On June 14 I made a presentation at the “New Southbound Policy Workshop: Global Perspectives II” gathering as one of a group of academics that are part of the Taiwan Fellowship 2018 and as part of the Center for Chinese Studies cohort. My presentation was entitled “From possible to probable: the Dynamics of a Taiwan — China war.”
Here is a precis of what it entailed:
From the diktat of a Western perspective, observing history shows that empires and now countries, as they unify and grow, take on an expansionist role, or in simpler terms, they tend to invade the land of others.
This is true of, in relatively accurate order, the Roman Empire; the unification of the elites of Europe and their subsequent papal backing, which eventuated in the Crusades; the monarchies of Portugal and Spain embarking upon conquering missions, with perhaps the most accomplished in terms of subjugation being Christopher Columbus’ incursions into South America; France invading czarist Russia; England ruling the known world from about 1700 through 1945; and the US exiting World War II as a superpower and retaining its grip on much of the world.
Acknowledging that this type of power play also happened regionally in the Asia-Pacific region with various Chinese dynasties and Japan after the Meiji Restoration, and especially with Japan winning the 1904-to-1905 Russo-Japanese War, is to suggest that expansionism is not a monopoly of the West. However, it is necessary to state that the West excelled in the practice of domination.
In my presentation, I referred to China’s path of expansionism, and suggested that it has been taking place since about 1995 and is ongoing. The critical question that emanates from the acknowledgement of expansionism remains: How has this happened and why does it continue to happen?
In broad yet accurate terms, there is a critical confluence of events that takes place, and while they often merge and develop more arbitrarily than what is stated, they are the cornerstones of power. Notwithstanding this factor, the critical matters are as follows:
An industrial revolution begins to take place and with the input of cutting-edge science and technology — which once produced sailboats, and now produce submarines and missiles — a strong military is formed. Unification accords with domestic stability, and with these two components in place a military is able to exit their homeland without fear of government and governance disruption.
A burgeoning middle class is also required. This group provides steady taxes, produces an increase in population and has what sociologists refer to as a non-subsistence living standard. Very few are starving, and therefore society as a whole can prosper and become a potent force of ongoing development.
Cosmopolitanism increases and a greater awareness of the world is created, as well as of its machinations. This awareness further creates a notional understanding of one’s region and a “place” within it that, in turn, drives a political will that can, if needed, be backed up with a threat of force or direct force.
These six elements further enhance what international relations specialists refer to as “irredentism.” This involves a claim — whether real or imagined — that is based on a historical, political or strategic understanding and often a “realignment of history,” and the regeneration of cultural, racial or ethnic claims. The claim can be a single issue, or a combination of the aforementioned.
To be sure and to emphasize that this is not the exclusive domain of China, Russia has an irredentist attitude to Ukraine; Britain to the Falkland Islands; and the US to Hawaii.
Irredentist policies also encourage strategic aggrandizement, which comprises “we are stronger than ever before and we now demand our ‘rights,’” and there is a willingness to involve brinkmanship, which is the ability to challenge the status quo and remain steadfast in the face of the opposition.
The US in Vietnam and the French in Algeria are historical models of the policy of brinkmanship, although it ended in the defeat of both.
The presentation then moved on to the greatest fear for Taiwan: invasion by Chinese forces. The contemporary “model” of invasion is predicated on the task and overall success of the WWII Normandy invasion by allied forces on the beaches of France.
There is a palpable fear that would argue that this type of large-scale action could happen to Taiwan.
First and foremost, it is highly unlikely, as war and warfare have moved on. There is a need to explain why.
The force-on-force collision that took place in June 1944 was a specific action designed to accomplish two objectives. The first was to put German coastal forces under immediate and consistent defensive pressure; and the second and more important objective was to motivate German forces that were inland of the beaches to leave their cover and drive toward the beaches, where the invasion was taking place.
What this would do, and succeeded in achieving, was to allow Allied paratroopers and glider-borne forces that had been inserted behind the German frontline — with some guidance from their French partisan allies — to harass and disrupt the Germans as they progressed toward the coast.
Moreover, the German forces would also be strafed and bombed consistently by fighter and fighter-bomber aircraft in what were designated “free fire zones,” which further complicated German movements. It was a classic divide-and-conquer maneuver by Allied forces.
Notwithstanding the eventual success of the landings, this type of large-scale deployment and subsequent confrontation has not been successful overall since 1944 — although there were similar tactical components in the Korean War, they did not proceed beyond that.
Since 1944, with the exception of a few minor actions in the Korean War — in which WWII strategies remained robust — when a country invades another, there has been a brief force-on-force symmetrical or defined front lines encounter — such as when the US and its allies invaded Iraq in 1990. However, this practice has not produced the successful results of WWII.
Static confrontation are no longer the model that those being confronted utilize after the initial impact. To wit, after the initial action, the domestic military forces that have survived and their rear-echelon compatriots tend to disband and discreetly move to their “comfort zones.”
These can comprise a clan, tribe, historic family zone, political sector, village or a myriad of other protection areas. Crucially however, they remain armed and dangerous to the invaders cum occupiers. This has happened with Islamic State group militants in the Philippines and remains a constant problem for NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The conflict then drifts into an asymmetrical one, where constant harassment, brief, focused and opportunistic skirmishes — known as “firefights” — take place against either the invading force directly or its domestic recruits.
The point for the recalcitrant and fighting irregulars is to seek victory by harassment and not get involved in prolonged battles, as they would be wiped out by the superior firepower of the invading force.
However, any fortified zones that the invading force sets up must be constantly harassed with the aim of inducing exhaustion and lack of motivation, as was true of the hilltop “firebases” that the US and South Vietnamese forces used during the Vietnam War and of the walled compounds in Afghanistan.
The success of this type of warfare can be seen as the reason that North Vietnamese forces eventually won — because they did not mount continuous force-on-force collisions, while the US and its allies, and their domestic populations became increasingly casualty-averse.
Notwithstanding all of the aforementioned, what does this have to do with China invading?
China will not invade in the traditional WWII method: As has been borne out by history, confronting dug-in, fortified positions in defined areas where artillery and air assets are able to be directed en masse and an invading force can become bogged down is a suicidal tactical move.
It should be further noted that if a large-scale invasion by Chinese forces — colloquially referred to as a “million man swim” by military strategists — was undertaken and failed on the beachheads of Taiwan, that would pose an enormous problem to the Chinese government.
Certainly, no government, whatever its political credo, is immune to the extreme societal disruption that defeat brings — be it communist or otherwise.
It is here that history can be reintroduced, and a clue to what China would set out to achieve in its irredentist claim to Taiwan and what can be assumed would be undertaken in the 21st century.
To be sure, when China goes to war with Taiwan, it will embark upon the type of war that Britain exalted in when it controlled the known world: “opportunistic war.”
Adrian Lewis in his book Omaha Beach: A Flawed Victory says that the British practice of warfare in broad terms de-emphasized direct confrontation and emphasized surprise, mobility, maneuver and peripheral attacks followed by the erosion of the enemy’s domestic economy, which diminished its capacity to resist.
The awareness for China would be to do what the British did for more than a century and its aim would be to push Taiwan into an untenable position that favored China in any negotiations.
Taiwan would not be able to resist continuous peripheral attacks and the economy would turn down sharply; the standard of living would fall exponentially; and replacing armaments and personnel would prove incrementally more difficult.
For a highly industrialized, mechanized and educated society, the domestic turmoil that would be caused has the makings of an apocalyptic setting as a downward moderation of living standards would continue; and a complete fracturing of operating as a developed nation would take place.
China would exaggerate this state of affairs with continual coastal and inland air and expeditionary military incursions and harassments, missile strikes and destruction of core infrastructure.
Acknowledging this and assuming that a war is probable begs the question — which was asked me during the workshop: What can Taiwan do to ensure this does not happen?
Taiwan can obtain specific, clearly worded and overt statements of geopolitical and geostrategic commitments from existing and pending allies, which would stymie China’s irredentist attitude to Taiwan, force a rethink of overt military actions and shift the focus to China’s justifications for its actions.
A cautionary alert is and remains one that is needed here, especially if Taiwan’s most powerful ally, the US, stipulates that it will come to Taiwan’s aid.
In David Day’s book 1942, Australia’s Greatest Peril, he says that “saving” Australia after the invasion of New Guinea by the Imperial Japanese Army was seventh on the US’ list of priorities. Taiwan should make sure that it is much closer to No. 1 in its quest for reliable allies, and thus, the government should seek definitive and unambiguous assurances.
Strobe Driver holds a doctorate in war studies and is a recipient of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ fellowship for 2018. The views expressed here are his own.
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