This is the first of three parts.
Whether anyone actually wins a war is a philosophical debate. The Germans and Japanese in 1945 might have thought wars do indeed have winners. But perhaps it’s better said that in most conflicts some parties lose more than others.
Such would be the case if Beijing attempted to militarily subjugate Taiwan. And Xi Jinping just might do so. He declared in a January 2019 speech that China did “not promise to renounce the use of force” but, rather, reserved “the option to use all necessary measures” to take Taiwan.
Taiwan voters on Saturday were conscious of Xi’s warning as they voted in their presidential election, but they decided to keep Tsai Ing-wen in office for another four years – definitely not Xi’s desired outcome.
Much of the debate over a Taiwan Strait conflict focuses on preparation for and conduct of the PRC’s attack: whether Beijing will or won’t attack, what an attack might look like and Taiwan’s ability to defend itself, whether the US would or should get involved and whether it ought to sell Taiwan this or that weapon. Such discussion is useful, but the actual consequences and longer-term ripple effects of a fight over Taiwan deserve much more attention.
The Battle for Taiwan would have truly global consequences, akin to the invasion of Poland by the Soviets and Germans in 1939.
Examined here are key aspects of what happens once the shooting starts, and the follow-on global economic and political effects. The envisioned scenario is a full-scale PLA assault against Taiwan, but it’s worth noting that even a “limited” assault – such as against one of Taiwan’s offshore islands – may not stay limited very long.
Given Beijing’s oft-stated determination to take all of Taiwan, an off-shore island assault would only constitute a tactical objective in the march on Taipei, and would also have serious and wide-ranging political and economic consequences.
Of course, Beijing hopes to defeat Taiwan without a military conflict: its immediate strategy is, through relentless political warfare, to scare and psychologically batter Taiwan into submission. But President Xi seems willing to use force. He increasingly sounds like a resentful drunk talking himself into a fight in a South Boston bar at 1 am.
And People’s Liberation Army generals – flush with massive and increasingly sophisticated new weaponry – are eager to prove their allegiance to achieving Xi’s “China Dream” of “The Great Reunification.”
If it comes to a cross-strait shoot up, China’s powerful military with its arsenal of missiles, long-range rockets, ships, aircraft – and apparent ability to use them – can certainly hammer Taiwan, and just might seize the island. But such a victory would come at an immense cost in lives, money, and reputation. It would be a Pyrrhic victory that would result in the PRC’s isolation and genuine decoupling from the civilized world.
And an assault on Taiwan won’t be something started on Thursday and finished on Monday – won’t be a “short sharp war.” Nor will it be business as usual after a couple of weeks, with everything forgotten and US-bound shipments of iPhones and plastic Santa Clauses resuming, and American soybeans going the other way.
For starters, Taiwan can resist an assault even though the military balance now heavily favors the People’s Republic. Taiwan’s military is competent and bolstered with so-called asymmetric weapons and operational concepts. Further, it is aided by formidable cyber-warfare capabilities. It can inflict heavy casualties on PLA forces, and there is the added morale heft Taipei can leverage: these are free people fighting for their lives.
However, even if fighting tooth and nail, Taiwan will suffer immensely, regardless of whether the PLA actually manages to capture the island and eliminate organized opposition.
It requires little imagination to get a sense of the destruction and loss of life from a Chinese assault on Taiwan, particularly once civilian targets are hit. China will likely want to terrorize the civilian population into submission early with its initial missile and airstrikes, but it just might only target selected military and government capabilities at this point.
However, once fighting starts in urban areas casualties will be in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands; infrastructure – transportation, power, computer networks – will be destroyed, and the society and economy will be brought to their knees.
And should the Chinese assault succeed, there is the horror of Communist occupation awaiting the survivors. As repeatedly demonstrated by the Chinese Communist Party since its inception, it remorselessly inflicts cruel (often fatal) retribution on the many people who resisted the Chinese takeover – as well as on many of those who secretly supported the PRC’s efforts.
Conflict not confined
A fight over Taiwan will most likely not be confined geographically to the Taiwan Strait area – nor restrained in the level and scope of violence. And the US will likely get involved. Once that happens, the possibility of eventual nuclear escalation cannot be ruled out.
Indeed, the prospect of US involvement is near 100% once Americans in Taiwan are killed. Nothing unifies Americans more. Even worse for Xi, despite a 45-year track record of appeasement of China’s ambitions, the United States is finally waking up to the threat faced by the island democracy, as evidenced by recent National Defense Strategy documents, passage of the Taiwan Travel Act and other Congressional declarations calling for increased support for Taiwan.
Notably, support for Taiwan appears to have overwhelming bipartisan support, including from politicians who loathe President Donald Trump and resist him on every other matter.
Whether this stern approach to China will survive a change in US administration and the potential return of a PRC “engagement” faction in business, academia, and officialdom is an open question. Indeed, former US State Department East Asian Affairs acting director Susan Thornton advised Chinese Communist officials several months ago to just wait for another more accommodating administration.
Moreover, after too many years of US leaders – military and civilian – dismissing the Chinese military threat, a fight won’t be easy for the US. Even getting in close to support Taiwan militarily will be difficult and costly. The PLA has had two decades to upgrade its military and is, unfortunately, a match for the US in certain areas – or even superior.
That said, the American military is still powerful. Although it requires urgent improvements, the US military can still take on the People’s Liberation Army.
Chinese submarines, ships and aircraft will go down, together with the “only-child” sons manning them. The sorrow of the thousands of mainland Chinese families who were allowed only one child may not bother senior CCP officials, though, as there is a large, “spare” unmarried male population. In pursuit of Xi’s “China Dream,” Beijing may be less concerned about casualties than one imagines.
Rather, the bigger worry for Beijing might be the simple embarrassment of losing troops, ships and aircraft in such numbers that the CCP leadership appears clueless about what it has gotten into. As important, economic difficulties caused by the conflict might add to such perceptions on the part of the Chinese public.
Nations often rally around leaders once the shooting starts, even as casualties, hardships, and expenses mount. With Beijing’s firm control over its propaganda and internal security apparatus, it is possible that the PRC will become a fiercer, even more implacable enemy after losing tens of thousands of military personnel, and (foreseeably) some number of civilians. Still, it is entirely foreseeable that the Chinese public and Xi’s rivals might blame “Xi Jinping Thought” for their problems.
But for Beijing it still might be worth the costs given Taiwan’s value from a strategic geography perspective alone. Seize Formosa and the PRC has breached the so-called First Island Chain that effectively hems in Chinese forces and prevents unfettered access to the Pacific Ocean. PLA forces operating from Taiwan would undercut the entire US and allied defense posture in the Western Pacific. It would be a huge psychological blow to American prestige, and to Japan’s confidence in its ability to survive a similar assault.
American nervous system
Despite 18 years of the “Long War,” in reality, the US has gotten used to relatively painless wars in recent times. The immediate human costs alone of a war arising over Taiwan will be a shock. A few years ago four US Special Forces soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger, and it was considered a national catastrophe. One wonders how the American public, and political class, will respond to losing 5,000 sailors and Marines in an afternoon.
Even the US military will be jolted. Recall the surprise of British forces (and the public) when Argentine bombs and missiles started sinking Royal Navy ships during the Falklands War in 1982. A fight with China will be much worse. US leadership spent too many years ignoring or denying the possibility.
As a result of the bloodshed, the US and PRC relationship will be hostile for decades to come. You don’t kill thousands of each other’s citizens and just forget about it. Not even long-time “Friend of China” Henry Kissinger and former Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson, who played key roles in paralyzing the US strategic response to China’s increasingly antagonistic rise, will be welcome in Beijing – and one hopes they would not be inclined to visit in any event.
For most “average” Americans, the allure of cheap Chinese goods at Wal-Mart will fade as the first casualties are announced, and even Wall Street bankers (some of them, at least) will realize they are, after all, flag-waving Americans. In the case of those with less patriotic and pro-democracy instincts, financial sanctions will likely prevent them from doing business with the enemy.
There is an added risk for Beijing. What if Tokyo publicly admits what it has long thought: that Japan’s first line of defense is Taiwan?
The Japan Self-Defense Forces are professional, well equipped and (in some cases) formidable – particularly the Japanese navy with its submarine and anti-submarine warfare units. It is hard to imagine a Taiwan Strait conflict not expanding to include Japan: it will either be compelled to support the US for fear of breaking the Japan-US alliance or it will be forced to respond to a Chinese attack on its territory, and seizure of certain of Japan’s southern Nansei Shoto islands as part of the PLA’s campaign against Taiwan.
So while Japan has spent decades pretending it is exempt from war and the serious requirement of preparing for it, conflict just might come its way, unbidden.
Tokyo either assents to PRC domination and ends its alliance with the United States – or rapidly improves its military capabilities – to perhaps include nuclear weapons. Most importantly, Japan and its military must be prepared to shoot – and that will be a huge psychological shift for the JSDF and Japanese society writ large.
Japan’s defense capability is less than it appears on paper, owing to decades of pathological dependence on the United States. But a crisis is often necessary to spur Japan’s ruling class into action. A shoot-up over Taiwan just might be crisis enough for Tokyo.
And while all this is happening around Taiwan, what does North Korea do? One plausible scenario is an attack on South Korea – both as a distraction to benefit Beijing’s efforts against Taiwan and the US, and as an outright effort to topple the ROK government and unify the peninsula on Pyongyang’s terms. Even launching a handful of missiles against the South or towards Japan would stir things up considerably, and stretch available US forces for the Taiwan front.
A fight over Taiwan would also force other countries to decide whose side they are on. This choice may come quickly for Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia if the Straits of Malacca are closed. This would signify the end of the convenient (but impossible to continue) global fantasy in which nations have avoided choosing sides while pretending the PRC is a benign country, like a really big Canada.
Nuclear weapons might start to look like a necessary option for more than a few countries besides Japan – Australia and South Korea, for instance.
As a logical outcome, one expects the world will split into rival camps, and with a considerable degree of economic disengagement. The US perhaps has the advantage for now, but suppose the PRC prevails (even modestly) in the conflict, and ASEAN nations decide to align with China more than is presently the case. And beyond into Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, the PRC might be viewed as the safer long-term bet.
As noted, there is a possibility of the conflict spreading well beyond Asia as the US and partners shut down PRC bases and other facilities overseas that are useful for military and commercial purposes, or seize or sink China-bound merchant vessels – and any PLA Navy ships that present themselves.
The PRC will not sit idly, however. For starters, it is already capable of targeting US bases and forces in Japan and the Central Pacific and presumably will do so, further expanding the conflict and fueling tit-for-tat escalation.
Tomorrow Part 2: The economic and psychological effects of a war scenario
Read Part 3: How to avoid a war in the Taiwan Strait
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Officer. He was the first USMC Liaison Officer to the Japan Self Defense Force and has spent many years in Asia. He conducted research in Taipei in 2019 as a Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Fellow. His research topic covered improving Taiwan’s defense by helping the Taiwan Armed Forces break out of 40 years of isolation. He originally wrote this article for the Journal of Political Risk, where it appeared on November 1, 2019. It is reused with permission.