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Rumblings in Outer China

State of the Union: Peer-style total warfare with a country the scale of China would be idiotic.


Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has convinced U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to meet in California rather than Taipei, to avoid exacerbating the already high tensions between China and the autonomous island. One should have guessed everyone got the hint from Nancy Pelosi’s ridiculous visit to Taiwan during her final stint as Speaker. It is interesting to note that the message this time came from Tsai; the sign of realism was that McCarthy accepted the meeting in California. 

Around the same time, the U.S. Air Force’s air mobility command in an unusual move ordered the removal of all sorts of identification markers from their cargo and tanker planes, apparently, just a month after a memo that was sent to all service members to prepare for a war with China as soon as in 2025. America and China are both preparing for a war over Taiwan, according to an Economist report replete with grim details of anti-seaborne-invasion training in the American Marine forces. 


One can imagine the deliberations happening in President Tsai’s office, about a rock and a hard place. They do not clearly want to antagonize their chief benefactors in the U.S. While they surely understand the logic of an escalatory spiral, given how close they are to China, compared to the U.S. homeland, it must keep them awake at night. However, the “revealed preferences” show something else. Taiwan seems to be far more comfortable free-riding as it is. 

While American policymakers say that the U.S. needs to be “moving heaven and earth to arm Taiwan to the teeth” to avoid a war, Taiwan’s own defense budget needle barely moves, even when they claim that they are frustrated with American arms supplies. As a new paper recently stated, “since roughly 1960, the United States has averaged about 36 percent of allied GDP but more than 61 percent of allied defense spending.” That is of course unsustainable. 

Source: The Economist

It is unclear who is in charge of deciding Taiwan's military strategy, but either they don't feel much threat, or they are planning to go toe-to-toe in a dogfight over the South China Sea and therefore are seeking to procure legacy platforms such as F-16s, instead of guns, ammunitions, and anti-ship and air-defense missiles needed for a sea denial or long term insurgency. In that case, the aforementioned strategists are dumber than a box of hammers. 

Even with the American carriers present, the strategy of a peer-style total warfare with a country of the scale of China is idiotic. And there is no guarantee that the aircraft carriers will be useful, or even survive proximity to the Chinese mainland. A threat with which not many in the American strategic community or pundit class have grappled.

I have yet to see a simulation on how the balance of power in Asia changes after the collapse of Taiwan. Consider for a moment the counterfactual scenario, where the U.S. provides aid to Taiwan but from a distance, and chooses actively to avoid war with a peer rival. Once Taiwan collapses, on one hand, China gets busy pacifying what might be a massive province with millions of hostile people armed to the teeth. The other powers, India, Japan, Vietnam, and Australia, shocked by Chinese belligerence, start rearming massively, spending 6 to 8 percent of their GDPs in wartime preparation. 

Do we foresee a simultaneous Chinese blitz across the Asia-Pacific, similar to the Third Reich, toppling and occupying all these powerful countries, which are treaty allies such as Japan and Australia, or are individual nuclear and naval powers, such as India? Or do we see U.S. forces based there as deterrence, individual nuclear and naval powers? And would we be more energetic in defending Taiwan, when Taipei seems to be fine with continuing the status quo?

The threat of a Chinese power is asymmetric. China wins if the U.S. collapses. China wants to hog the entire manufacturing sector of the civilized world. China wants to see that the U.S. is insolvent, propping up backwaters in Eastern Europe. It is we who are at the risk of turning to a late Soviet Union, fractured and hollowed out at home, and ideologically overstretched abroad. 


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