By Tom Grant
The Bush administration in May 2001 approved an arms package to Taiwan that, though falling short of the Taiwan government’s “wish list” of state-of-the-art weaponry, goes far to beef up the defenses of the island republic. Maintaining such balanced support for Taiwan is the right thing to do–for Taiwan’s interests, for America’s interests–and, surprising though it may sound, for China’s too.
Defending a democratic, free market Taiwan against a Soviet-style dictatorship in Beijing has clear enough logic for the United States and Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China–certainly a power in its region and one with ambitions for “great power” status in the world at large–must be deterred from saber-rattling and using force to obtain its goals. Taiwan, with its accomplishments in government and economy, reflects American aspirations for the Pacific region. Less obvious, however, is that it may well be to the People’s Republic of China itself that a weak Taiwan, vulnerable and open to attack, poses the greatest risk of all.
Statements on and off the record by leading members of the armed forces of the People’s Republic make it clear that, within China’s elite, a constituency favors use of force to resolve the Taiwan issue.
If an attack took place, no matter what the outcome, the results would be grievous for the parties involved. The prospect of two major trade partners of the United States plunging themselves and their region into conflagration is bad enough. Above and beyond the immediate costs of war per se, however, an attack by China on Taiwan carries special risks of its own, and these, in the end, present the greater peril.
China has little experience with power projection. Its attempts at this art, even over short- and medium-range, have met with failure. The 1979 war against Vietnam, bringing China to an embarrassing standstill, furnishes a case in point. Vietnam was primitively equipped, right on China’s border, but highly motivated. Taiwan would be at least as motivated as Vietnam in a fight against the People’s Republic. Even lacking the best weapons suites that the United States might offer, Taiwan’s arsenal, with its F-16s and main battle tanks, outclasses China’s in many key respects. It certainly exceeds what Vietnam used to wear China down in 1979. And most crucially, Taiwan is separated from China by a body of water. For all its shear manpower and drive toward modernization, China still has a great deal of technological catching up to do–and remains particularly deficient in amphibious capability–the essential element of a cross-water attack. Amphibious operations are notoriously difficult. This logistical reality deterred Napoleon in the nineteenth century and Hitler in the twentieth from invading their enemy, Britain. But key both times to the ultimate abandonment of amphibious ambition was the strength and preparedness of the target country. Britain had a navy capable of stopping any challenger and was improving her ground forces as a matter of urgency. In a situation where the target country was not so obviously prepared for defense, however, an enemy could be tempted to put aside the logistical and tactical challenges. Ironically enough, it was Britain that did this in World War I. Winston Churchill, then Lord of the Admiralty, believed he had identified weaknesses in the Ottoman Empire-an ally of Germany against Britain-and in 1915 he convinced his cabinet colleagues to initiate amphibious operations in the Turkish Straits. Britain, Australia, and New Zealand lost tremendous numbers of men, gained no strategic objectives, and ultimately had to abandon the venture. His own reputation in ruins (it took thirty years and another world war to rebuild it), Churchill was forced to resign, and a year-long unraveling of the Asquith Government of which he had been part began. The failure and its aftermath threatened a beleaguered Britain’s stability, solidarity against a vilified and still-vigorous opponent and the solidity of their governing institutions alone enabling the British polity to persevere.
It is the risk of all-out operational failure–and the political disaster that would ensue–that makes a Chinese attack on Taiwan so dangerous a scenario. Bureaucracies contain conflicting cliques. China’s is no exception. Indeed, some have speculated that in the stand-off over the U.S. Navy EP-3E reconnaissance aircraft, China’s leaders disagreed sharply over how to proceed. That there are elements in China–perhaps even in the government–favoring more democracy and accountability is also known.
Imagine the course a war between China and Taiwan might take: Hardliners in the People’s Liberation Army and Navy argue that Taiwan is underprepared and ripe for the taking. They win agreement for an all-out attack, and operations commence. Taiwan’s air force and navy, from the start, make the amphibious component very difficult, but China manages nonetheless to land substantial numbers of troops on the mountainous island. China’s losses continue, and its navy is soon neutralized, its air force incapable of defending the airspace and sea-lanes between the Mainland and the target of invasion. Taiwan, meanwhile, steps up the defense. Supplies and reinforcements from China, essential to exploit China’s initial foothold, never get there. As China’s forces on the island weaken from lack of fuel, munitions, and food, Taiwan completes the mobilization of its own land forces. Commanding the sea lanes (or at least making chaos of China’s attempts to move men and materiel across the Taiwan Strait), Taiwan hammers the invaders into collapse. Back in China, those in the government and armed forces who thought the whole venture foolhardy from the start, now have the political ammunition they need. And they strike. Hoping to oust their foes, they mobilize popular protest as well, and the situation spirals out of control. Within weeks of commencing operations against Taiwan, China’s government has collapsed, and the country slides toward civil war.
A hypothetical too far-fetched to come true? If history is any guide, it is nothing of the sort. A failed foreign war can do harm in ways beyond the casualties of war itself. Domestic strife, even civil war, has erupted after many a military folly. In a fundamentally stable state, all but the gravest setbacks can be survived. But after a defeat where the losses have been truly enormous-or for a state weak in its underlying institutions-the prospects for survival decline. The empires of Austria, Germany, and Russia came to an end due to collapse in war. In Russia the ensuing civil war was a disaster for the country and the world equal to or greater than the disaster of the war that triggered it. The shorter civil wars in Germany and Austria carried fewer immediate costs–but the long-term result was Nazism and World War II.
To be sure, military failure can sometimes shake up a system and bring on welcome change. A contributing factor to Soviet leaders’ turnabout in the 1980s may well have been the failure of Soviet arms in Afghanistan. The end of the military junta in Argentina was precipitated by defeat in the Falklands. However, the record is a mixed one, and seeking good results by provoking failed wars would be moral and practical folly. Use of force by China against Taiwan is a gamble in too many ways. It is as much in the interest of China–as of any other country–to make clear that Taiwan is no easy target.
Tom Grant, an international law and international relations specialist, is the Warburg Research Fellow at St. Anne’s College, Oxford University.