War in the Taiwan Strait may mean war for North, South Korea

Posted on : 2023-01-31 17:04 KST Modified on : 2023-01-31 17:04 KST
The best approach is to prevent a war in Taiwan altogether — and not through an increase in military deterrence
Taiwanese soldiers exit an amphibious assault vehicle during a drill in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on Jan. 12. (AP/Yonhap)
Taiwanese soldiers exit an amphibious assault vehicle during a drill in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on Jan. 12. (AP/Yonhap)

What would happen if China were to invade Taiwan? That’s a question many have been pondering of late.

Reflecting that curiosity, the US-based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published the results of a simulation it ran 24 times.

The wargame described in “The First Battle of the Next War,” a CSIS report released on Jan. 9, begins with China launching air strikes and an amphibious operation with the goal of conquering Taiwan in 2026.

The results of the wargame have been widely reported in the Korean press. In it, China fails to achieve its goal, but inflicts serious losses on its adversaries, including not only Taiwan but also the US.

But there are a few things the report fails to take into consideration.

The report predicted that the US, Taiwan and Japan would repel China’s amphibious landing with conventional forces and maintain Taiwan’s self-rule.

In regard to South Korea, the wargame assumed that the US would send two of its four air squadrons there to take part in the fighting. The assumption was that the need to maintain deterrence against North Korea would prevent the US from sending all of US Forces Korea (USFK) to Taiwan’s aid.

Furthermore, a number of experts who helped write the report predicted that South Korea would maintain neutrality or provide aid only on a very limited basis.

Some big questions arise here. Could the US mobilize its forces in South Korea regardless of Korea’s intentions? And if the US were to send USFK to fight in Taiwan, could Korea actually maintain its neutrality?

In connection with that, USFK Commander Gen. Paul LaCamera said in May 2021 that he would “advocate for inclusion of USFK forces and capabilities in [US Indo Pacific Command] contingency and operational plans.”

In addition, former USFK commander Gen. Robert Abrams remarked that the US would be the one to decide which forces — including those attached to USFK — would be employed in the event of a war in Taiwan. That was echoed by Col. David Maxwell, a former operational aide with ROK/US Combined Forces Command, who said that the authority for redeploying the US military lies with the US.

Indeed, South Korea’s alliance with the US doesn’t require the US to gain prior approval from Korea before assigning troops to USFK or reassigning them elsewhere.

Another important question is the military efficacy of Korea, including the American forces stationed there. Many military experts predict that in the initial phase of the war, China would embark the bulk of its naval forces to surround and blockade Taiwan while launching airstrikes at key military facilities on the island. That suggests that a major factor that could determine the outcome of the war is how the US and its allies would seek to block the consolidation of Chinese naval assets.

Notable in this regard is the southward movement of China’s North Sea Fleet and East Sea Fleet. Some wargames have concluded that China would gain victory if it can swiftly move those two fleets (based in Qingdao and Dinghai, respectively) to the Taiwan Strait.

But the US ally that’s closest to those fleets is South Korea. US aircraft at Osan Air Base and Kunsan Air Base are in a position to counter and block those fleets’ southward movement.

In addition, the US could make use of the Jeju Naval Base. That possibility was noted early on by David Suchyta in a 2013 report titled “Jeju Naval Base: Strategic Implications for Northeast Asia.” Suchyta served as a senior officer in the navy and as assistant chief of staff for operations with the US 7th Fleet.

“During a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, Jeju-based US ships, submarines and aircraft could easily intercept North Sea Fleet units heading south and harass the flank of the East Sea Fleet,” Suchyta wrote in the report.

Another key variable is how quickly weapons and equipment could be supplied to Taiwan in the event of an imminent or actual war, and at what scale. In contrast with the Ukrainian “model” of open land routes, the CSIS report predicted it would be quite difficult to supply arms to Taiwan, which is surrounded by sea on all sides.

South Korea risks involvement in this respect as well. In June 2021, a large US C-17 Globemaster military transport aircraft departed Osan Air Base for Taiwan with three US senators and COVID-19 vaccines on board — an episode that could reasonably be seen as a dry run for an emergency on the island. With a cargo capacity of nearly 80 tons, the Globemaster can be used to carry not only troops but also tanks and armored vehicles.

Taken together, all of this suggests that South Korea stands a very real risk of being dragged into a war in Taiwan regardless of its intentions.

If the US deploys USFK or other military forces to South Korea to send into a conflict in Taiwan, China is very likely to retaliate. In particular, a Chinese retaliatory strike against a USFK base or Jeju Naval Base would amount to an attack on South Korean territory, raising the risk of things escalating into an armed clash between South Korea and China.

The matter isn’t just restricted to South Korea either. North Korea has indicated its full support for China’s position on the Taiwan issue, and its Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with China includes provisions that would automatically trigger its involvement.

North Korea has also recently been ramping up its nuclear and missile capabilities substantially. In geopolitical terms, it is in a position where it could counter USFK and USFJ. Pyongyang’s choices in the event of a war in Taiwan stand to become another important variable.

All of this underscores the importance of developing a response plan that considers the Korean Peninsula as a whole rather than viewing Taiwan issues as a “distant fire.”

The best approach is to prevent a war in Taiwan altogether. In this regard, the CSIS report focused on the need to substantially increase military deterrence to head off any misjudgments by China — but that approach carries its own misjudgment.

The more Taiwan, the US, and allies step up their deterrence against China, the more Beijing will see the prospects of peaceful reunification as fading away. That’s a matter with grave implications: With China regarding reunification as state policy, such a situation could steel Beijing’s resolve to reunify with Taiwan even if it means using force and incurring enormous costs.

As this suggests, stronger deterrence is no magic bullet. The international community needs to harness its collective wisdom so that the “One China” principle can coexist peacefully with Taiwan’s autonomous status.

Both China and Taiwan need to stop with the mutual provocations and focus their energies on resolving issues through greater interaction, cooperation and dialogue. The US, for its part, needs to understand that the most basic principle of an alliance is to avoid dragging allies into a war.

Meanwhile, South and North Korea need to recognize the reality that the alliance chains that bind them could leave them sleepwalking into a war in Taiwan.

By Cheong Wook-Sik, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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