John Rapley is a political economist at the University of Cambridge and a senior fellow of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study.
The game-theorists are furiously at work, mapping out decision trees to assess what might happen if China invades Taiwan. Tension is rising. As Xi Jinping’s rhetoric grows bellicose, he gives every indication he’ll define his tenure by the reintegration, if needed by force, of the renegade province into the rest of China.
But after more than seven decades of separation from China, and its evolution into a vibrant liberal democracy, Taiwan wants to set its own course. Thirty years ago most Taiwanese identified with China. Today, the longing for reunification is confined mostly to older people. As it distances itself from Beijing, the government in Taipei has been deepening ties to a United States-led alliance, which includes not only its NATO partners but regional powers such as Japan, Australia and India.
But talk of a confrontation between China and the West presumes the two sides will come to blows. What if the alliance instead used the approach it has employed rather effectively in Ukraine? What if it made it clear it would stand aside during the fighting, but give Taiwan all the weaponry and support it needed to defend itself?
If China wants to take Taiwan at any cost, it probably can. Its military advantage over the island has become huge, and it has the capacity to launch a large, complex, amphibious invasion. In a showdown with American forces, most scenarios conclude China will ultimately prevail in neutralizing Taiwan’s allies. And unlike Vladimir Putin’s personal war with Ukraine, which had wide but shallow support among the Russian public, the reintegration of Taiwan is existential to most Chinese. They’ll pay a high price for reunification.
But perhaps not any price. Even if the Taiwanese ultimately buckled under an invasion, a full-scale resistance could do enormous damage to China. For all its achievements over the past 40 years, there are growing signs the Middle Kingdom’s best economic days are behind it. An occupation of Taiwan could thus prove a Pyrrhic victory, weakening the country vis-a-vis its Western rivals as surely as the Ukraine invasion has done to Russia. The casualties, loss of equipment and economic cost would leave China weaker, poorer and diplomatically lonelier – possibly for good. The world might even slide back toward unipolarity.
So giving Taiwan the capacity to impose a huge cost on a Chinese invasion may encourage Beijing to back off. Admittedly, since most governments consider Taiwan part of China, of which Beijing is the legitimate government, the legal case for arming the island remains murky. However, the ambiguity in international law would diminish if China were the clear belligerent. Although few countries still recognize the government in Taipei as the sovereign power over China, that doesn’t mean they think the Communist Party can just do what it wants.
Besides, if a good case can be made for arming Taiwan, fighting for it is trickier. Even were Taiwan not historically a part of China, the fact it lies a mere 200 kilometres off the mainland – roughly the distance between Cuba and the U.S. – gives China a legitimate interest in what goes on there. Just as the U.S. didn’t abide the Soviets trying to station their missiles in Cuba in 1962, nor could China be expected to stand by meekly as a hostile force massed off its coast. It’s fair to tell the Chinese not to be bullies. Throwing our weight around in their backyard is another matter.
Of course, it’s possible the Taiwanese won’t fight to defend their island. So far, they’ve shown little sense of urgency before Chinese sabre-rattling, with a military machine that has been allowed to grow stale. It may just be there’s little appetite for a fight and that Beijing just has to cry boo to get its way. But if so, then Taiwan’s allies would be entitled to ask why they should sacrifice their own lives to defend it.
Anyhow, one probably shouldn’t read too much into Taiwan’s current complacency. After all, much the same was said of the Ukrainians early this year. It’s easy to forget that on the eve of Russia’s invasion, Kyiv’s cafés were full and the Ukrainian President was complaining that all the Western talk of an imminent Russian invasion was bad for business. But look how the Ukrainians responded once the Russians moved. Beijing’s leadership probably won’t repeat Mr. Putin’s mistake and assume the Taiwanese will just crumble before its awesome military might.
Indeed, China is exploring other options. Escalation tactics that fall short of full-scale invasion, such as an economic blockade, have been mapped out. But even those entail serious costs. Unlike Russia, China still has the capacity to be a superpower on a par with the United States, and has invested huge economic and diplomatic resources to build its soft power around the world. But great power has a price: The more you have, the more you stand to lose. Beijing has watched anxiously as Russia has grown globally more isolated. China, with far more expansive trade and economic links to the global economy, can’t afford to become a pariah state in the way Russia has done.
This may therefore be one of those times when the adage of the Roman military writer Vegetius applies: Let he who desires peace, prepare for war. If preparation for a fight helps take it off the table, that might increase the odds of a peaceful resolution.