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Taiwan could be the Pearl Harbor of WWIIIFebruary 2021
This is a follow-up to Do not Wake up the Sleeping Dwarf (where i have written how Taiwan may desire to be respected at least as much as North Korea is). This article draws lessons from historical parallels, mainly: the Arab-Israeli wars, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US invasion of Vietnam, the Cold War, and the Nazi invasion of Poland.
To a distant observer, it may seem that, rationally, it makes no sense for China to invade Taiwan. There are however three main motivations that are actually relatively rational. The first one is that, without Taiwan, Xi will retire having accomplished nothing and having presided over the slowest economic growth since Mao. China does not have democratic elections but Xi will be up for "reelection" by the CCP in 2022. The fact that the two-term rule has been removed does not mean that Xi will automatically get a third term. Xi's legacy right now is one of human-rights abuses (that sooner or later always come to light even in the country where reporting was initially suppressed) and of colossal economic inequality: Beijing now has more billionaires than any other city in the world but China still has one billion people who live in poverty. His main accomplishment is to have cracked down on corruption, although low-level corruption is still rampant and that's the kind of corrution that ordinary people experience (for example, plenty of Chinese have a driver license even though they never learned how to drive and never took a driving test). So the first motivation to invade Taiwan is simply personal: from Xi's point of view, it would grant him a clear place in the millennial history of China. The second main motivation is that China has been chasing Western technology for decades and keeps getting closer but still fails to match the most sophisticated Western technology, and the ultimate cause of this gap is the semiconductor industry. Taiwan's semiconductor industry is often ahead of Silicon Valley or least matches it. If China absorbs Taiwan, it becomes the equivalent of Europe absorbing California. The third main motivation is that Taiwan has always been an an embarrassment to communist China: any Chinese tourist and business person who visits Taiwan can see that Taiwan has created a better society, not only free but also wealthy (and even truer to ancient Chinese civilization). Taiwan's GDP per capita is three times China's. Taiwan's success has always been unspoken evidence that Beijing's communism is not the best option around. Hong Kong was different: Britain made it rich. To some extent one can claim that the USA made Taiwan rich, but any objective visitor can see that Taiwan is self-governing and owes its success mainly to itself.
There are signs that China is more or less seriously planning for an invasion. Some signs are purely military. China never hides the fact that Taiwan is the primary focus of its investment in amphibious assault and sea-based missile launch since 2018. In late 2019 China launched its new Type 075 amphibious assault ships. These are small aircraft carrier that can accommodate about 900 troops and carry 30 helicopters (they could carry fighter jets if China develops vertical takeoff aircrafts like the F35B of the USA). Since 2005, China has also built a fleet of six Type 071 amphibious ships In 2020 communist party's propaganda claimed that China's shipyards are now building and launching amphibious ships so rapidly it is like "dropping dumplings" into water. China now has between 25,000 and 35,000 marines.
Other signs are disguised as general progress. For example, China has been praised (by naive observers) for launching a massive conversion of its automotive industry from gasoline to electrical vehicles. This reduces China's dependence on the Middle East. The USA can easily blockade the oil supply routes to China. But if China doesn't need gasoline for its vehicles, the disruption will be bearable.
The problem for Taiwan is that there is no credible regional deterrent to a Chinese invasion. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union threatened West Germany but never invaded West Germany because West Germany had regional allies (France, Britain, Italy, etc) besides US troops. Taiwan has neither regional allies (the equivalent of France, Britain and Italy) nor US troops. There is nobody in the region that would risk a war with China to defend Taiwan because noone else feels threatened by China. The nearest US base is in Okinawa, 640 kms away. At maximum speed it takes 14 hours for an air carrier to cover that distance, and that's not counting the time it takes to get it ready, which could be several days. Compare with the 250,000 US soldiers physically deployed in West Germany during the 1960s.
The best comparison of Taiwan's situation is with Israel. The vast Islamic world has claimed for decades that the territory occupied by Israel morally and historically belongs to the Islamic world. Mainland China is the Arab world (vociferous, ideological, vast and largely populated) and Taiwan is Israel (silent, pragmatic, small and densely populated but with no regional allies). Like Israel, the only country that may come to its rescue is the USA, but it lies far away. Of course, this is a comparison, despite depressing in depicting Taiwan's loneliness, that gives Taiwan hope: Israel won all the wars against much larger Arab coalitions; and now one after the other the Arab states are beginning to accept Israel's existence and independence.
Here are some serious reasons why China should think twice before invading Taiwan.
1. China better win. It would be truly humiliating if tiny Taiwan managed to repel the Chinese invasion, kill thousands of Chinese soldiers and even bomb some Chinese cities. The Chinese population is never reminded of the brief war that China fought in 1979 against Vietnam because Vietnam won and humiliated China. If Taiwan fights back a Chinese invasion, it would probably mean the end of the Chinese communist party. Does Xi really want to take this chance? What are the odds? Not negligible, in fact. Taiwan has an elite army, trained by the USA, whereas China has an army that is largely made of conscripts. China's army hasn't fought a real war since that 1979 war against Vietnam and is not as trained as the Russian and US armies. Nobody (not even Xi) knows how well those soldiers would fight in a real war, how motivated they would be to fight against Taiwanese guerrillas on Taiwanese land. The US, legally, only commits to provide defensive weapons to Taiwan, but those are lethal weapons nonetheless. Taiwan has certainly plans to engage in guerrilla warfare, and both the USA and the Soviet Union (and, before them, the British Empire) have learned how difficult it is to fight guerrillas, no matter how strong your military is. At the same time China is a big target: Taiwan can hit so many targets inside China, not only the invading force, and in fact it can hit mainland China even more easily than it can hit the invading force.
2. The whole world is likely to root for Taiwan in case of an unprovoked Chinese invasion. The Chinese population will only see what the communist party wants them to see, but the rest of the world will see live reporting from dozens of organizations of what is happening. This will create a tidal wave of sympathy and support for Taiwan, way more than what Taiwan enjoys today. It is difficult to imagine that Europe or even Israel will continue to do business as usual with China. The price that China will pay in diplomatic and economic terms is incalculable. In any case, China's reputation will take a hit in every country of the world, from subSaharan Africa to Scandinavia, from the Middle East to Latin America. In order to take Taiwan, China will sacrifice its reputation among 8 billion people in 130 countries. (China could invent a military incident to claim that it was provoked by Taiwan, an old trick used by the USA to invade Vietnam, but these days these tricks are much harder to "sell").
3. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan is likely to cause the full-speed rearmament of Japan. So far Japanesse public opinion has been steadfastedly opposed to military spending. Japan's constitution only allows Japan to "defend" itself. But an invasion of Taiwan could tilt public opinion towards more than just "defense". Japan, the most nuclear country in the world, can obviously develop a nuclear weapon whenever it wants. China would take Taiwan but would pay the price of a fully armed Japanese military power replacing the peaceful Taiwan.
4. In case of an invasion, nothing will keep Taiwan from going nuclear. So far the USA has pressured Taiwan not to develop nuclear weapons but Taiwan clearly has the know-how. A nuclear program existed in the 1960s to counter Mao's. It was the USA that pressured Taiwan to stop that program, in return for US protection. (Taiwan may or may not have abandoned that top-secret nuclear program). If the USA fails to protect Taiwan, it's hard to see what will stop Taiwan from going nuclear. A nuclear Taiwan would be for China a North Korea on steroid: not only Taiwan can use missile technology from the USA (presumably much better than North Korea's when it comes to aiming and hitting the target), but the distance between Taiwan and, say, Shanghai is much shorter than the distance between North Korea and Alaska.
5. Neighbors may be tempted to take advantage of China's involvement in Taiwan to launch their own military offensives. The obvious one is India, that could try to regain territory lost to Mao's China in 1962, or even try a full-scale liberation of Tibet, annexed by China in 1950 when India had just become independent and was recovering from a bloody war with Pakistan; and an Indian invasion could stir the Tibetans to rise up, so that China would find itself fighting three wars at once: the guerrilla warfare of Taiwan, the guerrilla warfare (and possibly domestic terrorism) of Tibet and the Indian army. It is hard to imagine that the Uighurs of Xinjiang would not take advantage of the mess to rise up too and create yet another front for the Chinese army. The USA would probably whip up domestic Chinese unrest, notably in Tibet and Xinjiang, but also in Hong Kong, Manchuria, Inner Mongolia; wherever there might be residual hostility towards Beijing. Today, outside of India, no country is even remotely willing to fight a war against China even to defend its own islands; but this regional cowardice can change if China is ever perceived as weakened or distracted. Such a nation-wide chaos would be eerily reminiscent of the disintegration of Qing China.
6. The other country that could take advantage (or, better, inspiration) from a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is North Korea. North Korea thinks of South Korea precisely what China thinks of Taiwan: a runaway region, colonized by evil Japanese and Westerners. North Korea may reason that China's invasion of Taiwan justifies its own claims on South Korea. Of course South Korea is much better protected by the USA than Taiwan (there are physically US soldiers lined up at the border), but a nuclear North Korea doesn't fear US retaliation the way it used to when it wasn't a nuclear power yet. If North Korea follows China's example and invades South Korea, China would have another conflict on its doorstep: further chaos, further tension, further distraction, further economic damage.
7. For all of these reason the Chinese economy would take a hit. The majority of the Chinese population has never lived through a recession. They have only seen economic progress. It is hard to gauge how they would react to an economic recession, let alone one that is self-inflicted. Will the Chinese middle class be willing to live in a wartime atmosphere after so many years of economic growth and of peace? Will the Chinese peasants be willing to further sacrifice after being left behind by the economic boom that created so many billionaires? It seems intuitive that they didn't get a fair share of China's economic miracle, and that they would be asked to sacrifice for the benefit of China's billionaires, an odd situation for a country that is nominally communist. if the conflict drags on, wartime military investment will take away money needed for social reforms like pensions, something that is already happening today but that would become irreversible in case of war.
8. Last but not least, of course, China has to cope with the US factor. China knows that the USA will not remain neutral and that most likely the USA will react. What nobody knows (not even the USA itself) is how much the president of the USA and Congress will be willing to do for Taiwan (it entirely depends on who is in power and what the internal situation is). An easy guess is that the USA will retaliate with an economic blockade of China and by sending air carriers in the sea between China and Taiwan, which will make it difficult for China to resupply its invasion troops. Of course, the USA will also provide Taiwan with the best available intelligence about Chinese military movements. Beyond that it's anybody's guess if the USA will be willing to actually bomb the Chinese troops invading Taiwan and maybe even bomb China itself (e.g. to take down its military communication network). If it wanted, the USA could mount a campaign to retake the island after China takes it: China may have 35,000 marines, but the USA has 186,000 marines with extensive experience of amphibious and land operations. The USA has little to fear from China: the chances that Chinese bombers can reach the USA are very low, and long-range Chinese missiles can cause limited damage given the USA's antimissile defenses. At best China could send submarines to torpedo US warships here and there, but even that could backfire if the Chinese submarines cannot avoid the US submarines. And China knows that any direct act of aggression against the USA will simply draw the USA further into the conflict, with devastating consequences for China. Conventional military wisdom is that China will take out the US military bases in East Asia if it is convinced that the USA will defend Taiwan, but it will not do it if it thinks that the USA will not intervene; but the reality is more nuanced: the USA will intervene "to some extent", not necessarily with a real war against China, and taking out US military bases would only guarantee that the USA intervenes with maximal impact. In any case US military bases are located outside Taiwan (Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Afghanistan, Philippines, Australia) and so China would have to violate the air space of several other countries in order to hit US bases, a truly suicidal strategy because it could result in the formation an anti-Chinese alliance.
Here is a likely scenario for a Chinese invasion. China's military budget is $237 billion versus Taiwan's $10 billion. China has two million soldiers versus Taiwan's 165,000. April and October are the only months when it makes sense for the Chinese navy to invade Taiwan. Hence the timing of a Chinese invasion is relatively predictable and Taiwan is on high alert those two months of the year. A surprise invasion is an oxymoron. We can reasonably assume that Taiwan has plenty of spies on the mainland and would know of Chinese preparations for an invasion the moment they begin. The first reaction by Taiwan would probably be to sabotage the Chinese navy as much as possible in Chinese harbors themselves and to strike at the power grid and the railways of the southern coastal provinces, mostly Fujian. Taiwan could also launch a terrorist campaign deep inside China, perhaps murdering famous politicians and generals in spectacular manners. We have no idea how many Taiwanese operatives have infiltrated the Chinese army and the Chinese government, but it would be surprising (very surprising) if they couldn't at least match Israel's activity in Arab and Iranian countries. After all the Taiwanese have the advantage that they look as Chinese as it gets and many of them speak Mandarin. At the same time one can expect that China has operatives inside Taiwan and they will be busy murdering pro-democracy and pro-independence leaders when China launches the invasion. Sabotage, however, will be asymmetrical: China needs Taiwan's ports, roads and railways for its invasion. In fact, it will be Taiwan itself that will blow up its own infrastructure. The invasion will presumably begin with the bombing by China of Taiwanese military bases and missile installations. This is unlikely to take down a significant number of Taiwan's "defense" missiles so it is likely that Taiwan will be able to bomb China with its own missiles. We know neither the targets that Taiwan has chosen (because we don't know the extent of its ethical considerations) nor the extent of the damages that its missiles can cause (because nobody has ever tested China's ballistic missile interceptors, nor its radar network). We can safely assume that Taiwan will target China's communication network along the coast facing Taiwan but China cannot rule out strikes directly on Beijing. This is all asymmetric in its psychological effects. A Taiwanese expects Chinese missiles on Taipei, expects its leaders to be murdered, and expects sabotage of its infrastructure. A Chinese does not expect Taiwanese missiles on Beijing, its leaders to be murdered, sabotage of its railways, etc. So the psychological impact of whatever Taiwan does will be much bigger even if the physical impact will be inferior.
China will need more than its own navy. An invasion of Taiwan requires at least three times the forces that Taiwan has, i.e. about half a million soldiers. In order to transport half a million soldiers to Taiwan, China needs to confiscate dozens of commercial ships. Needless to say, these are easy targets for Taiwanese missiles and for Taiwan's four submarines. Finally, the ships that make it to Taiwan's coasts will have to deal with Taiwan's naval mines. Therefore this expanded Chinese "navy" will be more vulnerable than the carefully planned Taiwanese navy that simply has to wait and hide in friendly waters. One can estimate that half of the Chinese invasion force will be neutralized even before it reaches Taiwan's beaches.
It is debatable which air force is more vulnerable. Taiwan's best fighter jets (the US-made F-16 and the domestic F-CK-1C) are kept in underground bunkers and cannot be easily taken out by Chinese missiles. It is not clear what damage Taiwan can inflict on China's air force but presumably more significant. And, again, psychology favors Taiwan: nobody in Taiwan doubts that China can hit Taiwan's air force, but many in China will be shocked to hear that Taiwan destroyed China's jet fighters even before they took off. Statistics is also in Taiwan's favor, in a sense: China has 1,200 combat aircraft versus Taiwan's 289, which means that there are many more available targets for Taiwan. Morale can take a significant toll on Chinese troops when so many of their invasion force succumbs even before one Chinese marine has landed in Taiwan.
There are only about 12-14 possible landing sites in Taiwan. Each one has already been militarized and prepared to fight an invasion. When the Chinese marines land, they will have to fight against highly effective defense structures and guerrilla warfare. The Chinese marines that make it to the beaches will be decimated. Of course this is where Taiwan's advantages will end: China can keep dumping soldiers on its beaches and eventually Taiwanese troops will be outnumbered and reduced to guerrilla warfare. At this point China would be able to complete the invasion of Taiwan, arrest its leaders and imprison almost all of Taiwan's troops except that... this is where the US cavalry will arrive. US air carriers will arrive and possibly even some Japanese submarines may arrive. China will eventually take Taiwan but the USA will make it very difficult for China to retain it and use military pressure to "convince" China to withdraw (for example by blocking traffic between the mainland and Taiwan, i.e. making it difficult for China to resupply its invasion troops at the same time that Taiwanese guerrillas continue to fight them).
A big unknown is whether Taiwan has studied Israel's strategy in the "Yom Kippur War": Israel surprised the much larger force than invaded it by sending commandos deep into Egypt, i.e. basically staging its own invasion of the bigger enemy. Taiwan could land its own small force near Beijing and stage a mini-invasion of the mainland, taking some territory near Beijing while China completes the invasion of Taiwan, an embarrassing situation for China.
The bottom line is that an invasion of Taiwan is militarily possible but it will cost enormously in Chinese human lives and it may result in China withdrawing if it becomes impossible to fully win the war. In other words, Taiwan can become to China what Vietnam was to the USA in the 1960s and what Afghanistan was to the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Historians and China experts are busy trying to figure out if China's invasion of Taiwan would be similar to Vietnam/Afghanistan (the senseless pointless expensive war launched by a too confident superpower), the Suez Canal crisis of 1956 (when Egypt stood up to the British Empire and proved that the empire was just a paper tiger), the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (when the USA proved how difficult it was for the Soviet Union to project its power so far away from its borders), the Czechoslovakia of 1938 (when France and Britain protected from Hitler the last democracy left in Central and Eastern Europe when Hitler claimed that Germany was entitled to the Germans living there), the Nazi invasion of Russia during World War II (which eventually precipitated the downfall of Nazi Germany), Pearl Harbor in 1941 (assuming that Taiwan is de facto as much part of the USA as Hawaii was in 1941), Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 (a very painless annexation that may have encouraged China to accelerate plans to annex Taiwan), or what.
Worst case scenario? Communist China's invasion of Taiwan triggers a much larger conflict just like Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939 triggered World War II. Let's say that India takes advantage of the situation (and of the outrage generated worldwide by China's actions) and attacks China across the Himalayas. India is no match for the Chinese army and air force but still has an army of 1.2 million soldiers and 2,000 warplanes. If half a million Chinese soldiers are busy in Taiwan and most of its hightech warfare is needed to fight hightech Taiwan, India has a good chance of penetrating deep into Tibet. If then China begins an all-out war against India, the USA, Japan and Australia are likely to enter the war on India's side. Note that the USA can launch a bombing campaign of China from South Korea, regardless of what South Korea would like to do (most likely it will be too busy guarding itself from the possible North Korean attack). The USA can also pressure the Philippines to offer logistical support by promising to return to the Philippines the islands that China stole, and there are good chances that Vietnam will enter the conflict because of China's aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, meaning that China will have to protect its land borders on at least two fronts, India and Vietnam. I write "at least" because Afghanistan is still technically a US ally and could allow the USA to strike from there, and at the same time the Taliban will be tempted by the possibility of exporting their brand of radical Islam into China's Uighur region; so two different potential threats coming from the tiny border with Afghanistan. Britain, the European Union and Israel may not enter the conflict, but it is obvious which side they will support even without sending troops. The one country that could join China's war against India is India's perennial enemy, Pakistan, assuming that its generals are willing to severe for good the already tense relations with the USA and that its politicians are able to sell a war against China to a fanatical Muslim population that is certainly aware of China's mistreatment of Muslims (shamelessly, Pakistan's prime minister Imran Khan, usually a vocal advocate of Muslim rights worldwide, has been silent on China's reeducation camps for Muslims, but many Pakistanis have relatives in China's Xinjiang province). On the other hand, one country that might side with India is Turkey, where anti-Chinese sentiment is high after China's treatment of the Uighurs (who are closely related to Turks). Iran might be tempted to enter the war on the side of China, simply because the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but this will simply justify an Israeli and Saudi attack on Iran. Indochina is likely to be divided: Cambodia is de facto a Chinese colony, whereas Thailand and Myanmar, busy with their own internal problems, have populations that are not pro-Chinese and both countries have difficult relations with China. The big ally that China might hope for is Russia, which could counterbalance whatever the USA decides to do. If this is China's (mis)calculation, its leaders should read again the history of World War II. Initially, Russia could make some kind of deal with China but then could side against China: a global war against China will represent a golden opportunity for Russia to regain its status as second world power and eliminate a dangerous rising power on its border. China is dreaming if it thinks that Russia wants China to win a war against the USA and its allies (and therefore become the new dominant power). The Soviet Union made a deal with Hitler in 1939 to split Poland but then proceeded to fight against Hitler and, ultimately, it was the very country that caused Hitler's defeat in 1945 and the first country to enter Germany's capital Berlin. China should be wary of Russia in a real war: Russia could be the first country to enter Beijing (note: Russia routinely sells sophisticated weapons systems to Vietnam and India, China's main border threats). The chance of China and India dropping nuclear weapons on each other is not very likely (both stand to lose millions of people) but the chance of North Korea overdoing in its effort to support China and dropping one on South Korea is not negligible, and then the USA would have to annihilate North Korea to prevent more nuclear strikes.
Hopefully, none of this will happen but this is the worst case scenario: a global Asian war pitting China, North Korea, Cambodia, Iran and Pakistan against a coalition of Taiwan, USA, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia, India, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Britain, Europe and possibly even Russia.
The common consensus is that the USA would not want to be dragged into a military conflict with China. I beg to disagree for a number of reasons. Taiwan becoming part of China would mark the end of the "pax americana" in the Far East and the end of US dominance of the Indo-Pacific. It would hand China the biggest technological prize in the world: Taiwanese semiconductors. It would expose the USA as a paper tiger (just like the Suez Canal crisis did for the British Empire). China may be underestimating how much the USA has to lose from such an event, and therefore how much the USA may be motivated to escalate the crisis. China probably counts on the fact that the average US citizen cares very little about saving Taiwan, but prolonged resistance by Taiwan with daily coverage of Chinese atrocities on cable news stations and social media will eventually create the kind of momentum that George W Bush exploited to remove Saddam Hussein from power (another issue that initially ranked very low in US public opinion).
There is a relatively easy way for the USA to intervene militarily without entering into a full-fledged war against China: the Korean situation. If China invades the western coast of Taiwan, the USA could invade the eastern side of Taiwan, Unfortunately for the USA, all the major towns of Taiwan are on the Chinese side of the island. The eastern side of the island is the poorer side. However, this could precipitate an exodus of Taiwanese similar to the exoduses that followed the partitions of Germany and Korea, and therefore deprive China of skilled resources to run the economy of the richer provinces.
I started this article with the reasons why today's China may be motivated to invade Taiwan. I end this article with the reasons why China may be motivated not to do it. China has near-term goals and long-term goals. Short term, China wants to exploit Taiwanese technology and trade as much as possible, and, at the same time, isolate Taiwan diplomatically to make sure that, even if it declares independence, nobody will recognize it. China's long-term goal is unification, which really means "annexation of Taiwan". If those are its goals, China is achieving both without any need to complicate things with a military action. Short-term, what is getting is precisely what China wants. Meanwhile, China is making it increasingly cost-prohibitive for the USA to defend Taiwan, and at some point in the future Taiwan will have no choice but to accept annexation. What China might want to do is to accelerate the long-term goal, for example through a "blockade" of Taiwan. In 1962 the USA surrounded Cuba and de facto screened all shipments to Cuba to stop Soviet delivery of hostile weapons. China could implement a similar blockade of Taiwan, a blockade that would not affect regular trade but would stop shipments of weapons to Taiwan.
And, finally, a thought experiment. Virtually all of Taiwanese would be terrified and outraged by a mainland invasion that would result in the imposition of communist dictatorship on the island. How many Chinese would be terrified and outraged by a hypothetical Taiwanese invasion of the mainland that would install Taiwan's democracy, freedom, advanced technology and Western ties in the mainland? I am not implying that Taiwan should or would or could anytime soon invade the mainland. It is just a way to visualize how difficult it will be for China to be accepted by the Taiwanese: it would be easier for Taiwan to be accepted by the mainlanders. Destroying the democratic system of Hong Kong and sending one million Uyghurs to reeducation camps wasn't exactly the best way to make mainland China appealing to the Taiwanese public.
See also: The United States, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy to Prevent War (Council on Foreign Relations)
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