National leaders in Beijing and Washington have set out starkly opposing stances on Taiwan’s future.
Only two years after overseeing the groundbreaking for a $12 billion TSMC chip-production factory in Phoenix in 2020, Arizona’s governor declared that “TSMC has completed construction of its primary facility.”
Furthermore, the political and economic costs of Beijing’s involvement in the Ukraine Conflict may become insurmountable.
Yet, China’s robust air defence system would almost certainly launch thousands of its missiles, causing “serious losses” to the US Navy.
If the US had an advantage, it could destroy “most of China’s military in southeastern China” while shooting down more than 400 PLA planes while suffering massive casualties.
While the world has been intrigued, if not amused, by China’s recent high-altitude balloon flights across North America, there are signals that Beijing and Washington are preparing for something much more severe: armed conflict over Taiwan. Recent developments in the Asia-Pacific area highlight a tried-and-true historical truth that requires reiterating at this difficult juncture: governments that prepare for war are significantly more likely to go to war.
Barbara Tuchman linked the outbreak of World War I in 1914 to pre-existing French and German plots in The Guns of August, her magisterial account of another conflict nobody wanted. “Appalled upon the brink,” she said, “the chiefs of state who would be ultimately responsible for their country’s fate attempted to back away, but the pull of military timetables drew them ahead.” Similarly, China and Washington have made military, diplomatic, and semi-secret steps that could lead us into a disastrous conflict that no one wants.
National leaders in Beijing and Washington have set out starkly opposing stances on Taiwan’s future. President Joseph Biden has been seeking for nearly a year to settle the underlying ambiguity in the past US policy on that island by repeatedly emphasising that he would protect it from any mainland attack. In answer to a reporter’s query regarding a probable Chinese invasion of Taiwan in May last year, Obama said, “Absolutely,” the US would intervene militarily. “We support the One China policy,” he stressed. We signed up to it and all the subsequent accords, but the notion that it can be taken by force, just seized by force, is [just not] correct.”
As Biden admitted, America had accepted China’s eventual sovereignty over Taiwan by providing diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979. During the next 40 years, leaders of both parties publicly opposed Taiwan’s independence. In effect, they admitted that the island was a Chinese province and that its fate was a local concern (even if they were opposed to the People’s Republic doing anything about it shortly).
Yet, Biden has maintained his combative tone. For example, in September, Obama told CBS News that he would send US troops to defend Taiwan “if there were an unexpected attack.” Nevertheless, in a significant break with longstanding U.S. policy, he added: “Taiwan makes its judgements about their independence… That is their choice.”
Within weeks, Chinese President Xi Jinping reacted at a Communist Party Congress with a strong personal commitment to Taiwan unification – by force if necessary. “We insist on pursuing the prospect of peaceful reunification,” he continued, “but we will never commit to abandoning the use of force and will always reserve the option of using all necessary measures.”
During a long round of applause from the 2,000 party officials gathered in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, he invoked the inevitability of Marxian dialectical forces that would ensure the victory he promised. “The historical wheels of national reunification and national rejuvenation are turning,” he stated, “and the motherland’s complete reunification must be achieved.”
As political philosopher Hannah Arendt famously said, a sense of historical inevitability is a dangerous ideological trigger that can plunge authoritarian nations like China into previously inconceivable conflicts or mass death.
War Preparations Progress Down the Command Chain
Unsurprisingly, Biden and Xi’s strong words have made their way down the chain of command in both countries. einstein uploading up to get together with. “My intuition tells me we’ll fight in 2025,” he said. Instead of denying the general’s assertion, a Pentagon spokesman stated, “The National Defense Strategy makes clear that China is the Department of Defense’s biggest issue.”
General Minihan is hardly the first senior commander to make such ominous warnings. Admiral Philip Davidson, the head of the Indo-Pacific Command, warned Congress in March 2021 that China planned to conquer the island by 2027: “Taiwan is one of their aspirations… And I believe the threat will become apparent within this decade, specifically in the following six years.”
China’s service leaders have been outwardly mum, unlike their American opponents, but their planes have been outspoken. As President Biden signed a defence authorization bill last December with $10 billion in military aid for Taiwan, an unprecedented armada of 71 Chinese aircraft and many more military drones swarmed that island’s air defences in 24 hours.
As the tit-for-tat escalation continues, America has responded to China’s aggression with huge diplomatic and military actions. Furthermore, Ely Ratner, the assistant defence secretary for the Indo-Pacific, has vowed that “2023 is likely to stand as the most revolutionary year in US force posture in the region in a decade.”
During a recent trip to Asian allies, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin claimed some substantial strategic advances. On a stopover in Seoul, he and his South Korean counterpart announced that the U.S. would deploy aircraft carriers and extra jets for increased live-fire exercises – a highly escalatory step following the reduction of such joint activities during the Trump years.
Continuing to Manila, Austin said that the Philippines had recently granted US forces access to four additional military locations, several facing Taiwan over a small strait. He stated these were required because “the People’s Republic of China continues to advance its unlawful claims” in the South China Sea.
China’s Foreign Ministry seemed stung by the news. After a successful diplomatic courtship of the previous Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, that limited US influence while accepting Chinese occupation of islands in Philippine waters, Beijing could now only condemn Washington’s access to those bases for “endangering regional peace and stability.” Although some Filipino nationalists were concerned that an American presence would invite a nuclear strike, according to reputable polling, 84% of Filipinos believed that their country should work with the US to defend their territorial waters from China.
These declarations were dividends from months of diplomacy and down payments on future big military deployments. The annual “defence” bill for the United States for 2023 funds the building of military sites across the Pacific. Even as Japan’s defence budget is being doubled, in part to protect its southern islands from China, US Marines in Okinawa plan to trade tanks and heavy artillery for agile drones and shoulder-fired missiles as they form “littoral regiments” capable of rapid deployment to the region’s smallest islands.
In contrast to those public declarations, semi-secret strategies on both sides of the Pacific have mostly gone unnoticed. While the United States’ military commitment to Taiwan remains uncertain, the country’s economic reliance on that island’s computer-chip production is nearly absolute. As the global supply chain hub, Taiwan produces 90% of the world’s advanced chips and 65% of all semiconductors. (By comparison, China owns 5% of the semiconductor market, while the United States has 10%.) Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC) is the world’s leading innovator, supplying Apple and other U.S. tech firms as the world’s top producer of the most crucial component in everything from consumer mobile phones to military missiles.
Officials in the United States are now working to change it. Only two years after overseeing the groundbreaking for a $12 billion TSMC chip-production factory in Phoenix in 2020, Arizona’s governor declared that “TSMC has completed construction of its primary facility.” Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo argued in August, just before President Biden signed the $52 billion CHIPS and Science Act, that “our reliance on Taiwan for chips is untenable and dangerous.”
Only three months later, TSMC sought a major portion of those federal funds by investing $28 billion on a second Phoenix factory that, when completed in 2026, will create “more advanced — albeit not the most advanced — chip-making technology,” according to the New York Times. At a ceremony with President Biden last December, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said, “This is a very historic moment.”
That may be true, but the attention on Phoenix has masked equally large chip plant developments underway in Texas, Ohio, and New York by Samsung, Intel, and Micron Technology. Put it all up, and the United States is already halfway to meeting a “minimum of three years and a $350 billion investment… to replace Taiwanese [chip] foundries,” according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.
In other words, if Beijing did decide to invade Taiwan after 2026, TSMC’s intellectual capital, in the form of its top computer experts, would definitely be on departure flights for Phoenix, leaving little more than a few concrete shells and some sabotaged equipment behind. The global supply chain for silicon chips involving Dutch machines (for extreme ultraviolet lithography), American designs, and Taiwanese production would most likely continue unabated in the United States, Japan, and Europe, leaving the People’s Republic of China with only 5% of the world’s $570 billion semiconductor industry.
China’s covert calculus regarding an invasion of Taiwan is undeniably more complicated. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in mid-February in Munich that China was considering providing Moscow with “lethal support” for its war in Ukraine, adding that “we’ve made it very clear to them that that would be a severe problem for… our relationship.”
But, China faces a considerably more difficult choice than Blinken’s carefree attitude suggests. Beijing could easily supply Moscow with enough Hong Niao cruise missiles to destroy most of Ukraine’s armoured vehicles (with plenty left over to demolish Kyiv’s failing electrical infrastructure) from its excellent arsenal.
Yet, bleeding NATO in this manner would yield scant returns for any future Chinese objectives involving Taiwan. In contrast, the types of ground-warfare munitions that the United States and its allies continue to pour into Ukraine would have little effect on the United States’ naval capacity in the Western Pacific.
Furthermore, the political and economic costs of Beijing’s involvement in the Ukraine Conflict may become insurmountable. China requires a humbled Putin, desperate for markets and obedient with its plans for wider dominance over Eurasia, as the world’s top consumer of imported cheap oil and wheat, which Russia exports in abundance. A triumphant Putin, bent on bending the will of hesitant states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia while negotiating ever-tougher deals for his exports, is hardly in Beijing’s best interests.
Ignoring the existential threat Putin’s conflict poses to the European Union would also cost Beijing decades of diplomacy and billions of dollars in infrastructure funding already invested in connecting Eurasia from the North Sea to the South China Sea. In addition, partnering with a distinctly secondary state that has blatantly broken the key premise of the international order — which forbids the acquisition of territory by armed conquest — is hardly going to help Beijing’s protracted bid for global leadership.
Vladimir Putin may try to compare China’s claim to a breakaway province in Taiwan to his own drive for former Soviet territory in Ukraine, but the comparison is unacceptable to Beijing. “Taiwan is not Ukraine,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced last year, the day before Putin invaded Ukraine. “Taiwan has always been a part of China. This is a proven legal and historical reality.”
The Price of War
With both Beijing and Washington considering a future war over Taiwan, it’s critical to assess the prospective consequences of such a fight (particularly in light of Ukraine). The venerable Reuters News Agency produced a series of plausible scenarios for a China-US confrontation over Taiwan in November 2021. According to Reuters, if the US decides to battle for the island, “there is no assurance it would overcome a more formidable PLA [People’s Liberation Army].”
In its least violent scenario, Reuters hypothesised that Beijing could use its navy to enforce a “customs quarantine” around Taiwan, while proclaiming an Air Defense Identification Zone above the island and warning the world not to violate its sovereignty. Later, to tighten the knot even further, it may launch a full blockade, placing mines at vital ports and destroying underwater cables. If the US decides to intervene, its submarines will almost certainly sink multiple PLA warships, while its surface boats will also be able to deploy aircraft and missiles. Yet, China’s strong air-defence system would almost certainly launch thousands of its missiles, causing “serious losses” to the US Navy. Rather than undertaking a hazardous amphibious assault, Beijing may complete its planned escalation by launching saturation missile attacks on Taiwan’s cities until its leaders surrender.
According to the Reuters scenario for all-out conflict, Beijing chooses to “launch the largest and most intricate amphibious and airborne landing ever undertaken” to ” overpower the island before the United States and its allies can retaliate.” The PLA could launch missiles towards American sites in Japan and Guam to deter a US reprisal. When Taiwan deployed fighter jets and missiles to block the invasion fleet, US carrier battle groups would steam towards the island, and “within hours, a huge war [would] rage in East Asia.”
The Brookings Institution issued more accurate estimates of expected losses from various scenarios in such a war in August 2022. Although China’s “recent and substantial military modernizations have sharply limited America’s ability to protect the island,” the Brookings expert argued that the complexity of such a battle made “the result… fundamentally uncertain.” Only one thing is sure: the losses on all sides (including in Taiwan) would be catastrophic.
Under Brookings’ first scenario, which involves “a maritime conflict centred on submarines,” Beijing imposes a blockade, and Washington responds with navy convoys to keep the island alive. If the US managed to disable Beijing’s communications, the US Navy would lose only 12 vessels while sinking all 60 of China’s submarines. If China maintained its communications, it could sink 100 ships, principally US battleships, while losing only 29 subs.
In Brookings’ second scenario for “a bigger subregional war,” both sides would utilise aircraft and missiles in a struggle, including southeastern China, Taiwan, and U.S. facilities in Japan, Okinawa, and Guam. If China’s strikes were effective, it could destroy 40 to 80 US and Taiwanese warships for the cost of 400 Chinese planes. If the US had an advantage, it could destroy “most of China’s military in southeastern China” while shooting down more than 400 PLA planes while suffering huge casualties.
By focusing solely on military casualties, which are terrifying enough, both models vastly underestimate the actual costs and potential devastation to Taiwan and much of East Asia. My instinct tells me that if China imposes a customs embargo on the island, Washington will blink hard at the prospect of losing hundreds of planes and dozens of warships, perhaps an aircraft carrier or two, and will revert to its long-standing policy of viewing Taiwan as Chinese territory. If the US challenged the customs interdiction zone, it would have to confront the Chinese blockade and risk becoming the aggressor in the eyes of much of the world – a significant deterrent from Washington’s perspective.
Should China launch an all-out invasion, Taiwan’s only 470 combat aircraft air force would be swamped by the PLA’s 2,900 jet fighters, 2,100 supersonic missiles, and enormous navy, which is currently the world’s largest. Highlighting China’s evident strategic advantage of direct proximity to Taiwan, the island’s occupation might likely be a fait accompli before the U.S. Navy ships could reach from Japan and Hawaii in sufficient numbers to resist the large Chinese armada.
Suppose Beijing and Washington allow strategy and planning to draw them into such an ever-expanding war. In that case, the consequences might be enormous, with cities destroyed, untold millions killed, and the world economy, with its epicentre in Asia, in ashes. Let us hope that today’s leaders in both Washington and Beijing are more controlled than their colleagues in Berlin and Paris were in August 1914, when plans for victory unleashed a war that would kill 20 million people.