First we will give the best option for the United States to take on Taiwan and then we will give the reasons derived from game theory that justify the option.
But, before that, we need to deal with the option of not militarily defending Taiwan.
From a game theory perspective abandoning Taiwan would make perfect strategic sense – but only under one condition.
Not defending Taiwan from a mainland invasion would be the best option if America also intends to abandon all of its Asian allies to China.
The reason this is the only scenario where it would be logical is because it is geographically much easier to defend our allies such as Japan, Australia and others, as well as ensure freedom of navigation through the multi-trillion dollar traffic navigating the South China Sea if Taiwan remains independent of the mainland.
If a free and well armed Taiwan is included as part of America’s defensive line against China it will be harder for China to project power across the rest of Asia.
But if Taiwan is annexed by China then it becomes significantly more difficult for America to defend Japan, our other allies, America’s own bases and territories, maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea (which China could, with Taiwan, easily cut Japan off from) and generally leave China in a much stronger position to economically and militarily control every other Asian nation and, from there, in a much better position to rule the entire planet.
Keeping our other security commitments in Asia without Taiwan would be a ridiculous idea considering how the loss of the island would complicate our deterrent line.
Abandoning Taiwan would is preferable only if we abandon everything else in the Pacific and hand world hegemony to China in exchange for absolutely nothing.
If we are going to maintain a powerful military presence in the Pacific then the following is the best policy for America to adopt under game theory –
- So long as Taiwan does not formally declare independence or otherwise provoke China into an immediate attack (such as by Taiwan building its own nuclear weapons program) the United States drops strategic ambiguity and officially commits the US Navy to defending Taiwan for the next ten years if it comes under attack from China within that timeframe. This commitment includes the US destroying mainland forces attempting to subject Taiwan to any kind of air or naval blockade of the island because blockades have been universally recognized as acts of war throughout all of history.
- The future renewal of America’s military guarantee is dependent on Taiwan greatly improving its own military preparedness and counter-intelligence programs over the ten year window with military training and advice provided by American military advisors.
- During this timeframe the US agrees to provide extra military and financial assistance to Taiwan (With the US paying up to $5 billion annually to Taiwan) to domestically produce or externally purchase thousands of additional long range anti-ship cruise missiles (with ranges of at least 1,500 km) fired from mobile land-based launchers and, to a lesser extent, from air and naval platforms.
- The United States agrees to provide military and financial assistance to help Taiwan domestically produce or externally purchase all of the associated systems required to use anti-ship cruise missiles in war such as land based missile launchers, active and passive radar systems, and satellites.
- The United States agrees to provide military and financial assistance to help Taiwan domestically produce or externally purchase any other conventional weapons relevant for its defense, such as fighter aircraft, long range artillery, hand held anti-ship missiles (perhaps modified versions of Javelin anti-tank missiles for use against amphibious troop transports?) etc., etc.
To demonstrate how game theory led to concluding this is the best option we will start by looking at the strategic objectives of Xi.
If I were Xi and I wanted to annex Taiwan I would first of all need to be certain that I would win because a failed invasion would risk the collapse of my Government, whereas I am at almost no risk of losing power if I simply delay an invasion and sit in Beijing while using Taiwan as some sort of propaganda boogeyman.
To pave the way for an invasion I would need to accomplish three preliminary goals –
1) Fortify the economy to a point where it could survive the disruption of merchant traffic and sanctions that an invasion would cause.
2) Buildup my Chinese Navy to a point where it would be powerful enough to destroy any American, Japanese and other allied ships that try to intervene (if America does not intervene, and I am only fighting Taiwan, then I simply have more resources than required).
3) Buildup my land and air forces to a point where they would be powerful enough to overwhelm Taiwanese defenses in a gigantic amphibious requiring at least 500,000 soldiers making it to shore and then another 1 million soldiers (at least) pouring in as reinforcements once a good beachhead is secured.
Fortifying the economy to withstand the negative effects of trade disruptions and sanctions could be done soon, probably five years or less, perhaps one.
But the last two preliminary objectives are more than ten years away from being realistic.
An invasion would have to be preceded by China achieving complete air and naval control around Taiwan because of how vulnerable amphibious landing craft would be.
If the Chinese Navy is destroyed by intervening US and allied warships the amphibious landing could not go ahead, and my invasion will have failed.
And even if the Chinese Navy won the engagement there would still be serious dangers of the amphibious assault failing after control of the sea is established.
The narrowest point between the mainland and Taiwan is 81 miles. Therefore, any landing craft that sail from China would be on the sea for anywhere from 5 to 10 hours, depending on how fast their transports go.
That means my transports would be exposed to land based Taiwanese artillery and missile fire for 5 to 10 hours.
Out of an initial landing force of 500,000 I could easily lose half of that.
And whatever Chinese soldiers made it to shore would be slaughtered by hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese soldiers ready and waiting to crush my invading force at the landing points, in which case my invasion still fails.
Therefore, even defeating the United States and its allies is not enough if Taiwan defeats my landing force.
And given the complexities and dangers involved in what would be the largest amphibious landing in history it is entirely possible that the invasion would fail even if Taiwan fights alone.
Both, extremely risky, phases – control of the sea and successfully executing an amphibious assault on Taiwan – must be highly likely to succeed in order to justify the associated risk (unless Taiwan did something that might pose to much of a threat to the mainland to not act immediately, such as building its own nuclear weapons).
The simple problem for Xi is that it is not realistic for his military to pull off both required phases in the next decade.
One other game theory structural dynamic to consider is that the strategic circumstances favors China being attracted to postponing the timing of an invasion further into the future, perhaps perpetually.
For example, if China has a 20% chance of taking Taiwan today but a 30% chance in ten years, the strategic incentives favor China postponing an invasion into the 2030s.
And in the 2030s if they have a 30% chance of annexing Taiwan but a 40% chance in the 2040s the incentives for China in the 2030s will be for them to postpone an invasion for another decade.
The final thing to consider is that tendency of the CCP is to be highly risk averse.
This means that that the Chinese Government would only attack if they were close to certain the mission would be a success.
Therefore they would be more strongly attracted than other nations to postponing an invasion in the present if they thought the odds would be just moderately better in the future.
Now return to the options for the United States listed earlier.
The reason America can give Taiwan a decade long security guarantee with (counter-intuitively) low risk is because the Chinese will be unlikely to try to invade within an earlier timeframe if they face the certain risk of US intervention.
By giving Taiwan a decade guarantee with renewal dependent on them further arming themselves we would be strongly incentivizing them to greatly increase their combat readiness (which should be close to Israeli and South Korean levels of military preparedness) and for them to step up their counter-intelligence operations so we have the option of giving them more technologically sophisticated weapons in the future.
It also gives America a chance to review whether we should renew the defense pledge in a decade.
If Taiwan is armed with thousands of long range anti-ship cruise missiles the island would be more dangerous to try to invade than it already is because Taiwan could probably use those missiles to knock out at half of the entire Chinese surface fleet in the opening hours of a conflict, even before US forces engage Chinese warships.
With an official American pledge to defend Taiwan the risk averse Chinese Communist Party would likely drop serious consideration of an invasion in the near term and prefer an attack in the future when they would have better odds.