The United States and China will not go to war 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. 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 do speak to them.
America has always been China’s fickle partner. A WWII ally, the U.S. backed away in 1949 after Mao took power. 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. 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.” Meanwhile, along the way China has always stayed pretty much the same. It’s our fear of the same China which changes.
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 others 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 zone which overlaps Japan’s and Korea’s. Japan’s Air Defense zone also overlap’s Taiwan’s to take in a small island disputed between Tokyo and Taipei, a diplomatic pillow 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 an enormous risk in the face of little gain. Instead, articles claiming Beijing is readying for war are like science fiction movies which begin with the premise most people have disappeared from earth, 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, but all the 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. Cross-strait trade is $149.2 billion and China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. 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 also applied. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven darn profitable. As Deng Xiao Ping said of this type of modus vivendi, “who cares what color a cat is as long as it catches mice.” What incentive would China have to bomb one of its best customers?
Invading Taiwan would require China to fight the United States. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which established the framework of the tripartite relationship, 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 some carefully-crafted ambiguity. It was written in its time by the parties concerned to incorporate flexibility and satisfy three capitals, 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 of nuclear destruction (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. The Chinese are literally betting 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 and failure is very likely. Chinese amphibious forces would be under fire practically as they left harbor. Taiwan’s Harpoon anti-ship missiles have a range of 67 miles; at its narrowest the Strait is only 80 miles. Taiwan will soon field a land-based anti-ship missile with a range of over 200 miles.
Estimates are China would need to land a 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 1000 men. China currently has only three such ships.
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. This fight is 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 for since the 1960s. Only a fool in China would test those odds.
But the most compelling argument China plans no war is they haven’t yet fought any wars. No shots have been fired over the many disputed small 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 militarily vulnerable British Hong Kong from 1841 forward, or Portuguese Macau from 1557. Chinese President Xi’s rhetoric about reunification is essentially unchanged from Mao’s.
Nothing has changed to 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.
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. Instead, a new enemy was quickly found in the Middle East, first in Saddam Hussein and then, after 9/11, in basically most Arabs. Then the terrorist boogeyman was shushed off stage this summer as America retreated from Afghanistan.
And so to China. Chinese plans to invade Taiwan are 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 good and evil. It’s a set up. 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.
Part II of this article will look at the question of however impractical an invasion might be, how unnecessary, or how risky, hasn’t China declared over and over it will reunite with Taiwan? Shouldn’t we take them at their word?
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.