Response to NYT Article on Taiwan's Strategic Situation
Vermilion readers, after reviewing a recent New York Times article on Taiwan, we felt compelled to respond to the article in detail.
The original article is in normal text, with Vermilion responses in block quotes.
We hope all of you are getting ready for the Year of the Dragon.
What Worries Me About War With China After My Visit to Taiwan
Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is concerned enough about the risk of war between the United States and China that he is listening to the audiobook version of Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” the classic history of how the major powers in 1914 stumbled into World War I.
Classic. With a brewing all-domain conflict in the Asia Pacific, let us turn to continental Europe in the early 20th century to draw lessons. There are major pieces of architecture which are radically different in the Asia Pacific versus Europe.
-Asia has no equivalent to France and Germany’s historic enmity across a densely populated and relatively flat land border.
-There is no complex set of alliances which governs states in the Pacific. The US has a series of bilateral mutual defense treaty allies, none of which are committed to each other. Additionally, the PRC is famously terrible at winning friends in the international arena and has constructed nothing like the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy nor the wartime Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. The modern day PRC-RUS-IRN axis is not akin to either of these alliances: they are far more flexible and therefore less reliable (as of early 2024).
-Europe has no equivalent to the central role that the idea of China has played in Asia. To make a rough historical analogy, it would be as if the Western Roman Empire had only fallen in 1911 and not 476.
-The United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland notwithstanding, Europe is still not circumscribed by an island chain.
-The Pacific is home to significant American homeland territory (Guam territory, Northern Marianas territory, Hawaiian islands, American Samoa, plus numerous other holdings), while Europe has never been.
-The modern distribution of power is far closer to a bipolar system than WWI, often held up as the modern example of multipolarity.
None of this is to take away from Admiral Mullen or Tuchman’s work. Vermilion very much respects Mullen’s service and thought leadership. Additionally, “The Guns of August” is a phenomenal work of Western history which is likely to be read for centuries. The book describes the opening moves and leaders of WWI in great detail.
“I think this is the most dangerous time since I was a kid in 1962,” during the Cuban missile crisis, he told me. “The world war potential is really, really significant.”
…of course, how was this not identified by Mullen a decade ago (or at least 5 years)? What are we paying the Joint Chiefs of Staff for?
I came to Taiwan to gauge that risk and assess how to manage it better. For what it’s worth, I greatly respect Admiral Mullen — few people know as much about global hot spots and how wars happen — but my best guess is that Americans may be overestimating the risk of conflict, particularly of an all-out invasion of Taiwan by China.
Moreover, I worry that American anxiety about the risk of war with China may inadvertently exacerbate it. “The Guns of August” is, as Mullen noted, a useful prism for reminding us how miscalculation, misunderstanding and escalation created a world war that no one wanted. So we should be alert not only to the risk that China poses to peace in the region but also to the risk we Americans unintentionally pose, and to the possibility that our legitimate efforts to confront China can lead to accidents at sea or air that lead to war.
This is an insane reading of Tuchman as well as an odd way of thinking about the problem. Clearly, the Germans chose war in both world wars. In WWI, regardless of Russian mobilization in the Balkans, the German response was a lightning offensive into France…not directly related to Russia. Complexity of military railroad schedules aside, Germany clearly felt prepared to win a war by going on the offense, and did so.
-Like Russia, China has spent enormous resources across two decades honing the PLA to fight very specific campaigns against the US as well as its allies and partners.
-Like Russia, China has spent significant resources hardening the domestic economy against external shock.
-War in the Pacific is a war of choice for Beijing. The idea that an accident would lead to war is difficult to conceive.
-Accidents in the sea or the air rarely, if ever lead to war between great powers. The issue is almost always negotiated to resolution, as was the US bombing of China’s Belgrade embassy in 1999 as well as China’s unsafe and unprofessional conduct in 2001 near Hainan which downed an American EP-3.
There is a fine line between deterring China and provoking it. My take is that while we should do significantly more to help Taiwan boost defenses and deter aggression, we should do so quietly, without needlessly humiliating China. Sometimes Americans loudly embrace Taiwan in ways that inflame tensions at times when we should be hoping to lower them.
This is a pretty terrible idea. The argument here is that the US can do more work against the PRC as well as fortify Taiwan (China’s “core of core interests”) while Washington…says nothing all the while? Suspicion would increase. Additionally, who decides what is humiliating to China? The CCP can frame anything the US does as humiliating, which means that the CCP would be guiding US actions (which doesn’t make any sense).
Let me also make the case that we think too much in terms of an invasion — when the greater risk may be China’s taking lesser nibbles to pressure Taiwan, leading to the possibility of accidents and escalation that could drag us into an unintended world war, as happened in 1914.
This flies in the face of how the CCP has conducted every war it has ever fought in - 1950 Tibet, 1951 Korea, 1962 Sino-Indian War, 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. In all of these cases, the PRC launched the war with a planned overwhelming surprise attack.
It’s disorienting to go from talking to American security experts, deeply worried about war with China, to Taiwan, where most people seem to perceive the risks as lower. Taiwan’s outgoing president, Tsai Ing-wen, said at The New York Times’s DealBook Summit in November that China was probably too overwhelmed with domestic problems to take on an invasion. And the former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou, on the other end of the political spectrum, agreed, telling me: “I don’t think China is in any mood to start a war to conquer Taiwan.”
This is a series of thoughts detached from reality. Another American partner that perceived the risk of an invasion to be very low? Ukraine. Two days before the Russian invasion, Zelensky claimed an invasion wasn’t going to happen and sought to conduct talks with Putin. The NYT is missing the fact that the leadership of small countries vulnerable to invasion usually don’t inspire confidence in their economy and voters by constantly underlining the risk of invasion - publicly. American observers shouldn’t be surprised when allies and partners with targets on their foreheads sometimes play down the risk of invasion.
Many prominent people in Taiwan told me that while they appreciate American moral and military support, they also fear that hotheaded, China-bashing Americans don’t understand the region and may make things worse. “Quite a few Americans, opinion leaders or particular members of Congress, made ridiculous statements over Taiwan,” President Ma told me.
Quoting Ma Ying-jeou as an authority is professional malpractice for a China expert, especially without offering context of who Ma is. Ma is a former KMT president and perhaps the most pro-Beijing senior politician in Taiwan.
Efforts to help the island sometimes backfire. One example often comes up in conversations in Taiwan: Nancy Pelosi’s high-profile visit to Taiwan in 2022, when she was speaker of the House. It was a gesture of moral support, but it didn’t obviously boost Taiwan’s defenses. And China’s response was to move military ships closer to Taiwan in ways that increase the risk of conflict. For that reason, 62 percent of Taiwanese said in a poll last year that they thought the Pelosi visit had made Taiwan less secure.
Which is the exact intended effect by Beijing. By increasing posture and pressure, the CCP hopes to smother Taiwan’s freedom of action to maneuver politically. This is political warfare 101, and the author is playing right into the mousetrap.
Just as American officials read fiery speeches by Chinese officials and grow alarmed, imagine what Chinese leaders thought when an American Air Force general, Michael Minihan, declared last year that he anticipated war with China soon: “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”
Beijing must also have been unnerved when Ely Ratner, a senior Pentagon official, described Taiwan as a strategic asset for the United States. The implication was that America may try to use Taiwan as a military bulwark against China; what such comments and high-level visits like Pelosi’s have in common is that they aggravate the paranoia in Beijing.
It seems like the author is once again implying that the U.S. should base its actions on how the CCP might feel.
Instead, we need to solidify the status quo. That means China doesn’t use military force against Taiwan, and Taiwan isn’t seen as slipping away forever into America’s orbit. Taiwanese officials, including President-elect Lai Ching-te, are prudent enough to say they will maintain that status quo — messy and unsatisfactory though it is — and Washington should as well.
But perhaps the single best way to discourage Xi Jinping from attacking Taiwan is to help Ukraine against Russia. The more the West is united in making Russia pay a stiff price for Vladimir Putin’s invasion, the less inclined Xi will be to take a whack at Taiwan. Yet some Republicans who in theory are hostile to China nonetheless resist funding for Ukraine.
This is another crazy 180 degree mental turn. In fact, helping Ukraine may degrade the ability of the limited US industrial base to support Taiwan. It is debatable. Additionally, is the article supposed to be about Taiwan or Republicans?
As for President Biden, he has done an excellent job in leading the Western alliance against Putin. But he let himself be intimidated by Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling, especially early in the war, refusing to provide some advanced arms to Ukraine for fear that Putin would respond with tactical nuclear weapons. Xi may thus have absorbed the lesson that nuclear threats work.
Granted, my argument that the risk of war is overblown may be wrong. A rule of thumb in following China is always to distrust people who assert with confidence what will happen. “A China expert is an oxymoron,” Winston Lord, a former ambassador to China, likes to say. In truth, there are legitimate reasons to fear what China might do.
Ah, the inscrutable orient. So complex and exotic.
“Xi Jinping has been different from his predecessors in how he talks about Taiwan, in ways that we would be unwise to ignore,” noted Matt Pottinger, a Chinese speaker who was deputy national security adviser under President Donald Trump. Xi has shown greater urgency about “recovering” Taiwan, and has linked this to his own legacy, while matching his talk with a military modernization that targets Taiwan and the United States.
“When I look at the military China is building, it is not a general-purpose military,” said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall III. “It is designed around the goal of being able to take Taiwan and keep the U.S. out.”
Also ominous: The Times has reported that China appears to have inserted malware into computer networks that operate electrical grids, telecommunications and water supplies that serve United States bases, including those that would respond to an attack on Taiwan.
Yet the basic reason to be skeptical that war is coming is that it’s not in China’s interest or Xi’s (although it’s also true that plenty of nations have started wars that didn’t serve their interests).
An amphibious operation to conquer Taiwan would be an enormous challenge and might well fail. Taiwan is nearly 100 miles from China, without many beaches to offer easy landing. A surprise invasion in Normandy was possible in 1944, but would not be feasible in an age of satellites and drones.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a tactical surprise in the age of satellites and drones.
China’s military is inexperienced — the People’s Liberation Army’s last “combat” came when it fired on fellow citizens during the 1989 pro-democracy protests — and deeply corrupt. Well-connected Chinese friends have told me how officers are regularly promoted based on the bribes they pay. Xi is a risk taker, but even he must know that an all-out invasion would be a dangerous roll of the dice.
“Just out of prudence, I think he’s unlikely to do something in the next few years as the alarmists have been promoting in Washington,” said Joseph Nye, a retired Harvard professor with long experience in Pacific strategy.
One step that might make Chinese aggression more likely to succeed — and thus a greater possibility — is a Trump victory in November. Trump has expressed uncertainty about helping Taiwan, and it’s difficult to imagine him coordinating allies to press China to back off.
The author is way off base here. This is exactly the current Washington policy of strategic ambiguity (which Biden is also following). Trump: “I don’t want to say it, because if I’m in the position of President, I don’t want to say what I’m thinking. If I answer that question, I will put myself in a terrible position.”
Alexander C. Huang, a Taiwan strategist, said he took part in a war game set in early 2025 that assumed that Trump was president. The war game was supposed to last three hours, but it was over after two — even before shots were fired — because China and America were making demands that Taiwan couldn’t meet and that were beyond the scope of the game. These included a timetable for unification in China’s case and pressure to spend more on the military from the U.S. War games should always be regarded with some skepticism, and Taiwan did not end here in ashes — but given the possibility of a Trump election, the war game did conclude ominously.
A “wargame” that lasts 2 hours is actually a board game, and not a wargame, ladies and gentlemen. There is no rigor behind a 2 hour effort. Opinions shouldn’t be formed off of a Monopoly board.
On another note, it seems as though the two major interviewees are KMT affiliates. Huang is the KMT International Relations Director. Another important piece of context missing from the article.
“Taiwan was toast,” Huang said.
In the United States, there are calls to adopt a formal policy of defending Taiwan, replacing the present “strategic ambiguity” of a U.S. response (which Biden has in any case undercut by saying four times that the United States would defend Taiwan).
For the United States to formally say that America would back Taiwan militarily would be a mistake, I believe, partly because of its effect on Taiwan. If Taiwan were confident that the American cavalry would ride to the rescue, it might be less worried about provoking China and do less to defend itself.
Isn’t this exactly the approach Trump took above, which the author criticized? The author has confused himself through his own partisanship. Why must everything be about or connected to Trump or US domestic politics? Unnecessary.
The truth is that Taiwan hasn’t been willing to make deep sacrifices for its own security. It’s a wonderful place, partly because it’s much more Athens than Sparta. It allocates a smaller share of G.D.P. to defense than the United States, Israel or Estonia; it is only now requiring a year of military conscription (for men); and it is phasing out nuclear power plants, which are critical for resilience in a blockade because they provide homegrown power when imports provide 98 percent of energy.
Taiwan has turned the corner on increasing its level of preparedness. A third DPP term is an obvious outward symbol of this.
In any case, a tighter squeeze on Taiwan — including a blockade — seems a more likely scenario than a sudden invasion. China could hold high-intensity military exercises that rattle Taiwan. It could cut undersea cables carrying the internet to Taiwan. It could also seize one of the Taiwan-controlled islands, like Taiping.
China broached one alarming idea last year: It announced inspections of ships traveling from Taiwan to the Taiwan-controlled islands of Kinmen and Matsu. It never actually conducted inspections, but the announcement offered a clue to what it may be planning.
What if Xi moved toward a partial blockade of Taiwan, saying: The world recognizes that Taiwan is a part of China, so ships bound for Taiwan are now subject to Chinese customs inspections. The Chinese Coast Guard will board ships periodically, to ensure that papers are in order.
The above envisioned strategy cedes the initiative to Taiwan, which will declare it is under blockade, which is an act of war under most circumstances.
This kind of gradual approach, a salami slicing of Taiwan’s autonomy, is how China neutered Hong Kong.
Maj. Gen. Sun Li-fang of the Taiwan armed forces told me that China is particularly ramping up its efforts to demoralize the Taiwanese people and gain an advantage through what’s called “cognitive warfare,” including manipulation of public opinion and the release of fake photos and information. He described it as an update of the strategy for how to win without fighting a battle depicted by the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu in “The Art of War.”
“The threat is not just coming from guns, artillery, rockets, missiles, warships,” General Sun said. “They’re trying to influence our minds as well.”
Yes, like this article.
What Taiwan needs is more practical help — anti-ship missiles, military training, coordination with allies, better cyberdefenses. Meanwhile, the United States needs to boost the capacity of industry to produce munitions rapidly in a crisis.
Agree with the above points.
The Biden administration has worked very effectively with Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines to prepare for joint action to constrain China. That enhances deterrence. Washington could also do more to help Taiwan cultivate cyberwarfare: If the grid goes out in Taipei, Shanghai should lose power, too. If Taipei’s internet cables are cut, then China’s great firewall should cave so ordinary Chinese are able to read about their leaders’ corruption.
Agree with the above points.
Maybe the best recommendation I heard came from Mark Liu, the chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. He offered this useful advice for Americans aiming to help Taiwan’s security: “Do more. Talk less.”
Again, this is a crazy strategy. Doing more military and diplomatic investment in the Pacific without a clear messaging strategy to the adversary will cause mutual suspicion. Beijing must understand what the US is doing at the strategic level. But more critically, Washington needs to send assurances to Beijing; if the CCP chooses NOT to invade Taiwan, then the US won’t push for Taiwan independence (for example). US strategy should be public, predictable, and prudent. US operations should be conducted with complete surprise and violence of action.
That advice might have helped the major powers in August 1914 avoid a cataclysmic and unnecessary war. It remains sound counsel today.