Relegating Taiwan’s status to the indefinite future has been a matter of tacit agreement between the United States and the People’s Republic of China since Richard Nixon went to Beijing in 1972.
That is less problematic than it might appear, because Taiwan, with the lowest birth rate of any political entity in the world, will literally fade away over the next 50 years.
Its total fertility rate stands at barely one child per female. Taiwan has 23 million people today, fewer than large Mainland cities like Chengdu, Chongqing or Shanghai. Its demographic decline will sap its relative importance over time.
Western commentators have made a great deal out of China’s demographic problems, and with good reason: With a total fertility rate of only 1.69 as of 2020, according to the current United Nations Population Prospects, China will age rapidly and its working-age population will shrink.
Taiwan stands at only 1.15, and its demographic problems are far worse.
Projecting this into the future, the United Nations, in its “medium variant” forecast, has Taiwan’s elderly dependent ratio at about 80 by mid-century – every 100 workers will have to support 80 elderly. That’s almost double the projected ratio for the People’s Republic of China.
Taiwan, to be sure, has higher per capita income than the Mainland, but the projected burden is still daunting. Its GDP per capita is US$33,402, much higher than the Chinese average but about the same as per capita GDP in China’s high-tech city Shenzhen.
A house in Taipei costs 31 times the average wage, far more than in Chengdu, China’s Western high-tech center, where the price-to-income ratio is about 20.
Nonetheless, a war over Taiwan remains a significant risk during the next several years. If Washington stations troops on the island, as former National Security Adviser John Bolton urges, or takes other steps to establish Taiwan’s sovereignty, China probably will seize the island.
What might ensue is depicted in the novel 2034 by former Pacific Command chief John Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman: A nuclear exchange that erases a few Chinese and American cities with no victor.
China has amassed an arsenal of many hundreds of ship- and satellite-killer missiles, not to mention hypersonic glide vehicles that can deliver nuclear weapons anywhere in the world. The late Andrew Marshall, for whom I consulted occasionally when he directed the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, told me in 2015 that the Chinese DF-21D missile could sink any American carrier.
Do the math: Let’s say the US recognizes Taiwan, or begins to station US troops on the island. China responds by sending in 30,000 marines and 60,000 mechanized infantry, while sweeping Taiwan’s aging warplanes out of the skies with its Russian-built S-400 air defense system.
The United States engages China’s forces with aircraft carriers. China rains a few dozen DF-21D missiles and destroys the carriers. What happens next? Does the US bomb Chinese cities while the Chinese bomb American cities?
I reviewed the military balance in my 2020 book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World, and concluded that no one would be crazy enough to start a war on China’s coast.
After reading recent suggestions from John Bolton, Gary Schmitt and Michael Mazza, and Dan Blumenthal, I stand corrected. There are influential folk who are crazy enough. In general, they are the same people who wasted $5 trillion on nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than investing, for example, in ways to protect the US and its assets from hypersonic missiles.
Reining in a breakaway province is a raison d’état for any regime that hopes to rule the ethnic patchwork that is the Chinese Empire. If the outcome of China’s civil war had been reversed, with Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists in Beijing and the Communists in Taipei, the Mainland’s demand for reunification would be just as stringent.
The watchword of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is as pertinent today as it was when China’s national epic was composed in the 14th century: “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” From the First Opium War in 1839 to the Communist victory of 1947, China was torn apart by rival warlords, rural insurgencies and foreign invasions.
The cost in human life was double or triple that of World War II.
The Chinese Communist Party will not let this happen again, not, at least, without an all-in fight, and it has drawn the line at Taiwan.
If the US and China each lose a few tens of millions of their citizens over Taiwan, future historians will recall Karl Marx’s bon mot that the great events of history occur first as tragedy and then as farce.
Henry Kissinger, Graham Allison and other American foreign policy sages have warned for years of parallels between today’s Sino-American tensions and the European situation just before 1914.
The source of the casus belli, Serbia, had rapid population growth and an insatiable demand for farmland. At least the Serbs had something to fight over. A war over Taiwan, whose significance will dwindle over time along with its population, would be the biggest war fought over the smallest substance in recorded history.
To be sure, fraternal sentiment in favor of democratic Taiwan is not the driving motivation behind the various proposals to station American combat troops on the island, or mine the Taiwan Straits to hinder a Chinese invasion, or give Taiwan de facto recognition as a sovereign state through a United Nations seat.
As things stand, Taiwan doesn’t have a glorious democratic future. It doesn’t have much of a future at all. Part of the American foreign policy elite, such as Kissinger and Allison, prefer the rise of China to the prospect of war. Other elements of the American elite would rather roll the dice of war than allow China to surpass the United States in military and economic might.
The stench of cultural pessimism pervades the American war party: Like the French in 1914, they believe that if they do not fight now, they may never have the opportunity to do so in the future. Germany had far outstripped France in population and industrial might, and the gap would only widen.
The French diehards of 1914 became the defeatists of 1940 who surrendered to the Germans in six weeks.
By no means should the United States abandon Taiwan. It must raise the cost of a possible Chinese incursion without pushing China into a corner from which it will lash out.
It cannot win a conventional war 80 miles off China’s coast, but China must be made aware that the use of force against Taiwan would have horrendous consequences, including a boycott of foreign trade. The United States may depend on China for imports worth 27% of its manufacturing output, but Americans will go without smartphones and computers in order to punish China for use of force.