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China, Taiwan, and the Risk of the Next World War

How prepared is the United States? And what lessons are there in U.S. support for Ukraine?
April 19, 2023
China, Taiwan, and the Risk of the Next World War
This photo taken on April 14, 2023 shows Taiwanese soldiers begining a flag-lowering ceremony in Liberty Square in Taipei. - At a barbed-wire Taipei museum where political prisoners were once held for decades, visitors laud Taiwan's modern-day democracy that is shaping a national identity on the island across from authoritarian China. (Photo by Jack MOORE / AFP) / TO GO WITH: Taiwan-China-politics-identity, FOCUS by Amber WANG, Sean CHANG, Jack MOORE (Photo by JACK MOORE/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 was an unthinkable act. After more than seven decades of peace on the European continent—the Balkan wars of the 1990s aside—we are now witnessing the unimaginable: a full-spectrum war in Europe, with tens of thousands of deaths and staggeringly widespread destruction. Yet what we failed to imagine in Europe can happen again elsewhere, and at an even greater scale.

The Asian theater is the focus. Thanks to the actions of a reckless 21-year-old airman, now under indictment for violating the Espionage Act and facing a long prison sentence if convicted, Taiwan’s grave vulnerabilities to a Chinese attack have been laid bare. As the Washington Post reports, the secret Pentagon assessments posted on the internet

state that Taiwan officials doubt their air defenses can “accurately detect missile launches,” that barely more than half of Taiwan’s aircraft are fully mission capable and that moving the jets to shelters would take at least a week—a huge problem if China launched missiles before Taiwan had a chance to disperse those planes.

The leak fills in a picture that has already been drawn in an important new book by Ross Babbage, The Next Major War. Babbage, a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, is a former Australian defense official who has carefully mined a wealth of unclassified sources to produce a measured yet alarming analysis of the character of the war with China that the United States and its allies might soon stumble into.

As is well known, for years China has been engaged in an unrelenting buildup of its military forces, particularly forces that appear designed to isolate and capture Taiwan. And for years it has been menacing Taiwan in public statements. In October 2021, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, declared that “the historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled and will definitely be fulfilled.” This past October, he reiterated the commitment in a major speech, stating that

We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all measures necessary. The wheels of history are rolling on towards China’s reunification and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. The complete reunification of our country must be realized, and it can without a doubt be realized.

No timetable for the “reunification” has been spelled out, but Chinese Communist Party (CCP) statements and utterances of senior Chinese defense officials are a drumbeat of threats. There may not be any turning back. Having stirred up nationalist passions, the very legitimacy of the CCP rests in no small part on fulfilling the promised mission of absorbing Taiwan.

But the situation is different from Ukraine, which was not a member of NATO and where American forces have stayed out. Preserving a measure of ambiguity, the United States has long intimated that it would come to Taiwan’s aid if it were attacked, a pledge recently augmented by President Biden in repeated unequivocal statements. Yet Chinese leaders may not be particularly impressed by American resolve. Looking outward, they see a decadent power, crippled by domestic division, a slow-growing economy, a military that has lost two protracted wars in the last two decades, and risk-averse leadership.

At the same time, looking inward, they see a window of opportunity slamming shut. As Babbage explains, China’s “strategic power may have peaked.” The Chinese economy is slowing, its competitiveness is on the wane, its population is aging, and its workforce shrinking. Even worse, its own aggressive behavior has awakened its neighbors to the growing danger and led them to invest more in their own security.

Xi Jinping is thus “approaching a critical decision point.” War is by no means inevitable, but there is a disturbingly high chance of a major war between China and the United States later this decade, and it could come with little warning. According to CIA Director William Burns, Xi has directed his military to be capable of seizing Taiwan by 2027, the centennial of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Wars never follow a predictable path, and Babbage wisely refrains from spelling out detailed scenarios of how events might unfold. Rather, he focuses on the likely characteristics of such a war.

The intensity of a Chinese-American war would almost certainly dwarf the Ukraine-Russia conflagration. It would be global in nature, perhaps on the scale of World War II. It would also likely be protracted. A very hot phase might last four to six weeks, leaving both sides “badly bruised and bleeding.” But neither side would be able to achieve a decisive result. “Both sides have such strategic depth and scale as to render that prospect remote.” The upshot would be that both China and an American-led alliance would “recalibrate, review their strategies, work frantically to recover from their initial losses, mobilize large parts of their economies, and prepare to fight for many months and, more likely, several years.” The use of nuclear weapons, though unlikely given American dominance in strategic forces, cannot be ruled out. If Taiwan is seized, we must “confront the real prospect of Beijing using tactical nuclear weapons to defend their newly won territory.”

Is the United States prepared? Or, to put the question another way, can China be deterred? A United States that was ready to wage a major Asian war would be the single greatest deterrent to Beijing, a classic instance of peace through strength. But unfortunately, as Babbage’s analysis makes plain, we are badly unprepared in both the military and economic domains.

China already fields the world’s largest standing army, air force, and navy, all of which are modernizing at a rapid clip. The PLA has fielded over 1,300 short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles “capable of striking all major allied military bases and many operational units up to 4,000 miles from the Chinese coast.” The United States does not have a comparable force, and its attempts to close the theater missile gap aim for parity by the close of this decade at the earliest. The bulk of American armed forces are stationed across the Pacific, thousands of miles away. If Taiwan succumbed to a rapid-fire Chinese attack, we could be confronted with a fait accompli, requiring a long period of mobilization to reverse.

Yet it is precisely in preparing for such a long mobilization that our weaknesses are most glaring.

Already, after one year, the war in Ukraine has divided the American people, with a growing chorus of Republican elected officials, like former President Donald Trump, either actively taking Russia’s side, or calling for scaling back support for Ukraine and ending the provision of what they speciously call a “blank check.” How much more would the United States be split by a bloody war with China, as American casualties mounted, as the economic costs deepened, and as the war dragged on?

This picture stands in contrast to the united populace that is almost certain to stand behind the CCP—willingly or otherwise—in near-totalitarian China. Thanks to ubiquitous surveillance and draconian internal security measures, the CCP, as Babbage notes, “can detect and monitor the earliest signs of dissent from the party and trigger prompt police and security service intervention.” The country has been hardened so that politically and psychologically the party and the nation “can better ride through the extreme pressures and privations that the leadership anticipates in a major war.” In contrast, the endurance of the American polity is an open question.

Already, the war in Ukraine has had an impact on energy markets and inflation. But a major conflict with China would eclipse such problems, resulting in what Babbage describes as “the greatest macroeconomic dislocation seen in decades,” forcing the “dismantling and restructuring of commercial networks across the world.” A rapid economic decoupling with China, and the disruption of supply lines of all our allies in Asia, would inflict a shock far more damaging than the supply chain disruptions we endured thanks both to the Ukraine war and the COVID-19 pandemic.

And the United States and its allies are finding it difficult to supply Ukraine with sufficient munitions to feed the ravenous demand of its artillery tubes and missile launchers. If a major war with China were to erupt, the United States would find itself at a striking disadvantage in the realm of manufacturing munitions and everything else. As Babbage notes, in 2004, U.S. manufacturing output was 2.5 times the size of China’s. But by 2020, China’s manufacturing output was double that of the United States. Thanks in no small part to this breathtaking reversal, the United States, reports Babbage, “would be unable to mass produce many of the urgently needed munitions, missiles, and other consumables for at least 18 months” while “large scale production of most complex military systems would take longer—typically 4-8 years.”

Babbage concludes his analysis with a sobering prediction: If war breaks out before 2030, an American-led coalition “would struggle to prevail and could suffer a devastating defeat.” There are few indications that the United States and its allies are preparing to meet the challenge with sufficient resources and urgency. Indeed, despite some stirrings, there are few indications that our leadership class is even thinking seriously about the problem.

Priced extravagantly at $49.99 for a paperback, and written in the style of a defense white paper, The Next Major War may not be for the general reader. Babbage has nonetheless performed a valuable public service in preparing a thorough and dispassionate analysis of the danger. Yet in our self-absorbed age, when the country is so polarized, when resources are strained by mind-boggling annual deficits and a looming entitlement crisis, it would be the pinnacle of naïveté to believe that a compelling book—or anything short of a major geopolitical shock—will provide a spur to action. By all indications, when confronting danger we prefer, like the ostrich, to keep our head in the sand. Unfortunately, unpreparedness is an invitation to aggression.

Gabriel Schoenfeld

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law. Twitter: @gabeschoenfeld.