When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decides to quash the island nation of Taiwan’s successful run at democratic self-governance, will the Chinese try to limit the conflict to Taiwan and its immediate waters, or will they immediately embark on a wider conflict involving the United States, Japan, and other nations? It’s a big question. History suggests an answer.
Before answering that question, we need to understand why China would seek to occupy Taiwan in the first place. The CCP, under the leadership of General Secretary Xi Jinping, sees Taiwan as part of China. But, as with Hong Kong, the CCP cannot tolerate any challenge to its totalitarian control. For the CCP, the maintenance of its rule is paramount.
More so than Hong Kong, Taiwan’s continued development as an independent and flourishing democracy with robust human rights threatens the very foundation of the CCP’s legitimacy. Where Hong Kong was an annoying challenge to Beijing’s rule, Taiwan is a mortal threat. Taiwan — specifically its form of government — must be destroyed. “Taiwan delenda est!”
Taiwan’s conquest also offers a second important consideration: its geographic location. With Taiwan in China’s possession, China’s rapidly expanding fleet will have a far greater ability to project power and threaten Japan, the nations of Southeast Asia, and the United States.
Thus, there are both domestic and strategic reasons for the CCP to order its armed forces to conquer Taiwan. When this war comes, will the CCP try to keep the conflict confined to Taiwan, or will it strike out broadly, seeking to preempt Japanese and U.S. forces that might attempt to come to Taiwan’s assistance?
History Offers Clues on China’s Possible Moves
Looking at the opening moves of past conflicts provides clues. Had diplomacy or rational analysis been applied — though, admittedly, with the clarity of 20-20 hindsight — rather than pride, fear, and inertia, it could have significantly changed the course of history.
In the First World War, imperial Germany’s decision to invade France via Belgium in response to war in the Balkans between Serbia and their Austro-Hungarian allies is faulted by historians and strategists for triggering the United Kingdom’s entry into the war against Germany.
Why did Germany attack France when its initial threat was Russia to the east? The main reason was that planners in the German General Staff calculated Russia was too large to be defeated quickly. Thus, France needed to be knocked out first in a quick blow — as happened in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, when France was defeated in six months.
What might have been a regional war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia following the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, took an ominous turn when Russia ordered the mobilization of its army in late July. Germany declared war on Russia two days later, with France ordering mobilization the same day. Two days after that, Germany declared war on France.
The French frontier with Germany is short and the terrain favors defense. German planners calculated that the only way to win quickly was to march through Belgium and Luxembourg, risking a British declaration of war. This occurred the following day, largely dooming Germany to defeat.
The other issue was the pre-war planning by the German General Staff. Having gone all-in on trying to repeat the spectacular victory of 1870, German planners created an intricate mobilization schedule that made maximum use of their rail network to move troops to the western front for the knockout blow against France. There was no Plan B to hold the line against France in Alsace-Lorraine while focusing the bulk of the German effort against Russia.
Discounting diplomatic considerations, German war planning was solely driven by military considerations of time, space, and force — France, first and quickly, then Russia.
Similarly, many analysts believe the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would seek to attack only Taiwan during an effort to seize the island. This assumes the PRC believes it could successfully deter the United States and Japan from coming to Taiwan’s aid. But deterrence can’t be ensured. Thus, the PRC will likely have to assume that both the United States and Japan will act to prevent Taiwan’s conquest. As with German war planners in 1914, the PRC cannot assume it can choose its opponents.
World War II Parallels
A generation later, Nazi-led Germany’s attack on Poland in 1939 after securing the Soviet Union’s acquiescence with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and subsequent attack on France in May 1940, bested the 1870 war by forcing a French armistice in only 46 days. Thus, Germany in 1939 made successful use of diplomacy to ensure a one-front war through June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
In the PRC’s case, it has successfully allied with Russia, but in a largely naval contest in the Pacific, Russian assistance will be limited. Beyond Russia, it’s hard to imagine the PRC pulling off a diplomatic coup of the massive consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. With whom would they strike a deal? Japan? India? The United States?
Imperial Japan’s decision to attack the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, and the oil and resource-rich British and Dutch colonies, came in response to U.S. economic embargoes on Japan. The U.S. demanded Japan give up its imperial ambitions or face a debilitating loss of American oil exports.
Japanese war planners hoped to defeat U.S. naval forces piecemeal, first destroying the Pacific Fleet, then the Atlantic Fleet as it was sent to reinforce. Then, the Japanese hoped, the prospect of a long and bloody slog across the Pacific would force the Americans to sue for peace. Japanese planners saw Americans as effete and too wed to material comforts to stomach the prospect of years of fighting against the spiritually superior Japanese.
Japanese planners also knew time was not on their side. America’s massive industrial advantage — about six-fold that of Japan’s — ensured that as time went on, Japan’s prewar naval parity would shrink rapidly.
Japanese war planners, like Germany’s leading up to 1914, appeared to give scant consideration to diplomacy. Their desire to expand their empire in China and recently seized French Indochina meant that they would never agree to U.S. demands to abandon their ambitions. Thus, with the decision to fight already made, the only remaining choices were how to carry out the conflict.
Japan’s Total War Research Institute presented war studies to the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy and by August 1941 a general strategy had been agreed upon from four choices — all looking at the sequence by which the Philippines, Malaya, Borneo, Java, and Sumatra would be taken. Of note, two of the plans involved delaying the effort to seize the Philippines, then a U.S. commonwealth, preferring instead to take the Dutch Indies or British Malaya first.
In both cases, the threat of U.S. intervention, using its bases in the Philippines to cut off Japanese supply routes, was deemed too high a risk. As a result, attacking American interests at the onset — and overwhelming them — was considered the safest course of action.
As with Japan in 1941, the PRC must have secure maritime access to import oil and raw materials from the nations contiguous to the South China Sea. The sole significant factor in this historical analogy that appears to fail is the issue of time. Japan was running out of time while the PRC seems to have time on its side.
The Advantages of Patience
Measured in purchasing power parity, the PRC’s economy is increasingly larger than the U.S. economy. The PRC is engaged in a massive naval buildup, launching more naval tonnage than the United States and Japan combined are willing or able to produce. To top it off, the PRC is quadrupling its strategic nuclear force and may build substantially more nuclear missiles.
The PRC’s rapid and sustained modernization of its military forces, combined with greatly increased training, suggests that if the CCP so decides, it might simply wait until it has a substantial advantage over the combination of Taiwan, the United States, and Japan. If so, the CCP could move on Taiwan at a time of its choosing (sometime after 2026), while warning Japan and the United States to stay out of the fight — or else.
The risk of doing so is that deterrence only works if the enemy is deterred. In other words, China can lay the groundwork for deterrence through strength, but it is up to leaders in Japan and the United States to decide if they are, in fact, deterred from intervening on Taiwan’s behalf.
Alternatively, the PRC might seek to use diplomacy or subversive political pressure to sideline Japan or the United States, although such actions are hardly guaranteed.
China May Not Want to Wait
But several considerations make it less likely the CCP will want to wait to conquer Taiwan when it has a massive advantage. First, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xi is 68 years old. He is ruthlessly ambitious and has been building a cult of personality to rival Mao’s. Xi will not want to leave the conquest of Taiwan to his successor.
Second, every year that passes sees Taiwan develop more and more of its own unique culture and political traditions. Young Taiwanese are more likely than ever to see themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
In 1992, Taipei’s National Chengchi University poll found that 18% of people on Taiwan thought of themselves as Taiwanese, 26% as Chinese, and 46% as both. By 2008, views of national identity shifted to 45% seeing themselves as Taiwanese, 45% both Chinese and Taiwanese, and 4% as Chinese-only. The latest poll, in December of last year, saw Taiwanese-only identity reaching 64%, with both at 30% and Chinese-only at 3%.
Further, to the degree that the CCP claims Taiwan as inalterably a part of China, it begs the question — if the Taiwanese (who are said by the CCP to be Chinese) can thrive under democracy, why can’t the Chinese people too? This is at the heart of the legitimacy threat posed by Taiwan.
In addition, America’s massive loss of face in Afghanistan and the perception that President Joe Biden’s decision-making abilities are in serious doubt could contribute to the CCP deciding to move sooner, rather than later.
Thus, Xi’s mortal timeline and Taiwan’s steady drift away from China — and the moral threat its democracy presents to the mainland Communists — suggests war may come sooner rather than later. If so, expect the PRC to conduct an aggressive first strike, hitting Taiwan, Japan, and the United States simultaneously and with surprise.
This attack would likely include missile strikes on Guam, Hawaii, Okinawa, the Japanese Home Islands, and even cyberattacks on key U.S. infrastructure. China’s intent would be four-fold: to preempt forces that could help Taiwan and prolong its defense; to destroy foreign ability to come to Taiwan’s rescue; to demoralize foreign adversaries, causing them to sue for peace; and to set the stage for a globe-dominating Chinese empire led by the Chinese Communist Party.
As with imperial Japan’s overreach in 1941, China’s coming attack on Taiwan will sow the seeds of the CCP’s destruction by a coalition of nations fearing subjugation by Beijing.