As assuring as it might be, possibly even comforting, to see a photograph of a line of tanks executing a live-fire exercise in Penghu — albeit last year — on the front page of the Taipei Times, the exercise aims to show military capabilities and offer an overt display to anyone thinking of attempting an attack that casualties would be incurred and it would not be an easy task.
This said, the underlying problem with regard to a war — should it happen — is that it would be a complex and multifaceted undertaking on the part of both the invaded, Taiwan, and the invader, China.
With this in mind, it is important to be aware of what comprises war, and should it take place, how it would work.
War is an enormous challenge and one that needs a clinical approach. To do this emotions need to be put aside, as only by actually admitting that Taiwan and China might one day go to war can some truth about what it would entail be found.
Applying relevant historical concepts addresses this issue.
First and foremost, a war between China and Taiwan would most likely be what is considered by strategists a conventional “limited” war. This would involve only the two main actors, at least in the initial stages of the conflict.
Whether it evolves into a larger regional war that involves other belligerents would be determined by the involvement of other nation-states and their overall commitment.
It is safe to argue that a Taiwan-China war would start and remain a limited war, and would also be considered a “conventional exchange,” as both militaries do not have the assets for the war to become non-conventional — one that involves thermonuclear weapons.
There is always a political perspective to war and there is no doubt that it would involve consternation among observer countries, as all wars do. It would be commented upon and gain reproach from major political actors.
One can safely assume that this would include the UN, the EU, Russia, the US and Asia-Pacific nation-states.
However, as the action would be confined, whether any one actor would venture beyond comment during its early stages is debatable.
Historically, when a war does not directly affect other countries, they are often resistant to engage in the problems of others.
In the initial phases of World War II, after Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, those outside the British “Commonwealth of Nations” were not obliged to enter into the fracas.
The US, for instance, considered the war to be a European war — a limited war of Europe’s own making — and even though German U-boats were sinking an enormous amount of British shipping vessels in the Gulf of Mexico from 1939 to 1941, an area in which the US could have easily patrolled to deter such attacks, it stood by and did nothing as it did not want to get involved.
There were many domestic reasons for the US not wanting to enter the war.
Two of the most prominent were that it felt its late entry into World War I had not been appreciated by its allies, and then-US president Franklin Roosevelt also feared a voter backlash from the numerous fascist political parties in the US that supported Nazi Germany.
Both factors played an enormous role in US domestic politics at the time, and it was not until the attack by the Japanese Imperial Air Force on Pearl Harbor that Roosevelt was confident to go to war.
What the attack also changed was the type of war that was taking place: The attack shifted the war from a “limited” one to a “total” one.
It is here we can ask: What’s the difference?
A total war overtly involves many more nation-states than the initial belligerents, and while this can involve passive support, such as offering supply lines, through to active and direct involvement, such as supplying assets with crews, ships and aircraft, there is an immediate problem with the definition.
It is impossible to know how many actors need to be involved for a war to become “total,” as the term is subjective.
The surrender of Nazi Germany and Japan at the end of World War II was absolute, because the underlying element of total wars is that they involve a high proportion of the population and are seen by all parties as a fight for survival.
To emphasize the point, countries become completely absorbed by a total war, whether they are the initiators or the responders.
For instance, as World War II progressed and Japan began to lose ground as US and Allied forces began to break the Japanese stranglehold on the Asia-Pacific, their attention turned to the Japanese populace and to punishing them for allowing their emperor to wreak havoc.
The end result was devastating. Sixty of Japan’s 66 cities were bombed, thousands of civilians died, its air force was shot to pieces and most of its navy was at the bottom of the ocean. The punishment was designed to bring about unconditional surrender.
With regard to the second scenario, that of survival in total war, Adolf Hitler planned the Battle of the Ardennes — colloquially referred to as the Battle of the Bulge — in the latter stages of World War II so that he could later attempt to sue for peace on more favorable terms rather than prove the German army still had some fight left in it.
This survival strategy did not work, as the stakes had become too high for the Allied forces and only unconditional surrender would suffice.
Notwithstanding this, what is certain is that a total war involves a shift in the idea of what victory consists of. As total wars involve higher stakes than limited wars, the outcome has to be definitive: The enemy has to unconditionally surrender.
Limited wars, on the other hand, are more moderated and are therefore prone to negotiated endings. The stalemate of the Korean War can be seen as an agreed “settlement,” one in which the annihilation of the enemy was not required.
Nevertheless, there is a nuance that needs to be understood with regard to how a war is limited from one perspective and total from another. The Vietnam War is a good example of this.
The North Vietnamese were fighting a total war, one in which the expulsion of the US and its allies and the reunification of the north and south was the only acceptable outcome.
However, for the US and its allies the war was always considered to be a limited war, in which the defeat of the enemy was the obvious and desirable outcome, with the government of South Vietnam returned to power. There was never any military or political investment beyond this.
Hence, the US and its allies never thought the war to be more than limited in a far-away land. The South Vietnamese military also understood the war to have a limited outcome — stopping the North Vietnamese troops at the north-south border was enough.
Assuming that the political situation between Taiwan and China deteriorates to the point of a kinetic exchange, or a “shooting war,” what type of war would take place?
With the aforementioned in mind, we can now turn to “thinking the unthinkable” of China and Taiwan being involved in a total war.
This is without a doubt what occupies strategists most on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and it is a reality that must be dealt with.
Since time immemorial, countries have needed a fighting force, whether to invade the land of another or to defend their own. Taiwan, being an island nation-state, must obviously have a military that is focused on defense. This has been confirmed recently with a doctrinal change of the military from “annihilation of the enemy to prevention of victory” (“Preventing takeover new priority,” April 25, page 1).
Within this change is an understanding that the vast majority of the population is on the “government’s side,” and there is no reason to doubt this assumption based on current statistics — the number of people aged 20 to 39 “willing to fight China” stands at 70.3 percent (“Taiwanese willing to fight China,” April 20, page 1).
A large number of Taiwanese are determined to fight, while China has the resolve to take Taiwan at all costs, which means there is only one conclusion to be drawn: Both nations would become involved in a slog of attrition — a total war.
Therefore, even though people believe an invasion is unlikely, one can only hope that there is an understanding on both sides of the enormous costs involved (“Chance of Chinese invasion slim: poll,” April 24, page 1).
Total wars are generally long and arduous for the belligerents, and have a single zero sum game outcome in which there must be a winner and a loser.
However, surely Taiwan would not have to face the threat of China alone? As with World War II, no discussion about war is complete unless allies are discussed.
As we have seen, the problem with allies is that they do what is good for their country first and what is good for their ally second. French and German forces refusing to enter the “war on terror” in Iraq in 2003 and being derided as “old Europe” by the US is a case in point.
It is interesting to note that 41 percent of Taiwanese have doubts about whether the US would send troops to help defend Taiwan, and considering that Americans feel underappreciated for their efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, if isolationism reigns supreme, the unpalatable truth is that Taiwan is on its own (“Chance of Chinese invasion slim: poll,” April 24, page 1).
Notwithstanding the enormity of the challenges that Taiwan faces with regard to a war with China, the stakes for Taiwan would be considerably higher if a war is viewed by the international community as limited and between two regional belligerents. A conclusion of this type would arrest their need to become directly involved.
The best scenario for Taiwan is a war that quickly involves other belligerents, such as the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, as it would be considered from an international perspective a total war. Then and only then would Taiwan gain some direct input from its allies.
For Taiwan, a war with China would be multifaceted and at times duplicitous.
The other dreadful reality is that if a Taiwan-China war were to break out, it would be total, and there would be no duplicity associated with that.
Strobe Driver holds a doctorate in war studies and is a recipient of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ fellowship for this year. The views expressed here are his own.
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