Ever since Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party of China, or Kuomintang (KMT), declared their control of Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war, the United States has pledged to defend Taiwan against Communist aggression from the mainland. As recently as last September, President Joe Biden affirmed this promise: “That’s the commitment we made.”
In the latter half of the 20th century, when the American military was the most powerful in the world and China struggled to industrialize, defending Taiwan seemed achievable. However, in the past several years, the progress of the U.S. compared to China can be visualized by intersecting, then diverging, lines on a graph. Not only has the U.S. let its military capacity to defend Taiwan degrade, but it underestimates the robust system that China has impressively built to exercise dominion over its former territory — and beyond.
China surpassing the U.S. in conventional military capabilities is threatening enough. But it has another weapon: space control.
China is now in its most assertive stance against Taiwan since the 1949 revolution. At the 20th Party Congress in October, President Xi Jinping urged China’s military to “focus all [its] energy on fighting” in preparation for war and affirmed China’s right to take “all measures necessary” to seize Taiwan. “Reunification of the motherland must be achieved,” he yelled to applause. “It must be achieved!” Six weeks ago, China conducted “strike drills,” sending 71 aircrafts, including fighter jets and drones, into Taiwanese airspace. And just last week, Gen. Anthony Cotton, who supervises the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal as head of the U.S. Strategic Command, sent a letter to Congress notifying the government that China has officially surpassed the U.S. in its number of “land-based fixed and mobile” intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers.
Why is China so interested in Taiwan right now? Because the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), founded in 1987, produces 92 percent of the world’s advanced microchips — the critical technology required in cars, computers, televisions, and all other high-end digital appliances. TSMC’s closest competitor is South Korea’s Samsung, which is the only other company capable of manufacturing the most-advanced chips. China has achieved phenomenal economic growth over the past two decades, giving it unprecedented power and control over most technological manufacturing — a single factory in China made 85 percent of the world’s iPhone Pros. But it has a vulnerability: China imports all advanced microchips — and the majority of its semiconductors — from Taiwan. With Xi’s bold vision for the Chinese future and companies like Apple trying to move parts of their business out of the country, China is less willing to accept any supply-chain dependence — especially on an island that it views, by birthright, as its national territory.
This conflict comes at a time when China has also surpassed the U.S. in the size and power of its navy. Since the end of the American Civil War, the U.S. has had the largest and most formidable Navy in the world: At its peak in World War II, the U.S. Navy had 6,768 vessels. But according to a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) published Dec. 1, 2022, “sometime between 2015 and 2020 [China’s navy] surpassed the U.S. Navy in numbers of battle force ships” — those that the Pentagon counts when determining the size of its and other navies. China now has 340 battle force ships, and the report projects that this number will increase to 400 by 2025 and 440 by 2030.
As of the end of 2021, the U.S. has 294 battle force ships, 37 of which the Navy wants to decommission, so this number will actually shrink to 290 or 291 by 2030. The Navy’s 7th Fleet, responsible for the Indo-Pacific region, has 50–70 of such ships, about half of which are at sea at any time. But only 18 of these ships are based at forward installations in Guam or Japan – most of the rest are based in the U.S., weeks away from reaching Taiwan. The Heritage Foundation, which annually ranks each of the U.S. armed services by readiness, capability, and capacity, classified the Navy as “weak” in 2022, induced by lower scores in capacity and readiness. The summary states, “[T]he U.S. Navy’s efforts to improve itself will take several years to realize.” The CRS report echoed this sentiment: “China’s navy is viewed as posing a major challenge to the U.S. Navy’s ability to achieve and maintain wartime control of blue-water ocean areas in the Western Pacific … [and] to the long-standing status of the United States as the leading military power in the Western Pacific.”
The state of American air power is no less alarming. The U.S. Government Accountability Office in June 2022 found that “aircraft readiness” in both the Navy and the Air Force “has worsened” since 2015, “due to the age of their fleets, a lack of parts, maintenance delays,” and “sustainment” issues. In late October 2022, the Air Force announced it was withdrawing two F-15 fighter-jet squadrons that have been based in Okinawa, Japan, for 43 years. Although it has said that the jets will be replaced, the veracity of that claim has been called into doubt. The F-15 has been in service since 1972, and the Okinawa pilots are the last remaining active-duty F-15 pilots. The combat planes now in the Air Force are the oldest, fewest, and least ready they have ever been in the 75-year history of that service branch. The Heritage Foundation downgraded the Air Force’s ranking from “weak” in 2021 to “very weak” in 2022 and stated that “[r]eadiness continues to trend downward.” Furthermore, China is currently increasing its arsenal of about 400 nuclear warheads, on track to stockpiling 1,500 by 2035.
Nothing in Biden’s performance as president demonstrates competence to manage these risks.
China surpassing the U.S. in conventional military capabilities is threatening enough. But it has another weapon: space control. China has been the first country to add “killer satellites” to outer space, deployed to destroy other satellites. This gives the Chinese an unprecedented power in warfare. The American military relies on satellite technology to locate the enemy’s planes and ships. If such satellites were destroyed, American planes and ships would essentially be blinded. And China is far along in its lunar exploration and colonization program: Chang’e (named after the Chinese moon goddess) is expected to culminate in about 2030 in a joint Chinese-Russian permanently manned moon base, announced by both countries in 2021. China just finished building its own orbiting space station, Tiangong. Three “taikonaut” crew members of this permanently manned space station returned to Earth in early December and were replaced by three other taikonauts. (“Taikong” is the Mandarin word for “outer space,” and so a taikonaut is “one who travels in outer space.”)
The likelihood that China will invade Taiwan may have been diminished by the fierce resistance of Ukraine to Russia’s invasion and the widespread condemnation, sanctions, and military aid that the West has given in response. But between invasion and lack of action lies the middle option of a Chinese naval blockade — a quarantine — of the island, a course of action that may have become more likely. Such a maritime blockade on the Chinese side of the median line might be coupled with a limited no-fly cordon around Taiwan, which could restrict or prohibit the entry of offensive combat aircraft but allow cargo planes and civilian airliners on and off the island.
A quarantine may be more advantageous to China as it would catch the U.S. unprepared and may permit the Chinese further, but still incomplete, control over escalation. It would be a clever way for Xi to divide U.S. public opinion on how best to react.
Nothing in Biden’s performance as president demonstrates competence to manage these risks, or the many others, from China. The recent Keystone Kops episode involving the Chinese spy balloon — which entered the U.S. air defense zone north of the Alaskan Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 but was not shot down until it crossed over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4, with no apparent consequences of any kind — further shatters any illusions that Biden can respond appropriately to Chinese provocations. His administration apparently did not even intend to disclose the existence of this balloon to the American public until a photograph of it was posted online by an office worker in Billings, Montana, who noticed it while looking out the window of his place of business.
In a 2019 presidential debate, Biden remarked: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man…. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” And, in last week’s State of the Union, he did not acknowledge the balloon. Instead, he said: “Before I came to office, the story was about how the People’s Republic of China was increasing its power and America was falling in the world. Not anymore…. Today, we’re in the strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world.”
Xi and the CCP must be laughing.
Julie Hartman is a broadcast host based in Los Angeles for the Salem Media Group. She co-hosts a weekly show with Dennis Prager, Dennis & Julie, and her own three-times-weekly show, Timeless with Julie Hartman. Julie also serves as a standing guest host for Salem’s nationally syndicated talk radio shows.
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