By Gwynne Dyer
China has been having conniptions again. President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan had a courtesy meeting last week with the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy. Beijing reacted by issuing a “stern warning” to the United States, and then “encircled” the island (its own words) with Chinese fighters, bombers, naval destroyers and missile boats.
McCarthy’s glancing encounter with President Tsai was staged in California, not in Washington DC, in order not to ruffle China’s feathers too much. But it didn’t help. Beijing’s response was along the lines of King Lear. (You know: “I will do such things— What they are, yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth!”)
China declared three days of military exercises designed to show that Beijing could conquer Taiwan at a moment’s notice. As Chinese state media put it, the drills would
“simultaneously organise patrols and advances around Taiwan island, shaping an all-round encirclement and deterrence posture.”
What do they mean by that? ‘Encirclement’ means ‘blockade’, and ‘deterrence’ is about deterring the US Navy from trying to break that blockade. But it is just an expression of anger, not a statement of imminent strategic intent, nor even a demonstration of military capability.
In other words, we’ve heard it all before. We’re hearing it more often now, in a louder voice, but that may just be due to the domestic Chinese political situation.
China’s ability to conquer Taiwan by military force has slowly improved over
time, but is still far from assured.
That may be another reason, beyond mere anger at being defied, why Beijing stages all these pantomime military drills: to convince the Taiwanese government and its foreign friends that China already possesses a capability that it does not actually have.
However, one should avoid embarrassing people whenever possible, and backing them into corners would be just stupid.
An unsuccessful Chinese invasion attempt against Taiwan would be almost as big a catastrophe as a successful one.
The right policy for the Biden administration would be to leave the high-profile meetings to publicity-hungry Republican politicians (no more Nancy Pelosi farewell
tours); to confine President Biden to murmured promises to defend Taiwan (promptly walked back into ambiguity by his entourage); and to concentrate on the military realities.
The dominant military reality in the region is that China’s armed forces will have a fair chance of success if they invade Taiwan in about five years’ time, at their current rate of growth, but only if Taiwan stays as weak militarily as it is now.
Taiwan’s various governments used to have such high confidence in the American deterrent that they let the country’s military spending fall until it was actually below
Australia’s on a per capita basis.
That was unwise. As Ukraine has demonstrated, US help does depend on a country being able to put up an effective defence itself. Taiwan’s military spending is now rising rapidly, but it will be at least five years until it could hold out alone for more than a month.
If the two trends above unfold at similar rates in Taiwan and in China, there will never be a time when a Chinese invasion would be a militarily plausible undertaking.
The primary US role should be to ensure that Taiwan urgently rebuilds its military defences, ignoring all Chinese threats and imprecations.
Avoiding a Chinese-American war should be the highest strategic priority for both countries, and this, paradoxically, would be the most valuable US contribution.