Despite its immense age, size, and population and long record of civilizational accomplishment, 19th-century China was politically, economically, and militarily very weak. From the Chinese point of view, this allowed Western powers to push their country around at will.
The British, frustrated with Chinese trade practices—high tariffs, unwillingness to buy British goods, insistence on being paid only in specie—contrived to sell opium into the Chinese market to offset their trade deficit. Opium was then a highly desired commodity in China, but also illegal. The Chinese emperors and mandarins, being no fools, did not desire a drugged-out population.
But the British wouldn’t stop selling opium to Chinese smugglers. This led to the First Opium War, which China lost. That war was resolved by the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which, among other provisions, ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain in perpetuity.
Losing Hong Kong to Drug Dealers
In those days, Hong Kong Island was not the teeming skyscraper forest that we know today. It was an almost entirely unpopulated rock. The nearest settlement of any importance was Canton (today known as Guangzhou), 100 miles northwest.
Moreover, Hong Kong was not exactly a promising place to begin a settlement. The harbor was arguably not bad, although open to the sea on two sides. But why would you use it when several better harbors, including Canton’s, were, in nautical terms, so close?
As for natural resources, including all-important water, it had virtually none. So, on one level, the ceding of Hong Kong felt like no great loss.
But it rankled. No country likes to lose a war, and no country especially likes to lose one to drug dealers. The Treaty of Nanking thus became known in China as the first of many (there were at least 25) “Unequal Treaties” imposed on that country by Western powers over China’s subsequent “Century of Humiliation.”
Making Hong Kong Livable
Only two of those other agreements need concern us. The first is the 1860 Convention of Peking, one provision of which ceded Kowloon—a narrow peninsula just north of Hong Kong Island—to Britain. The second, and far more consequential, is the 1898 Second Convention of Peking, which leased to Britain, for 99 years, the “New Territories”: many outlying islands plus a large chunk of mainland directly north of Kowloon.
Hong Kong may not have been worth much in 1842, but it was Britain’s first foothold in China, so they tried to make the best of it. To do that, they needed to make life in the colony viable, which meant they needed more land and resources, which explains the two Conventions.
As we all know, British Hong Kong eventually grew into a smashing success. By the time of its handover back to China in 1997, it was not only the financial and business capital of East Asia and arguably of the entire Pacific Rim, but per capita income in the colony exceeded that of the mother country. If memory serves, that had never happened anywhere before and hasn’t happened since.
China Wanted Hong Kong Back
More than 85 percent of the colony’s land comprised areas covered by that 99-year lease. Without it, or at least without it being controlled by a friendly and cooperative power, neither Hong Kong Island nor Kowloon is viable. With this in mind, in the late 1970s, British officials began inquiring with their Chinese counterparts about extending the lease or coming to some arrangement whereby Britain could continue to administer the entire territory.
The Chinese reply was a firm “no.” They added: We don’t even recognize the validity of so-called permanent concessions of Hong Kong and Kowloon. We want the whole colony back. If we must, we can take it by force. And we both know you can’t stop us.
The British prime minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, felt certain the treaties that granted Hong Kong and Kowloon were valid. But to fight on that ground would mean, at best, losing the New Territories once the lease expired and then watching while the Island and the Peninsula were, in effect, besieged into submission. And that was assuming the Chinese honored the 1842 and 1860 agreements, which they had already declared they wouldn’t.
At worst, it would mean a war that Britain could not win. Therefore, in the early 1980s, Thatcher reluctantly but determinedly opened negotiations with the People’s Republic of China to return the entirety of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, with protections for the Hong Kong people’s liberties.
The Chinese Art of War
In his excellent little book “The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy,” Edward Luttwak shows how much the Chinese, and especially the country’s leadership, value their classic literature. Apart from Confucius’s “Analects,” there is perhaps no more famous or beloved Chinese book than Sun Tzu’s “Art of War.”
One of Sun Tzu’s most famous aphorisms is “To win without fighting is best.” Another goes something like this (translations vary widely): To destroy the enemy is not the acme of skill; to capture intact the enemy’s state, army, ship, city, fortress—that is the acme of skill.”
These two sentiments sum up Chinese strategy on Hong Kong and, as we shall see, Taiwan. From the moment the Treaty of Nanking was signed, China wanted Hong Kong back. But at first, and for at least a century thereafter, China was too weak to do anything about it.
Yet even as China finally began regaining a semblance of its former strength following the Second World War, its leadership was patient. They knew they had Britain over a barrel. There was no reason to rush or push—least of all to risk destroying the prize in the very act of retaking it. In the end, China “won without fighting” and “seized the enemy’s city intact.”
One More History Lesson
The parallels between Hong Kong and Taiwan are not exact, but they sometimes rhyme.
Taiwan’s current status is a product of the Chinese civil war, which raged intermittently from 1927 to 1949. To make a (very) long story short, that war was fought between the mostly coastal and urban Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalists, and the mostly interior and rural Chinese Communist Party (CCP). (Imagine a coastal, urban nationalist political party!)
As we all know, the Communists won and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. But the Nationalists were not utterly defeated. They retreated to the island of Formosa, which we know as Taiwan, from which they claimed to be the legitimate government of the whole country, the direct successor to Sun Yat-sen’s Republic of China (ROC) which in 1912 had replaced China’s last imperial dynasty. In fact, for decades thereafter, both Chinese capitals—Peking (now Beijing; PRC) and Taipei (ROC)—each claimed to be the sole legitimate government of all China.
The United States naturally sided with the Nationalists, because the KMT had been American allies in the Second World War, because their leader Chang Kai-shek had deep ties to the American establishment, and because they were anti-Communists.
Relations between the two entities were not good. The two occasionally appeared on the brink of war, for instance during the Quemoy-Matsu crises of the 1950s, when the PRC tested the resolve of the Taiwanese and their American allies to defend the island’s separate status.
This uneasy status quo was transformed by two events. First was President Nixon’s famous 1972 “opening” to China. We may, for this essay, leave to one side the extent to which that alleged “opening” was engineered by China to gain American aid against the USSR, from which the PRC had broken in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Similarly, we may leave aside the extent to which, as some believe, the “Sino-Soviet split” was exaggerated or even faked. One can hold both revisionist positions and still accept the rest of the story.
At any rate, the official tale goes like this. “Mainland China”—i.e., China minus Taiwan, as well as pre-handover Macau (which was then a Portuguese colony) and Hong Kong—had been “closed” since the 1949 revolution. Through adept diplomacy, Nixon and Henry Kissinger convinced Mao Tse-tung and his senior officials to “open” China to American diplomatic contact, travel, cultural exchanges, and limited investment.
This was good in itself (it’s a big market) but also a useful hedge against the Russians. Above all, the Nixon administration needed China’s help to end the Vietnam war (i.e., they needed Beijing to stop supporting and supplying Hanoi).
The Price for ‘Opening’ to China
The Chinese, however, had a price. Official American policy since 1949 had been that the ROC was the legitimate government of all China. We did not recognize the government in Beijing, had no embassy or ambassador there, and through our support, Taiwan held the Chinese seat on the United Nations Security Council. In Beijing’s eyes, Taiwan is not a country, but a “renegade province.” Hence China’s demand to Nixon was: If you want our help, let all that go.
Nixon did, to a point. He changed America’s policy to the declaration that there is “One China,” coupled with official agnosticism as to which one it was. But he did pledge formal opposition to any move by Taiwan to declare its independence, and to any moves by either side to change the status quo by force.
Nixon’s calculated ambiguity barely outlasted his administration. In 1979, President Carter formally withdrew American diplomatic recognition from Taipei and recognized Beijing. In response, an angry Congress (pushed by the Taiwan lobby and its domestic allies) passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which commits the United States to sell Taiwan defensive arms but does not explicitly guarantee American intervention on Taiwan’s side in the case of conflict.
The Taiwanese also maintain a studied ambiguity: they’ve never declared independence, but neither have they altogether refrained from seeking status and benefits to which, under international treaties and laws, only sovereign states are entitled.
Happenings in the Taiwan Strait since 1979 have been, to coin a phrase, “mostly peaceful.” In the 1990s, Taiwan transitioned from the autocratic government of Chang Kai-shek’s KMT to a modern democracy, thus adding to its pro-Taipei constituency of anti-Communists and China hawks pro-democracy activists and neocons.
China Cares about Taiwan Much More than You Do
China wants Taiwan back. This is true not merely of the CCP leadership but of the vast majority of the Chinese people, who believe that Taiwan’s separate existence is the last remaining vestige of the “Unequal Treaties” and the “Century of Humiliation” and is thus an affront to their nation.
This desire is irrespective of who’s ruling in Beijing; it is a question of China’s national identity, which is inseparable from its conception of its historic territorial integrity. China’s desire to reclaim Hong Kong persisted through three regimes, two revolutions, a civil war, foreign occupation, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the liberalization of the Chinese economy, Tiananmen Square, and the country’s reemergence as a great power.
A similar dynamic prevails with Taiwan. Even if the great neocon dream for China were suddenly to become reality, a “liberal democratic” Beijing would want Taiwan back too. This matters because, in any contest, the side that wants it more tends to get what it wants.
Then there are basic considerations of geography. Every country in the world cares more about its own front yard than do countries half a world away. This is why it was so reckless of the USSR to try to place missiles in Cuba, and why it’s also reckless of the United States to needle Russia over Ukraine. One can utterly condemn Russian behavior in the Donbass, or China’s in the Taiwan Strait, and still see that those countries are more likely than not to fight over issues and regions that they see as vital to themselves but peripheral to us.
Winning Without Fighting
China would like to get Taiwan back in much the same way as Beijing reincorporated Hong Kong: change the strategic reality on the ground (and in the air, and on the water) and persuade the other party, or parties, to make a deal.
In this case, the strategic reality boils down to: If China were to attempt an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, could the Taiwanese and the Americans stop it? When the Taiwan Relations Act was passed, the answer was: undoubtedly. Today, after four decades of growing Chinese strength and technological sophistication, coupled with American strategic drift, the answer is less clear.
The Chinese regime, however, apparently believes that, given enough time and a large enough arms buildup, it can so change the balance of power that even the meanest observer will conclude that defending Taiwan against a Chinese attack would be impossible. At that point, it is hoped, cool heads among the Taiwanese leadership will persuade the Taiwanese people to make the best deal they can.
It is a combination of this hope, an uncertainty that a power imbalance sufficient to ensure an invasion’s success has yet been reached, and fear of the consequences to China’s international standing should it invade, that has thus far held China back. China waited 155 years to reclaim Hong Kong. It’s been about half that much time since it lost Taiwan. China would prefer not to wait another three-quarters of a century but also appears to believe time is on its side.
The Chinese complain—loudly—any time the United States (or any other country) does or says anything that can be perceived as supportive of Taiwanese independence. Every American arms sale to Taiwan, in particular, elicits a howl. Yet here we remain, 73 years after the separation, and no invasion has yet been attempted.
Winning with Fighting
But China has made clear that any provocative steps to change the status quo might well be met with force. The most likely or at least obvious such hypothetical would be Taiwan unilaterally declaring independence—which Taipei is unlikely to do, because its leadership knows such a step would be tantamount to foreswearing American assistance in the inevitable conflict. We’ve made it plain that if they start it, we won’t bail them out.
Another possibility making the rounds these days is that the allegedly megalomaniacal Xi Jinping is determined to “solve the Taiwan problem on his watch.” That is to say, if he can’t convince Taiwan to make a deal while he’s still in power, he’ll invade before he’s gone. This will, it is said, be his “legacy.”
I have no special insight into Xi Jinping’s thinking on this matter (nor, I suspect, do America’s intelligence agencies). But such a stance would be inconsistent with nearly two centuries of Chinese behavior, and with the country’s beloved classics of strategy.
Yet American officials, by insisting this is China’s intent, might provoke the very action they insist they’re on guard against. If the United States convinces itself that China is going to invade Taiwan, then its security apparatus will interpret every little Chinese move in the Taiwan Strait as a potential precursor for war and respond accordingly.
They moved a missile battery here, a bomber squadron there, or a cruiser over there? Send the Navy! In other words, it’s possible the United States might inadvertently provoke China, through an ill-considered response to some irritating but low-grade Chinese provocation.
It’s all well and good to say, “But they shouldn’t have done that in the first place; to let them get away with it would have been appeasement.” And maybe they shouldn’t have done that, whatever it is. But once the shooting starts, that will be a matter for historians; the “statesmen” responsible for keeping our country at peace will have blown it.
Is U.S. Ready for a Naval War?
Supposing the war came: Regardless of its precise cause, what might be the outcome? Let’s remember, first, that Taiwan is 81 miles from mainland China, but 1,300 miles to the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet base in Yokosuka, Japan—and 5,100 miles from Pearl Harbor, and 6,500 miles from San Diego. In every way, from operations tempo to reinforcement and resupply to intelligence collection, this would seem to give China enormous advantages in any conventional conflict.
To raise another consideration, which I raised at this year’s National Conservatism conference: The U.S. military’s principal strategy, because this is its principal capability, is denial. That is, in this context, deny Chinese forces command of the sea and air necessary to mount a successful invasion.
Our primary means of doing so are carrier battle groups, the backbone of American power projection since 1942. But the effectiveness of this strategy presupposes the invulnerability of American aircraft carriers. That’s what the “battle groups” are for. All those other ships (and submarines) are there to protect the carriers.
Can they? It’s been a long time—really, since 1945—that the U.S. Navy has faced battle against a peer competitor. During the final decade of the Cold War, we were confident that our technology was so superior to the Russians’ that the Soviet navy could not lay a finger on one of our carriers. That assumption was (happily) never tested.
Can China Sink an American Aircraft Carrier?
Is our technology still that good? The China of 2021 is, at the very least, technologically far beyond the USSR of 1989. To the blunt question “Can China sink an American aircraft carrier?” I don’t know. But at our panel at NatCon, China expert David Goldman reported that legendary Pentagon thinker Andy Marshall “told me in 2013 that China can sink a carrier.”
The last American fleet carrier (i.e., one of the big ones) sunk in battle was the USS Yorktown, at the Battle of Midway, June 7, 1942. That’s so long ago as to be, for most Americans, either forgotten or something to see in a movie.
A fleet carrier with the airwing on board carries more than 6,000 officers and crew. Thus, the sinking of one of these behemoths could lead to a loss of life more than twice as great as 9/11. The psychological shock to the nation might be even greater.
Just as Taiwan is at the core of China’s national self-conception, aircraft carriers are at the core of America’s self-conception as the world’s greatest military power. To lose one for the first time in nearly eight decades is likely to be a blow from which the nation would have a hard time recovering.
The Most Obvious Retort Is Nuclear Weapons
Then what would be our response? What could it be? Even before we get to the issue of identifying some Chinese asset worthy of “proportional retaliation” (China does not, at present, have fleet carriers with 6,000 souls on board), we have to ask: If our premier platform for conventional power projection cannot safely operate in Chinese waters—indeed, if one of them is at the bottom of the Taiwan Strait—what, exactly, are we going to use to retaliate?
One obvious and deeply troubling answer is nuclear weapons. It might well come down to that or nothing. That is, either accept the loss of one of our most precious assets, along with 6,000 sailors, with all the concomitant national humiliation and crushed prestige, or start a nuclear war. The mere possibility of such a starkly atrocious alternative should be an incentive for our political leaders to do everything in their power to avoid it.
Remember: The Chinese care about Taiwan infinitely more than we do. Is it wise to threaten, much less launch, a nuclear strike over a territory they see as a vital organ but which is peripheral to us?
What is China’s likely response? In 1996, a senior People’s Liberation Army general explained that he did not think, in the final analysis, that the United States would want to “trade Los Angeles for Taipei.” In other words, the Chinese are willing to launch nuclear strikes against undefended American cities to have their way over Taiwan. Are will ready and willing to absorb such strikes, and launch similar strikes of our own—and likely still lose Taiwan?
The U.S. Military Is Woke and Incompetent
It pained me to write that. I love, or loved, those services—especially the Navy. And, yes, I am sure that the military is not entirely incompetent and that many fine and talented people still serve. But the brass is woke and incompetent, and senior officers and civilian leaders tolerate and even encourage wokeness and incompetence; or to say better, they excuse and deny incompetence in furtherance of wokeness.
As for incompetence, the most recent example is the disastrous and humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan. On wokeness, how about Gen. Mark Milley’s comment this past summer on “white rage”—or really, any statement by any general or flag officer over the last two years at least. They’re all on record sounding like Robin DiAngelo, two octaves down.
More directly relevant: Did you know that the Navy crashed or ran aground five ships in 2017? Doing so used to be a very big deal—a career-ender for the captain. When I was in high school, I vividly recall the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise running aground on Cortes Bank, a freakishly shallow, but well-charted, patch of the Pacific 100 miles from San Diego. The captain was relieved of duty on the spot.
As for those five 2017 mishaps, the official reports are marvels of esoteric writing. If you squint hard and read between the lines, you can discern what really happened: By prioritizing factors other than competence and seamanship, the Navy put into positions of great responsibility people who didn’t know what they were doing.
As for losing aircraft carriers, did you also know that we lost a light carrier in 2020? Not to enemy action, but to a fire—which appears to have been arson, set for personal reasons by a sailor involved in a love triangle with two other sailors—a fire, moreover, that the Navy did not know how to put out. As a result, the USS Bonhomme Richard was withdrawn from service and sold for scrap. Estimated replacement cost: $4 billion.
No one, so far as I can tell, has paid a price for any of this, nor have the Navy’s priorities changed. If anything, that service (and the others) seem to be doubling down on wokeness.
The Biden administration’s nominee for vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Christopher Grady, testified that, if confirmed, one of his top priorities will be seeding “gender advisors”—i.e., woke commissars—throughout the services. Will part of their job be to find and defuse love triangles before they get more ships burned?
In any conflict with China over Taiwan, the Navy will take the lead for our side. Is it up to the task?
But Our Alliance Structure!
It is often said that, were a crisis in the Taiwan Strait to erupt, and the United States didn’t come to the island’s defense, our alliance network in East Asia, and perhaps elsewhere, would dissolve.
This argument is predicated on the presupposition that the United States has pledged itself to defend Taiwan. But that isn’t true. We have no mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. If we want to get super-technical, we can’t have a treaty with an entity we don’t recognize as a country.
Legalistic hair-splitting aside, neither do we have any sort of agreement that commits us to the defense of Taiwan—the way that, say, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Charter or various mutual defense treaties do, in fact, obligate us to come to the defense of other nations. Were we to fail to honor one of those treaties, no doubt our alliance structure would crash—deservedly so.
Would it in the case of not defending a territory we are not, formally, pledged to defend? Perhaps. But if that is so, then our alliance structure is potentially at risk everywhere, over any number of commitments we haven’t made.
The logic of this argument points to obligating the United States to defend anyone and everyone, anywhere and everywhere, lest one ally disapproves of some inaction and lose faith. There are, to be sure, certain neocons who welcome that posture. Does the majority of the American people? And even if they did, is it a mission the United States is capable of fulfilling?
One big consideration this argument fails to take into account is: What would be the effect on our alliance structure if we tried to defend Taiwan—and failed? It is, to say the least, not obvious that we could successfully prevent a Chinese invasion. Once we’ve made our incapacity utterly plain to the world, wouldn’t that destroy our alliance network more swiftly and surely than any reluctance to act?
The final argument one hears from Taiwan hawks is that it would be dishonorable for the United States not to defend that island. How it can be dishonorable not to do a thing one has not pledged to do is never explained.
Nor is it ever explained how honor requires us to attempt to do something that, in all likelihood, we cannot do. Indeed, sensible nations led by serious statesmen carefully choose the commitments they make, with an eye toward ensuring those commitments are within national capabilities and serve the national interest.
America’s posture toward Taiwan is a Cold War relic. That’s not to say a Taiwan free of Chinese subjugation isn’t in America’s interest. It manifestly is. Nor is it to say that we shouldn’t care about Taiwanese democracy or liberty. We should, and I do.
It is to say that we should be mindful of both our core national interests and capabilities and commit ourselves accordingly. The best thing for Taiwan and the United States is the preservation of the status quo for as long as possible. But there is no core American national interest that would compel us to go to war over Taiwan. Even if there were, there’s no guarantee we could win, or even hold our own.
Some might retort that this is an irresponsible thing to say, that even broaching the possibility that the United States can’t or won’t defend Taiwan emboldens China and risks war. But I am not Dean Acheson speaking at the National Press Club. I am just a commentator.
Nor does my former status as a mid-level National Security Council staffer give me any special standing. If it helps, I will say to any Chinese officials reading this: If you are tempted to take this as a “green light” to invade Taiwan: Don’t! It would be wrong, it would be disastrous, you’d pay an enormous diplomatic and economic price (imagine the sanctions, and not just from us), and the people who do run American foreign and defense policy are likely to try to stop you.
The questions for us Americans, however, are whether our leaders should and whether they can.