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The US is no longer a deterrent to China — but it should be
Wang Zixiao/Xinhua via AP
In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a fighter takes off during the combat readiness patrol and military exercises around Taiwan, carried out by the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, from Nanjing in eastern China on April 8, 2023.
Our military exists to deter an aggressor, defeat an adversary and protect American interests. Although taxpayers fund the Department of Defense (DOD) with $850 billion, more than any other nation, we are no longer a deterrent force to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. That window closed, an irredeemable mistake.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) realizes a military and economic cost, but the benefit would be consolidating declared territory — a victory defined by Taiwan capitulation. However, time is on China’s side and an attack would happen at their choosing. China has built an overwhelming force. They have exercised and refined their plan. They can wear down their adversaries and neighbors with belligerent rhetoric and action. It is not in China’s best interest to destroy Taiwan, massively kill its citizens and then rebuild at huge cost with disadvantaged governance, so they maintain constant pressure to achieve a more peaceful end. A blockade remains an option, or a negotiated concession favoring Chinese rule. Ask Hong Kong about Chinese promises and rule.
The South China Sea is economically important to the U.S. and our allies: Australia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, India and others. How strong is our coalition to challenge China, and how dependent are coalition forces on U.S. resupply? American citizens have a stake and need to be educated about the situation.
The U.S. Navy has fewer than 300 ships and there is talk of decommissioning faster than commissioning. Of those ships, how many are ready and deployable to the South China Sea in a few days’ notice — 50 to 100? How close can they get to the adversary to be effective? Chinese weaponry forces our surface fleet to stand off in an engagement. China has 355 ships, mostly located in their backyard (South China Sea). How long would it take China to defeat Taiwan? Can we sustain a longer theater fight, logistically, maintaining damaged ships, replacing crew and depending on industry to produce weapons?
An overconfident China could make mistakes. China hasn’t experienced the unknowns in a large-scale conflict since the Korean War, and possibly misunderstands their military’s ability to effectively fight — and the Taiwanese will to fight. The damage our submarine fleet can inflict would be devastating. Our defensive capabilities are significant.
Now, China needs oil. Will Russia provide this resource, or will they depend on oil from the Middle East, transported by sea, which could be blocked? Russian oil makes the need for European support of Ukraine all the more important. The economic impact is uncertain. Can China sustain domestic and international investment? The costly Chinese Belt and Road Initiative has expanded to over 100 countries, and China has gained proxies to vote and support its initiatives in the United Nations and in international regulatory decisions, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), for example. Without money, will support remain?
Our military capability is now about preparation to defeat, not deter, China. I don’t see the United States engaging China if it were to take Taiwan, but there will remain a need to prevent China’s expansion elsewhere in the Pacific. An attack on Taiwan is problematic, but not as immediate as a Chinese provocation, an incident, an accident, a fog-of-war event that results in American loss of life or a lost freedom of navigation ship or plane. What would be our reaction?
Readiness, lethality and presence to engage must be our priority or the U.S. no longer remains a superpower; we’d be subject to the whims of others. Yes, we should supply weapons to Taiwan as quickly as possible, but equally important we must build a stronger fleet, prioritizing submarines and prepositioning munitions and fuel in the South China Sea.
There are other steps to be taken, let me emphasize now.
Rear Adm. (Ret.) Charles A. Williams is a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment and Hudson Institute fellow.
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