I will now explain war, or some of it. If you wonder how some mutt in Mexico with a computer thinks he knows about strategy, well, look at what we have in Washington. How could I be worse?
In geopolitical circles, blather swirls over whether the United States can defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion in a regional war. Sez I, it doesn’t matter whether it can if it won’t, and China will likely get the island without invading. The key is to think about how things look from Taiwan.
Washington is vague about whether it would militarily defend Taiwan. Taiwan presumably has noticed. Further, America does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country. More waffling. The implication is that Washington might, or might not, do something, or something else, depending on unspecified things, probably or at least possibly.
This sounds like hedging, a disguised American recognition that this isn’t 1955, and China is no longer a bamboo republic that makes pencils and cheap plastic buckets for Walmart. As China’s military power grows, and thus the cost of a war, America’s equivocation will likely become more equivocal. Throw in that America does $550 billion in commerce annually with the Middle Kingdom, including countless things America doesn’t make but can’t do without, and war with China doesn’t look real feasible. This too has probably occurred to Taipei.
The fashion in naval circles is to talk about the First Island Chain, which is a sort of barrier along the coast of China, the Kuriles, Japan, Okinawa in the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the Philippines, and even Borneo. The idea, apart from some fairly silly notions about “containing China,” is that these islands will want to join with Washington, which is somewhere else, to fight China, which is right there, to defend Taiwan, which also is right there.
Now, who would actually defend Taiwan—that is, go to war with China? Japan? Note that Japan is within missile range of China, and probably does not want missiles of large warhead raining down on Tokyo. Japan gets ninety percent of its petroleum from the Persian Gulf and, If Tokyo’s reserves of oil run out, Japan stops. All of it. China has pretty good submarines these days. The beltway Hawklets might say, “Don’t worry. We have magic anti-submarine stuff, no prob.” Given America’s military record, would you buy a used car from these people?
Do you suppose the Japanese have thought of this?
Washington might say, not to worry, we have antimissile gadgets, THAAD, and Patriot, and Aegis, and we can escort your tankers. But none of these weapons has much of a track record, and neither does America.
Further energizing Japan’s likely unenthusiasm for fighting Washington’s wars is that trade with China is crucial to the Japanese economy, and that Taiwan isn’t all that valuable to Tokyo. Today Japan trades with Taiwan, and with China. If Taiwan became part of China, this trade would probably continue with nothing changing but the letterhead.
Lastly, Japan may have noticed America’s propensity for getting its vassals (or allies, clients, or poodles, take your choice) into wars and then leaving them in the lurch. Think Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Afghanistan and, soon, Syria and Iraq. This would leave Japan in a shooting war with China, all by itself. If the gringos lose a war, they can just go home. Japan is not mobile.
The Japanese might whisper into American ears, “All cool, Round Eye. But it’s just your empire on the line. It’s our ass. we’ll sit this one out.”
South Korea might think similar thoughts regarding use of its air bases, especially given that the Korean peninsula has a land border with China. Washington doesn’t. Seoul needs a war with the Middle Kingdom like it needs smallpox. “Tell you what, Round Eye, bugger off….”
Taiwan would get wind of this through back channels if not by sheer deduction.
How would a regional war over the Taiwan Strait look to an adult commander of an aircraft carrier? He might think, “Hmmm. Squinty-eyed rascals good engineers. Make’m Mars probe, worke’m. Train go three hundred sixty miles hour. Work’em. Maybe make’m missiles work’em good too. Hmmmm. Bad juju.”
The Navy’s PR operation will say that Chinese missiles don’t really amount to anything, this to protect the budget for its favorite bathtub toys and the only surface ship that justifies the existence of the Navy. But of course China can build swarms of missiles to arrive simultaneously.
Further, realists in Washington might ask themselves what would happen if the war didn’t go as planned, as wars usually don’t, and a carrier and three destroyers became marine barbecues before sinking. War games and Pentagon studies suggest that this is quite likely. To save face, the hawks would have to turn a regional war into a world war, which America would win. “Win.” Millions would die and the world economy stop. Never underestimate the influence of vanity in world affairs.
Taiwan could divine all of this. It could also divine that the Navy had divined it.
In recent years China has shown itself to be very good at engineering all manner of things, and has emphasized antiship missiles, including but not limited to terminally guided ballistic missiles of range far greater than that of carrier aviation. Do they work as advertised? We don’t know. A carrier captain would probably want someone else to find out.
Despite growly aphasic pronunciamientos from the White House, and chirpy assurance from Navy PR, grownups in the Pentagon might think, “You know…maybe a war with China isn’t a great idea. How about lunch instead at a really good rib joint on the Hill?”
Taiwan would know of these doubts. This would further undermine hope of American defense.
Now, suppose that China keeps on doing what to all appearances it is doing: increasing its amphibious- assault assets, improving and enlarging its already highly non-negligible air force, building missiles and increasing its number of marines. Meanwhile the Chinese navy grows like kudzu on a Georgia road cut. China can increase its forces across the Strait virtually without limit. The US cannot. At some point, past or future, Taiwan will face assault forces it has no chance whatever of repelling by itself. Taipei would notice this.
Further suppose that China keeps doing what else it has been doing for some time: practicing amphibious assaults that could at any moment become real assaults. Thus no one—read, America—would know whether the attack would come in two months, five years, or never. This would require keeping defensive forces, such as carriers, on station constantly and at a high state of readiness. Militaries do not do this well, and it is expensive. Moreover, after long periods of peace militaries do not mobilize quickly as it is discovered that there aren’t many of things there ought to be lots of because of some budget cut, or something, and the whole enterprise turns into a gargantuan goat-rope.
What kind of attack might Taiwan expect? I haven’t talked to the Chinese General Staff for weeks now, and so am making this up. But the goal would probably be to get the war over before America had time to react. Keeping invaders out is one thing, getting them out another. So, maybe a sudden attack with ballistic missiles to crater runways with simultaneous mass missile attack on air defenses with amphib ships simultaneously setting sail. At fifteen knots it would take about eight hours to reach the island. With heavy air support from China’s highly non-negligible air force, Chinese troops might well get ashore and into cities before America’s hypergalactic indomitable military could get its thumb out of…well, never mind. The Americans would be caught flatfooted by a fait accompli. Washington would face the joyful choice of bombing Chinese soldiers inside Taiwanese cities, or—this is Saturday Night Live territory—undertaking a land war in Asia against China.
It may be that Taiwan has thought of this.
Finally, there is TSMC, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. While little known in America, TSMC makes most of the world’s high-end chips, including those of Apple and…the Pentagon. America currently is not able to make its own.
This throws a fascinating wild card into things. If in an attack, TSMC were destroyed, by either side, or captured and held hostage, the effects would be no end entertaining. Today’s world, perhaps more than most people know, depends on chips. An astonishing proportion of advanced chips come from the island. Replacing its fab lines somewhere else would take years. The other, though lesser, source of chips is Samsung in South Korea, also in Chinese missile range. Washington is trying to cripple China’s tech by not allowing it access to advanced chips. Presumably this increases Beijing’s incentive to annex Taiwan.
Anyway, Biden couldn’t risk losing Taiwan as it would affect the midterms. But what it comes to is that with China being the largest trading partner of something like 165 countries, war isn’t real practical. The Taiwanese have probably figured this out.
So what does Taiwan do, seeing an overwhelming invasion force looming and not believing that Washington is really going to go to war to defend it? The choice would be to fight, be devastated as it lost, and face harsh conditions after—or to come to the best agreement it could and surrender without fighting. Anyone want to make bets?
Correction: Last week, in a moment of brainlock, I said that Pompeo was in the Navy. No, the Army. Mea culpa.