Putting the Chinese Flights in Context

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Over the past week, China has flown an increased number of military planes around Taiwan airspace. Some on the American right have responded to China’s escalation in kind rhetorically, presenting further violations of Taiwan’s sovereignty as a red line the Communists on the mainland ought not cross, lest they risk military engagement with the United States.

In total, 56 Chinese aircraft flew around the outskirts of Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on Monday, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense data show. The group included 34 J-16 fighter jets, 12 H-6 bombers, and ten other aircraft. The 56 flights set a single-day record since Taiwan started releasing data on Chinese flights around their airspace in September 2020.

Monday’s flights were the culmination of a long weekend of increased Chinese presence around Taiwanese airspace. On Friday, 38 military aircraft skirted around the edges of Taiwan’s ADIZ, as did another 39 on Saturday. The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) presence subsided a bit Sunday, with 16 military flights probing the edges of Taiwan’s ADIZ.

The increased PLA presence caused Taiwan’s Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) to scramble its own jets as it watched the Chinese warplanes via its air defense system.

During a television appearance on Australia’s ABC, Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said, “If China is going to launch a war against Taiwan we will fight to the end, and that is our commitment. I’m sure that if China is going to launch an attack against Taiwan, I think they are going to suffer tremendously as well.”

“We are pleased to see that the like-minded partners of Taiwan–the United States and the U.K. and Australia–are working closer with each other to acquire more advanced defense articles so that we can defend the Indo-Pacific,” the foreign minister added.

Most importantly, however, Wu acknowledged, “The defense of Taiwan is in our own hands, and we are absolutely committed to that.”

Some acted as if the foremost purpose of Wu’s comments, among others from Taiwan’s leadership, was to prepare the U.S. for lending military aid of some kind, completely ignoring the fact that Taiwan readily bears the mantle of its own defense. In reality, such sentiments weren’t directed towards Americans; rather, they were directly aimed at China to convey Taiwan’s resolve and disincentivize continued Chinese actions.

Nevertheless, half a world away in the West, some analysts embellished the severity of the situation. They used such comments from Taiwan’s leadership to suggest the island nation was waiting with bated breath for the possibility of a Chinese invasion. The beat of the war drums began to sound.

The editors of National Review started to tap their feet and sway to the beat, and published an editorial titled, “We Must Support Taiwan.” But no one on the right really questions whether or not the United States should support Taiwan. The question is to what extent and in what form that support should come, judged by whether any undertaking will ultimately achieve its desired result and advance the American national interest.

Nonetheless, the editors of National Review wrote, “In July, Xi Jinping marked the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary with an ominous pledge. ‘Solving the Taiwan question and realizing the complete reunification of the motherland are the unswerving historical tasks’ of the party, he said. If anyone questioned his sincerity, recent events have, unsurprisingly, eliminated all doubt. As Beijing celebrated another anniversary this week, the 72nd year of the CCP’s control of China, a record-shattering number of Chinese military aircraft crossed into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.”

But, following their justifiable admonishment of China’s leadership and its military actions around Taiwan, the editors made a few vital concessions that should stop any sensible country setting off on the potential march to war dead in its tracks.

“Last month, 117 aircraft made incursions,” the editors acknowledged, before adding, “These flights have yet to be accompanied by the sort of mass military mobilization that would suggest an imminent invasion of the island.”

Precisely. What is unfolding in the skies above the seas does represent an escalation, but it is by no means something new.

If you extend the time frame back to September of 2020, when Taiwan’s defense ministry first started releasing data regarding China military flights along Taiwan’s AZID, the total number of Chinese military flights around Taiwan’s ADIZ is 841 flights.

What’s more, even prior to Taiwan’s ministry of defense regularly reporting such incursions, such flights were taking place fairly regularly. According to then-Taiwan Minister of Defense Yen De-fa, China had sent 1,710 military aircraft sorties (as well as 1,029 military vessels) into Taiwan’s ADIZ from January to October of last year. Approximately 380 such incursions crossed the Median line in the Taiwan strait or encroached on the southwest corner of Taiwan’s ADIZ in all of 2020. In the year prior, 2019, a few dozen PLA sorties crossed the median line or entered Taiwan’s ADIZ in the southwest corner.

Then, as they did Monday, Taiwan responded by operationalizing their own forces to monitor the PLA’s activities, conducting nearly 3,000 military aircraft sorties of their own over that same time period, Yen claimed.

Zoom out even further, and you’ll see that over the years, the Chinese military has flown in Taiwan’s ADIZ thousands of times, although it is important to note that these tallies often include flights considered in Taiwan’s ADIZ but that are west of the Median line, as Taiwan’s ADIZ extends over the Chinese mainland.

China’s recent probes into Taiwan’s ADIZ–not to mention the decades-long build up of its defense capacities–mean the U.S. should continue to keep a watchful eye on China and its regional intentions, but they are not enough of a change of pace to shift the paradigm.

That is not to suggest that the status of Taiwan is of no strategic interest to the United States. It is, albeit that interest is often overstated. One such strategic interest the U.S. has in Taiwan, often invoked by those fervid about providing the island nation military aid, is its heavy concentration of semiconductor manufacturing. Aside from the typical ode to human rights and “democracy,” better understood as a surrogate term for institutionalized liberalism, these observers say preserving Taiwan’s sovereignty is essential because Americans enjoy products that employ the use of Taiwan’s advanced semiconductors.

Taiwan, which controls 63 percent of the world’s semiconductor market, is America’s tenth-largest trading partner. In 2019, trade between the U.S. and Taiwan amounted to nearly $104 billion, and the U.S. represents about a third of all Taiwan’s information and communications technology exports. And while imports from Taiwan amount to just 2.2 percent of U.S. imports in 2019, 86 percent of said imports are inputs in other products sold by U.S. based companies.

From this, proponents of American military defense of Taiwan conclude there is simply nothing we can do about the virtually non-existent advanced semiconductor industry within America’s borders, and that to maintain continued access to semiconductors we must be willing to fight the man with a five-year plan in Beijing if he comes knocking on Taiwan’s door. But the economic relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan, particularly with respect to that of semiconductors, is a consequence of conscious policy decisions made on the part of both countries. It could be changed.

In Taiwan, the semiconductor industry is dominated by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSMC), which accounts for more than 50 percent of the world’s semiconductor market share on its own. Many assign TSMC’s success to its credited founder, Morris Chang. Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford educated and a 25-year veteran of Texas Instruments, Chang helmed TSMC for 31 years and pushed for innovations that grew TSMC into the technological behemoth it is today. But that is only part of the TSMC story. When TSMC was established in 1987, the company was a joint venture between Taiwan’s government and Philips Electronics NV of the Netherlands, as well as some other private investors. Two years prior, in 1985, Taiwan’s government invited Chang to the country to help the government form its semiconductor industry, and such planning helped accomplish just that.

While Taiwan and the other Asian Tigers went about developing their economies on the back of planned-lite technological manufacturing, America took its hands off the wheel and, engrossed in the dogmata of economics, let the invisible hand do the driving. What has ensued for the country’s highly technical semiconductor industry follows the story of America’s hollowed-out manufacturing base writ large. Just over 30 years ago, the U.S. produced 37 percent of the globe’s semiconductors (and Taiwan just a measly few percent). In 2020, meanwhile, America’s domestically produced semiconductors accounted for just 12 percent of the global market.

As the Don Quixote proverb goes, “It is the part of a wise man to keep himself today for tomorrow, and not venture all his eggs in one basket.” Nevertheless, that’s exactly what we’ve done. The system as currently constructed is vulnerable to shortfalls and shocks in times of crisis, even crises short of war, as the Covid experience has made quite clear. Several of the world’s largest automobile manufacturers, from Germany’s Volkswagen to Japan’s Toyota, to the Ford Motor Co. here in the U.S., saw production lines grind to a halt as the pandemic prevented these companies from getting the chips they oh-so desperately needed. Near-full reliance on Taiwan and the lack of a domestic semiconductor manufacturing base in the U.S. could yield far worse results in the future, given that U.S. companies make up almost a majority of global semiconductor demand.

Any rational country might consider investing in another basket, or a few, to spread its eggs around in. Instead, the U.S. has opted for building a military fortress around its one basket, defended by its drones, warships, soldiers, and nuclear arsenal.

But getting bogged down in the minutiae of every potential strategic interest America might have in Taiwan is a service to those who tend to overstate the case for material U.S. military support in the event of escalating conflict. It allows them to continue missing the forest for the trees, and obfuscates the principal question: Does engaging militarily with China to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty ultimately serve America’s national interest?

In a proper regime, strategic interests (like that of Taiwan) are secondary to the national interest–the guiding force to all policy both foreign and domestic for the continuation of a society where mankind has the potential to thrive.

From the currently available data, thanks to two recent wargame simulations between China and the United States, it is clear that a military engagement with China for the sake of Taiwan’s sovereignty is not in the national interest.

In the fall of 2020, the U.S. Air Force ran a simulation of a military conflict with China set more than a decade from now. The conflict began with a Chinese biological-weapon attack on U.S. military installations throughout the Indo-Pacific. The purpose of the bio assault was to put U.S. resources out of commission temporarily–long enough for the PLA to deploy an offensive against Taiwan by air and by sea. When all was said and done, the U.S. definitively lost the simulated war.

However, this wasn’t the first time the Air Force found the United States would lose badly in a military engagement with China over Taiwan.

“More than a decade ago, our war games indicated that the Chinese were doing a good job of investing in military capabilities that would make our preferred model of expeditionary warfare, where we push forces forward and operate out of relatively safe bases and sanctuaries, increasingly difficult,” Air Force Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote told Yahoo News. “At that point the trend in our war games was not just that we were losing, but we were losing faster.”

Hinote, who serves as the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements, went on to say that “after the 2018 war game I distinctly remember one of our gurus of war gaming standing in front of the Air Force secretary and chief of staff, and telling them that we should never play this war game scenario [of a Chinese attack on Taiwan] again, because we know what is going to happen. The definitive answer if the U.S. military doesn’t change course is that we’re going to lose fast.”

In October of 2020, another simulated war with China for Taiwan’s sovereignty was so disastrous it reportedly made Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. John Hyten reconsider, and then dispose of, joint warfighting strategies that the U.S. military has employed in exercises and operations for decades.

“Without overstating the issue, it failed miserably. An aggressive red team that had been studying the United States for the last 20 years just ran rings around us. They knew exactly what we’re going to do before we did it,” Hyten said during a speech at the launch of National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute.

One reason for the U.S. loss: outdated military strategies that caused ships, aircraft, and other forces to congregate in certain enclaves in the region to increase their combat power. “We always aggregate to fight, and aggregate to survive.” Hyten added, “But in today’s world, with hypersonic missiles, with significant long-range fires coming at us from all domains, if you’re aggregated and everybody knows where you are, you’re vulnerable.”

Another simulation, performed by the RAND corporation in 2019, the United States got, “its ass handed to it.”RAND’s simulations, often sponsored by the Pentagon, saw the U.S. take heavy losses in the air, on the ground, and at sea in a military engagement with China in the South China Sea.

Granted, military simulations are not definitive proof of how such engagements would necessarily play out. They have been plenty wrong before. However, one just has to look at (very) recent history to see why military adventurism in a far away country might not be the best idea. The United States couldn’t even manage to lose with dignity to sheepherders-turned-militants in Afghanistan, and lost thousands of American soldiers and spent more than a trillion dollars in the process. What makes us think the outcome of the next foreign war will be different if another superpower is our adversary?

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