Communist China plans to invade Taiwan, and history tells us that it is likely to happen sooner rather than later. The US and its allies must plan — and prioritize — accordingly.
US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday recently said that the US military must be prepared for China to invade Taiwan by 2024 or earlier.
“When we talk about the 2027 window, in my mind that has to be a 2022 window or potentially a 2023 window,” he said on Oct. 19. “I don’t mean at all to be alarmist ... it’s just that we can’t wish it away.”
Gilday’s remarks came amid the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, in which Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), the party’s general secretary, further solidified his grip on power.
Breaking with precedence, Xi retained a third term and is on track to serve as the unquestioned ruler of China for at least another decade, if not for the rest of his life.
No leader since Mao Zedong (毛澤東) has exerted such control, and Xi’s China is vastly more powerful in economic and military terms than China was under Mao.
Xi’s consolidation of power was on full display when he had former Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), his predecessor, publicly removed from congress proceedings. Top allies and lieutenants received key appointments, as Xi removed rivals from their positions.
Xi reaffirmed his position on Taiwan, telling his acolytes — and the world — that “resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is, for the party, a historic mission and an unshakable commitment.”
That “commitment” entails invading a sovereign and democratic country, and imposing draconian rule on its people just as China has done in Hong Kong.
Predictions for when China might invade have been steadily increasing.
Last year, then-US Indo-Pacific Command head Admiral Phil Davidson told the US Senate Armed Services Committee that Beijing might invade “in the next six years.”
The admiral’s testimony shocked observers and led to the creation of the phrase “Davidson Window” to describe a brief period to prepare for, and hopefully deter, an invasion.
Davidson also said that the military balance in the region had “become more unfavorable” to the US and its allies, saying: “We are accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the ‘status quo’ before our forces may be able to deliver an effective response.”
The Pentagon seemed to affirm Davidson’s timeline as recently as August.
At the time, Davidson’s remarks were viewed as a shot across the bow. A decade prior, the idea that China would invade Taiwan was widely dismissed by many foreign policy commentators, but now the debate is largely one of “when,” not “if.” On that score, history offers a stark warning.
The track record of nations predicting when invasions or war might occur is far from reassuring.
For example, tensions between the US and Imperial Japan had been escalating for years prior to the Dec. 7, 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor.
In 1912, former US president Theodore Roosevelt said that the Japanese were “bent upon establishing themselves as the leading power in the Pacific.”
A year later, writing to congratulate his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt on his appointment as assistant secretary of the US Navy, Theodore Roosevelt told the future president: “I do not anticipate trouble with Japan, but it may come, and if it does it will come suddenly.”
At a Dec. 17, 1937 Cabinet meeting, then-US secretary of the interior Harold Ickes said: “Certainly war with Japan is inevitable sooner or later.”
Yet many US defense planners did not expect it to come when or how it did. Some did not expect a potential conflict until 1942 or 1943 at the earliest.
As the historian Andrew Roberts said, some in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, including Roosevelt himself, had “assumed that Japan would respond rationally” to economic sanctions that had been levied against Tokyo for its imperial transgressions.
Those analysts hoping that Western sanctions against Russia might deter China from invading Taiwan should take heed; dictatorships do not subscribe to what Western democracies consider to be rational.
Further, sanctions are unlikely to be a deterrent. China is far more integrated into the global economy than either present day Russia or Imperial Japan. Other parallels exist.
In the years before the war, “the Americans and British had taken comfort in a widely held conviction that Japanese airpower was not to be taken seriously,” historian Ian Toll said.
Prior to Pearl Harbor, “Western aviation journals cited statistics purporting to show that Japan had the highest aviation crash rate in the world,” Toll said in his book Pacific Crucible.
Today, one does not have to search far to find those who doubt that China lacks the ability to carry out what would be a difficult amphibious invasion.
In reviewing the annals of war and conquest, such mistakes are the rule, not the exception.
On the eve of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, some defense planners in the UK did not expect to be at war with Berlin for a decade, and often these were the pessimists; many thought that a conflict was not likely.
Other examples abound. Many of the eventual chief participants in World War I foresaw a great conflagration ahead, but few expected it to erupt in the summer of 1914.
In 1950, the US did not anticipate China’s entry into what became a wider Korean War, one of the great intelligence failures in US history.
The surprise attack by Japanese destroyers caught the Russian fleet unaware at Port Arthur on Feb. 8, 1904.
While unexpected, it heralded the rise of a new Pacific power, shocking many Western observers.
History teaches humility, and with it, vigilance.
Sean Durns a Washington-based foreign affairs analyst.
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