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The Taiwanese Expedition

Xi Jinping has read Thucydides. Have the China hawks?

Taiwan Holds Defence Drills
Taiwan's armed forces hold two days of routine drills to show combat readiness ahead of Lunar New Year holidays at a military base on January 11, 2023 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. (Photo by Annabelle Chih/Getty Images)

Posit two national powers. One is based on a continental mainland; it enjoys a relative preeminence in wealth and manpower and has historically appeared successful in its efforts to project force on nearby neighbors and even overseas. This mainland power has been formally at peace with its main rival for several years under a treaty still considered binding despite continued tensions and infringements of treaty terms.

The second power is a large island. Its inhabitants are historically friendly with the first power’s current enemies but have not taken much of a role in existing conflicts because of internal concerns. The island, which is resource-rich and agriculturally self-sufficient, is mountainous and largely forested in its interior. The inhabitants’ political orientation varies, but generally rejects the first power’s putative egalitarianism; some elements agitate for a complete separation from mainland interests. The islanders are wealthy and technically advanced.

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In a bid for wealth and national glory, and to prevent the islanders from materially aiding the mainlanders’ enemies, the mainlanders decide to invade the island. The mainland power’s deliberative body decides to commit an exceptionally large force to subduing the island. They expect politically friendly elements among the islanders to come to their aid after the initial shock of the invasion.

Despite initial success for the mainland forces, a three-year campaign ensues. The islanders’ infrastructure allows them to hold out against the initial assault, and their physical and agricultural wealth allow them to stay fed and armed indefinitely. Logistical advantages carry the day; the islanders use the rough (and, for the mainlanders, unfamiliar) terrain to harry the invading force and press advantages as they come. The unsuccessful campaign is expensive, wastes an enormous amount of manpower, and leaves the mainland power prone to attack from its other enemies.

This is not a prediction of the Chinese invasion of Taiwan that some in the military establishment have claimed could come as soon as this year — it is a summary of the Athenian invasion of Sicily in 416 B.C. as described by Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War. The Sicilian Expedition was catastrophic for Athens; it began a period of decline that concluded with the 404 capture of Athens and the destruction of its alliance-as-empire, the Delian League, at the hands of the Persian-backed and Spartan-led Peloponnesian League. 

History rhymes rather than repeats: Modern technology annihilates distance, and the breadth of the Taiwan Strait is only a third of the distance between Syracuse and Corfu, the Athenian base of operations. While the Sicilian Greeks were slow to prepare for war even in the face of the Athenian expeditionary force—ultimately organizing under the influence of Spartan general Gylippus—every week brings news of Taiwanese drills and war games. The deterioration of the Peace of Nicias invited direct interference from Sparta in a way that is not reflected in current U.S.–China relations. 

Yet the story of the Sicilian Expedition shares enough fundamentals with the current Taiwan situation to provide useful points of caution both to China and to the U.S. It is simply difficult to project force onto a rugged island inhabited by the rich, the well-armed, and the hostile. Efforts to do so will certainly meet with difficulty, sometimes with catastrophe.

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Xi Jinping has evinced familiarity with Thucydides in public statements. “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves,” he said during a 2015 speech in Seattle, referring to the historian’s argument that the challenge to Athenian hegemony caused the Peloponnesian War. Do we think he failed to notice in his reading the campaign that dominates Thucydides’ history for two full books? 

Think-tank war gamers insisted last month that a Chinese invasion of the island could be repelled only with the aid of American force, an argument taken up by legislators calling for “deterrence” by deploying American personnel directly to Taiwan. Maybe, but a war game assumes the premise that war will break out. Why do we think that China has not considered the inherent difficulty of the task at hand, or its own continued industrial reliance on Taiwanese products? And, if China wishes to weaken itself with a war that, even if successful, will be costly and bloody, why should America stop it at such great cost?

An obvious truth bears repeating: For historical and geographic reasons, China has a much greater interest in the resolution of the Taiwan question than the U.S. does. At the same time, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, even if successful, would weaken China. Would those agitating for direct American military involvement to prevent such a war have argued for American military involvement in the Afghan-Soviet wars? Would it have been to America’s advantage to have become so involved? 

Why should Sparta discourage Athenian excursions in Sicily?

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