The U.S. military shouldn’t just prepare to surge ground forces to Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack on the island nation—it also should keep a small contingent of troops in Taiwan as a “tripwire.”
That’s the controversial thesis of a new essay by Marine captain Walker Mills. “If the United States wants to maintain credible conventional deterrence against a [People’s Liberation Army] attack on Taiwan, it needs to consider basing troops in Taiwan,” Mills wrote in Military Review, the U.S. Army’s professional journal.
Beijing’s determination to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland has not abated in the 71 years since the two countries split. It’s obvious why, Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes argued in their book Red Star over the Pacific.
The Taiwan issue “involves far more than sovereignty and national dignity, the motives Westerners commonly impute to China,” Yoshihara and Holmes wrote. “Taiwan’s return to mainland rule would buttress China’s strategic position, broaden access to resources and trade, and brighten the prospects for restoring China’s rightful standing in Asia.”
And China’s ability to capture Taiwan has improved as Beijing ramps up its investment in its armed forces—and Taiwan’s own military investments flatline. “The local balance of forces in East Asia continues to tip ever more in favor of the PLA,” Mills wrote.
The United States is legally obligated to help defend the island country, thanks to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. Assuming American political wills holds and Washington honors its commitment to Taipei, the next big question is how U.S. forces should contribute to Taiwan’s defense.
“Until recently, American naval forces were enough to credibly deter the PLA from attempting a cross-strait operation,” Mills explained.
No longer. The PLA Rocket Force’s 1,300 medium-range missiles and the PLA Navy’s modern submarines have turn the Taiwan Strait into a no-go zone for large U.S. Navy formations.
“Today, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels make occasional strait transits as part of routine freedom-of-navigation operations,” Mills wrote. “However, these vessels would be extremely vulnerable if caught in the middle of a cross-strait operation and would be unable to prevent a cross-strait operation by the PLA on their own.”
Nor could the U.S. Air Force alone mount a defensive campaign on behalf of Taipei. The Air Force’s mega-base in Okinawa—the service’s main hub for operations around Taiwan—is a prime target for Chinese rockets.
The PLA could keep Kadena closed to fighter operations for 90 days with just 274 missiles, Mills asserted, citing a study from California think-tank RAND.
In light of these vulnerabilities, the Pentagon’s best option for deterring or defeating a Chinese attack is to station ground forces in Taiwan, much in the way its keeps a small permanent ground force in South Korea, Mills wrote.
American troops in Taiwan not only could repel Chinese invaders, they also would function as a “tripwire”—that is, “smaller numbers of ground forces stationed to ensure that U.S. forces quickly become directly involved in a potential adversary invasion,” according to RAND.
“It would be extremely unlikely that the U.S. government would not commit to a larger conflict after U.S. ground forces were engaged in Taiwan,” Mills explained.
Another Army essayist proposed that the American ground-combat branch prepare to deploy to Taiwan a whole corps—four divisions with tens of thousands of troops and thousands of vehicles.
But the tripwire contingent could be a Marine force, Mills wrote. “The Marine Corps envisions itself operating as a highly-mobile and distributed force using precision fires and unmanned aviation to strike PLA targets on land and at sea.”
Whether soldiers or Marines, the United States should get serious about defending Taiwan by putting boots on the ground, Mills wrote. “Without U.S. forces in Taiwan, it is increasingly likely that China will attempt to integrate Taiwan into its republic by force.”