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We’re Still Asking the Wrong Questions About War With China Over Taiwan

The priority is not who would win a war over Taiwan, but how to prevent one in the first place.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
A Taiwanese military outpost on Shi islet is seen past anti-landing spikes placed along the coast of Lieyu island on Taiwan’s Kinmen islands, which lie just 2 miles from the coast of mainland China, on Aug. 10.
A Taiwanese military outpost on Shi islet is seen past anti-landing spikes placed along the coast of Lieyu island on Taiwan’s Kinmen islands, which lie just 2 miles from the coast of mainland China, on Aug. 10.
A Taiwanese military outpost on Shi islet is seen past anti-landing spikes placed along the coast of Lieyu island on Taiwan’s Kinmen islands, which lie just 2 miles from the coast of mainland China, on Aug. 10. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

When a major Washington think tank earlier this month released the details of a sophisticated simulation of a war pitting China against the United States and its allies over Taiwan, some of the media coverage took comfort in what was at best a tentative conclusion: that with U.S. help, that island’s government could successfully defend itself against an attempted armed takeover by Beijing.

In an uncanny bit of coincidental timing, Beijing has been busy lately, in the wake of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent Taiwan visit, trying to send the opposite message. It has done this by running its own war simulation—not of the board game-like variety common to modern wargames but by actually carrying out the largest ever deployment of Chinese forces around Taiwan, hoping to impress observers not just by the quantity and quality of its military means but also by its greatly improved capacity for joint operations among the various branches of its armed forces.

No one knows, of course, who in reality might prevail in a war over Taiwan, nor even how or when such a war might begin and unfold. A proper reading of the details of this and other credible simulations of conflict with China should offer a chilling correction to anyone who clings to conventional definitions of victory, which would go out the window in case of a conflict between the world’s two most powerful nations. Just for starters, the United States could easily lose two aircraft carriers, with 5,000 people aboard each; as many as 500 aircraft, many with their pilots; and, together with its allies, including Taiwan itself, suffer a horrendous rain of Chinese ballistic missiles.

When a major Washington think tank earlier this month released the details of a sophisticated simulation of a war pitting China against the United States and its allies over Taiwan, some of the media coverage took comfort in what was at best a tentative conclusion: that with U.S. help, that island’s government could successfully defend itself against an attempted armed takeover by Beijing.

In an uncanny bit of coincidental timing, Beijing has been busy lately, in the wake of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent Taiwan visit, trying to send the opposite message. It has done this by running its own war simulation—not of the board game-like variety common to modern wargames but by actually carrying out the largest ever deployment of Chinese forces around Taiwan, hoping to impress observers not just by the quantity and quality of its military means but also by its greatly improved capacity for joint operations among the various branches of its armed forces.

No one knows, of course, who in reality might prevail in a war over Taiwan, nor even how or when such a war might begin and unfold. A proper reading of the details of this and other credible simulations of conflict with China should offer a chilling correction to anyone who clings to conventional definitions of victory, which would go out the window in case of a conflict between the world’s two most powerful nations. Just for starters, the United States could easily lose two aircraft carriers, with 5,000 people aboard each; as many as 500 aircraft, many with their pilots; and, together with its allies, including Taiwan itself, suffer a horrendous rain of Chinese ballistic missiles.

China, too, would suffer extraordinary losses, as U.S. submarines and other vessels sink the armadas Beijing could deploy as a screen off the island’s east coast, and sink many (perhaps most) of the troop transport vessels it could deploy to support an invasion across the Taiwan Strait. Both countries would emerge tremendously weakened, both militarily and economically, but that isn’t even the worst of it. The global economy would be devastated, making collateral damage out of people everywhere. Many analysts also believe that for a war like this to end, one side would have to emerge so markedly superior in residual strength that the other would effectively capitulate and accept inferiority in the global pecking order. But the difficulty of imagining either one of them reconciling itself to such an outcome means that ending the conflict could be as hard as fighting it.

This has all prompted me to believe that we are mostly still asking the wrong questions about the future of geopolitics in this part of the world, and of the possibility of war with China. The first priority should be in preventing a war over Taiwan in the first place. But how to accomplish that?

It seems clear that Taiwan cannot ward off China by itself, and yet the surest first step to avoiding a bid to take it over by force would be for Taiwan to work much harder to improve its deterrence capacity. I have written on this before, as have many others, so it is hardly a new idea. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though, many people drew the wrong conclusion about implications for Taiwan, focusing on how much more difficult armed takeovers like these seem to be in today’s world.

The more pressing lesson, though, lies elsewhere and involves moral hazard. Even though the United States provided extraordinarily detailed intelligence to Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion, authorities in Kyiv continued to play down the threat, failed to begin taking necessary measures to bolster their defenses, and never thought at all about the possibility of deterring Russia through preparedness.

The moral hazard piece of this equation concerns the way that hoping or believing that others will step into the breach to preserve you from imminent doom prevents you from taking the necessary measures required for your own defense. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen recently tweeted: “Our military is resolved to defend our country, our sovereignty & our democratic way of life. They stand ready & remain calm in the face of all challenges.” On this, however, there are many doubters, even among many ardent foreign supporters of Taiwanese autonomy.

Most notably, they say that its government and armed forces have been slow to adopt the most promising of what are called asymmetric weaponry and tactics to deter China and continue instead to procure and field big and easily targeted arms systems, including tanks, fighter jets, and ships, that would be lost almost immediately in the case of a conflict. Asymmetric means are far less sexy and often less attractive to defense bureaucracies, which commonly believe bigger and more expensive is better, but the most credible analyses suggest that things like relatively cheap anti-ship mines and missiles, better artillery, and even helicopters to attack landing invaders would be much more effective.

The biggest looming questions are not ones of the battlefield, though. Let us assume that Taiwan, with strong U.S. and allied backing, could frustrate a determined Chinese attempt to take over the island by force. What happens a year later, or even five or 10 years hence? The question is pertinent because the geography doesn’t change according to military outcome. Mainland China and Taiwan will always be 100 miles apart, separated by a strait.

Above all, this should condition the political discussion about Taiwan and its future and discourage more openly and forcefully any whiff of talk or consideration of outright independence for the island. Some people seem to believe that documenting how little China or its Communist Party have exercised effective control over Taiwan during the course of history makes a practical difference. In the case of the latter, it has never ruled the island. But that is immaterial. China has made absorption of the island a national priority that has been accepted, in most cases ardently, by its population, and that is unlikely to change.

The best outcome for Taiwan, therefore, may be postponing a reckoning with Beijing as long as possible, hoping that through the kind of deterrence discussed above and astute politics, it can buy enough time for China’s political culture to begin to change. This is not said with the illusion that such things will be easy. Beijing has done a great deal to discourage belief in such scenarios—most importantly by dismantling the “one country, two systems” arrangement under which Britain ceded imperial control over Hong Kong to China and through the imposition of even harsher measures of social and political control in places such as Tibet and Xinjiang.

Policies like these are as much a product of a lack of faith in one’s own political system and resilience as they are a demonstration of state capacity, though. And although I don’t believe that, in most matters of international affairs, demographics are necessarily destiny, in China’s case, its rapidly changing population dynamics could influence the country’s future politics in profound and unpredictable ways.

As I have written here and elsewhere, the radical aging of the Chinese population over the coming decades will drive the need to shift tremendous resources into social security and health care spending and progressively away from the military. Even China’s enormous buildout of infrastructure may come to represent a fiscal liability in the decades ahead, when the population is far smaller and the user and fee-payer base to support it has correspondingly diminished. Despite the ongoing push for political regimentation under Chinese President Xi Jinping, an older and increasingly middle-class Chinese population might be somewhat more liberal-minded and interested in the benefits of peace rather than those of hard power, and the political system, too, could grow more open, supple, and tolerant.

There are no guarantees in any of this, of course, except that the future of China and Taiwan will keep the world on a knife’s edge. That makes working smartly to avoid a conflict as important as preparing for one.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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