Rumors of War

Rumors of War August 9, 2022

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, even though President Biden and the Pentagon did not want her to–illustrating the weakness of the administration’s control of its own foreign policy–stirring up a hornet’s nest.

The furious Chinese have encircled the island and conducted live-ammo and missile-firing exercises, demonstrating their ability to subject Taiwan to a blockade. As the diplomatic furor escalates, China has also cancelled joint efforts on climate, drugs, and military co-operation with the United States.

We might support an American citizen’s right to travel wherever she wants to and appreciate her defiance of China and her support of Taiwan.  But the uproar has created a volatile climate. As the Wall Street Journal’s Nathaniel Taplin says, “The visit marks a significant turning point in Sino-U.S. relations and the cross-strait strategic environment.”

It is also easy to dismiss China’s military threats over the issue as mere bluster.  But we would do well to take them seriously.  Some experts are saying that a war between the United States and China is quite possible within the decade or even sooner.

We might say that Americans have no treaty obligations to defend Taiwan, any more than we do to defend Ukraine.  We might send weapons and give other aid, but we should never send Americans to die in a war with another super power.  We didn’t defend Hong Kong when China took it over, so why should we defend Taiwan, which China has long considered to be its territory.

But, according to Stanford sinologist Oriana Skylar Mastro, China already considers the United States to be the chief obstacle to an invasion of Taiwan.  And their strategy, once they decide to take Taiwan by force, will first be to conduct a Pearl Harbor-style attack on American military bases and warships.  Knocking out American military power in the Pacific so as to attack other targets unimpeded was exactly why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.  That attack on Americans ended U.S. neutrality and turned even the isolationists into supporters of the war, and the same would happen today.

The U.S. right now is ill-prepared for such a conflict.  In a sobering opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled The Coming War over Taiwan [behind a paywall],  Hal Brands and Michael Beckley of the American Enterprise Institute point out that American forces in Asia are concentrated in a few large bases, mainly on Guam and Okinawa, that are “highly vulnerable to missile attacks,” and they call our aircraft carriers “missile-magnets.”  Furthermore, China has built the world’s largest navy, built up its military forces, and now has highly advanced military technology.  Meanwhile, the U.S. is preparing to retire its aging fleet of cruisers, submarines, and long-range bombers.  High-tech replacements are in the works, but they won’t come online until the 2030s.  And Brands and Beckley say nothing of the Pentagon’s current recruitment and morale problems, said to be caused by the new emphasis on woke indoctrination.

Brands and Beckley, who have written a forthcoming book on the subject entitled Danger Zone:  The Coming Conflict with Chinasay that historically nations start wars just after they reach their peak power and have started to decline.

This peaking-power syndrome—the tendency for rising states to become more aggressive as they become more fearful of impending decline—has caused some of the bloodiest wars in history. . . .

From ancient times to the present, once-rising powers have taken up arms when their fortunes faded, their enemies multiplied, and they felt they had to lunge for glory or lose their chance forever. Fast-growing countries have responded to economic slumps with reckless expansion. Revisionist states that find themselves cornered by rivals often use force to break the ring. The ghastliest wars of the last century were started not by rising, optimistic powers but by countries—such as Germany in 1914 or Japan in 1941—that had crested and begun to decline. Now China is following this arc—an exhilarating rise followed by the prospect of a hard fall.

China, they say, fits this pattern exactly, demonstrating “a dangerous mix of strength and weakness.”  After astonishingly rapid economic growth–with the world’s largest economy measured by buying power–China now faces demographic problems (due largely to its former “one child policy”), economic slow downs, resource shortages, and multiplying international opposition.  At the same time, China is also expanding its control of its citizens and its presence abroad, with the ambition to become the most powerful nation on earth.  To China’s leaders, it may be now or never to achieve its glory.

Brands and Beckley say that this would not be easy for China to achieve.  “An invasion of Taiwan would the largest amphibious assaults in history. Amphibious assaults are devilishly difficult, and a full-on invasion of Taiwan would be one of the largest amphibious assaults in history. It would require the PLA to surge hundreds of thousands of troops across the turbulent Taiwan Strait and to seize an island whose geography—mountains, dense jungles, crowded urban environments—is a defender’s dream.”  China’s military is inexperienced in combat, unlike U.S. forces.  And America and its allies have other advantages–economic, political, and technological–that should give China pause before launching a war.  But America needs to get ready, if only to prevent that from happening.



Illustration:  China and Taiwan, Furfur, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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