Defending Taiwan

Monday, June 6, 2022

“Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead.” This was the advice, echoing a well-known Chinese proverb, that Deng Xiaoping was once wont to give his compatriots. It was an admonition suited to the times—the 1980s—when China was still comparatively weak, and it deserves comparison with George Washington’s well-known suggestion that his compatriots avoid “entangling alliances.” It was not an end in itself. It was a means to an end. As Washington explained,

With me a predominant motive has been to endeavor to gain time to our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption to that degree of strength and consistency which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes.

 

In this regard, Xi Jinping is Deng Xiaoping’s heir. If he is willing to flaunt China’s strength, to abjure patience, and to be exceedingly assertive in the international arena, it is because he firmly believes that the circumstances that inspired his predecessor’s admonition have passed.

Weakness may, of course, return. China’s advance—economic and military—has been dramatic. But stagnation may be on the horizon. The so-called middle-income trap looms, and the threat is rendered greater by the demographic crisis produced by Deng Xiaoping’s one-child policy. The working-age population in China is already declining, and the cost of supporting those who are aging will be enormous. Xi Jinping’s impatience may be the consequence of a calculation that China will soon be a declining power. All that we really know is that he means business and that reacquiring Taiwan is high on his list of aims.

It is easy to see why. Taiwan was long a part of China, and that nation’s claim to the island is widely recognized. Its quasi-independence is a national humiliation, and nationalism and prosperity are the two foundations for the legitimacy enjoyed by the post-communist regime that Xi Jinping leads. There is also Taiwan Semiconductor—a source of wealth and, far more important, power. Controlling that corporation would give China a tremendous advantage. Perhaps even more important, Taiwan is part of the first-island chain; and for the first time in China’s history that nation is dependent on its maritime trade. China’s Belt and Road Initiative may be inspired by the heartland thesis once voiced by Halford Mackinder. But railroads cannot compete with container ships as carriers of freight; Nicholas Spykman’s rimland hypothesis is still valid; and Xi Jinping’s minions are fully aware of the fact. He means to take Taiwan, and he will—unless something is done to render the effort a catastrophe for Xi Jinping and the post-communist regime.

There are two ways that China might accomplish this—either by amphibious assault or by imposing a blockade. The first would be difficult to accomplish. The Taiwan Strait, which separates the island from the mainland, is ca. 100 miles wide; and during much of the year—during the typhoon season, the rainy season, and the stormy winters—attempting an invasion would be foolhardy. Moreover, on the island itself, there are only a handful of places where such a force could land; and amphibious operations of this sort are, in the best of circumstances, notoriously hard to pull off. The ships required would be vulnerable to rocket, air, and submarine attack for a considerable period of time. Mobile artillery in the hills and mountains above the possible beachheads could render landing almost impossible. The urban population near the beachhead would resist, and the mountainous character of the island and the ease with which the Taiwanese could destroy the infrastructure of tunnels and bridges easing travel into the interior would make progress from the beachheads difficult, if not impossible.

The loss of life involved might not bother Xi Jinping any more than it bothered Mao Tse Tung. But there would be other risks involved. Were the attack to fail, it might well be fatal to the Chinese regime – and, let’s face it, it would be apt to fail. The People’s Liberation Army is designed for population control on the mainland. It is underfunded and poorly trained. As an offensive force, it does not have a good track record, as the Vietnamese can testify; and it has never conducted an amphibious landing. Moreover, it has been decades since the PLA was engaged in an armed conflict. There is virtually no one in the officer corps, much less among the enlisted men, with any experience in combat. Xi Jinping might be foolish enough to try. Autocrats have a propensity for believing their own bluster. But were he to make the attempt, he would soon rue the day.

The second option would offer a better chance of success. It would be far easier to impose a blockade on Taiwan than to stage an invasion. The Taiwanese depends on imported food and oil, and the island could with some ease be cut off from the outside world both by sea and by air. So what could India, Vietnam, Australia, South Korea, Japan, and, we should add, the United States do in such circumstances? Even if fully rearmed, they would face a grave difficulty. The Chinese have the home-court advantage. They may already be in a position to destroy with rockets fired from the mainland any ship that approaches Taiwan. If not, they will surely be able to do so soon. What would Taiwan’s defenders do if the warships their allies deployed to convoy a merchant fleet were blown from the water? Would the Taiwanese or their allies risk a nuclear war by launching an attack on the sites on the mainland from which these rockets came?

It strikes me that there are only two ways in which the Taiwanese could defend themselves against a blockade. One would be for them to acquire tactical and strategic nuclear weapons and rockets capable of reaching the warships and coast of China as well as Beijing. The other would be for Taiwan to acquire a fleet of submarines capable of imposing a retaliatory blockade on China itself. I suspect that it is this that the Australians had in mind back in October 2021 when they agreed to sell Taiwan stealthy, long-range, nuclear-powered submarines. Some thought should be given to what equipment that the Taiwanese would need should they wish to break a blockade. In this regard, it is worth remembering that the territorial waters of Japan extend to a point roughly thirty miles from the Taiwanese coast. I doubt that the Japanese would tolerate Chinese incursions into their territorial waters.