• America Won’t Be Fighting a War with China over Taiwan (So Why the Fuss?)

    October 30, 2021 // 16 Comments »


    The United States and China will not go to war in our time over Taiwan. China is not engaging in provocative actions leading toward an invasion. So why the fuss?

    I’d prefer to let the argument speak for itself, but my background is relevant. I threw away my Mao (and Che) T-shirt sophomore year. I don’t have a grey pony tail. I know Beijing is not a democratic regime, much like America’s allies across the Middle East and Africa are not. I’ve been in Taiwan when it was under military rule, and China under autocratic rule. The food was great, but I do not want to live that way. So none of this is about defending that. As a U.S. diplomat, I served in Taiwan, Beijing, and Hong Kong, as well as Korea and Japan, and speak a bit of all their languages. Many of my former colleagues, who managed their careers better, now hold senior positions in State’s China and East Asian bureaucracies. I certainly don’t speak for them, but I speak to them.

    Focus is also important; this is about war. It is not about China being unfriendly to democracy in Hong Kong; why act surprised, the government does not like democracy in Shanghai or Guangzhou either. But when we talk about democracy in the area, let’s not forget Hong Kong was taken from Imperial China by force by the British, who exploited it as a colony for most of its history. It was peacefully returned to China in 1997, not taken by China militarily any time along the way. Taiwan was an unimportant and undemocratic place inhabited mostly by indigenous people until 1949, when the Nationalists displaced the locals to create the enclave of the Republic of China. It existed under strict military rule, with U.S. support for the thugs in power, until around 1988. So democracy in China writ large is a fairly new thing. Many might wish to see America as concerned about democracy in Saudi Arabia as it is in Hong Kong.

    China has always been America’s as-needed partner, friend today, adversary tomorrow. An ally during WWII, the U.S. backed away in 1949 after Mao took power, considering China one more link in world Communism’s march to global supremacy. Then in the midst of the Cold War Nixon “opened” China and the place was remade into a friendly bulwark against the Soviets. In 1979 the U.S. diplomatically recognized Beijing and unrecognized Taipei. The U.S. and China then grew into significant trading partners until sometime during the Obama years when China, without a clear precipitating event, morphed again into an adversary (the U.S. called it a pivot toward Asia.) Trump, and now Biden, have since upgraded China into a direct threat. In one of his few unambiguous foreign policy speeches, Biden said “On my watch China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Biden went on to claim we were at an inflection point to determine “whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.” Along the way China has always stayed pretty much the same. It’s our fear of the same China which changes.

    Those U.S. fears are mostly bunk. Take for example the boilerplate articles about Chinese “incursions” into Taiwan’s air space. Chinese aircraft are not overflying Taiwan. They are flying within Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone. Look at a map of that zone, and other zones declared by Japan and China. Taiwan’s zone, the one Beijing is flying in, actually is large enough to cover thousands of miles of the Chinese mainland itself; PLA planes are in violation when sitting on their own runways. Taiwan’s zone also overlaps Beijing’s Air Defense Zone which overlaps Japan’s and Korea’s. Japan’s Air Defense zone also overlap’s Taiwan’s to take in a small island which is disputed between Tokyo and Taipei, a diplomatic fist fight the U.S. ignores. Criss-crossing everyone’s zones are American aircraft conducting “freedom of navigation” exercises (known in Beijing as “incursions.”) Chinese air flights are provocative only to the uninformed, or those who want them to be seen as provocative. Left unsaid: as China was supposedly provoking a fight in the air this October, the U.S. was simultaneously conducting some of the largest multi-national naval exercises in the Pacific since WWII.

    As for that invasion of Taiwan Beijing is accused of planning, no one has ever explained why they would undertake such a enormous risk in the face of little gain. Instead, the articles claiming Beijing is readying for war are like those science fiction movies which begin with the premise most people have disappeared from earth, or some apocalyptical event took place, and then the story of the survivors begins. All the complicated stuff is left unexplained.

    No one seems to examine the reasons China has no reason to invade Taiwan. China and Taiwan do loft rhetorical bombs at each other, particularly around CCP events and political holidays, while maintaining a robust economic relationship. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits to Taiwan. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven darn profitable for both sides. As Deng Xiao Ping said of this type of modus vivendi, “who cares what color a cat is as long as it catches mice.” China might one day seek to buy Taiwan, but until then what incentive would it have to drop bombs on one of its best customers?

    A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would also require China to fight the United States. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which established the framework behind the U.S. relationships with Beijing and Taipei makes clear Washington will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and that the U.S. will “maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” The language, unchanged since the roller disco era, is purposefully one of strategic ambiguity. It was crafted by the parties concerned specifically to incorporate flexibility, not signal weakness. Diplomats on all three sides understand this. Anyone saying the U.S. needs to rattle sabers at China to demonstrate commitment to Taiwan would better spend his time trying to explain away our abandoning Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring.

    Apart from the potential the nuclear destruction of the Chinese state (the U.S. has 10 nukes for every one China does) why would China even considering risking war with the U.S.? Total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. When Covid shut down world logistics, everyone learned the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice-versa. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America’s success.

    Because there is no plausible scenario in which China would want to invade Taiwan, we need not dwell on the military impracticality of the thing. A failed invasion of Taiwan would topple Xi. Chinese amphibious forces would be under fire from Taiwan’s F-16s armed with Harpoon anti-ship missiles practically as they left harbor and tried to cross the Taiwan Strait (Harpoons have a range of 67 miles; at its narrowest the Strait is only 80 miles wide. Taiwan will soon field a land-based anti-ship missile with a range of over 200 miles.) How many could even reach the beaches? Estimates are China would need to land one to two million soldiers on day one (on D-Day the Allies put ashore 156,000) against Taiwan’s fortified rocky west coast, navigating among tiny islets themselves laden with anti-ship weapons. China’s primary amphibious assault ship, the Type 075, carries about 1,000 men, meaning something like a 1000-2000 sorties. China currently has only three such ships. Its troops are unblooded in combat. Meanwhile American and British carriers and submarines patrol the waters. American aircraft from Guam, Okinawa, and Korea would shut down the skies, and decimate Chinese aircraft on the ground via stealth, drones, and stand-off missiles. This is not Normandy. It is also not the counterinsurgency struggles which defeated America. It is the Big Power conflict played out in the Strait instead of the Fulda Gap, the war U.S. has been preparing to fight against someone since the 1960s.

    But one of the most compelling arguments China plans no war is they haven’t yet fought any wars. No shots have been fired over the disputed islands, which have rabidly disputed for decades. Taiwan broke away in 1949 and after a handful of artillery exchanges in the 1950s, no shots have been fired. China never moved militarily against British Hong Kong from 1841 forward, or Portuguese Macau from 1557. Chinese President Xi’s rhetoric about reunification is essentially the same as Mao’s. Nothing really seems to have changed to the point where a stable situation has suddenly become unstable enough to lead to war, yet the Financial Times warns “The moment of truth over Taiwan is getting closer” and the NYT headlines “U.S. and China Enter Dangerous Territory Over Taiwan.” The WSJ decided on its own China is ready to “reunify their country through any means necessary.”

    The war fever splash in U.S. media comes with curious timing. The U.S. is provoking a new Cold War to ensure an enemy to struggle against, guarantee robust defense spending for decades, and to make sure there is no repeat of the “peace dividend” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s the same playbook run from 1945 to 1989 against the USSR. Expensive arms development needs a target: the Soviet Union served well in that role until around 1989, when in the midst of declaring themselves the world’s last superpower, Americans also demanded less spending on the military. A new enemy was quickly found in various flavors in the Middle East, first in Saddam Hussein and then, after 9/11, in basically most Arabs. The terrorist boogeyman was shushed off stage this summer as America retreated from Afghanistan. We’re unlikely to return to the Middle East in force, especially with oil no longer the principle driver of American foreign policy.

    And so to China. Chinese plans to invade Taiwan may be the new WMDs, a justification much talked about but never to materialize. Chinese weapons advances are the new missile gap, and Asia the new frontier in the faux struggle between the forces of good and another damn group of foreigners bent on world domination. Indeed, if anyone seriously believed war was likely, even imminent, where are the calls for diplomacy, a regional summit, some kind of UN help, to resolve tensions? The U.S. doesn’t even have an ambassador in Beijing nine months into the Biden administration.

     

     

    However impractical an invasion might be, how unnecessary, or how risky, hasn’t China declared repeatedly it will reunite with Taiwan? Yes. But if you want to cite Chinese propaganda as evidence of actual intent, it is best to pay attention to the details.

    It was the United States itself that most clearly asserted the shared tripartite goal was reunification, declaring as part of the diplomatic break with Taiwan “there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of it.” Chinese President Xi regularly reiterates reunification as a goal, but always stresses the process is historical (as in, it is inevitable and we just need to be patient, don’t wait up for it to happen) and must be peaceful. Sorry, if you’re going to quote Chinese propaganda statements as proof of intent, you can’t cherry pick out only the scary parts. It makes no sense to trust Xi on the plan but claim he’s lying about the (peaceful) execution in the same breath.

    Not by coincidence most of these reunification proclamations occur around important political holidays. One of Xi’s most recent invocations was in a speech marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai 1911 Revolution, aimed at the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty. The chosen occasion is important, because Xinhai, ideologically midwifed by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, is acknowledged by both the most hardcore Communists and the most fervent Nationalists as the common origin point for modern China. This is drilled into every schoolkid on both sides of the Strait and forms a common vocabulary among their diplomats. The point is to understand Xi’s remarks in the same context as the Chinese, not John Wayne, likely do.

    In Sun’s spirit Xi reiterated a vow to peaceful reunification with Taiwan. He urged the Chinese people “stand on the right side of history and join hands to achieve China’s complete reunification,” invoking the way the people who would form the Communist and Nationalist parties worked together against a common enemies — the Manchus, then warlordism and feudalism, then the Japanese, and perhaps someday the Americans. Xi, talking to his own people and those on Taiwan, sketched a shared vision a long way from the PLA amphibious assault the West fears. Xi was also aware that the day before his speech HMS Queen Elizabeth, USS Carl Vinson, USS Ronald Reagan, and Japan’s Ise conducted joint carrier operations in the China Sea featuring the soon-to-be-nuclear-capable F-35 aircraft.

    Far from anything new or provocative, Xi’s rhetoric was consistent with 70 some years of speeches maintaining Beijing has no quarrel with the people on Taiwan, who are today mostly Mandarin-speaking ethnically Han Chinese same as in Beijing. Instead, the theme has always been a few bad apples in Taiwan’s government are preventing all Chinese from seeing they need to work together. To invade Taiwan, China would commit itself to killing Chinese, something that would cause Xi to lose legitimacy in the eyes of his own people; the Mandate of Heaven still applies. Meanwhile, on Taiwan, the current president more or less acknowledges the official line of a reunited China someday but quickly says there are more important things on her mind, like making money. Many in the West failed to notice it was Dr. Sun’s portrait which hung behind both leaders as they spoke. The idea that all these factors boil down to “China is gonna invade Taiwan” is beyond silly. America’s obsession with Taiwan independence is more Washington’s problem than Taipei’s.

    Philosophically Chinese leaders have for thousands of years believed in historical cycles. They waited close to 300 years to end the foreign Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong. Such things come up in conversation with Chinese diplomats as casually as talk about the weather. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not short-term optimistic or spasmatically reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. Sun Tzu: One waits to win.

     

    In contrast stands America’s foreign policy. A comparison of countries where the U.S., and China have military intervened post-WWII is telling. Chinese troops entered Vietnam only after the U.S. began its own campaign of regime change there. China entered the Korean War only after the U.S. Army threatened to cross into Chinese territory. Both of these events are celebrated in the People’s Army Museum in Beijing as examples of defending the homeland’s borders. The Museum, in addition, features an American U-2 spyplane shot down over the mainland. The Museum also has exhibits showing the U.S. purposely bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three and destroying the diplomatic sanctuary. The U.S. claimed it was an accident, but history makes clear it was retaliation against an undefended target accused of spying in former Yugoslavia. How many American embassies has China bombed?

    China got its first blue water aircraft carrier last year; the U.S. has maintained multiple carrier groups in the Pacific since WWII, recently facilitated the permanent deployment of two British carrier groups in the area (their first big show of naval force in the area since losing Singapore to the Japanese) and will sell nuclear submarines to Australia with the understanding they will patrol the South China Sea. The U.S. recently brought India into the Quad Pact agreement against China, and convinced Japan to abandon its official neutral stance on Taiwan to support the U.S. Japan has quickly grown into a multiple carrier blue water naval force under American encouragement and with American technology; an unprecedented pledge by Japan’s ruling party seeks to double defense spending and underscores the nation’s haste to acquire missiles, stealth fighters, drones and other weapons that can target China.

    For the first time in decades U.S. forces are officially stationed on Taiwan. The White House recently announced the existing U.S.-Japan security treaty now extends to some additional disputed islands, and the Philippine security treaty covers Manila’s claims to Chinese-occupied islets. The U.S. maintains military bases in a ring around China’s eastern coast. Economically, Barack Obama via the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) tried to isolate China from the Asian trade sphere. Trump imposed and Biden maintains punitive tariffs on goods out of China. This autumn Congress will take up the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which would authorize Biden to initiate (nuclear) war on China without any input from America’s elected representatives.

    So who in fact is acting provocatively in the Pacific? Which side is saber rattling, and which simply responding the way a dog barks to warn off an aggressor?

     

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