Sino-American Competition and the Search For Historical Analogies

In the most recent issue of American Affairs, Walter Hudson argues against “the pull of the Cold War analogy.”1 Cold War analogies for 21st century Sino-American relations are natural yet insufficient. A friend of mine recently complained to me about the thoughtlessness of these analogies. “It is not difficult to rail against lazy Cold War thinking,” I responded. “What is difficult is fleshing out a more illuminating analogy to fill the gap.” Hudson faces this challenge squarely. He argues that the mirror we seek will be found in the eclipse of the British Empire by the United States.

1

Walter Hudson, “Analogy and Strategy: U.S.-China Competition through an Edwardian Lens,” American Affairs Journal V, no. 3 (August 20, 2021), 117.

The similarities between that moment and our own are many and intriguing. There are declining hegemons overtaken by upsurging revisionist powers. There are national rivalries fought out not with bullets and battles, but business deals and tech breakthroughs. Both feature a self-consciously liberal economic behemoth whose free trade-based economic order is undermined by a protectionist colossus. Both see cutthroat mercantile maneuvers; both witness controversies surrounding commercial secrets and IP theft.

It is an intriguing comparison, but I find myself a tad underwhelmed by Hudson’s presentation. Hudson takes as given elements of British grand strategy that would be more usefully framed as questions. Though the United States advanced at the United Kingdom’s expense, the two powers never came to blows, nor even engaged in a serious military arms race. Hudson finds similarities between this history and Sino-U.S. relations over the last two decades, but in his rush to compare the United States of 1910 to the People’s Republic of 2020, he does not stop to ponder a more interesting comparison: the rising United States and rising Wilhelmine Germany. The UK did engage in intense military competition, and eventually open warfare, with the German Empire. Why British statesman viewed one rising power as a threat and the other with resignation might be useful for understanding the likely shape of American policy today.  

Historical analogies are easy to nitpick, and there’s something unhelpful about exposing an analogy to a fusillade of fastidious objections. Analogy crafting demands we distinguish the essential from the incidental. For Hudson, the essence of Sino-American rivalry is the race for technological breakthroughs that might supercharge future economic growth. I anchor my thinking on two other aspects of the competition, each of which shapes the tenor of the entire relationship.

They are:

  1. The severe—perhaps existential—ideological threat the United States and its preferred world order pose to the stability of China’s communist regime.
  2. The inherently military nature of the Taiwan question.

I have written many times before about the ideological stakes of U.S.-China competition, so will not write at too great of length about it here.2 The upshot is that between 1989 and 1991 the Communist Party of China realized that liberal ideals, both as a guide to American statecraft and as principles embedded in the post-Cold War order, pose a severe threat to the stability of Party rule and stand as an intractable obstacle to the realization of the Party’s quest for “national rejuvenation.” The Chinese recognized Americans as the ideological zealots that we are; they saw then (and still see now) what we call “universal values” as a dagger pointed at the heart of their socio-political system.

2

For key references see, Matthew Johnson, “Safeguarding Socialism: The Origins, Evolution and Expansion of China’s Total Security Paradigm” (Prague: Sinopsis, November 6, 2020) and “Securitizing Culture in Post-Deng China: An Evolving National Strategic Paradigm, 1994–2014,” Propaganda in the World and Local Conflicts 4, no. 1 (2017): 62–80; Dan Tobin, “”How Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions, ” Hearing on ‘A “China Model?” Beijing’s Promotion of Alternative Global Norms and Standards,’” § U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (2020); Nadège Rolland, China’s Vision for a New World Order, NBR Special Report (The National Bureau of Asian Research: Seattle, 2020); Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), entire, but for this framing see especially pp. 47-65; John Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 463-578; Samantha Hoffman, Programming China: The Communist Party’s Autonomic Approach to Managing State Security (2017), section II.

This realization was a central orienting point for much of their foreign and domestic policy in the three decades that followed. They searched for one tool after another to blunt the sheen of these ideas; ever they sought to dampen,  dismantle, or subvert the institutions and norms that embodied them. Where they could turn the international tide against the logic of liberal internationalism without incurring injurious cost to themselves, they did so. Beijing’s perception of American institutions and intentions—a perception which I acknowledge as largely accurate, if somewhat stereotyped—is the first and most important source of the enmity between the two nations. It makes compromise between the two powers less tractable, and conflict between them more consequential where and when it occurs.

Recognizing this is not a defense of the Cold War analogy. If from the American perspective the stakes are larger than what we faced in our rivalry with Edwardian England, they are still far less existential than the Cold War fight. There is nothing inherently militaristic in China’s visions of a less liberal world order.  China’s leaders are quite explicit about the economic nature of their quest to reshape the globe. We live in what the Chinese communists call a “period of strategic opportunity;” in such a period, economic and political forces that Xi Jinping likes to dub “great trends of history” ensure that the political returns on military operations are quite low. Military adventurism is associated with America’s failed campaigns to remake the Middle East; the Chinese are not keen on copying the American experience. Instead they plan to “take center stage in the world” through a “path of peaceful development.” With global economic interdependence centered on China (and the option to use United Front tactics to grease the wheels on tough cases), there is no need for the Communist Party of China to resort to arms—or arms races—to bring about their desired world order.3

3

For more on this see Tanner Greer, “The Theory of History That Guides Xi Jinping,” Palladium (8 July 2020).

Or such would be the case, save for the question of Taiwan.

The path of economic integration and political manipulation has been tried in Taiwan. It has failed. Two elections in a row the Taiwanese have elected the anti-Beijing candidate. Every passing year pulls the population of Taiwan further away from the political settlement Beijing most desires. The Taiwanese simply will not freely give themselves over to mainland domination. The Party must find some other way to force the issue.

Military coercion is the only solution with hope of success. This might mean an actual armed invasion of the island of Taiwan, but not necessarily—a military buildup of significant scale might be enough to browbeat the Taiwanese into accepting tyranny. The task is made more difficult by the American commitment to Taiwan’s security. The 1997 Taiwan Straits Crisis was a misadventure China’s communist leaders do not wish to repeat. The massive, two-decade long military modernization campaign that has reshaped the PLA, with its focus on retooling the PLA Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force from the ground up, is best understood in this context. One unhappy day, they believe, the Taiwan question will be settled. On that day the Americans must be deterred from intervening, or defeated in their attempt. When that occurs the Chinese people will thank the foresight of leaders who understood Sino-American rivalry through the prism of a marathon modernization program.

Were it not for Taiwan, Hudson’s supposition that the PLA’s modernization is mostly about national glory and commerce protection (as was the U.S. Navy’s expansion under Teddy Roosevelt) would hold some water. Were it not for Taiwan, I would feel far more confident in our ability to sustain long term technological and economic rivalry with the Chinese sans dangerous disruptions in the security domain. But there is a Taiwan, so the problem persists.

Taiwan’s ambiguous position muddies all analogy. Taiwanese democracy propels the communists towards military solutions. Chinese enmity towards the American led-order, combined with America’s historical commitment to Taiwan’s defense, propels Washington to respond. Taiwan is the link between the geopolitical rivalry of today and the military brinkmanship of tomorrow.    Historical analogies that do not put the Taiwan question at the center of their analysis will cloud more than they clarify.

This is the strength of a new essay by Keith Payne.

We live in a season where every analyst hopes to sell his wares by branding it with China; Payne’s essay is far and away the most thoughtful thing I have seen written by a generalist with no special expertise in Chinese military affairs. Payne is an expert in Cold War strategic thinking. In his most recent piece, he explains the Cold War provenance of the assumptions built into our concept of “strategic ambiguity” and why these assumptions no longer apply today. 4

4

Keith B. Payne, “The Taiwan Question: How to Think About Deterrence Now,” Information Series (Washington DC: National Institute For Public Policy, November 16, 2021),

“It is no surprise that the founders of U.S. deterrence theory,” Payne writes, were “from that generation of thinkers and policy makers active immediately after the Second World War—when the United States was at the height of its power relative to the rest of the world.” Cold War deterrence was grounded in uncertainty. No American leader could commit their country to mutually assured destruction—but they could arrange things in such a way that if war broke out, the situation might possibly get out of control and lead to a broader escalation. This is the original strategic rational of “ambiguity,” an idea made for an era when “the U.S. power advantages at the time suited the narrative that the United States could endure uncertainty with greater determination than any other state.”5

5

ibid, 6.

But when the power differential is more ambiguous, strategic ambiguity has less deterrent power. We hope that “the Chinese fear of the possibility of a very strong U.S. reaction will render the U.S. deterrent sufficiently credible to be effective” rather than fear “the alternative possibility that China will instead be reassured by ambiguity regarding the U.S. response and thereby conclude that the risk of moving against Taiwan would be acceptable,” but have not stopped to ask why the old Cold War deterrence posture worked the way it did.6 The lesson of the Cold War, Payne argues, is that  

6

ibid., 4.

If the state seeking to deter… is not manifestly dominant in its deterrent power position relative to its opponent, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that it will be any less driven to caution by uncertainty than will be the opponent.  A presumed greater U.S. willingness to engage in a competition of threats in the context of uncertainty can logically only come from some perceived advantage over the opponent.  This advantage may be in will, risk tolerance, manifest determination, and/or military options—but there must be an advantage that allows the United States to be more resolute in an uncertain context than is the opponent… The weaker opponent must fear the dominant power’s potential reaction, and that fear may reasonably be expected to produce caution and deterrent effect. In the absence of some level of dominance, however, that expectation has no reasonable basis.7

7

ibid., 6.

Do we have sufficient dominance for an ambiguous commitment to mean much to the Chinese? Payne is pessimistic:

Unlike the U.S. extended deterrent to allies during the Cold War that included the threat of nuclear escalation in the event of Soviet attack, the United States does not have any apparent nuclear umbrella commitment to Taiwan and no bloody history of national sacrifice for Taiwan.  And, while the Cold War extended deterrent was accompanied by the U.S. deployment of large numbers of “trip wire forces” and thousands of forward-deployed nuclear weapons to buttress its credibility, the United States appears to have no serious “trip wire” forces on Taiwan and eliminated virtually all of its forward-deployable, non-strategic nuclear weapons following the end of the Cold War. Even the venerable submarine-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile (TLAM-N) was retired from service a decade ago.

In contrast, China may leave open the option of nuclear first use with regard to the Taiwan Question and has numerous and expanding nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities to support the forceful resolution of the Taiwan Question, if necessary.  The United States now faces the possible reality of an opponent with both local conventional force advantages and a nuclear escalation threat in the event of a conflict over Taiwan.  The United States must, correspondingly, deal with the caution that context must force on Washington—it has no readily-apparent deterrence advantage in this context, no deterrence dominance. The United States and NATO built their deterrence policy against the Soviet Union on the presumption that Soviet leaders would be compelled to caution by the West’s threat of nuclear escalation—however uncertain.  Yet, now it is the United States that must face a possible Chinese nuclear escalation threat with no apparent advantages to mitigate its deterring effect other than the capability to engage in a nuclear escalation process that could be self-destructive

…The past circumstances that favored this U.S. approach to deterrence are not a U.S. birthright. The United States took extensive and expensive steps to help preserve its deterrence position during the Cold War even as it lost dominance. However, unlike in the Cold War, and in the absence of any comparable steps, the United States appears now to face a foe that is virtually compelled by the political context to challenge the U.S. position, by force if necessary. Indeed, in its pursuit of Taiwan, China likely cannot, and does not appear to share the caution generally practiced by the Soviet Union in its pursuit of expansionist goals—caution possible for the Soviet Union because it was not dedicated to an expansionist goal it deemed to be of existential importance. This fundamental difference in the political context degrades the value of the early U.S. Cold War deterrence experience that underlies most contemporary discussions of the subject.8

8

ibid., 11.

Payne concludes that the “essentially familiar [Cold War] narratives regarding deterrence” should be rejected as “as guidance for contemporary U.S. deterrence policy… in this case.”9 He is right. Payne’s paper should be shared widely. In about 10 pages he lays out the history of American deterrence and the scale of change needed to effectively implement it across the Straits. His conclusions should be sending alarm bells off all over Washington.

9

ibid., 7.

As a closing note: There is one irony in this discussion of faulty Cold War analogies. Communist media often accuse Americans of being wedded to “Cold War thinking.” Yet it is this same sort of thinking that keeps Washington complacent! Far from spurring conflict onward, Cold War metaphors have kept America from acting with the urgency the situation demands.

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27 Comments

I am basically agreed with you that the Taiwan situation is really scary and time is not on Taiwan’s side.

That said, I think the chances of a major war between the US and China are very low. The Chinese are patient – they’ve been waiting for this moment for more than seventy years – and they know that each year their economic and naval power is increasing, and America’s is decreasing. So I think they will be quite careful about choosing to strike at such a time, and in such a manner, as will not risk a serious US response.

Here is an interesting article about the Taiwan situation from a few months ago: https://www.twilightpatriot.com/2021/09/four-remarks-on-future-of-taiwan.html

In one of the sections, the author cites and summarizes your recent essay “Why I Fear For Taiwan.” The basic thesis is that:

1) The United States is an unreliable ally for Taiwan, does not consistently stand up for Taiwanese rights even in peacetime, and is unlikely to do so in a war, especially a war that’s very far from home, and

2) China is much more likely to attempt to pressure Taiwan into submission via sanctions or blockades than an outright invasion – i.e. Taiwan is totally dependent on sea commerce for survival, and China could cut off that commerce with very little risk to itself. For instance, if the CCP declared the port of Taipei closed to international commerce, and sent some destroyers/frigates to enforce it, the whole thing would be perfectly legal under their interpretation of international law, since Taipei is just as much a part of China as is Shanghai or Shenzhen. Taiwan would be promised a return to economic normalcy with the same status as Hong Kong if the capitulation was timely.

It is really difficult to assess how comitted CCP are to conquering Taiwan. On the one hand the military buildup speaks for itself but it’s difficult to beleive they would find it worth the huge cost and risks of an unprovoked invasion. The military capabilities from the Chinese side also serves as a deterrent against Taiwan more boldly asserting its independence, aligning with the west and declaring format independence, which would weaken China and be a huge loss prestige for the CCP. So the investments in military themselves do not prove that the plan is to conquer and rule Taiwan.

The key to avoiding conflict should be to credibly ensure the costs of invading or coercing Taiwan would be as large as possible. Simultaneously, the Taiwanese need to be scared enough as to not provoke China and pay lip service to the CCP line on se sensitive issues while keeping as much de facto independence and relations with the west. I always thought the pumpsen of strategic ambiguity was to keep both sides scared to upset the status quo and keep freedom of action which incentivizes both sides to “behave good”.

In the long term the only hope for a happy resolution is to keep as close to status quo as possible for long enough for Chinese attitudes to Taiwan to change. Very uncertain how likely that is and how long it would take.

There is no China-Taiwan resolution unless there is an overall US-China big-2 accommodation. Taiwan does not have an independent foreign policy vis a vie China; everything goes thru Washington. Until big-2 accommodation happens, that is, as long as US tries to contain China, China will seek to break that containment, do so with 1st chain’s weakest link, Taiwan. Furthermore, China will dawn on Washington to reckon a strategic clarity: allow China’s peace-able (not same as peaceful) rise, or face mutual death if war breaks out between US & China (that’s why we’re seeing these ICBM or FOBS silo farms being erected, and tested).

Live & let live, or die together.

I agree that the United States will probably not go to war over Taiwan. The “performance” of the American military in Afghanistan makes that fairly certain for everyone now. Also, without posing any widespread Chinese encouragement, U.S. and other Anglo-sphere elites are well on the way to extinguishing Western including American “liberal ideals.” The widespread and growing “cancel culture” is indicative of this as is the rapid decline in Christianity which is the ultimate source of these ideals. Accordingly, apart from the threat of Russian competition, there should be no warring necessary for China to achieve world dominance in the short term.

The problem for China is, as always in socialist systems, internal: The inherent faults in this “beggar thy neighbor” ideology as evidenced by the fall of the Soviet Union and the continued independence of East European nations plus the instability in socialist republics in other parts of the world indicate that socialism is not a durable system.

Those worried about the threat of too much human activity, may soon find their problem solved but they might not like living through that time.

Hi all. I’m not a big leaving comments kind of person, but I was left feeling reasonably confused after reading this article. Could someone point out what I’m missing here? As I see it, a crucial passage in this piece is: “Were it not for Taiwan, I would feel far more confident in our ability to sustain long term technological and economic rivalry with the Chinese sans dangerous disruptions in the security domain. But there is a Taiwan, so the problem persists.” So, to simplify: in this view, the world could probably (on purely a military level) peacefully co-exist with China were the Taiwan problem not to exist, or were it be permanently resolved for in some fashion.

Working from that premise, let’s imagine China moves one day in the next five years (ten? twenty?) to take over Taiwan. It could be some longer-term sovereignty-limiting series of salami-slicing moves that ultimately tips into de facto mainland domination. It could be a thunderclap full-on amphibious assault. Whatever. I think the Tiannanmen/Hong Kong/Uighur stuff gives us a pretty clear indication of how the world will react. The developing world is reasonably sympathetic to China and will do/say nothing. The ex-US developed world will complain about it, but is largely powerless to do anything, so it’ll be back to business-as-usual soon enough. The only wildcard here is the States: does it go to war for Taiwan or not?

On the one side of the ledger, war is bad. At the very least, some non-trivial number of American soldiers are killed (one carrier group going down could result in more American deaths than Afghanistan and Iraq put together – not good). At the very most, it escalates into a full-on nuclear exchange (I guess? What do I know?) and millions are killed – very not good.

On the other side of the ledger, what? America looks weak? America is shown not to honour its commitments? I think we’ve had a couple decades where the States has proved itself to be pretty unreliable (in and out of Kyoto; ABMT; unenforced red lines in Syria; in and out of the JCPOA; in and out and in to Paris; incoherent North Korean strategy; forced renegotiation of NAFTA; dubious aluminum and steel tariffs; INF Treaty; Open Skies) – I don’t think failing to follow through on a highly ambiguous commitment to Taiwan would be hugely surprising for the rest of the world.

Then maybe, the problem is that countenancing a Chinese takeover would undermine the “rules-based international order”? Does the United States even like that order? If I’m looking at how America conducts itself in the world (illegal invasion of Iraq; illegal torture program; illegal embargo of Cuba; support for the illegal occupation of Palestine; MPP and illegal asylum pushbacks (?); gutting the WTO-AB; attacking the ICC; attacking the WHO; voting against UNDRIP; not a party to UNCRC; not a party to UNCLOS; not even a party to the Ottawa Treaty, for heaven’s sakes) isn’t the implicit message that the US feels like rules shouldn’t apply to the Big Boys?

Obviously it would be a tragedy for the people of Taiwan, but Xinjiang is a tragedy. Hong Kong is a tragedy. Nobody is fretting over war there. If, as our earlier premise imagines, the idea is that peaceful co-existence is possible if the Taiwan question is resolved, why wouldn’t (apart from domestic political considerations) the United States just endorse the 1992 Consensus; walk away from the Taiwan Relations Act; and let the chips fall however they may?

Jacob, seeing as you are out in Japan I’m surprised to see they don’t feature in your listing. I wrote this before the recent stream of “red line” comments from Kasumigaseki over the last year. What do they see that “the developed world” (in your estimation) does not?

Your reply to Jacob brings up something that I didn’t see noted about China’s thinking.

A decade or so ago, the up and coming navel rivalry seemed to be going to be between India and China. A lot of the Chinese buildup was thought to be part of that rivalry. For reasons that are unclear to me, India is somewhat stalled in its naval buildup, so that issue has faded.

But the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) was Japan’s coming out party. So the blue navy buildup wouldn’t be just about commerce and national pride. It’s about Japan, and (probably to a lesser degree) India.

I think your point is well taken.

There was never a naval rivalry between China and India. It doesn’t even make much sense from a geography standpoint. There might be some sense of naval competition between China and Japan, but only by definition of Japan being a not so friendly neighbor. One could argue China’s naval buildup has more to do with the US naval presence in Asia, which probably makes more sense than any rivalry. But fundamentally, China just wanted to build a strong navy, for a great power to safeguard its national interest and to be a “maritime power.” That’s really all. Looking its modern history and its strategic environment, the natural question would have been why China did not want to build a strong navy.

China’s A2AD (1500 miles reach) is mostly a continent based (space, land based missile, air force, and naval) system, of which PLAN is the weakest part (unable therefore won’t operate outside A2AD coverage); hence, there won’t be high sea show down involving stand-alone PLAN.

Hi! Thanks for responding to my comment.

Let me preface my answer by saying that I have no where enough knowledge to have an informed opinion on this stuff. That being said, though, maybe it’s because of my contact with Japan that I feel pretty sure that were China to do something, Japan doesn’t seem like it would act in any signficant manner unless the United States did first. I cannot detect much appetite at all among Japanese people or the media (beyond, like, Aoyama Shigeharu) for Japan to unilaterally interject itself into a potential conflict between China and Taiwan.

I mean, even when Nakayama Hasuhide was talking about “red lines” with relation to Taiwan, it’s all framed about American (and not Japanese) action. In his interview with Reuters, he says, “So far, I haven’t yet seen a clear policy or an announcement on Taiwan from Joe Biden. I would like to hear it quickly, then we can also prepare our response on Taiwan in accordance.” That seems pretty clear to me: if the United States would back Taiwan, Japan will think about it; if the United States will do nothing, Japan will do nothing.

So that makes this a question of American action, and that’s where I just feel confused. If, as you’ve argued, the United States can achieve a (militarily) peaceful equilibrium with China by sacrificing Taiwan, is that such a bad trade to make? Perhaps I’m missing something (I assume I am).

Regarding peaceful co-existence with a Chinese hegemon, “could” is not the same thing as “will” . Obviously, a powerful China *could* choose to be militarily aggressive. Indeed, I think it would be for approximately the same reason that a powerful US sometimes has been — basically, as its “peaceful” overseas interests proliferate alongside its military capabilities, so do possible opportunities or provocations for war. Future expeditionary Chinese military operations might be at odds with the US…but they don’t have to. Suppose in 2030 the Chinese invaded Madagascar. Does this in any way conflict with US interests? Not really, not any more than say the US invasion of Iraq interfered with Chinese interests. Of course they could decide they really want troops in the Aleutian islands, or Northern Ireland, or something, and it would be a problem; but you could say the same thing about the US and Hainan.

Taiwan is not like this because Taiwan is a US protectorate that the Chinese want to rule. It doesn’t matter that there’s no explicit defense guarantee, it doesn’t matter that this status is a historical contingency that wasn’t really sought out by the US establishment. It exists. As Greer correctly pointed out, Taiwanese society and opinion is diverging *away* from the mainland. I would add that this is partly (in my limited personal observation) a direct adverse reaction to mainland attitudes and propaganda, which the lack of a language barrier makes impossible for Taiwanese to live in ignorance about. “Peaceful reunification” is getting less and less popular. The PRC attempted to corral Taiwan into its orbit via trade and social incentives; this policy has failed, just like the analogous American policies towards the PRC in the 1990s-early 2000s failed.

The point is, a successful Chinese invasion of Taiwan means the end of the US as the premier military power in the Pacific. This is true regardless of whether the US “wants” to defend Taiwan or not. You can argue about whether maintaining this status is truly in the interests of the US, but that only raises the question of why ruling a certain Pacific island is truly in the interests of the PRC — if it’s not such a big deal why do they seem to want it so bad?

Taiwan cannot really be “salami sliced” because of geography. If the PRC wants to “resolve the Taiwan question”, they will have to cross the Strait. Again, attempts at peaceful resolution have failed and the PRC knows they have failed. They are currently trying intimidation and that doesn’t appear to be working either. If the PRC can and will blockade (or invade!) Taiwan then they could presumably do the same thing to Japan or Australia the next time they’re “concerned” about their “core interests”. Which probably has something to do with why both of those countries have all but proclaimed that they will be on board with the US if they choose to go to war over Taiwan.

It’s funny that you singled out the Ottawa Treaty as a particularly egregious example of America’s unreliability since the PRC isn’t party to the treaty either; no serious military power is. Neither country is party to the CCM either, for the same reason.

This next part is getting away from what Greer’s post is about but: it doesn’t matter, on its own, if several ships are sunk and a few thousand American sailors are killed. Consider Afghanistan, where the US spent several thousand lives and a trillion-ish dollars and didn’t accomplish much at all. Suppose instead that America could spend several thousand lives and a few hundred billion dollars in materiel to decisively resolve the most pressing military question in the world in its favor, possibly crushing its upstart rival. You think that the US wouldn’t do that?

The US could fight and lose, but if they do fight and lose it won’t be because a few sunk ships demoralize America, somehow, but because the lost hardware *removes their capacity to fight*. Honestly it’s hard to understand how anyone takes this idea of “civic demoralization” seriously after the 20th century, whether it can be made to work even with nuclear weapons is an open question.

Hi. Thanks for engaging with my post! Let me just put some follow-up thoughts in bullet points. Sorry that I might not address everything.

– “Taiwan is not like this because Taiwan is a US protectorate that the Chinese want to rule. It doesn’t matter that there’s no explicit defense guarantee, it doesn’t matter that this status is a historical contingency that wasn’t really sought out by the US establishment. It exists.”

I kind of meant my comment to have a limited form of argumentation: if, as the piece suggests, militarily peaceful co-existence with China is possible with the Taiwan issue resolved, wouldn’t it better just to let the Chinese than risk a potentially terrible conflict? So I guess I would just say here (keeping that argumentation in mind), doesn’t the United States have agency over its relation with Taiwan? Even if we grant that it is a protectorate now, why doesn’t it just slowly walk back those commitments? It could be a historical contingency, but it doesn’t have to remain one, right? I just don’t see the need to feel locked to fighting a potential conflict.

– “The point is, a successful Chinese invasion of Taiwan means the end of the US as the premier military power in the Pacific. This is true regardless of whether the US “wants” to defend Taiwan or not. You can argue about whether maintaining this status is truly in the interests of the US, but that only raises the question of why ruling a certain Pacific island is truly in the interests of the PRC — if it’s not such a big deal why do they seem to want it so bad?”

I’d say two things here. The first is, again, referencing the piece’s idea that the resolution of the Taiwan issue could put to bed the risk of further military clashes with China. If (and that might be a big if, but it represents the premise for what I’m writing) that’s the case, then wouldn’t the value of being the preeminent military power be significantly undermined? If we drift into some kind of (still contentious and rivalrous), but security community-esque arrangement, does it matter so much who has the bigger guns?

The second is that reunification with Taiwan seems to be a reasonably important goal for the Chinese leadership. If I open a Chinese passport, there Taiwan is, pictured on one of the pages as one of China’s provinces. I’m sure reunification has a degree of emotive value to them that would be both hard to quantify, and potentially outstrips their strategic/economic considerations.

– “It’s funny that you singled out the Ottawa Treaty as a particularly egregious example of America’s unreliability since the PRC isn’t party to the treaty either; no serious military power is. Neither country is party to the CCM either, for the same reason.”

I just find opposing landmines to be a pretty low bar – call me crazy (and I totally possibly am here, I know basically nothing). I don’t think whether or not China is doing something should be the normative measuring stick for whether or not the United States should do likewise.

– “Suppose instead that America could spend several thousand lives and a few hundred billion dollars in materiel to decisively resolve the most pressing military question in the world in its favor, possibly crushing its upstart rival. You think that the US wouldn’t do that?”

I guess I think not. Maybe I’m just naïve, but that would be a huge number of lives for something that doesn’t seem that valuable. Winning the war would mean maintaining the current territorial status quo and removing the threat of possible war with China. Not fighting China would mean Taiwan reverts to mainland rule and (according to the apparent logic of this piece) removing the threat of possible war with China. Is the difference between those two scenarios worth hundreds of thousands dead? That seems nuts. Or I am nuts. I am open to either possibility being true.

It’s totally true that the US has agency regarding Taiwan. The Chinese could invade and the US could do nothing. I’m not saying that the US doesn’t have a choice, I’m saying that the choice not to defend Taiwan has costs that should be acknowledged rather than rationalized away. If the Chinese attack Taiwan and the US fails to act, it has signaled that it will not defend its allies. “Slowly walking back commitments” does the same thing except without even waiting for a by-no-means-inevitable war to start. Pre-emptive cope about how, well, Taiwan was never *really* an ally and maybe never really even existed doesn’t change any of that. I’ll note that even fighting and losing doesn’t have this problem; in Afghanistan for instance the US can very plausibly claim that it did all that could reasonably be expected, and any allies it aids in the future merely need to have more functional states than the former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to expect better results — this is not a high bar.

Taiwan isn’t the only Asian state implicitly relying on a US alliance to defend itself from Chinese aggression. If Japan, for instance, can’t rely on the US to do anything about the next time Chinese state media makes one of their interests into an “emotive issue” that “outstrips their economic considerations” — fishing rights are always a good go-to — then they’re going to have to think about how to enforce their own interests against China on their own. That probably means building nuclear weapons (Japan already has a few thousand bombs worth of plutonium on hand). My guess is that if Japan does this, South Korea will too. Australia ought to, but I don’t know if they would. I don’t know enough about the other SE Asian states to comment on them, but they’d definitely be tempted. Are you in favor of this? (I know some people who are, this is a serious question.) And again, why is it OK for the PRC to invade another country for not being Communist based on the territorial claims of a long-defunct government (Qing China). Would you support a North Korean invasion of the South? — the logic for such a war would be virtually identical to the that used by the PRC regarding Taiwan, if anything the ROK’s government is less historically legitimate than the KMT. What if the German government spent twenty years agitating its populace about Danzig and putting old borders on their passports, would you support the 2045 invasion of Poland? It’s a very emotive issue!

Landmines are proven effective military tools. Countries that have no need of them sign the treaty, countries that do don’t. Probably the biggest exception is Ukraine, which has been rewarded for its attempts to be a good world citizen with territory lost to Russian invasion.

Regardless of whether you, personally, think that Taiwan is worth a few thousand dead sailors, I was showing you that it’s already demonstrably the case that the US government thinks that much more trivial causes (e.g. Afghanistan) are worth a few thousand dead servicemen, so the prospect of thousands of casualties in a war in the Pacific shouldn’t be assumed to automatically discourage the US, and those who make decisions for it, from defending Taiwan. The casualties from these wars had basically no effect whatsoever on the daily lives of Americans. After all, a majority of Americans apparently support fighting over Taiwan, and the American war-propaganda machine really hasn’t even tried to stir up popular sentiment in favor of a war: all indications are that the defense of Taiwan can very much be made an emotive issue to the American public; this is exactly how wars work. Arguments that “the American people aren’t willing to fight” and “the US won’t accept thousands of its troops dying in a war” are simply empirically false.

And I’d remind you that a PRC invasion probably wouldn’t be bloodless for them either. If the prospect of some soldiers dying to achieve state objectives is so discouraging or nonsensical to the US, why isn’t it discouraging or nonsensical to the PRC? The mainland seems to be doing just fine; there’s no reason the PRC can’t just proclaim good riddance to the KMT and expedite citizenship for any “Taiwanese” who want to move to REAL China. After all, that would remove the threat of war and maintain the current territorial status quo.

Regarding ‘salami slicing’ Taiwan. There is Kinmen & Matsu islands right off mainland’s shore, and Penghu island about 2/3 way across the strait. Also, there are several Taiwan-held islands in SCS. China can start grabbing one at a time to gradually forcing Taiwan & US to struggle between- not allowing the situation to deteriorate for peace sake, or preparing for a long agonizing impending Taiwan doom (in the mean time, let psychologically & militarily unprepared Taiwan populace/politics to wreck its havoc.)

“I don’t think failing to follow through on a highly ambiguous commitment to Taiwan would be hugely surprising for the rest of the world.”

The issue is not that it would be surprising, but that it would be the tipping point for Asia-Pacific from US hegemony to PRC hegemony. Unlike the “Tiannanmen/Hong Kong/Uighur stuff”, the take over of Taiwan by the PRC would significantly change the strategic situation.

Hi! Thanks for responding to my comment.

Let me first say that I basically know nothing. But having said that, in your mind would Chinese hegemony be so bad that it would be worth the possible costs of a war with China? I can understand the view that the strategic situation would be deeply altered, but, kind of, so what? It just seems like the costs of a potential conflict are really high, so we’d have to imagine that Chinese hegemony would be really bad to make it worth it.

With all due respect, I dont understand how exactly deciding not to militarily come to Taiwan’s aid would decisively shift the balance of power?? It seems to have become a slightly weird shibboleth at this point.

Also, are we to believe that a violent PRC takeover of Taiwan would lead to humble submission by the Japanese, Australians and Koreans, not to mention a move towards subservience by the South-East Asians (Vietnam, Philippines, etc)? I really dont buy the logic that says that ~650mn people and ~$10trn worth of GDP will simply fall in line following a bloody Chinese amphibious invasion and by doing so, cut US cords/links one-by-one….

Far more likely is that a Chinese invasion will cause panic in the Vietnam/Japan/Korea, consternation in the Philippines/Australia and concern in Indonesia/Malaysia. The result is likely to be full-on militarization across the asia-pacific, with the role of the US revitalized regardless of whether or not it kept its very flaky promise to Taiwan (who’s going to sell all those nice bits of kit/weaponry?).

All a successful invasion of Taiwan does is break the 1st island chain. That’s it. Forget falling dominoes, the US is much more likely to find the loss of Taiwan retrenching its role as security provider.

If members of the US foreign-policy establishment and/or armchair IR theorists want to fight for Taiwan, they would be better served making their case on another basis

Perception is power and a successful military take over of Taiwan would cement the perception of the PRC as the top military power in eastern Asia.
The other states in the region would be more careful when dealing with such a power.

“who’s going to sell all those nice bits of kit/weaponry?”
“Forget falling dominoes, the US is much more likely to find the loss of Taiwan retrenching its role as security provider.”

Taiwan relies more than everyone else in the region on the US as security provider and weapon supplier.
The lesson from their fall would be not to rely on the US, to develop their own independent (nuclear) deterrence and improve relations with the PRC as long as their own interests are not disregarded.

“All a successful invasion of Taiwan does is break the 1st island chain”

Which is significant for countries in the region, especially the ones who rely even more on sea trade than the PRC does.

I do not care whether the US fights the PRC because of Taiwan, I just think that not doing that won’t be free of cost for the US.

“Perception is power and a successful military take over of Taiwan would cement the perception of the PRC as the top military power in eastern Asia.
The other states in the region would be more careful when dealing with such a power.”

Again, I just don’t see it. China successfully taking Taiwan would certainly cement the perception/reality of it as the Asia-Pacific’s top military power, but Germany’s reputation as Europe’s top military power 1870-1914 was ironclad and yet that didn’t stop countries lining up to balance it.

Might they become more amenable to Chinese sensibilities? Sure, but how much more sensitive can they be without impinging on their respective security red-lines? They would still place security above all else and they would always see China as a threat to be managed. The US, provided it wants to, will always have a role to play in providing the financing/weaponry for their defense.

“The lesson from their fall would be not to rely on the US”. Developing a top A2/AD military is expensive and time consuming. It took the Chinese 25 years…I can’t see any SEA or EA nation thinking it has that long should China take Taiwan and I certainly can’t see them turning down US aid on the basis of the US walking away from very flimsy, non-committal alliance with Taiwan.

“Which is significant for countries in the region”. With its sensor/mapping assets in the SCS, the Chinese can already ‘disrupt’ trade if they wanted to. The addition of Taiwan just make its a more comprehensive node. But ultimately, if they wanted to block trade and starve Japan, they could already make a decent attempt at it. They haven’t because its a) very difficult in reality to impound ships in the open ocean and b) a lot of that trade is coming into their ports and this is an issue because c) trade cargos very rarely fly national colours on every single box/case on board, thus giving the ‘blockader’ insight into which specific crate he needs to chuck overboard. I’ve served on ships. Blockades are very difficult, inefficient and time-intensive.

If China and Taiwan (by extension, US) come to blow, off-shore containment will be the result (since US mil won’t want to lose, therefore fight, an air-sea-battle over Taiwan, a scenario prescribed in 2018 National Defense Strategy and played out in many war simulations). In that case, westpac will be a no-go zone by either side. While Chinese maritime economy will not pass the Malacca strait, Taiwan will fall, and SK and Japan won’t be able to survive with maritime lifelines cut off, therefore, forcing them to ‘negotiate’ with China. Same can be said for ASEAN nations. The next question: how sustainable will China’s war time economy be? In peace time, China’s oil consumption is about 12Mbpd, of which ~1Mbpd is from domestic production. In war time, it can bump up to ~2Mbpd, plus Russian supply of another 1-2Mbpd, for a total of 3-4Mbpd, which is more than US oil production at the height of WW2 fighting two-front oil consuming mechanized war. Also, Chinese food self-sufficiency is about 94% in peacetime, so it probably will not starve in war, plus Russia as Beijing’s strategic depth. Also, the prospect of nuke escalation will keep both sides from seeking decisive show downs. In the end, this might become a multi-decades war with interminable end, a stalemate looking for political settlement.

Regarding China’s domestic oil production, it’s 3.8Mbpd, not 1Mpd. China is also rapidly transitioning into clean energy and electric cars.
“China also extracts oil within its own borders. According to BP, China’s domestic production of crude oil was 3.836 million barrels a day in 2019 — not insignificant, but still well behind the U.S.’s 17.045 or Saudi Arabia’s 11.832 — putting China in 7th place worldwide for production.”

I seldom see a solid piece of analysis on China’s thinking about Taiwan but this one is a good start. That said, I want to point out your labeling China “revisionist” is not accurate but ideologicially driven. China is not a revisionist power, it is merely regaining its historical position in the world. In comparison, the US is a usurper in the hisotrical sense. The Taiwan issue is not an expansionist issue at all, but a just claim to return a forcefully separated part of the nation back to its rightful place. I don’t see you complain about the North waging a war against the South in the American civil war. The Taiwan issue has a lot of emotional significance to the Chinese who have not forgotten the victimization of their country by the Japanese, the English and your standard roster of western colonial powers in the 19th and 20th century. Frankly many Chinese would welcome a cathartic fight against their oppressors today and if the Japanese and British (or the Aussies for that matter) are foolish enough to come to the war in Taiwan, we’ll break their spine.

Lastly as a pragmatic note, the Americans have no recent history of fighting someone in their own weight class and a miserable track record fighting feather weights, as evidenced in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t believe they will come to Taiwan’s defense when push comes to shovel. All the talk about “strategic ambiguity” or clarity is just mental masturbation.

Things I wonder about:

1. Is Iraq/Afghanistan the proper frame to understand how the US would conduct a war with the PRC? I’m skeptical.

2. Are the Japanese willing to let the PRC control shipping lanes that provide Japan with energy? Will Japan decide to go nuclear as a result of a successful invasion of Taiwan?

3. Get the sense that people think the PRC will win by looking at the spreadsheet of gear and a feeling that they ‘must’ win driving them forward in the fact of setbacks. Is that proper as well?

Regarding #3: the reason you get that sense is that it’s correct. Unfortunately, it’s all *anyone* has to go by. Even insiders only have slightly more reliable numbers in their spreadsheets. No one actually knows what will happen when two modern militaries try to fight each other in a maritime theater. The last time this occurred was in the Falklands, nearly 40 years ago, when Argentina decided that the time was ripe for it to grab the nearby island it had been agitating about from a clearly declining naval power. And in 1982 it had been roughly as long since the _previous_ serious naval engagements had occurred, in WW2. This did cause significant apprehension on both sides, but when it was fought out the status quo power won. There is no concrete reason to believe that the Falklands is anything more than a rough analogue for a hypothetical Taiwan conflict though, so we’re stuck with spreadsheets.

There are only two military solutions deter, and one non-military way to hesitate, a cross strait war.

The two military solutions: outright US conventional superiority in an air-sea-battle scenario 100 miles off China shore (i.e. Taiwan), or several dozens tactical nuclear warhead/missile (e.g. Pershing 2s) sales to Taiwan. The former is probably gradually slipping out of our grip. To try to reverse that, it’ll be prohibitively expensive, maybe not even do-able given advent of PLA prowess. Therefore, the 2nd method, akin to NK’s nuke insurance policy, may be the option left.

One hesitation: continue US-China trade/commercial coupling to subsist large portion of Chinese economy on stable US-China relationship. But, given current trend of bipartisan consensus to decouple from China might result in removing Beijing’s hesitation if and once the two are decoupled.

We need at least one, if not two, better yet, all three of above to deter a cross-strait war.