They used to call it `the million-man swim.’ That was the US Navy’s sneering dismissal of any Chinese attempt to seize the island of Taiwan by a massive amphibious invasion.
The US Navy’s strike carriers, submarines and surface combatants, backed by the Marines and Army in Japan, Okinawa, South Korea and Guam, would tear to shreds any Chinese invasion force. That, at least, was a decade ago.
Today things look very differently. US naval and air power in the western Pacific have declined by about 20%. America is tired after waging its decade-long war in Afghanistan, which cost $1 trillion and achieved none of the US imperial goals. While the US was blowing up Afghan villages and paying off Afghan mercenaries, the Chinese were diligently building up their amphibious and air forces. Their goal was conquering next door Taiwan.
I’ve been over some of Taiwan’s fixed defenses. Many of the island’s beaches are amenable to amphibious operations. Rugged mountains with many caves further inland. In short, excellent defensive topography. Taiwan’s armed forces are well trained and motivated. Most Taiwanese appear to prefer independence from Red China and their current democratic system. Taiwan is also the world’s leading producer of high-tech computer chips. The world electronic industry would grind to a halt without Taiwan’s chips.
China makes a huge noise over Taiwan as it tries to whip up nationalism. In fact, not so many Chinese care about Taiwan aside from a few slogans and drumbeating. But it has become the Pacific’s version of Alsace Lorraine, a permanent ‘casus belli’ that provides the politicians with grist for their mills. Interestingly, whether Taiwan has ever really been a part of China – or maybe of Japan – is uncertain.
However, the rugged island appears fated to become of Greater China. Those other non-Han Chinese regions, Tibet, Mongolia, and Eastern Turkestan have been absorbed into China. This leaves northern Manchuria as the last remaining region of the former Chinese Empire. It is ruled by Russia – at least for now. Interestingly, I once asked a senior Chinese intelligence general how long it would take for China to capture the Russian port of Vladivostok, Russia’s principal Far East port.
‘Two days,’ he replied.
Confrontation over Taiwan has simmered between the US and China since the 1950’s when anti-communist Chinese forces fled from the mainland to Taiwan, or Formosa as it used to be called. War almost erupted in the 1950’s over the small, Nationalist Chinese offshore islands of Matsu and Quemoy. This could happen again.
To understand just how angry US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s whistlestop visit made the prickly Chinese, imagine if a delegation of Chinese Communist officials went to the US state of Hawaii and proclaimed its ‘independence’ from Washington. The US has a less than noble record in Hawaii. American planters staged a coup that overthrew its legitimate Hawaiian government and annexed the territory – rather as the US recently did in Ukraine.
What will Chinese do next? Probably huff and puff and impose a limited naval blockade on the independent island. Taiwan relies on maritime and air trade so any punitive Chinese action would be highly painful. A full blockade cutting off oil, food, medicine and spare parts would be catastrophic.
In the recent past, China would not have managed to effectively blockade the island. Its ‘brown water’ coastal navy could not confront the mighty US Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait. Hence the ‘million-man swim.’ By wasting billions on useless colonial wars, the US has seriously weakened its naval and air forces. Washington’s Asian allies are not anxious to go to war with China over Taiwan.
As Soviet Brezhnev used to say, ‘quantity has its own quality.’ The US Navy is a superb, deadly military instrument. But China now has more warships, subs and coastal aircraft. Even so, its military forces would be decimated. But they could also impose severe damage on US Naval forces, notably with their new DF-21 anti-ship missile – if it really works as well as advertised. In this case, US aircraft carriers could be in jeopardy. The same applies to Chinese submarines firing volleys of anti-ship missiles.
Having said that, I’ve been at sea on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and nuclear attack submarine Minneapolis St. Paul and can attest to their crew’s impressive skills and professionalism. Those skills began at the battle of Midway and Guadalcanal in WWII. The Chinese are still in day one of naval school.
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2022