Deterring a Militant—And Casualty-Adverse—China

Monday, June 6, 2022

China’s regime tells the world that no country can deter it from taking, by force if necessary, Taiwan.

For instance, an August 16 editorial of the Global Times, a tabloid controlled by the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, stated that once a war breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, the island’s defense “will collapse in hours and the U.S. military won’t come to help.”

In reality, China’s regime can be deterred. The tabloid bluffs, but the nations in East Asia are not easily intimidated.

The editorials of the Global Times, although not technically official, represent official thinking, so it is clear that the Party wants the world to believe the U.S. cannot stand in its way. That was also the message of Chinese ruler Xi Jinping in his landmark July 1 speech celebrating the Party’s centennial. He promised, among other things, to “crack skulls and spill blood.”

To help in skull-cracking and blood-spilling, China is engaging in a rapid remilitarization. That effort has triggered buildups in the region, especially in Japan and Australia. Tokyo last August announced the largest increase in spending on its self-defense forces in eight years, surpassing the long-standing cap of 1% of gross domestic product.

Canberra demonstrated commitment to project power far from its shores—in other words, commitment to defend regional partners—with its announcement last September that it would build nuclear-powered attack submarines with U.S. technology. The subs were the “first initiative” of the AUKUS pact with the U.K. and U.S.

This increased military spending has been accompanied by more resolute policies on Taiwan in both Australia and Japan. “It would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the U.S. in an action if the U.S. chose to take that action,” declared then Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton, in an interview published in November in the Australian, regarding defending Taiwan.

“If Australian troops come to fight in the Taiwan Straits, it is unimaginable that China won’t carry out a heavy attack on them and the Australian military facilities that support them,” stated then Global Times Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin, in a November 13 tweet. “So Australia better be prepared to sacrifice for Taiwan island and the U.S.”

There was a similar cycle of comments and responses in July 2021, when Japan’s annual defense white paper, for the first time, signaled Tokyo would come to Taiwan’s defense. The paper was consistent with explicit comments from the fiery Taro Aso, then Japan’s deputy prime minister, earlier in the month.

Some analysts, despite recent statements from Canberra and Tokyo, doubt Australia’s and especially Japan’s willingness to help America defend Taiwan.

China’s military planners, however, should not doubt Tokyo’s resolve. They know a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would, from a military planning point of view, require occupations of Japanese territorial water and airspace, particularly around Yonaguni, Japan’s southernmost inhabited island. Yonaguni, south of Taipei, is so close to the main Taiwan island that a Chinese blockade would not be effective unless it also included a blockade of this Japanese feature. Tokyo would of course have to react to China’s acts of war against Japan.

Xi Jinping, therefore, probably knows he would have to fight Japan in addition to Taiwan should he launch an invasion, and he surely suspects he would have to fight Australia too. Would he be willing to sustain the resulting casualties?

Beijing, through a Global Times piece, claims that its “casualty-tolerance” is “China’s decisive advantage in any fight with the U.S.” and that its “whole-of-society commitment to core national security priorities is legendary.” A recent incident, however, suggests the boast is wrong.

On the night of June 15, 2020, the People’s Liberation Army launched a surprise attack on Indian forces in Ladakh, south of the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas. India quickly announced 20 of its soldiers had been killed, but Beijing said nothing about casualties until February 19, 2021, when it reported four troopers had died. Indian sources believe about 45 Chinese had in fact been killed, and TASS, the Russian news agency, issued a release agreeing with India’s claim of Chinese deaths.

The Ladakh incident suggests the Communist Party would be hesitant to fight to take Taiwan. China, in short, can be deterred by the prospect of massive casualties—or maybe even just a few of them. Therefore, the Australian and Japanese military buildups contribute to deterrence.

Of course, Beijing’s calculations on Taiwan primarily hinge on its assessment of American intentions. If Xi believes Washington will defend Taiwan, it is unlikely he will launch an invasion.

Three times President Biden has publicly said he would defend the island, most recently in Tokyo in May. Unfortunately, he walked back the last of those declarations, later saying there had been no change to Washington’s “strategic ambiguity,” the policy of not telling either Beijing or Taipei what the U.S. would do in the event of imminent conflict

Perhaps the American president should take his cue from the People Power Party’s Yoon Seok-youl. Yoon, during his campaign to succeed Moon Jae-in as South Korea’s president, specifically rejected Moon’s “strategic ambiguity” policy, which contemplated a balancing act between China and the United States. Yoon instead favored a definite tilt to Washington. “You have to lead the nation’s business with strategic clarity,” the candidate said. Yoon, therefore, would likely allow the U.S. to use its bases in South Korea to help with the defense of Taiwan.

Yoon prevailed in the March election and now is a staunch supporter of Taiwan. When Biden in May kicked off his first Asia trip as Commander-in-Chief, he met the newly elected Yoon and, despite a warning from Beijing, they issued a statement reiterating “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as an essential element in security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”

A Chinese invasion of the island republic would, more likely than not, be accompanied by a North Korean move against South Korea. The security interests of Taiwan and the South have been inextricably linked since Mao Zedong had to call off his planned invasion of Taiwan due to Kim Il Sung sending troops across the border into South Korea in June 1950.

Washington, Seoul, and the region will be drawn into the fight over Taiwan. China’s regime will make sure of that.

 

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.