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.

China tells Taiwan not to secede – Might this lead to war?

This isn’t a real surprise:

BEIJING — China unveiled a law Tuesday authorizing an attack if Taiwan moves toward formal independence, ratcheting up pressure on the self-ruled island while warning other countries not to interfere. Taiwan denounced the legislation as a “blank check to invade.”

The proposed anti-secession law, read out for the first time before the ceremonial National People’s Congress, doesn’t say what specific actions might invite a Chinese attack.

“If possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ nonpeaceful means and other necessary measures to protect
China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Wang Zhaoguo (search), deputy chairman of the NPC’s Standing Committee, told the nearly 3,000 legislators gathered in the Great Hall of the People.

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I’m Not Convinced

A fair number of my friends are in the military. Every time I discuss international affairs they’re quick to point out that China is the one to watch. This is particularly true in the US Navy, where they’re very concerned with generating ways to counter any threat from the Middle Kingdom.

There’s certainly reason enough to take a good, hard look at what the Chinese could do, and what it would take to stop them if they try. Ever since 1949, China has claimed sovereignty over the island of Taiwan. They make no bones about their implacable desire to gain control of what they claim is a group of Chinese citizens in open rebellion against the one legal government. This news item details an official statement from the mainland Chinese government, warning Taiwan about their efforts at “creeping independence”.

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Sir Edward Grey’s Ghost on the Taiwan Strait

Some times events outrun the good idea for a blog post you somehow don’t get around to typing up. I had an idea a while ago that the “strategic ambiguity” which had been, for some unaccountable reason, US policy regarding Taiwan, was dangerous and stupid.

The analogy I saw was with the position of Britain vis a vis Kaiserian Germany in the period prior to World War I. Britain refused to make an unequivocal, publicly acknowledged alliance with France. Britain’s liberal government, led by Prime Minister Henry Asquith and Foreign Minister Edward Grey, seemed to think that they were preserving a balance between Britain’s interests and the isolationist and pacifist sentiments of many of their liberal colleagues. Also, by refusing to commit, they were able to get away with smaller defense budgets than an open military commitment would have required. They refused to come to grips with realistic eventualities, and willed the ends without willing the means.

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Another Security Risk from China?

Bruce Schneier writes:

China is getting a copy of the Windows source code. I’ve already written about the security risks of open-source versus proprietary software. One of the problems with open source is that the bad guys get to look at the code. One of the good things about open source is that the good guys get to look at the code, too. If I were the Chinese government, I’d turn that code upside down looking for vulnerabilities, and then not tell anyone about them. This seems like a huge security risk to me, even though Microsoft might consider it a smart business move.

Good point. Microsoft probably sees China as just another customer, but from a security standpoint we should be wary. If there is any advantage to be gained here, the Chinese government will take it. The fact that we habitually view a technology as benign does not preclude someone else from using that technology as a weapon. (See, in this regard, Lex’s recent post about China’s space program.)