By Gwynne Dyer
“I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight (China) in 2025,” declared US Air Force General Mike Minihan last weekend. He didn’t mention what his crotch told him, or if he ever consulted his head on the matter.
“Taiwan’s presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer (Chinese President Xi Jinping a reason,” Minihan explained. “United States’ presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a distracted America. Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025.”
Just why China would attack in 2025 if all that stuff is actually happening in 2024 is a bit unclear, but it’s always a mistake to engage too closely with this sort of guff. However, it is definitely getting harder to avoid.
Last October, for example, Admiral Michael M. Gilday, the Chief of Naval Operations, said that the U.S. should prepare to fight China in 2022 or 2023. (Only eleven months left!)
This is fostering a fatalistic belief that a war between China and America is inevitable not only in the United States, but to a lesser extent also in China.
It is not inevitable, although it is certainly possible. It is possible because a disputed border is the classic trigger for war. The United States defends Taiwan’s choice to remain separate as the democratic will of the great majority of the population. China ignores that, and claims Taiwan on the grounds that it is historically Chinese territory.
This is precisely how Russians persuaded themselves that they have a historic right to Ukraine although the great majority of Ukrainians consistently vote to remain independent. Moreover, the Russians (or rather, Vladimir Putin) acted on that belief and invaded Ukraine. Why wouldn’t China (or rather, Xi Jinping) do the same to Taiwan?
One reason might be that Xi is less deluded than the Russian leader. Another is that he already has too much on his plate: a huge but rapidly declining population; an economy that has sunk into stagnation and is unlikely to resurface; the horrible example of how the invasion of Ukraine worked out for the Russians.
But Xi badly needs a way to distract the public from its growing discontents. A rapid conquest of Taiwan that reunites the Motherland’ could buy him years of political credit. How can you guard against that?
Not by traditional nuclear deterrence, which deals in threats so terrifying that they are unbelievable until the moment they are actually fulfilled. Less dangerous and more persuasive would be the policy that NATO is currently pursuing on Ukraine.
Make sure that Taiwan has enough weapons and well-trained troops to hold an initial sea- and airborne assault by China for at least a few weeks. The fact that Taiwan is an ocean island makes this feasible.
Strengthen the American fleet and air forces in the western Pacific to make them capable of operating within range of Taiwan, so they can escort supply ships through the inevitable Chinese blockade. But let no American or allied soldier set foot on Taiwan or engage in direct combat with the Chinese.
Gradually improve the quality of the weapons you give Taiwan so China’s footholds become increasingly insecure, like Russia’s in Ukraine. Wait. Pray if you wish. We don’t know if that will finally work in Ukraine, let alone in Taiwan. But if the Taiwanese can rearm and retrain their forces fast enough, they would stand a decent chance of containing and ultimately repelling a Chinese attack – or, even better, deterring one. There are no better options.