With just 24 million people, Taiwan is smaller than several Chinese cities. It has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates—much lower than mainland China. Its population under the age of 60 will fall by half during the next 40 years, according to UN projections, and every 100 workers will support 85 pensioners. That is unsustainable. Migration from the mainland is inevitable, and with it the eventual reintegration of Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China—unless the US and China go to war over the island.
Taiwan might be the Sarajevo of the 21st century. In some ways the comparison seems absurd. Serbia’s rapidly population growth directed its land hunger towards neighboring Bosnia, while Russia incited Serbia against the Dual Monarchy in its long rivalry with the German cultural sphere. Taiwan by contrast has a dwindling population and a shared culture with the Mainland. A million Taiwanese work in the mainland and Taiwanese companies have invested some $60 billion in mainland industries.
Nonetheless former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has compared the sharpening of US-Chinese rivalry to the months prior to August 1914, and Admiral James Stavridis, the former head of the US Pacific Command, earlier this year published a novel depicting a US-Chinese nuclear exchange after naval battles in which China sinks a US aircraft carrier. The US and China “will likely find themselves in a full-blown, Cold War-like status in the near future...could this lead the two nations to a hot war? Even a nuclear exchange? Unfortunately, the answer is yes,” Stavridis wrote March 9 in Time Magazine.
The danger lies in a deep asymmetry of perceived interests.
Taiwan’s integration into the mainland is a raison d’état for the present Chinese regime and would be for any Chinese regime. China is not a nation-state but an empire with six major language groups and 280 million minor ones. 60 percent of Chinese cannot converse in the Kanzleisprache Mandarin. China is always at risk of disintegrating, as it did during the so-called Century of Humiliation that began with the Opium Wars and ended with the Communist victory. A rebel province is an existential threat to this or indeed any Chinese state. It is not a matter of pride, or “face,” or nationalist propaganda. It is an existential issue for which China will go to war.
The Americans meanwhile have trouble adjusting to the new reality in the Pacific—despite numerous recent Pentagon war games predicting a Chinese victory. China has built a war-winning capability near its coast, including perhaps 350 anti-ship missile launchers, missiles and lasers that can blind US satellites, sixty submarines, the world’s largest navy of 355 ships, and about 2,100 combat aircraft. It wields the Russian S-400 air defense system that can sweep the skies of Taiwan’s aging F-16’sChina cannot project power globally, but it has concentrated military assets close to home.
America’s $6 trillion of spending in Iraq and Afghanistan depleted its defense technology. It depends on an aging network of GPS and communications satellites that have no defense against anti-satellite missiles and ground-based lasers. The Navy’s Aegis missile defense system offers little protection against Chinese missiles raining down from the stratosphere. US military leaders have known for the better part of a decade that China can sink US carriers, as Admiral Stavridis described in his novel “2034.”
But the United States is not reconciled to the idea of sharing power with China, let alone ceding first place. Some analysts, for example Dan Blumenthal and Hal Brands at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute claim that China is in decline and therefore all the more likely to strike out soon. Others, like former Trump Defense Department planner Elbridge Colby maintain that China is rising, and that this is America’s last change to stop it. “Restoring military dominance over China is infeasible, given its size and growth trajectory,” Colby wrote, and its economy “in purchasing power parity terms it is already larger than America’s.”
These are contradictory but mutually-reinforcing mindsets, and they point to American actions that would increase the likelihood of war. Dan Blumenthal and former National Security Adviser John Bolton want to garrison American troops in Taiwan. Colby, author of the recent book “The Strategy of Denial,” wants to prepare an attack on Chinese assets that would stop a prospective invasion of Taiwan.
In 1914, military logic dictated that if one side mobilized, the other also must mobilize. The French noted Germany’s rapid population growth and decided that it would be better to fight a war now than later; the Germans noted Russia’s railway construction and thought the same thing. A similar logic applies to the South China Sea today.
The United States sells arms to Taiwan, but not of sufficient quality to prevent China from overwhelming Taiwan’s armed forces. That has been a tacit premise of the “One China” policy since Nixon opened US relations with China in 1972. Taiwan’s navy has four submarines to China’s sixty, four destroyers to China’s forty, and one corvette to China’s seventy-two. Its air force is no match either for China’s anti-aircraft missiles or its long-range air-to-air missiles. The implicit order of battle of Taiwan’s army is to lay down its arms if the first shot is fired.
Beijing will perceive any American attempt to change the military balance in the Taiwan Straits as a repudiation of the “One China” policy, that is, as an implicit step towards permanent Taiwanese independence. If the United States tries to emplace weapons that would make Taiwan impregnable, China likely will take preemptive action and invade Taiwan before the US has finished such preparations.
China remebers the 19th-century imperialist strategy of dividing China. Its paranoia towards the West matches Western misperceptions of Chinese intentions. Wittingly or not, American policy has heightened Beijing’s fears. When the outgoing Trump Administration removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from its list of terrorist organizations, China Daily fulminated: “Today, the US unilaterally denies the nature of the ETIM as a terrorist organization, which is a typical practice of bending the rules as it sees fit. In fact, the US treats terrorism as tools for containing other countries, and its true motive of ‘containing China’ is plain to see.
America’s defense planners are loathe admit to they have let China get the advantage in its own back yard. There is nothing so dangerous as refusal to come to terms with changing power relations. Just before the 1942 Fall of Singapore, the worst military disaster in British history, Winston Churchill averred that the Japanese would “fold up like the Italians” because they were “the wops of Asia.” For exactly a century starting with the First Opium War in 1841, the Royal Navy dominated Asia—until Japanese dive-bombers sank the battleship Prince of Wales in 1941. Today U.S. carriers are vulnerable to Chinese missiles.
What should the United States do?
The least bad outcome is to maintain the status quo. China will not annex Taiwan by force if it expects to absorb Taiwan without force in the course of the present century. To do so would require the West to impose drastic sanctions on China’s economy, at great cost to both sides.
The West must accept that it no longer can win a conventional war close to China’s coast. This isn’t 1996 when the US carrier Nimitz steamed through the Taiwan Strait to intimidate Beijing. All the less can the US win a nuclear war.
It can only stay ahead of China by reversing the relative decline of its manufacturing and military technology. US federal funding of technology development has fallen from 0.8% of GDP in 1984 to just 0.3% during the past several years, and manufacturing investment has fallen from 2.5% of GDP to just 1% of GDP today. If the United States wants to remain the world’s leading power, it should look to Kennedy’s Apollo Program and Reagan’ Strategic Defense Initiative as models for scientific and industrial revival.
David P. Goldman is Deputy Editor of Asia Times and author of You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World (2020).
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