Is war over Taiwan inevitable?

There is an enormous amount of controversy about if and when China will invade Taiwan. “In one recent poll… of top specialists on China… 63 percent of respondents believed an invasion to be ‘possible within the next 10 years.’”  Note that this survey did not ask whether it was probable, just whether it was possible.  So, by implication, over a third of this group of experts (the remaining 37%) thought that invasion was NOT POSSIBLE in the next decade.

While many experts do think an invasion is coming, they disagree strongly about when.  At one extreme, Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan was in the headlines a few months ago when he a released a memo arguing “that China cannot be deterred from invading Taiwan.  ‘My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.’”   At the other extreme, many point to 2049 as the final deadline, since it’s the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Revolution.   

Still, if current threats to world-wide peace could be ranked, Taiwan would probably be #2, just behind the Ukraine.  The basic issues of the conflict have remained the same since I wrote my 2021 post on “The Taiwan Conundrum.” What’s changed in the last two years is that the temperature has gone up.

A Taiwan-China war is harder to predict than most conflicts for two reasons.  The first is the lack of transparency into Chinese politics, making it hard to define the gap between what Chinese politicians say, and what they may actually do.  The second is the United States’ longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity.” Under this purposely vague policy, the US strongly supports Taiwan both politically and militarily, but does not guarantee that it will help defend Taiwan if it is attacked.

In contrast, there can be no doubt about China’s long-term intentions.  At the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party last October, the 2,300 delegates voted to add these words to the Party Constitution: “resolving the Taiwan issue and achieving the complete reunification of the motherland is a historical task to which the Chinese Communist Party will never relent.”

So the key question is not about China’s goal, but rather about whether it will lead to war.  Some Taiwanese political parties favor a peaceful re-unification with the mainland.  However, their popularity declined dramatically a few years ago, after Hong Kong’s freedoms were slashed when the island was forcefully taken over by Beijing. 

Still, as Kevin Rudd wrote in his excellent book The Avoidable War (Kindle loc 1318):  “Xi’s objective is to secure China’s territorial claims in… Taiwan without ever having to fire a shot.”  Similarly, a recent CNN article put it this way: “The Chinese are going to do everything they can… to avoid a military conflict with anybody… To challenge the United States for global dominance, they’ll use industrial and economic power instead of military force.”

Let’s hope CNN is right on this one, because if the US and China ever do go to war, the effects would fall somewhere between disastrous and the end of the world.

In January, The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a fascinating white paper with the ominous title The First Battle of the Next War.  It summarizes the results of 24 elaborate war games that simulated a Chinese amphibious assault of Taiwan, with the US and Japan coming to its defense.  The headline conclusion was “China is unlikely to succeed in an invasion of Taiwan in 2026.” (p. 83)  But the cost is extremely high to both sides.  China would suffer tens of thousands of casualties, plus similar numbers of prisoners of war, and its navy would be left “in shambles.” (p. 3)

Taiwan would suffer even more.  “While Taiwan’s military [would be] unbroken, it [would be] severely degraded and left to defend a damaged economy on an island without electricity and basic services.” (p. 83) As a result, Taiwan’s economy would be crippled for years.

Finally, the report concluded, “The United States might win a pyrrhic victory, suffering more in the long run than the ‘defeated’ Chinese… In three weeks, the US would suffer about half as many casualties as it did in 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.” (p. 4)  We would also lose dozens of ships and hundreds of aircraft. 

Given that both sides would prefer not to fight, at least in the next few years, what could spark a US-China war?  Grandstanding politicians.  For the most prominent recent example, see the post I wrote last year entitled “The Sheer Stupidity of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.”  In August, while still Speaker of the House of Representatives, Pelosi became the first speaker to visit Taiwan since Newt Gingrich toured the island in 1997.  In a Washington Post op-ed, Pelosi described the purpose of her visit as “reaffirming that the freedoms of Taiwan — and all democracies — must be respected.”

China considered this an insulting and hostile act, and responded by “holding its largest military drills in decades and, in a first, sending a missile over the island.”  The Taiwanese public weren’t exactly grateful for the trip, they were scared by it.  Taiwanese surveys conducted soon after the visit found that “respondents overwhelmingly believed that Pelosi’s trip and the large-scale People’s Liberation Army exercises created a serious threat to Taiwan.”  In another sign of trouble, “Goldman Sachs’ Cross-Strait Risk Index, which gauges the intensity of geopolitical risk between Taiwan and mainland China, hit a record high last August after… Pelosi’s trip.”

So what have American politicians learned from this fiasco?  Nada.  Not to be outdone, current House Speaker Kevin McCarthy visited with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Los Angeles on April 5.  Which was followed by another increase in Chinese military drills around Taiwan.

All this activity has increased the chances of accidental war.  According to Taiwanese professor Chieh Chung, “Chinese air and naval forces have occasionally acted in a more provocative manner — such as with aggressive midair maneuvers that force Taiwanese fighter jets to jockey for advantage — ‘and there is no cross-strait mechanism or communication channel on how to avoid military accidents.’” 

Recent military exercises around Taiwan are increasing the risk of accidental war.

Even worse, according to classified documents recently leaked by Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, “China’s intensifying military activity around Taiwan is undermining the intelligence community’s ability to accurately track what is normal and what is escalatory, raising the risk of accidents and miscalculation.”

As Paul Rudd, Australia’s ambassador to the US, put it in The Avoidable War, it seems “less and less a question of if Beijing will have to handle the operational and diplomatic consequences of an unintended collision between Chinese, American, or Japanese military vessels or aircraft in the future, but when.” (Kindle loc 5809)

As explained in my post “Avoiding a US-China war,” Rudd’s book contains numerous detailed suggestions to reduce the risk of war over Taiwan, accidental or intentional.  “First, the United States and China must both develop a clear understanding of the other’s irreducible strategic redlines in order to help prevent conflict through miscalculation,” Rudd wrote.  Then China and the US should “channel the burden of strategic rivalry into a competitive race to enhance their military, economic, and technological capabilities.”

This great power rivalry is unlike any in past history, and not just because of the ultimate threat of nuclear war.  As Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times a few weeks ago: “Neither China nor America has ever had a rival quite like the other… [the two] nations have become as economically intertwined as the strands of a DNA molecule.”

But these days, he continued “Relations between our two countries have soured so badly, so quickly… that we’re now like two giant gorillas looking at each other through a pinhole. Nothing good will come from this… [In fact], the smallest misstep by either side could ignite a U.S.-China war that would make Ukraine look like a neighborhood dust-up.”

The hawkish statements now increasing in both China and in the US certainly aren’t helping.  In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the fear of war can actually increase its likelihood.  As one Rand consultant put it, “An exaggerated sense of danger can exacerbate tensions and aggravate perceptions of hostile intent.”  What we need is more communication, better communication, and a sense of calm.

As to the question of inevitability, I agree with Friedman’s conclusion: “I don’t buy the argument that we are destined for war. I believe that we are doomed to compete with each other, doomed to cooperate with each other and doomed to find some way to balance the two. Otherwise we are both going to have a very bad 21st century.”

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