Things have gotten tense in the Taiwan Strait this year and few observers seem to understand why.
Almost every article written on the Chinese Communist Party’s political and military provocations toward Taiwan say basically the same thing: specific events or triggers occurred that caused China to react and ratchet up tensions.
Sometimes the culprit is Taiwan’s presidential elections. Sometimes it’s an arms sales announcement. Sometimes it’s an official US State Department visit to that otherwise diplomatically-isolated country. The result is always the same: China got angry and lashed out.
As an explanatory tool, action-reaction dynamics are attractive. But they are shallow and misleading to the point of falsity. There are much deeper and more serious facts lurking behind the emerging crisis.
The State Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping (習近平), has publicly espoused a vision for the future in which Taiwan is coerced and conquered, and its free and open democratic model of governance is destroyed. To understand this is to understand that the Chinese Communist Party is fundamentally hostile and expansionistic.
Contrary to the popular media narrative, China is not reacting to external events. It is making others react. And China’s leader is not hot with anger. If anything, he is cold and calculating.
Because Chairman Xi considers it vital to transform the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, all Chinese government officials and military officers must constantly seek out opportunities to move goalposts and create new wins. They are calling plays from an offensive playbook and, unlike the democracies, they have a warrant to disregard the rules of diplomatic behavior and international law.
And why should we expect otherwise? Beijing has had remarkable success at shaping and limiting international policy responses to its Nazi-like ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang, its Orwellian mass surveillance programs, its coverup of the Covid-19 outbreak, and its violation of Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy. The real costs Xi Jinping and his subordinates have paid for their outrageous actions have been marginal. The lesson CCP elites have learned is that, for them, risk taking pays.
China’s next target is annexing Taiwan, and, so far, neither Washington nor Taipei has done a thing that is likely to alter those plans. To the contrary, by letting the CCP do what they’ve done elsewhere at such low cost, the international community has issued an open invitation to Beijing to start a conflagration in the Strait.
Just a few years ago a Chinese assault on Taiwan was extremely unlikely, not for ideological reasons or lack of ambition, but because Taiwan had the upper hand. The People’s Liberation Army had war plans for taking Taiwan, but everyone knew they were not militarily feasible.
According to its own assessments, the PLA had problems across the board when it came to these operations. They couldn’t dominate any of the domains: land, sea, air, space, or cyberspace, and they certainly couldn’t coordinate operations across them all in an integrated fashion. Internal documents from 2014 and 2015, analyzed in The Chinese Invasion Threat, show that PLA planners repeatedly warned they could not blockade or invade Taiwan without a high risk of failure. Those admissions of weakness may have served as a spur to political action.
In 2016, Chairman Xi initiated a sweeping reform and reorganization program to remedy his military’s problems. The entirety of China’s armed forces, to include armed police and militia units, were smashed and rebuilt. Thousands of promising military careers were ruined, with over a hundred generals and admirals arrested for “corruption” and noncompliance. Some were executed.
Then, to salve wounds after the brutal punishment, Xi invested further into China’s armaments programs and restored the military’s sense of importance. His stated aim? To construct a joint force capable of winning any future war. This meant decisively tipping the balance across the Taiwan Strait.
If the Pentagon’s recent report to Congress on Chinese military power is any indication, Xi’s reform program and investments have begun to pay off handsomely, making the threat to the United States and Taiwan much worse. China’s offensive buildup over the past five years has been stunning, far outpacing defensive efforts made by Washington and Taipei.
The portents of this are disquieting to consider. If nothing major changes in favor of the democracies, from 2020 onwards the PLA will likely see its calculated probability of wartime success increase with each passing year. Invading Taiwan will get easier and easier for the Chinese Communist Party to seriously contemplate. War is the ultimate strategic gamble, and the odds are increasingly for it.
But what about all those Taiwan arms sales under the Trump Administration? Couldn’t Taiwan still hope to defend itself and win war alone if it spent more on its military and had all the latest American defense technology?
There is a popular myth that Taiwan can spend its way out of this problem. It cannot. No amount of military spending will close the yawning gap. What matters is how wisely Taiwan’s military spends the limited resources assigned by its democratically-elected parliament, and whether or not it can improve its abnormal relationship with the United States.
There is no question that Taiwan alone could make the CCP pay a terrible price. Any invasion and occupation of Taiwan in the 2020s would almost certainly cost Beijing at least hundreds of thousands of young Chinese lives and trillions of dollars. The problem of course is that CCP elites could decide those costs are relatively small compared to the tremendous value they place on the prize. Chairman Xi has made conquering Taiwan the one and only goal of his “China Dream” strategy that can be objectively measured.
Lacking strategic overmatch, Taiwan cannot stop a CCP attack and prevent, or win, a war against the People’s Republic of China by itself. The United States plays the deciding role. It alone can raise the costs of aggression to a level the regime in Beijing would find truly unbearable.
The only realistic way to maintain regional stability is for America and Taiwan to stand together in defense of their common interests. If they continue to stand apart, as they have for the past four decades, and if they continue to delude themselves about China’s true aims, they will both suffer the consequences of their misjudgments and half measures.
If China were to attack Taiwan today, no one can say with any certainty what Washington might do or how long it would take the White House to act. That ambiguity encourages the Chinese Communist Party to take risks and push outward by force.
If the United States were to resolve to defend Taiwan and make its will known, Beijing would be forced to recompute its odds of success. Finding the picture totally altered, no rational leader of China would back a doomed enterprise.
In a perfect world, the US government could find innovative ways to make its commitments to defend Taiwan credible without providing Beijing a pretext to preemptively attack. For this to work, America’s credibility would have to be ironclad. This is likely to mean putting a small but significant number of American troops and Marines on the ground in Taiwan as a strategic tripwire. It could also mean having the President make a series of public statements to the effect that the US will defend Taiwan if China invades. In addition, the White House could order the Pentagon to start conducting ship visits to Taiwan and engaging in large-scale US-Taiwan military exercises so both countries learn to fight together in defense of their common interests.
Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world. Far from it. Nothing has been done or even seriously contemplated by Washington or Taipei that might save the situation.
Given what has happened in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and the way things have evolved amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems clear that a major crisis is coming to the Taiwan Strait. This could spiral into an all-out Chinese invasion attempt and protracted superpower war.
The opening acts of military aggression might take any number of forms. The possibilities open to the Chinese Communist Party to hurt Taiwan are bound only by the limits of sinister imagination. As we have seen time and time again, Chinese strategists are wicked smart, even diabolical, and perfectly capable of doing things that will stagger the sensibilities of outside observers.
Washington and Taipei underestimate the CCP’s ambition and capacity for violence at their peril. Unless they can find the political will to make meaningful policy changes, the sparks of war we are watching today could soon burst into flame.
There may yet be time to keep that fiery future from happening. Millions of lives depend on it.
Ian Easton is Senior Director at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat.
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