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WASHINGTON – Should China choose to launch a potential World War III by invading Taiwan, it would face an uphill battle before even setting foot on the island roughly 100 miles away from its southeastern coast, a US Army general explained Tuesday.
Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee, Maj. Gen. Joseph McGee laid out the complicated factors deterring Beijing from taking such an explosive action – which would draw the US into military conflict.
“I think it’s important to highlight [how] difficult this invasion would be if the Chinese made the decision to take such a course of action,” said McGee, who serves as the Joint Staff’s vice director for strategy, plans and policy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has made his top goal securing the “reunification” of China and Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province despite its long history of self-governance.
Taiwan, however, considers itself its own sovereign nation with a democratically elected government.
If Xi chooses to take the island by force, the American military would be obligated to defend Taipei under the Taiwan Relations Act, which committed the US to come to the independently governed island’s defense should China attempt to disrupt the status quo.
Though the United States has a multitude of diplomatic, economic and military deterrence efforts in place, it is not alone in preventing the frightening possibility, McGee said. Aside from allies and partners, one of its best helpers is geography.
Despite its proximity to Taiwan, McGee said there is “absolutely nothing easy about a [Chinese] invasion of Taiwan,” as the distance from mainland China to the island is about four to five times the span Allied troops had to travel for the Normandy landings of World War II.
“Obviously, we believe and hope that deterrence is going to continue to stop them, but if they were [to invade], they’d have to cross the Taiwan Strait, which is between 90 and 120 miles,” he said. “By way of comparison, for the D-Day invasion. That was about 25 miles.
“So there is absolutely nothing easy about a PLA invasion of Taiwan,” he added.
To do so, China would first have to “mass tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of troops” along its eastern border, McGee said. Intelligence officials would detect a troop movement of that size, which would tip off US officials of an impending invasion.
“That would be a clear signal that this is beginning,” he said.
The detection method was proven as recently as last year, when US intelligence officials predicted Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine after President Vladimir Putin stacked more than 100,000 troops along the border between the two nations in the months leading up to the war’s start.
Applied to Taiwan, that tip-off would trigger the US to begin countermeasures and readying defense forces, the general said.
The span of that distance would also require China to undertake difficult, highly organized maneuvers in the air and at sea — all while exposing its troops to considerable vulnerabilities, according to the general.
“They would have to do a combined amphibious and airborne air assault operation, we believe, which is an incredibly complicated joint operation to be able to do, especially when you’re talking about those distances,” McGee said.
With a tipped-off US military in place and prepared to defend Taiwan, the already challenging plan to cross the contentious strait would be made even more difficult to successfully execute.
“That would leave them in the middle of that gap [of] 90 to 100 miles, susceptible to all the fires that we brought upon an invading force that was already telegraphing their intentions,” he said.
Even if China could overcome that challenge and reach Taiwan’s shores, the island’s dense population and rocky terrain would be unfriendly to an amphibious invasion to get Chinese troops on the ground, according to McGee.
“They would encounter an island that has very few beaches where you could land craft on, mountainous terrain and a population that we believe that would be willing to fight,” he said. “They’d be hitting cities like Taipei with about 7 million people — that’s twice the size of Los Angeles.”
Despite its relatively meager size of about 14,000 square miles, more than 23.5 million people live in Taiwan, making it one of the most densely populated nations in the world.
In addition to its natural defenses, McGee said the Taiwanese military is a capable force trained by US troops and supplied with American weapons.
“They would be charging into a country which has a credible and strong military force about the size of Taiwan.”
Still, the threat of an invasion remains a key national security risk to the US — not only because of the nation’s defense commitment to the island but also because of the great economic threat that a China-controlled Taiwan would present.
“Military aggression across the [Taiwan] Strait, whether in the form of an outright invasion of blockade or other means, would risk human life and global prosperity unimaginable in this century,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Ely Ratner told the committee.
That’s because it would risk international access to key shipping lanes in the waters surrounding the island defenses, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Regional Security Mira Resnick explained.
“Geographically, Taiwan’s shipping lanes are the arteries of global commerce with half of the world’s trade going through the Taiwan Strait every year,” she told the committee. “Any disruption would be acutely felt around the world, threatening more than 180,000 American jobs and snarling critical supply chains from Alabama to Washington and beyond.”
Additionally, Resnick said a conflict on the island would threaten Taiwan’s vital production of semiconductors, which are used for everything from cellphones to American fighter jets and missile defenses.
“Economically, Taiwan’s cutting-edge semiconductors are the beating heart of the world’s economy, and they are used in everything from vehicles to iPhones to computers to pacemakers,” she said.
With those economic risks in place, the US aims to maintain across the Strait and remains committed to its “One China Policy,” which supports the current status quo and acknowledges China believes it owns Taiwan without taking sides in the longstanding dispute, the defense and State Department officials told the committee.