Exchange on Taiwan

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.

UPDATE 2: Related posts here and here.

6 thoughts on “Exchange on Taiwan”

  1. I don’t think a D-day type invasion is ever likely. Traditional Chinese military thought relies less on overt force and more on pressure in many areas such as economic and cultural while using the military only to provide the coup de grace if at all.

    I think we will see an attempt at a “soft invasion” where China attempts to turn Taiwan into something like Hong Kong by means short of open warfare. As an island, Taiwan is susceptible to blockades. As a key player in the modern Just-in-Time manufacturing system, disruptions in that in the past would have been considered minor could have crushing economic consequences.

    China could shut down Taiwan by simply making a credible threat of war over a period of weeks or months. Merchant ships and aircraft would be afraid to enter a possible war zone. Foreign manufacturing partners worried they might lose Taiwan might begin to switch to partners in other countries. China could further pressure such changes by tying access to mainland markets to an abandonment of Taiwan.

    If they do resort to violence I think it will be very minimal. Their best strategy would be to seed robot mines around the waters of Taiwan that would seek to cripple but not sink merchant vessels.

    Western Democracies have trouble dealing with slow, subtle and patient attacks. If nothing dramatic happens, we tend to ignore the problem as the our response to terrorism in the 90’s demonstrated. If there is any ambiguity at all in the situation the Chinese can count on legions of Western Leftist to oppose any military action which will divide and slow any Western response.

    The mainland will be able to slowly strangle Taiwan economically using only aggressive saber rattling and it is quite possible that the West will be unable to effectively respond to such a subtle attack.

  2. I have seen very little about the street sentiment in Taiwan.

    Declarations of independence by the Taiwan government would probably worsen the situation, but it seems like a popular movement — say massive anti-Beijing demonstrations a la Lebanan — might not only deflate China’s claims of legitimacy, but they could possibly even embolden China’s internal pro-democracy reformers.

  3. Shannon, I think that is all true. However, if the PRC does that they are cutting their own throats since they are Taiwan’s biggest trading partner. This does not reassure me much, though. The question then becomes, how bad does it have be for that fact not to matter? And the follow-up question, how likely is that? The answers, pretty bad and pretty likely. If I am right and the most likely scenario for a war is an attempt to distract the Chinese public from some domestic crisis, then something much more overt and maybe even extemporized is potentially possible. That is what scares me the most — a NONrational actor on the other side, A Communist leadership that thinks it is on the way to the guillotine and clinging to power by its fingernails, with nothing to lose.

    How we would respond to something measured and menacing like you describe is an interesting question. How long the PRC could withstand the trade disruption might be a better question than how long Taiwan (or the USA) could. The current president would not take well to such an attempt. How a successor administration would respond is an entirely different question.

  4. Let them invade if they want. An attempt will have only one result, a quick US/Japan victory followed by regime change in China. The US Navy is of course the best and largest in the world. The Japanese have incredible anti-sub capacity, their navy is probably the second best in the world. The Reds not only have to launch a sucessful assault, they have to maintain control of the straights until their entire force is ashore and then resupply it. They cannot do it.

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