The January 11, 2020 election is over and democracy, again, is victorious in Taiwan, buoyed by a younger generation whose determination to remain free could sustain Taiwan’s democratic development for many decades. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), meanwhile, shows no sign of deviating from its Leninist core values demanding that it fear democracy on Taiwan and continue its longstanding preparations to murder it in order to achieve global hegemony.
But there is some debate over how long it will take CCP dictator-for-life Xi Jinping (習近平) to actually pull the trigger and invade Taiwan. One school of thought, led by retired United States Pacific Command intelligence chief and US Navy Captain James Fanell, is that 2020 commences the “Decade of Concern,” in which the domestic political demands of Xi and the CCP, combined with a Taiwan Strait balance of power increasingly favoring China, impels Xi to attack Taiwan during this decade.
Another view is that Taiwan remains in danger but does not face an imminent existential threat from China. Its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will continue to intensify military intimidation of the island democracy while its United Front organs foment constant political, economic, and cyber warfare. But the combined factors of Taiwan’s military preparations, myriad geographic challenges to invasion, and expectation that the US will come to Taiwan’s defense, will continue to provide the margin of deterrence against PLA attack.
In this mix, it is the American contribution that will remain decisive. It is only the US military that can supply the decisive nuclear forces to deter the PLA, and the Trump Administration is now in the process of rebuilding US theater nuclear forces and the ballistic and cruise missiles that can deliver them. In addition the PLA has to consider, as in 1950 when Mao Zedong (毛澤東), Stalin and Kim Il Sung were shocked that Washington decided to fight a terrible war on the Korean Peninsula, whether President Trump or his successor will actually go to Taiwan to fight a Chinese invasion.
In the realm of military planning this is a basic contingency that the PLA would have been considering for decades. But it could be much worse. It is possible to conclude that the CCP’s devotion to sustaining its dictatorship without consideration for the cost in lives has prompted it to create a second string of “offense,” starting with the help of its three dictatorship allies or proxies, North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan, to be able to wage nuclear terrorism or nuclear war.
China has tried mightily to hide or deny its role, but by enabling “independent” nuclear aggression by its proxies, the CCP’s strategy could be to tie down US forces sufficiently in order to “create” the conditions necessary to assure little to no US intervention to defend Taiwan, thereby assuring “victory” by negotiated surrender or invasion. It is this investment by China, insufficiently challenged by Washington since the 1990s, which now adds urgent legitimacy to the Decade of Concern.
On the Korean Peninsula and in the Persian Gulf, the United States and its regional allies hover close to the edge of war. To justify their harsh dictatorships, both North Korea and Iran require the US to remain the “Great Satan”. As their military and nuclear strength increases, their willingness to arm their allies and proxies with nuclear capabilities, or to undertake far larger acts of terrorism or military action, also increases the likelihood of US military intervention. This is China’s real goal: by sustaining these regimes and aiding their nuclear armaments, a small-scale US intervention can quickly escalate into major military commitments that leave other US interests undefended, like the Taiwan Strait.
China’s nuclear investments in proxy conflict are most obvious with North Korea. Since the Summer of 2011, the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) has been supplying the 16-wheel and 18-wheel transporter erector launchers (TELs) that will launch North Korea’s nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at the United States.
In order to make these TELs, CASIC or China’s intelligence organs would have to have intimate knowledge of North Korea’s missiles, which justifies strong suspicion CASIC helped design the same missiles. There was a time when this would have been considered an act of war; remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? But China’s perfidy did not result in even a sanction against CASIC for six years of the Obama Administration or three years of the Trump Administration.
Since the 1970s China has quite openly turned Pakistan into a nuclear missile state in order to divert India’s strategic attention, thus allowing China to complete a major up-armament of Western-facing PLA forces. These new PLA forces are now available for rapid transfer to the East, perhaps to form a second wave of invasion forces for Taiwan.
Iran has received much military technology directly from China, but also receives it indirectly via North Korea. A major conflict that would have the US defending Gulf states, Israel, or southern Europe from Iranian aggression could be as successful as a North Korean conflict in diverting US forces away from Asia.
All of this adds new layers to the Decade of Concern, and it should prompt new directions for creative planning in Taipei and Washington. The Trump Administration has proven its willingness to move beyond the hoary constraints of the 1970s “Our One China Policy”; to strengthen democracy in general. US Secretary of State Pompeo heralded Taiwan on its recent election as “a model for the Indo-Pacific region and a force for good in the world” — and US State Department officials are actively helping Taiwan to defend its diplomatic relationships. Perhaps it also makes sense to offer opportunities for Taiwan to contribute to the defense of freedom in Asia and beyond.
Imagine the worst case: North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan survive this decade and are all armed with mobile solid-fueled nuclear-armed ICBMs transported by Chinese-made launchers. The first response should be to determine the consequences for China and the CCP of the potential nuclear wars it is helping to create. But in addition, is it also time now for Washington and its allies and partners to determine the level of military power required to deter Chinese aggression, both with and without US military coalition support?
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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