Autocrats inhabit lonely planets. They can always make bold, costly and risky decisions because they remain accountable only to themselves. They are particularly dangerous when their power game morphs into a quest for the forging of epic legacies and dynastic myths. China’s Xi Jinping appears to be pivoting towards this messianic path. For a year or two before the pandemic, he looked tired already and running out of time to chisel his way into Chinese history. The Belt and Road Initiative showed some promise, but in the end it failed to return the promised nirvana. Annexing Taiwan, however, would guarantee him a place in the autocrats’ pantheon; i.e. despite the devastating consequences of such endeavour for the Taiwanese nation and the world at large. As worrying and cynic as it sounds, the current historical juncture offers the best opportunity for China to attempt, finally, an incursion into Taiwan. Colloquially, let’s examine this imperial endeavour in three stages: ‘1) Exercise, 2) Rehearsal, and 3) Taking the jump.
China has been gaming scenarios for the invasion of Taiwan for a long time. This is hardly a secret and has been periodically trumpeted for the world to hear. However, until recently they lacked the requisite economic and military gravitas needed to accomplish such an enormous task. Despite some serious concerns associated with the eventual bursting of their growing domestic credit bubble, over the last two decades the Chinese economy has grown meteorically and they have amassed formidable national wealth. Cementing this economic confidence, they did not suffer from a pandemic-related recession and growth surged in the first quarter of 2021 to 18.3% from a year earlier. China is the second largest economy after the United States and they well know that they play an important role in keeping the global economy afloat –over the last two decades we created a global economy dependent on China as the de-facto factory of the world. In parallel, China has now sufficient maritime and air power to easily encroach Taiwan, in addition to the world’s largest military with over two million active military personnel. Having the largest’ army in the world (likely to be fully vaccinated for coronavirus by now) at Taiwan’s doorstep gives China a huge strategic advantage over any coalition that could be put together at short notice in an attempt to deter or counteract Chinese advances. This cumulative exercise, amassing wealth and military power with a sustainable momentum, plays to their advantage, as they well know that one cannot hurt China anymore without hurting the global economy at large. In other words, they are as ready as they would ever be to launch an invasion of Taiwan.
A country does not need to physically game the invasion of another country as this is an ‘aggregated’ exercise. Do you remember the invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq after 9/11? Think of something similar and walk the stages leading to the onset of the military campaigns in reverse. In this light, the Chinese have been rehearsing for a long while and only recently they have intensified their campaign. For instance, over the last year Chinese military planes have made hundreds of incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. More importantly, like in a theatre play, they need to understand and anticipate the audience’s reaction before launching an incursion into Taiwan. The key test piece here was their move to impose a new security law for Hong Kong in 2020, which eroded the notion of Hong Kong as a distinct democratic enclave within China. By doing this, China effectively fired a salvo at Taiwan and the world. As for the world’s reaction, in the grand scheme of things, nothing happened and China got away with this virtual annexation. The unfavourable treatment of Uighurs in the region of Xinjiang has been another test. While in a previous era China could have been the subject of hurtful economic sanctions, in the new normal it is business as usual for most foreign firms operating in China as well as those benefiting from Xinjiang’s produce. Even a major media company recently shot a blockbuster in the region in which a fictional view of Xinjiang was presented designed to please a Chinese audience. Albeit a little tardy, but will the world assimilate the meaning and implications of Chinese actions in Hong Kong or Xinjiang and react accordingly? This is unlikely, as dealing with the pandemic has become any country’s number one priority and whatever happens in Hong Kong and Xinjiang is like the background echo of the new status quo. To China’s advantage, again, they escaped the pandemic largely unscathed. Does China need to continue exercising and rehearsing taking control of Taiwan? The answer is probably not.
Taking the jump
Only the U.S. and Russia have the military might to counteract a Chinese offensive. Russia has an entente cordiale with China and would do little if China invades Taiwan. Far from that, this may play to Russia’s advantage as they might launch a new incursion into Ukraine while the attention switches to Taiwan –Israel would probably also attempt something with regards to Iran. In any case, China and Russia will veto any initiative originating in the UN Security Council, thus neutralising any potential United Nations intervention short of the usual pronouncements.
The U.S., meanwhile, is busy trying to mend all the ills the previous administration caused, nationally and internationally. It will take a while. To further complicate matters, the Corvid-19 pandemic is far from over and adding a further layer of complexities to defense and security calculations. However, right from the start of Joe Biden’s administration countering China was placed at the top of the U.S. foreign policy and security agenda; in short, Biden sees the U.S. as a country “in competition with China…to win the 21st century.” A sign perhaps of the new international affairs narrative, but that sentence should have been phrased as “China in competition with the U.S.” and not all the way round. To some extent, the United Kingdom followed the U.S. when noting in the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy that ‘China’s increasing power and international assertiveness is likely to be the most significant geopolitical factor of the 2020s’. As for the rest of the traditional U.S. allies, mostly Anglo-Saxon and European countries, they will symbolically follow the U.S. if they decide to mobilise a larger military presence within proximity of Taiwan. What can they do then? You have the answer already. The worst case scenario is a miscalculation that results in actual fighting between China and the U.S. The least-worst case scenario is an invasion without many casualties.
Back in 2013 we wrote a blog post critical of China in which we highlighted the dangers associated with China’s ‘grey zone’ tactics and the need to do something about it: Made in China: a perilous cycle (@PrivateMilitary.org | @Blogger). Yes, 2013; one wishes the attention paid to China’s ‘grey zone’ transgressions would have happened back then, when there were opportunities to rectify geopolitical paths, and not just in 2021! Yet, Western governments were in such awe at China that we even considered deleting the post as the article’s perspective ran against the spirit of the era. Nearly a decade later most democratic governments are finally waking up to the realities on the ground and the problem they contributed to create. Western leaders just fell asleep at the wheel for the sake of cheaper cellular phones, laptops and designer clothes and larger profit margins their multinationals. Complacency is what caused the China problem and now it cannot be easily fixed. What remains is for Xi Jinping to make his final decision before the opportunity fades away and the world returns to more normal settings. It might be 2021 or perhaps sometime later depending on his estate of mind. However, what is certain now is that it will happen and the world better starts preparing for what to do after the event so that we can engineer a brighter future less dependent on China.
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