Defending Taiwan is an admirable objective. But are we prepared for a high number of casualties?

Politicians believe the United States must safeguard Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, but few discuss the possible implications.

For the past four decades, the United States and China have maintained a delicate balance in their relationship with Taiwan. The US views its relationship with the island as "robustly unofficial," affirming the Chinese stance that "there is only one China, and Taiwan is part of China," and hence opposes outright Taiwan independence. Its unofficial connection with Taiwan, on the other hand, includes providing American weaponry to the government, deploying a small number of advising soldiers to the island, and maintaining a "cultural" presence on the island (for instance, economic and cultural offices that act as de facto embassies). Since Richard Nixon, US presidents have played this diplomatic game, preferring strategic ambiguity regarding the US commitment to safeguard Taiwan.

However, in some places, strategic ambiguity is sounding a lot less ambiguous these days. Republican members of Congress have proposed legislation that would enhance US weapons sales to Taiwan and extend military interactions between the two nations. At least two bipartisan congressional delegations have recently visited the island, there is a new Taiwan Assurance Act requiring the US to advocate for Taiwanese membership in international organizations, and President Biden surprised observers with an off-the-cuff statement that appeared to say the US was committed to defending Taiwan in the event of an invasion. Furthermore, recent polling indicates that, for the first time in many years, a majority of the American public supports Taiwan's defense, with an even larger plurality supporting a more formal alliance with the island. And some powerful foreign policy experts agree: in December, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote with research fellow David Sacks that "strategic ambiguity was a wise and effective technique for decades; today, however, it has run its course."

While there is growing bipartisan support for more explicit announcements in favor of Taiwanese defense, conversations tend to be quite vague. When people talk about what a war may look like, they usually talk of long-range air and naval battles in which stealthy submarines, fighter aircraft, and cruise missiles employ American satellites and information to destroy an invading Chinese army. This is a story of technical overmatch that has dominated the American public's understanding of war since Desert Storm.

However, Xi Jinping is not Saddam Hussein, and the People's Liberation Army is not the Iraqi military. Instead, the PLA is the world's biggest army, and under Xi's leadership, the PLA has grown its nuclear capabilities, developed hypersonic missiles, and purchased planes that rival the complexity of the American F-35. Furthermore, the PLA has invested heavily on amphibious invasion capabilities, including eight marine brigades, new amphibious boats, and a sizable maritime militia. All of these trends, together with the logistical difficulties the US would face defending Taiwan without personnel stationed on the island ahead of time, suggest that the island's defense might be the worst struggle the US has seen since Vietnam.

It's difficult to say how bloody it would be. While disclosed war gaming findings, think tank publications, and congressional testimony raise concerns about expanding Chinese capabilities, relatively few of them describe the human costs of a hypothetical conflict. For example, while pundits occasionally note the strategic significance of the Chinese DF-21 missile, nicknamed a "aircraft carrier killer," they rarely mention that sinking a Nimitz-class ship could kill up to 6,000 personnel.

As a result, even a high-tech air and naval battle to protect Taiwan might result in the loss of thousands of lives. However, if the US commits ground forces to protect the island, the Army would face a challenging and perhaps contentious deployment, fighting alongside a Taiwanese military with which it has little to no experience. There is no official estimate for Army deaths in such a situation, but when the US defended the Philippines against an invading Japanese army during World War II, it lost 25,000 men and captured over 100,000. If the US had to re-invade the island following a Chinese attack, there would be much more deaths. In their re-invasion of the Philippines, the United States lost around 23,000 men. Even the most successful reinvasion efforts, such as the US landing at Inchon during the Korean War in 1950, killed more US men than died in all but four of the 20 years the US stayed in Afghanistan.

Finally, there is the ever-present possibility of nuclear escalation as the US and China seek to defeat each other in Taiwan without violating each other's red lines. The consequences of such a blunder would be unfathomably disastrous.

Defending a democracy against an authoritarian China may be worth even the most exorbitant price. And I would caution Chinese observers not to underestimate the United States' strength and determination when the country decides to fight, especially after American lives are lost.

However, before a Chinese invasion, the US must have a discussion about what it means to defend Taiwan. Selling the American people on the idea that the US can come to Taiwan's aid without causing substantial casualties is possibly dishonest, poor for deterrence, and awful for military performance. Washington risks sliding into traps that have befuddled the US in both Korea and Vietnam. In the instance of Korea, the US did not fully comprehend its own commitment to South Korea until after a disastrous North Korean assault. In the years following World War II, the Truman administration debated US objectives in the Pacific, withdrawing military from South Korea and sending confusing signals about the country's willingness to defend itself. When North Korea launched a surprise attack, Republic of Korea soldiers were unable to repel the invasion and were forced to the peninsula's far southern point. It needed a tremendous re-mobilization of the United States and a daring assault of the peninsula to reclaim the lost land. More notoriously, in Vietnam, the people was misled about the expense of a "advisory force" that morphed into a large-scale conflict and conscription.

Some hawks are eager to rally popular support for robust promises of Taiwan's defense. They are afraid that a sense of public apathy in the island's fate would reduce deterrence and eventually lead to an invasion by China. But it would be a major error for the US to commit to defend Taiwan without first preparing its people — and its military — for the difficult war they may face.

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