Taiwan Air Force F-16 fighter flies alongside a Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force H-6K bomber that reportedly flew over the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan in a drill.Photo: Taiwan Defence Ministry via AFP
Taiwan Air Force F-16 fighter flies alongside a Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force H-6K bomber that reportedly flew over the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan in a drill. Photo: Taiwan Defence Ministry via AFP

It is an anxious time for Taiwan. China’s People’s Liberation Army is flying bombers around the island, openly simulating attacks on Taiwanese targets, and threatening that it won’t wait for reunification forever; it hopes to scare the island into submission beforehand.

The worrisome thing is that Beijing’s Warrior President Xi Jinping seems to be talking himself into a fight. And PLA generals – flush with new weapons and hardware – might be egging him on.

However, there are multiple reasons a war with Taiwan will not – or at least, should not – happen.

A big, bloody risk

If it came to a cross-strait showdown, China could certainly hammer Taiwan, and probably seize the island. But it would come at massive costs in lives, gold and goodwill.

It is widely established that countries that start wars wildly underestimate the costs, but they all think it’ll be different for them. Given this, one hopes Xi isn’t hearing the Chinese version of the German generals of 1914 promising the Kaiser that he could be in Paris in a week.

An assault on Taiwan won’t be something started on Thursday and finished on Monday. Nor will it be business as usual after a couple of weeks, with everything forgotten and US-bound shiploads of plastic Santa Clauses and iPhones resuming.

An assault on Taiwan won’t be something started on Thursday and finished on Monday. Nor will it be business as usual after a couple of weeks, with everything forgotten and US-bound shiploads of plastic Santa Clauses and iPhones resuming

For starters, Taiwan can bite back even though the military balance heavily favors the People’s Republic. Taiwan’s vanilla military is competent. Asymmetrically, it boasts formidable cyber-warfare capabilities. And there is the added morale heft Taipei can leverage: Free people fighting for their lives.

Even worse for Xi, the United States will probably step in – despite a 45-year track record of appeasement. The US is finally waking up to the threat faced by the island democracy – as evidenced by recent passage of the Taiwan Travel Act calling for increased support for Taiwan. The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, including, remarkably, politicians who loathe and resist US President Donald Trump on every other matter.

The likelihood of US involvement is 100% once Americans are killed – as they will be if Taiwan is hit. Nothing unifies Americans more. While the PLA is upgrading its military, notably its expeditionary capabilities, the US military is still tremendously powerful. Chinese submarines, ships, and aircraft will go down, together with the only-children manning them.

There is an added risk for Beijing. What if Tokyo recognizes that Japan’s first line of defense is Taiwan? The Japan Self-Defense Forces are professional, well equipped and formidable – particularly the Japanese navy with its submarine and anti-submarine warfare units.

The combined blue-water capabilities of Washington and Tokyo means that to recover Taiwan, Beijing might face the loss of its “string of pearls” – its far-flung overseas bases.

While Cambodia, Russia, Iran and North Korea won’t complain about an attack on Taiwan, other countries will. Even those who have overlooked much in exchange for Chinese money – including the European Union – just might be galvanized against the PRC, out of principle, embarrassment or fear.

And though it is often a fact of domestic politics that nations rally around leaders once the shooting starts, as casualties, hardships and expenses mount, the Chinese public and Xi’s rivals might blame “Xi Jinping Thought” for their problems.

Economic vulnerabilities

Beyond the butchers’ bill of dead sons and fathers, the Chinese economy will be hammered. Today’s US-PRC “trade war” might result in trade reductions; attack Taiwan, and China’s global trade will lurch to a near halt. The PRC’s Belt and Road project and its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will be on hold for a long, long while.

Chinese companies that can produce without US components and technology will be making products nobody will buy. Further stifling trade, shipping insurance rates will skyrocket – assuming anyone offers coverage – as Lloyds of London causes as much harm to the Chinese merchant fleet as the US Air Force.

China will be cut out of the US dollar system. For Americans, the allure of cheap Chinese goods at Walmart will fade, and even Wall Street bankers will realize they are, after all, flag-flying Americans. Chinese researchers will be sent home, joint ventures halted, foreign investments curtailed.

Beijing’s firms will be left to do business with such economic powerhouses as North Korea, Myanmar, Cambodia and Russia; even the Russians will probably strike hard bargains if they sense that China is in trouble.

Taiwan is not Tiananmen

Xi shouldn’t count on China’s treatment of Taiwan being forgotten. True, the world got over the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre soon enough. Why so? There was global optimism and relief in the 1980s as China pivoted away from the blood-soaked lunacy of the Mao Zedong era. Wishful thinking helped many Westerners – including US president George H W Bush – excuse the Tiananmen massacre as a one-time “mistake,” a blip on the path toward a better future.

There were confident expectations that China’s integration into the global economy would lead to political loosening. That did not happen. China squandered much international goodwill and created adversaries where none had existed.

If China chose to attack Taiwan – free, democratic, and for all practical purposes independent – the response of most of the world would be different and long-lasting. It would risk undoing decades of progress, ruining China financially and reputationally. There would be catastrophic ripple effects worldwide.

It’s now President Xi’s choice. He could try to make China the kind of place Taiwan might want to become part of, rather than waving a big stick whenever local politicians start talking independence.

And looking on the bright side, it’s historically rare to have a newly powerful country like China, in which successful people, even at the top, scheme to place their wealth, and ideally a family member or two, in a nation – and/or its allies – against which war is contemplated.

This odd fact alone ought to militate against striking Taiwan and risking a fight with the Americans.

Unfortunately, authoritarian regimes don’t always behave rationally. It’s all about power and keeping it. Playing to historic resentments and lashing outward unifies and distracts from domestic problems. It’s easy to believe a short, sharp war will stun other countries and present them with a fait accompli they’ll have to live with.

Many Westerners fret over anything that might provoke Beijing. But Beijing makes its own decisions. To help Xi get the calculation right, the strategy should be: No appeasement. Help Taiwan defend itself. Make it clear that the freedoms Taiwan represents are core interests of the US and the free world, worth fighting for.

Xi and his party are celebrating Karl Marx’ 200th birthday. They might also consider another German (actually, Austrian) political figure. He tried to recover “lost territories” and rejuvenate his country. Instead, he brought another European concept, Götterdämmerung, upon himself, his nation, and much of the world.

Your call, President Xi.

Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years' experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive, and US Marine Corps officer.

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