriously engage with Beijing on the issue if it truly wants to prevent war.
China has every incentive not to launch an invasion but doesn’t rule out the use of force to achieve "reunification." At some point, the increasing US support for Taiwan will become intolerable for Beijing. Whether the China hawks like it or not, that’s the reality, and arming Taiwan to the teeth will only make a catastrophic war in East Asia more likely.
Dave DeCamp is the news editor of Antiwar.com and host of the daily podcast Antiwar News with Dave DeCamp. He is based in Virginia and can be reached at Davedecamp@protonmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @decampdave.