US officials who are ready to fight China over Taiwan don't understand how much is at stake

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Shiyu Kinmen County Taiwan China
Shiyu, or Lion Islet, one of Taiwan's offshore islands, with the Chinese city of Xiamen in the background. Carl Court/Getty Images
  • US defense officials are increasingly warning of the potential for conflict with China over Taiwan.

  • There is almost no way in which the US could intervene in that conflict without devastating losses.

  • Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the US Army.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Many of America's leading military and political figures have issued increasingly alarmist warnings in recent days about the potential for conflict with China, especially related to issues surrounding Taiwan.

But before the US gets into a crisis that brings it to the threshold of war - or finds itself stumbling into one - policymakers and military leaders need to address some hard realities.

There is almost no scenario in which the United States can successfully intervene in a war between China and Taiwan that will not leave our country in far worse shape than it is right now; in a worst-case scenario, American territory could be struck by nuclear missiles.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of US forces in the Indo-Pacific, warned that Chinese military developments looked to him like a nation planning for a war.

Davidson added that he believed China would attempt to forcibly reunify Taiwan "in the next six years." To guard against this possibility, Davidson asked Congress to provide a whopping $27 billion in additional funding over the current defense budget.

Navy destroyer Barry Taiwan Strait
Sailors at the helm of guided-missile destroyer USS Russell as it transits the Taiwan Strait in June. US Navy/MCS3 Sean Lynch

One of the featured programs for this increase is the Pacific Deterrence Initiative. Last year Congress allocated $2.1 billion for the initiative. This year Davidson is asking for more than double that amount, to $4.6 billion.

The PDI's main objectives will be to increase the number of ground-based cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and hypersonic missiles in areas closer to Chinese territory. That effort is already well underway.

In October the US Marine Corps completed construction on its first new permanent base in the Indo-Pacific area since 1952. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force have additional plans to establish new bases or expand existing ones at Tinian Island, Palau, Guam, and Australia - all along the so-called "first island chain" near China's coastline.

The expansion is designed to enhance US' ability to conduct "island-hopping" operations and create the ability to rapidly construct military airfields in austere environments.

The reason for this expansion, Davidson said, was to reduce or eliminate the time necessary for American military forces to engage Chinese targets.

F-15E Strike Eagles and a B-2 Spirit bomber fly in formation over Andersen Air Force Base on Guam
F-15Es and a B-2 bomber over Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. US Air Force

The admiral said that right now it would take US forces on the West Coast more than three weeks to get within range of China and troops from Alaska 17 days. But the "perfect speed," Davidson concluded, was "being there."

Almost entirely absent from the hearing was any explanation of what's driving the United States to elevate the risk of war by increasing the number of troops near the Chinese coast.

As a freedom-loving democracy, the United States is a strong advocate for the independence and freedom of any people, including those in Taiwan. But to that laudable belief must be added a willingness to assess the world in a realistic way.

Right now, both the United States and China are in a spiral in which one side expands its capabilities for war, citing rising threats from the other - which each then offers as justification for yet more military spending and preparation for war.

China is building infrastructure to project its power westward to the first island chain at the same time US forces are moving infrastructure eastward toward the first island chain and Chinese coast. Every day increases the chance of an accident or miscalculation leading to war.

Taiwan military exercise invasion artillery Han Kuang
Taiwanese soldiers during the live-fire Han Kuang military exercise, which simulates a Chinese invasion, in May 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Both the United States and China say they don't want war, but both sides are accelerating and expanding their preparation for war.

If the United States were to one day fight China for anything other than an unprovoked attack, we would be choosing a course which would - in the best-case scenario - cause extraordinary harm to our military and markedly degrade our national security; in the worst-case, we could lose a war, putting at risk our very freedom.

It is crucial to understand that for China, the Taiwan issue is not merely a core interest, but an emotionally charged one. They are far more willing to pay extraordinary costs, sacrifice many men, and could risk it all to eventually compel unification with Taiwan. The issue does not directly affect our national security unless we get involved.

If we eventually choose war with China over Taiwan, we will at best suffer egregious losses in ships, aircraft, and troops; in a worst-case, the war could deteriorate into a nuclear exchange in which American cities are turned into nuclear wastelands, killing millions.

America should never take such risks unless our security and freedom are directly threatened. Fighting China for any reason short of that would be a foolish gamble of the highest order.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the US Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of "The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America." Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

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