That Dreaded Day of Strait Crossing

people standing on road close up photography

6/30/2021

The latent threat of hostilities with China over Taiwan has gained currency lately, as continued aggressiveness by the Xi Jinping regime meets up with more uniform (if more measured) rhetorical resistance by the U.S. under the Biden administration.

The pinch of a worldwide scarcity of vital semiconductors, and Taiwan’s outsized role in supplying those chips, has added to the economic dimension of any prospective conflict. Meantime the evolving Chinese military advantage in the Taiwan Strait region is a ticking clock.

That is the message of an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs by Oriana Skylar Mastro of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute. With an Air Force-analysis background, Mastro brings to the Chinese relations field an acute appreciation for the war-waging capabilities of Beijing. These have more than kept pace with the hard-line nationalism of Xi’s PRC.

As have planners in the Pentagon, Mastro plots various attack scenarios for subduing Taiwan and finds all of them–even the ultimate step, an amphibious landing followed by street-level occupation—to be reasonable prospects for China.  Most could be executed successfully now, and as Mastro emphasized in a video interview for the Foreign Press Association, improved coordination among all elements of the People’s Liberation Army makes a combined assault more likely.

Mastro says the greatest danger to Taiwan and by implication the U.S. is still a couple of years out, but any effective deterrent would have to be set in motion shortly. Despite its own vaunted military power, the U.S. in China’s backyard needs allied counterweights, and these are mostly suspect.  Few other nations would face down China in a clinch—almost surely not South Korea, and likely not Japan, despite its historical animus toward China and affinity for Taiwan. (Although, both countries might be useful as electronics alternatives.)

Even Taipei itself is a question mark. The current DPP government of Tsai Ing-wen sounds the right notes, though if its popularity continues to dip, the more Beijing-friendly opposition could regain power and curtail tangible preparations for resistance. Beyond that, however, is a basic worry that the people of Taiwan are not geared to fight.  The lack of martial flavor to everyday life in this robust democracy is a welcome relief from other places in Chinese Asia, but it doesn’t bode well for sustained conflict. Olivia Mastro herself dismisses the likelihood of insurgency being a big problem for a conquering China once onshore.

If Taiwan is not going to fight hard in the dreaded event, what really can be expected of the U.S., its politics determined thousands of miles away? Economic sanctions against an aggressor China are a handy fallback, but again, unilateral pressure —beyond those steps American presidents and Congress have already taken—is limited. The European Union is talking a tougher game, but full-on confrontation with the world’s emerging commercial giant is another matter.

It’s a discouraging predicament, but not hopeless.  The U.S. urgently could muster wherewithal to counter Beijing—military, diplomatic and economic—to improve its standing as a protector of Taiwan. As the recent vaccine development and procurement shows, the nation retains an ability to scramble its various resources.  But this will come at the expense not just of more harsh words from Beijing—we are growing inured to that—but of more international entanglement and yes, more government at home. The deadline for choice is being forced on us.

POSTSCRIPT 7/9/21: David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations specializing in China-Taiwan matters, parsed the recent speech by Xi Jinping on the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. He found reassuring notes indicating no rash cross-strait plans by China: https://www.cfr.org/blog/what-xi-jinpings-major-speech-means-taiwan

Published by timwferguson

Longtime writer-editor, focusing on topics of business and policy, global and local.

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