06 October 2021

What is China up to?

The last few weeks have seen a sharp increase in the belligerence of the Beijing regime.  Most prominently, the gangster state has committed its most extensive aerial violations of Taiwan's vicinity ever, prompting an unusually tough warning from the US, and is engaged in a new round of bullying rhetoric against the democratic island nation.  It has also been harassing and provoking Malaysia and Indonesia at sea.

Does this mean that a major act of aggression, such as an invasion of Taiwan, is imminent?  Probably not, but we can't be complacent.

The regime has an obvious motive for saber-rattling.  The Evergrande debt crisis, and the self-inflicted energy shortage which has caused electricity cut-offs in many Chinese cities, have thrown the regime's incompetence and corruption into unusually sharp relief.  In such situations, it's not uncommon for a dictatorship to make a show of belligerence against external enemies, with the aim of evoking a rally-round-the-flag effect among its own disgruntled subjects.  There's some grounds for hoping the regime is putting on a show of this kind while trying to minimize the risk of provoking actual military conflict -- the aerial incursions around Taiwan have been into the country's "air defense identification zone", not its actual airspace.

Nevertheless, it sometimes happens that dictatorships respond to domestic crises by actually starting wars, not just saber-rattling.  The Argentine military regime's invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 comes to mind.  The thugs apparently gambled that Britain would not fight -- a gamble that backfired disastrously.  Still, dictators perennially make that kind of miscalculation about democracies, no matter how many previous dictators have come to ruin by doing so.

Perhaps the strongest argument against a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is the likely consequences of such an act.  Taiwan is more militarily powerful than its size would suggest; it's unlikely that it could actually defeat a determined invasion on its own, but it could probably draw more blood -- especially via an all-out retaliatory campaign of attacks on infrastructural targets in China -- than the Beijing regime is willing to risk shedding.  And as I pointed out last week, the pathetic state of China's building and manufacturing raises questions about the quality of its military equipment as well.

There is also the question of how the rest of the democratic world would react.  In the 1930s, other democracies stood by and did nothing as the Nazi regime annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia, a display of weakness which emboldened Hitler and made a world war inevitable.  Failure to fight for Taiwan against a Chinese invasion would repeat that precedent, probably with the same long-term result.  A serpent must be crushed the first time it tries to strike, lest it become more aggressive and dangerous.  Policymakers in Washington, Tokyo, London, and New Delhi undoubtedly understand this -- and those in Beijing know that they understand it.  Even if the regime is willing to risk massive death and destruction over Taiwan, it is not so insane as to think it can fight half the world.

Finally, even if China conquered Taiwan and got away with it, such a display of expansionism would inevitably drive Japan to build a nuclear deterrent of its own, as well as beefing up its already-very-formidable conventional military.  If the US did not fight for Taiwan, the Japanese could not count on us to fight for them either -- so they would have to look to their own security in the face of the giant neighbor suddenly become much more obviously dangerous.  Nationalist elements have been on the rise in Japan for some years, and once the psychological barrier was breached, Japan could easily build a nuclear arsenal much larger than China's own, eventually eclipsing China as the dominant regional power (and radically re-shaping the world order as we've known it since 1945).  It's hard to imagine anything Beijing would fear more than this -- which is another reason for it to eschew an invasion of Taiwan which could provoke such a result.

So on balance, I think it is unlikely that China will invade Taiwan.  There are too many likely negatives, from the regime's own viewpoint.

And yet.....the memory of 1982 still gnaws, when the Argentine gangster-state made that stupid miscalculation which it should have known would lead to its own downfall.  The situation around Taiwan bears close watching.

[Image at top:  Taipei, capital of Taiwan]


Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Talk about a powder keg. Their situation will reach a point where they cannot manage it anymore. It's way too much!
Hopefully they won't invade, but they will keep the world on its toes. It's part of their game of appearing powerful.


06 October, 2021 05:02  
Anonymous Marc McKenzie said...

A good essay. Hal Sparks has mentioned what is going on with China several times on his show, and he's pointed out what kind of a sorry state China is in.

On the one hand, we have people claiming that Biden is doing nothing--while ignoring the recent deal made with Australia and the UK to supply Australia with nuclear-powered subs (not subs with nuclear weapons). And then there are those who claim that it's Biden who has started a new Cold War with China--while they ignore what China is doing and also ignore Trump's deals with China.

I honestly don't know what will happen, but if China's government thinks that they can invade Taiwan as revenge for Chiang Kai-Shek fleeing there 70 years ago, they've got another thought coming. But it also doesn't help when one sees "tankies" sucking up to China the same way they sucked up to the now defunct Soviet Union.

06 October, 2021 09:19  
Blogger SickoRicko said...

It's the sort of stuff that keeps me up at night.

06 October, 2021 10:13  
Blogger Mike said...

"Nevertheless, it sometimes happens that dictatorships respond to domestic crises by actually starting wars..."
I don't think this is limited to dictatorships. I think the US has "started" wars by "helping" other countries defend themselves. Diplomatic BS can be very convoluted.

06 October, 2021 10:57  
Blogger NickM said...

I have also thought about the parrallels with the Falklands in '82. I dunno though. China's issues are perhaps more chronic than the acute, imminent collapse of the Argentinian Junta. I guess this makes a difference. It is worth noting though that the Argentinia operated on the basis of a UK 1981 defence review that, if implemented (it wasn't), would have gutted the RN and a complete misunderstanding of the strength of the UK's alliances. The USA didn't actively play a part but in terms of support we really couldn't have asked for more including, but not limited to, expediditing the delivery to the RN/RAF of AIM9-L Sidewinders with an SSKP of 80+% (compared to 10%-15% for Vietnam-era Sidewinders). Other countries helped. The EEC banned arms sales to Argentina - including, critically, the Exocet anti-ship missile. I hope China is smart enough (and the other Pacific powers - Japan, USA, Australia, South Korea... are resolute enough) that this doesn't happen but the Chinese would get a massive twatting if they tried to invade Taiwan if the free nations hold together. If...

I see no reason for them not to. There is more at stake than the fact the last two computers I bought were Taiwanese. Not only is this ASUSTek Zenbook14 a much better machine than the Lenovo it replaced (and not just because it's newer - it's the little attention to detail things) but about the same price and not built by slaves. I call that a win all around. A very different thing from the CCP's obsession with playing zero-sum games.

Oh, I also have the Philips (Dutch, made in Poland) TV on in the background and am about to buy a new Western Digital (US) 1TB SSD. We can live without Communist China and live well. Anyway, how can you be scared of a country that bans Winnie the Pooh? Yes, they do. Apparently because the ursine honey-fan looks like President Xi. Or something.


07 October, 2021 06:23  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sixpence: A lot will depend on how soberly Xi, and whoever else has actual power in Beijing, are assessing the situation. The Soviet leadership during its last couple of decades was, at least, very cautious. The Chinese leadership is harder to read.

Marc: Thanks! The wingnuts will of course ignore whatever Biden is actually doing in favor of their chosen narrative, but considering how little media attention AUKUS has gotten, it's hardly surprising that a lot of the left doesn't grasp its importance either.

Some right-wing bloggers are almost drooling with eagerness to see China conquer Taiwan and humiliate the US. The same people cheered on the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan. Deep down they just hate democracy.

Ricko: I've had one nightmare about a nuclear war myself. But I hope I've made it clear why, most likely, the situation is less dangerous than it seems.

08 October, 2021 03:01  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mike: Perhaps so, but I was talking about stirring up conflict specifically to blunt popular anger at government incompetence or oppression -- something which has suddenly come to a head in China just now. That particular issue rarely arises in democracies.

NickM: China is probably even more isolated than Argentina was in 1982. It has antagonized almost all its neighbors (with the admittedly large exception of Russia) with its constant provocations and bullying. And the US, UK, and Japan have a lot of powerful hardware fairly near Taiwan, as opposed to having to send a rescue fleet from halfway around the world. And Argentina at least had the element of surprise. If China does launch an invasion, it will be one of the most telegraphed invasions in history, after all this saber-rattling. I'm hoping it's a case of a dog that barks rather than bites.

Americans buy a lot of imported stuff from China, but Xi probably realizes that picking a fight with a major export market would be disastrous for the Chinese economy.

08 October, 2021 03:13  
Blogger NickM said...

Your last point is very important, Infidel. I hope at any business school rule #1 is "You don't succeed by picking fights with customers".

08 October, 2021 03:55  

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