IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

U.S. should prepare for drawn-out conflict if China invades Taiwan, war game suggests

An attack would plunge the region into a broad, drawn-out war that could include direct attacks on the U.S., war game participants concluded.
The war game adjudication team tracks progress with a map of the Taiwan strait and a mock-up of Chinese and Taiwanese forces on “Meet the Press Reports” in Washington, D.C., on April 25, 2022.
The war game adjudication team tracks progress with a map of the Taiwan strait and a mock-up of Chinese and Taiwanese forces, on “Meet the Press Reports” in Washington on April 25. William B. Plowman / NBC

The year is 2027. China has invaded Taiwan and the wheels of all-out war have begun to turn.

“We are not going to let them survive the initial onslaught of our military operations,” says one of the masterminds of Beijing’s military strategy. “We are not going to let the president of Taiwan survive the first day.”

To achieve that swift decapitation of Taiwan’s government, China casts a wide net of destruction — even pre-emptively attacking American bases in Japan and Guam. The U.S. responds by bombing Chinese ports and Australia mobilize forces against Beijing as the worst fears of the U.S. and its allies unfold in the Asia-Pacific. 

It may sound like a purely academic exercise but, in fact, it’s deadly serious. 

These hypothetical military operations were planned by U.S. lawmakers, former Pentagon officials and China experts as part of a war game exercise that played out in NBC News’ Washington bureau in April. The teams spent some five hours on an exercise that for the Pentagon would typically take up to five days. 

The purpose was to think through what a Chinese invasion of Taiwan might look like now that the world has had to navigate the initial fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Watch the war game on "Meet the Press Reports" on NBC News NOW live Thursday night at 10:30 p.m. Eastern and Peacock on demand.

The war game was organized in partnership with the D.C.-based think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS). It took place amid rising concern among U.S. officials in multiple administrations and in capitals across the Asia-Pacific about the possibility of China attacking Taiwan.

Just this week, the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said “a key area of focus” for U.S. intelligence officials is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s intent on a forced takeover of Taiwan. “China would prefer coerced unification that avoids armed conflict,” Haines told Congress. “And at the same time, Beijing is prepared to use military force if it decides this is necessary.”

The overarching takeaway from participants in the war game: If China invades Taiwan, the Indo-Pacific region will plunge into a broad, drawn-out war that could include direct attacks on the U.S., including Hawaii and potentially the continental United States.

“Neither Beijing nor Washington is likely to have the upper hand after the first week of the conflict, suggesting that it would eventually become a protracted conflict,” CNAS experts said. “The war game demonstrated how quickly the conflict may escalate, with China and the United States crossing red lines.”

That escalation, according to the war game, could lead to China using a nuclear weapon, a step that U.S. officials worry Russia could take in Ukraine. For China, the reason for a potential nuclear response is Beijing’s limited capacity to respond with conventional weapons.

“New questions over Russian military strength apply to China’s military as well,” CNAS writes in its preliminary conclusion.

Also, as was the case with Russia, the war game found that U.S. efforts to deter China from attacking Taiwan failed. That led war game participants to outline a series of measures that Taiwan, as well as the U.S. and its allies, should take to strengthen a deterrence effort.

Bryce Barros, China Affairs Analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, participates on the red team in a mock war game pitting the U.S. and China in a fight over Taiwan, on “Meet the Press Reports” in Washington, D.C., on April 25, 2022
Bryce Barros, China affairs analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, participates in a mock war game pitting the U.S. and China in a fight over Taiwan, on “Meet the Press Reports” in Washington on April 25.William B. Plowman / NBC

Those include improvements to Taiwan’s military through better training of its forces and new investments in additional weapons. 

One of the key things the exercise illustrated was the difficulty of defending and aiding Taiwan compared to the U.S. efforts in Ukraine. NATO, which has largely united in Ukraine’s defense, is stronger than alliances in the Indo-Pacific. And Ukraine’s geographical location makes it easier to assist than Taiwan, a series of islands off the coast of China. 

“With Ukraine you have borders that you can move things across,” said retired Air Force Gen. Mike Holmes. “Taiwan’s a long ways off.”

The U.S decision not to officially recognize Taiwan as an independent nation unless its status changes peacefully has been a longtime cornerstone of U.S.-China relations.

The “one-China policy” has been tested in recent years, however, as China claims Taiwan is its territory and could be taken by force, and it has stepped up its saber rattling. Taiwan maintains it’s an independent, democratic country entitled to defend itself.

For four decades, the U.S. has applied a policy of “strategic ambiguity” to Taiwan, which essentially keeps vague whether Washington would intervene if China tried to take Taiwan by force, in hopes of deterring such a move. That position has been increasingly questioned by some U.S. officials.

And while Washington has no formal relations with Taipei, the U.S. counts Taiwan among its top trading partners and is required to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons under the Taiwan Relations Act.

Indeed, another key takeaway from the war game is whether the U.S. should consider arming Taiwan in advance of a potential war with China, because getting those weapons into the country would be incredibly difficult after an invasion has begun.

The conclusions also include recommendations that the U.S., Australia and Japan do more to enhance their ability to respond quickly to an attack on Taiwan, and that the U.S. shore up its bases in the region and procure more long-range, precision-guided weapons and undersea capabilities.

Overall everyone, according to the CNAS conclusion, should prepare for a prolonged, deadly conflict, not just a quick invasion and takeover of the government. 

Former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy said the war game revealed the need for the U.S. and Taiwan to be taking steps now, such as “pre-positioning munitions, getting the Taiwanese ready, pre-positioning your armed forces, developing your disbursal bases.” 

“If you haven’t spent years preparing for this” Flournoy said, “then you’re going to be behind the eight ball the whole way.”