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As China Plans Drills Circling Taiwan, U.S. Officials Fear a Squeeze Play

WASHINGTON — For years, the deliberate “strategic ambiguity” in Washington’s China policy has obscured how the United States would respond to a large-scale, amphibious invasion of Taiwan.

But an equally difficult question — perhaps more difficult, in the minds of many senior White House and defense officials — is how to respond to a slow squeeze of the island, with Chinese forces cutting off much of access to the island, either physically or digitally. .

That question may soon be tested for the first time in a quarter of a century. China’s statement during Chairman Nancy Pelosi’s visit that it would begin military exercises at six sites around the island could spark the worst crisis in the Taiwan Strait since 1996, when President Bill Clinton ordered a US aircraft carrier access. to the strait.

But those drills were significantly further from Taiwan’s shores than the series the Chinese government has warned of seamen and aircraft it is planning. And it took place in a much more favorable strategic environment, when China’s entry into the global economy had to change its behavior, and when Mr. Clinton would tell Chinese students that the spread of the Internet would foster freedom and dissent. It was also the moment when the Chinese military took a fraction of the strike power it now has, including anti-ship missiles developed to deter American warships from getting close.

Government officials say, based on their assessments, a complete closure of access to Taiwan is unlikely — largely because it would hurt China’s own economy at a time of severe economic slowdown. On Friday, the Group of 7 Industrialized Countries, the core of the Western alliance, warned China not to retaliate against Ms. Pelosi’s visit, clearly attempting to suggest that China would be widely condemned for overreaction, just as Russia was for his invasion of Ukraine.

But US officials say they are concerned that the events of the coming days could lead to an unintended confrontation between Chinese forces and those of Taiwan, especially if the Chinese military launches a missile over the island, or if it raids the disputed territory. airspace leads to a conflict in the air. Something similar happened 20 years ago when a Chinese military plane collided with an American intelligence plane.

As military exercises began early on Wednesday, White House and Pentagon officials closely monitored the situation, trying to find out if China was sending troops to any of the areas near the coast of Taiwan it could target. declared closed. But their guess was that China’s strategy is to intimidate and coerce, without provoking direct conflict.

Outside experts were more concerned that the exercise could escalate.

“This is one of those scenarios that you have a hard time dealing with,” said Bonny Lin, who headed the Taiwan bar at the Pentagon and held other defense positions before moving to Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, where she leads to the China Power project. “If a military exercise turns into a blockade, when does it become clear that the exercise is now a blockade? Who should respond first? Taiwanese troops? The United States? It’s not clear.”

An exercise turned blockade is one of many scenarios that regularly become “war games” in Washington as US officials try to map out options before a crisis hits. But nothing really replicates a real showdown.

According to his aides, Biden should try to walk the delicate line between avoiding folding to the Chinese and avoiding escalation.

It’s made even more complicated by the ongoing debate about how Taiwan can become a “porcupine,” or a country too well-defended to be invaded by China. Despite all the talk of selling F-16s to Taiwan – the fleet should surpass 200 of its fighter jets by 2026 – concerns are growing that Taiwan is buying the wrong kind of equipment to defend itself, and that it needs to learn some lessons from Ukraine.

It is hardly a new debate. Two years ago, a senior defense official, David F. Helvey, warned that as China’s ability to suffocate the island grows, Taiwan itself “through smart investment could send a clear signal to Beijing that Taiwanese society and its armed forces are committed to defending Taiwan.” But he warned that the funds pledged by the Taiwanese government to acquire new defensive technology were insufficient for a resilient defense.

The result was a steady drumbeat from Washington urging Taiwanese leaders to invest less in expensive F-16 fighters and more in what Mr. Helvey called “great numbers of little things,” the formula that later helped Ukraine break the Russian Federation. to resist troops.

That list includes mobile coastal defense cruise missiles, naval mines, small fast attack craft and mobile artillery.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has expressed support for the so-called “asymmetric” strategy and in recent years has taken steps to increase the defense budget and buy many of the small, mobile weapons that US officials have recommended, such as harpoon missiles. But it has sometimes encountered resistance from some Taiwanese military officials, who argue that some conventional weapon systems are still needed to prepare for various scenarios. They have also argued that without an explicit security guarantee from the United States, it would be too risky for Taiwan to give up its deadly weapons.

That view has changed somewhat in recent months as the war in Ukraine shocked the Taiwanese military and the public, leading to a greater embrace of the “porcupine” strategy. But that war has also depleted supplies and strained manufacturing capabilities among US and allied defense contractors, meaning Taiwan may have to wait several years. And that delay gives China an opening.

In addition, Taiwan’s defense budget hovers around $17 billion a year, although it has pledged to spend another $8 billion on armaments in the coming years. By comparison, Congress recently allocated $52 billion in aid to Ukraine — which doesn’t have Taiwan’s revenue to pay for its own defense — and China spends on the order of $230 billion annually.

Some also say that what Taiwan needs from the United States is not just arms sales, but other forms of support, ranging from military technology to operational exchanges and training.

While the Taiwanese military is sometimes allowed to participate in defense symposiums, it is rarely invited to participate in major multinational military exercises because most countries do not officially recognize it as a nation. And while Washington has gradually ramped up training for Taiwanese troops on the island and in the United States in recent years, the island’s mandatory military service and reservist program are still considered insufficiently rigorous.

“The US could help us train more efficiently and mobilize reserve forces more quickly,” said Ou Si-fu, a researcher at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a think tank affiliated with Taiwan’s Defense Ministry. “They could also help more in technology transfer, to support our indigenous weapons development programs.”

Of course, defending against an invasion is little like defending against a blockade. Running a block is even more difficult.

“Threatening a blockade and actually initiating a blockade are two very different things,” Eric Sayers, a former senior adviser to the US Pacific Command and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr Sayers said China has long had the ability to effectively encircle Taiwan if it so chooses, so the ability itself is no surprise.

“Despite all the threats Beijing has made in recent weeks, it would still be very difficult and costly for the Chinese economy to maintain a blockade for an extended period of time for the PLA navy,” added Mr Sayers, referring to the People’s Liberation Army. “What hurts Taipei’s economy has a similar effect on Beijing.”

Mr Sayers continued: “The most important thing about China’s response is that it gives us a taste of how the PLA could deploy an indirect blockade against Taiwan in the future to increase pressure near an election or another political crisis.”

“Instead of announcing a military blockade, they could instead announce an extensive military exercise around Taiwan that will close or disrupt shipping routes for 30, 60, 90 days. This makes it less of a military operation and more of a form of legal warfare to justify an indirect blockade for a duration Beijing can manipulate.”

Others say the United States could do more to strengthen Taiwan’s security by helping it better integrate into the global economic system. Taiwanese officials and analysts argue that strengthening trade ties and possibly concluding a bilateral trade agreement could help the island reduce its dependence on China, currently its largest trading partner. But China would no doubt regard that as an act of aggression.

The geopolitical risks posed by Taiwan’s reliance on the Chinese market became apparent this week when, just hours after Ms. Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, Pelosi suspended exports of natural sand to the island – essential for construction – and banned imports of certain species from Taiwan. of fruits and fish.

“Economic security is so important to Taiwan’s survival as a democracy,” said Vincent Chao, former political director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington.

Diversifying U.S. support for Taiwan through arms sales is critical not only to better defending China, but also to boosting the morale of a Democratic co-partner, said Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, a defense research group. in Arlington, Virginia.

“We should not just stuff guns down their throats and deprive them of their agency to determine their own defense requirements,” said Mr. Stokes. “What Taiwan needs most from the US is to be treated with respect as much as possible as a normal partner, given the restrictions.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

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