This is the cleaned-up transcript of a recent email discussion between Lex and me:
JG: Have you seen this?
Lex: Yeah, I saw it. The guy adds nothing to the conversation. The Chinese face huge obstacles to invading — for one thing, the US Navy has submarines that could sink their invasion fleet. And now the Japanese Navy is on our side. This guy is just shooting from the hip. There are many good articles on the topic of Chinese military capacity. I don’t think they are ready to do it, and a seaborne invasion is the hardest military operation of all to pull off successfully.
JG: I hope you’re right. As I see it the problem for the Chinese leadership is similar to that for the Iranian mullahs. They cannot simultaneously keep their population under control by force and relax their economic control enough to allow their country to be internationally competitive. Something will eventually have to give. The last Soviet government didn’t have the heart to start killing people en masse, and consequently the Soviet regime fell. China, like Iran, has a significant pro-democracy movement that is not likely to go away absent drastic violent suppression and/or a return to the economic rigidity that characterized China before about 1978. Either measure would wreck the economy and thereby threaten the regime.
The temptation for dictators in these situations is to gin up nationalist sentiment and hysteria about external enemies. It may be the path of least resistance.
The same technological advances that now force US companies to be internationally competitive also put the squeeze on dictatorships. If they try to maintain control in the traditional way, using force, they risk harming their own economies to the extent that popular unrest may lead to their losing power. Even North Korea, whose leadership is ruthless, is feeling the strain. China could have gone the NK route, but having liberalized economically in the late-1970s and 1980s the leaders cannot now reverse course without making war on their own population and killing the golden goose.
China the country is doing well but its leadership is really in a desperate situation. They face an inevitable choice between further liberalization, and losing their grip, and cracking down. Ginning up war with Taiwan seems like a reasonable alternative for them, even if the a priori odds of losing seem high. I don’t think we should discount the threat merely because invasion would be difficult.
I also don’t know if the US would defend Taiwan. Maybe we would, but it’s not obvious. A gambler might be willing to run the risk.
Lex: And I agree with all of it. . .
I just don’t think that the next few weeks or months are somehow a particularly worrisome period. The Chinese are simply not yet equipped to attack across a large body of water, transport a large number of armed men, get them ashore, defeat the Taiwanese, and occupy the island. They may try to do intimidation, like the missile launches of a few years ago. If they try to invade, there will be a build-up period that we will detect. This will allow us to deploy submarines and other assets. It is similar to the situation the Warsaw Pact faced during the Cold War. They never had a sufficiently big advantage at the critical point to make an invasion of Western Europe worth the risk. The recent treaty with Japan makes a Chinese attack even more risky. If they attach and it fails or bogs down, they are facing the two biggest navies in the world, economic catastrophe as all
trade screeches to a halt, and a likely declaration of independence that they could never undo by the Taiwanese.
JG: The guy who wrote the post I cited wasn’t talking about invasion in the coming months. He was speculating about the next three or four years. He predicts China will do something around the time of the 2008 Olympics.
Lex: The military balance may have changed by then. But, Bush will still be president, our involvement in Iraq should be winding down, and Japan is on-board. The Chinese will have acquired European weapons by then, but I still think the cards we are holding are better. Attacking Taiwan would be very, very difficult under the best of circumstances — and facing the US Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force is as far from the best circumstances as you can ask for. I think the Chinese are aggressive, but not stupid. They want to bully people into surrender. But I don’t think they are this stupid. As long as we have a credible deterrent they won’t get into a shooting war they will probably lose. If the Democrats win in 2008, and try to “finesse” the “complexity” of the “nuanced” situation, then the Chinese might smell weakness and pounce. So, maybe after the 2008 elections and after the Olympics. But not sooner. So it appears to me. Of course, if civil unrest is looking like it might bring down the regime, all bets are off. Then a foreign war could be used as a desperation ploy to unite the country. In that case, the fish in the Taiwan straight will dine well on PLA corpses, courtesy of our Navy’s torpedoes.
UPDATE: Commenter ArtDOdger raises a very interesting question about the possibility of different outcomes from an official ROC declaration of independence vs. a popular Taiwanese independence movement a la Lebanon.