US strategy to blow up Taiwan’s semiconductor fabs to deter China might do more harm than good
The US is mulling disabling or destroying Taiwan’s semiconductor factories in the event of a Chinese invasion. This stark change raises questions about its capabilities and commitment to defend the island.
At the Richard Nixon Foundation’s Grand Strategy Summit last month, former US national security adviser Ambassador Robert O’Brien suggested that the US might destroy Taiwan’s semiconductor factories in the event of a Chinese invasion, as reported by Army Technology.
“If China takes Taiwan and takes those factories intact – which I don’t think we would ever allow – they have a monopoly over chips the way OPEC has a monopoly or even more than the way OPEC has a monopoly over oil,” O’Brien said.
In addition, as reported by Bloomberg in October, the US may be planning to evacuate the island’s semiconductor engineers in the event of a Chinese invasion. The source says unnamed US officials said that accelerated preparations had been made for an action plan to evacuate such skilled personnel to the US in the worst-case scenario.
In response to the Bloomberg report, Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said Taiwan and the US had conducted no such evacuation plan in this year’s Han Kuang annual military exercises, as reported by Focus Taiwan in October.
According to Chiu, none of the war games in the exercise included an evacuation scenario, and he stressed that Taiwan relies on self-reliance and restraint to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait.
O’Brien’s remarks and the Bloomberg report are consistent with a 2021 study published by the US Army War College that suggests the US and Taiwan lay plans for a scorched-earth strategy by threatening to destroy Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company manufacturing facilities. TSMC produces about 55% of the world’s semiconductors used in everything from mobile phones to computers and sophisticated military weapons and equipment.
The study says the destruction of TSMC’s facilities would cripple China’s war effort, with the resulting economic damage seriously threatening the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China. In addition, the study says the US or Taiwan could install automatic self-destruct systems in semiconductor factories. Therefore, the Taiwanese government should clearly state that it will not allow these facilities to fall into China’s hands.
It also states that the US and its allies must prepare to give refuge to Taiwan’s semiconductor scientists and engineers to preserve the human component of the island’s semiconductor industry.
This scorched-earth strategy is a considerable departure from the porcupine strategy espoused by Taiwanese and US defense officials. Instead of deterring a Chinese invasion by raising the prospect of unacceptable casualties, a scorched-earth strategy could destroy Taiwan’s strategic and economic value to dissuade China from pursuing forceful military reunification.
China’s rapid military modernization and relative US decline in conventional deterrence may factor into adopting a scorched-earth strategy for Taiwan.
Given that, the 2022 China Power Report by the US Department of Defense notes that China’s warfighting concepts and abilities continue to strengthen its ability to fight a war against the US in the sense of countering its intervention in a Taiwan Strait conflict.
In contrast, Mackenzie Eaglen notes in a November article in 19fortyfive that US conventional deterrence is rapidly declining because of bureaucracy, lack of urgency, and underinvestment in military industries.
Apart from the growing disparity between China and the US regarding conventional military capability, Taiwan may not be making the right moves for its defense. Asia Times has previously noted that Taiwan is fluctuating between an asymmetric porcupine strategy and fighting China head-on, as it still invests in high-profile, high-cost, and high-prestige assets such as submarines, frigates, and fighter jets.
That thinking stems from bureaucratic inertia from previous decades when the US and Taiwan thought they could repel an invasion by China’s inferior forces. However, as China’s military modernization took off, it became outdated.
Also, William Murray writes in the US Naval War College Review that China’s growing missile arsenal allows it to overwhelm Taiwan’s Patriot missile defenses, incapacitate its navy, and ground or destroy large portions of its air force in the opening moments of an invasion.
In addition, the US position of strategic ambiguity complicates Taiwan’s porcupine strategy. In a September 2021 article for Geopolitical Futures, Philip Orchard states that while China’s growing anti-access/area denial capabilities have made US intervention increasingly costly and dangerous to do so, US strategic ambiguity keeps Taiwan’s military modernization plans in limbo.
He notes that a porcupine strategy makes sense if Taiwan can trust US security guarantees. If not, Taiwan needs to develop its counterstrike capabilities, but spending to develop one undermines the effectiveness of the other.
Thus the erosion of US conventional deterrence, China’s military modernization, and pitfalls of strategic ambiguity suggest that a scorched-earth strategy is a tacit admission that the US cannot defend Taiwan through military means.
Further, implementing a scorched-earth strategy may fail, for multiple reasons.
In a November 2020 interview with Global Times, former KMT chairman Hung Hsiu-chu noted that most Taiwanese will not be able to stomach the idea of Taiwan ending up as scorched earth. Hung also chastised hawkish factions advocating such strategy as having never lived through war, sticking to wishful thinking about US assistance, and profiteering from human suffering.
Also, Taiwanese leaders would not want to destroy the island’s semiconductor industry, as it would lose a powerful bargaining tool to manage the complex interests of the US and China. In a March 2021 article for The Strategist, Elena Yi-Ching Ho noted the strategic importance of Taiwan’s semiconductor industry to the US and its allies and said that despite China’s push for self-reliance, it still depends on Taiwan for its own needs.
Ho said the strategic importance of TSMC should give the US and China pause to think, as both would stand to lose with its destruction.
In addition, a scorched-earth strategy might not deter China from pushing for reunification with Taiwan. The Chinese State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office noted in a December 2021 article that “the mainland’s pursuit of cross-Strait reunification is definitely not for TSMC,” hinting at a myopic reasoning of using a scorched-earth strategy for deterrence.
In line with this, Timothy Rich notes in a December 2021 article in The News Lens that the destruction of Taiwan’s semiconductor industry might only be a temporary setback for China as its industries take off.
He states that while Taiwan’s economic self-harm might deter China in the short term, its ability to prepare for an invasion would be severely weakened, as Taiwan could no longer use its semiconductor industry to build components for sophisticated weapons such as drones, missiles, and radars.