Will China blockade Taiwan, rather than invade? Two key US weapons say no

A Tomahawk missile launched from a submarine beneath the waves. US submarines and missiles could swiftly defeat the Chinese navy
A Tomahawk missile launched from a submarine beneath the waves. US submarines and missiles could swiftly defeat the Chinese navy - Reuters

For nearly three months now, the Chinese coast guard has been trying – and partially succeeding – in blockading a Philippine military outpost in the South China Sea.

The attempted Chinese blockade of the Sierra Madre, an aged amphibious assault ship that the Philippines deliberately grounded on the Second Thomas Shoal and garrisoned with marines in order to cement its claim on that swathe of the South China Sea, isn’t just a flashpoint in a simmering conflict between Beijing and Manila.

It’s also a preview of one way China might try to conquer Taiwan.

That China’s leaders aim to destroy Taiwan’s democracy and seize control of the island is indisputable. But that ambition might not require a direct attack.

“China might blockade Taiwan and try to achieve its goals without an amphibious assault and all the attendant risks,” analysts Mark Cancian, Matthew Cancian and Eric Heginbotham wrote in a January study for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

If China attempts a blockade of Taiwan, which lies just a hundred miles from the Chinese coast across the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese forces and their American allies will have to break the blockade – or risk losing the island democracy to mainland autocracy.

Fortunately for the Taiwanese, there’s an obvious blockade-breaking strategy, and it’s one that Taiwan and the United States are increasingly well-equipped to execute. It comes down to two technologies: submarines and missiles.

That the Chinese coast guard, acting alone, has been able to intercept and force back some of the ships the Philippines have sent to resupply the marines aboard Sierra Madre should serve as a warning. With 160 armed patrol vessels, Beijing’s coast guard is the biggest coast guard in the world. But it deploys a fraction of the force that the Chinese navy deploys.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy is the most powerful navy in the world, by some measures. It has more than 350 ships. That’s dozens more ships than the US Navy has, although Chinese vessels are generally much smaller and less well-armed than American vessels are.

To be sure, the Chinese Communist Party commands enough naval power to surround Taiwan with ships and cut the island off from vital supplies of food and fuel. The question is not whether China can blockade Taiwan; it’s whether Taiwan and the United States could break the blockade.

The answer seems to be yes, most likely. And they’d probably do it from under and above the waves. While the Chinese navy is acquiring new ships – albeit small ones – at a faster pace than the US Navy is, the Americans still hold at least one major advantage. The Americans’ 53 nuclear-powered attack submarines are the best and most heavily-armed undersea fleet in the world.

Stealthy and brimming with firepower, submarines are uniquely powerful weapons. But they’re also expensive, delicate and require extensive support and highly-trained crews. There’s a good reason that only the wealthiest countries deploy nuclear-powered subs.

For their January study, the CSIS analysts ran dozens of simulations of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. In most of the simulations, American submarines “were able to enter the Chinese defensive zone and wreak havoc with the Chinese fleet,” the Cancians and Heginbotham wrote.

In two weeks of simulated intensive fighting, the submarines sank as many as 64 Chinese ships, including many of the PLAN’s biggest amphibious ships and surface combatants – and potentially some of the Chinese fleet’s three aircraft carriers, as well.

It was a victorious campaign for the Americans, but a costly one. In the CSIS war games, the US fleet lost up to a quarter of its submarines defeating the Chinese fleet. But there are good reasons to believe the undersea campaign might get easier, and soon.

The CSIS war game didn’t include Taiwanese submarines. After all, Taipei’s navy currently deploys just four very old, non-nuclear submarines: two World War II-vintage vessels that only perform training duties, plus two front-line vessels that date back to the 1980s.

The current Taiwanese sub fleet is next to useless. But the future Taiwanese sub fleet could be pretty powerful. On Sept. 28, Taiwan christened its first new submarine in four decades. It was the culmination of a crash effort that began in 2014 and has cost potentially billions of dollars. The next boat in the class should launch in around four years. Taipei plans to build as many as eight of the non-nuclear vessels, which reportedly include the latest American combat systems.

Add Taiwan’s eight submarines to the United States’ 53 submarines and the prospects for a successful Chinese blockade of Taiwan diminish even further.

Now add in the US Air Force’s long-range bombers and their stealthy cruise missiles – the other weapons the CSIS analysts identified as critical to any American intervention in a Chinese attack on, or blockade of, Taiwan. In the think-tank’s war games, bombers firing cruise missiles from hundreds of miles away sank even more Chinese ships than submarines did.

It’s clear the Americans and Taiwanese possess the military means to break a Chinese blockade of Taiwan. The critical issue might not be means, but will. Successive US presidential administrations have renewed America’s pledge to fight on Taiwan’s side against a Chinese attack. But at what point would a blockade qualify as an attack?

Would the Americans react as swiftly and decisively to a Chinese blockade as they would against an attempted amphibious landing on Taiwan’s beaches? That’s a political question – and one that’s hard to answer. It’s worth noting the United States hasn’t directly intervened in the Chinese blockade of a Philippine outpost.

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