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Winning Without Fighting

How China could try to take over Taiwan without firing a shot.
November 28, 2022
Winning Without Fighting
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jingping (R) on May 20, 2014 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

Sun Tzu wrote that the acme of strategy is to win without fighting. It is worth gaming out how Xi Jinping, the head of the Communist Party of China (CCP), might contemplate trying to win Taiwan without fighting for it.

Xi has not hidden his ambitions with regard to Taiwan, but a war would be costly for China and risky for him. What he would need to do, in order to fulfill Sun Tzu’s maxim, would be to create a situation in which, confronted with Chinese pressure on Taiwan, an American president would calculate that the use of force was not an option.

Xi is probably trying to learn from the war in Ukraine.

Most likely he has noted how important having a unified NATO has been for Ukraine’s success against Russia. Ergo, it would be reasonable to think Xi would seek to prevent a unified response by the powerful democratic allies and friends of Taiwan.

Sure enough, over the last month Xi engaged in a series of meetings with the German, French, and British prime ministers, in which he emphasized China’s respect for state sovereignty and the importance of a global order that does not exclude China so as to ensure prosperity and to protect the environment.

Xi also had a meeting with the Indian prime minister in September in which both leaders expressed concern about the war in Ukraine and opposition to nuclear threats. Perhaps coincidentally, there were reports in the same month of PLA troops disengaging from the Indian border in the western Himalayas.

The message Xi was attempting to send the democratic world is clear: Xi is not Putin, China is not Russia, and Taiwan is not another Ukraine.

The end result of these efforts is that the political basis for a unified response by the democratic world to a Chinese attempt to assert control over Taiwan is being gradually undermined. An American president facing a PRC challenge to Taiwan would work the telephone with his fellow democratic leaders and would hear words advocating restraint, prudence, and patient discussion.

We have other hints of what Xi might do. Wang Huning is one of the leading theorists of the CCP, the fourth ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the top decision-making body of China, and said to be the éminence grise of Xi Jinping. (He was in the front row pulling back his colleague who wanted to help Hu Jintao as he was hustled off stage at the Party Congress recently.)

In his 1991 book, America Against America, Wang carefully noted the strengths and weaknesses of America, including the strength of our market mechanisms and technology on the one hand and the internal conflicts among classes and races on the other. In a chapter about the U.S. space shuttle, Wang reflected on the role of technology in America, and noted that because Americans believe that technology can solve everything, you can break the spirit of Americans by demonstrating their technological inferiority.

Wang is certainly correct when he notes that Americans seek technological answers to difficult problems—think of the “Operation Warp Speed” vaccine program in response to COVID-19. It’s true that we tend to believe that, if all else fails, American technological “overmatch” (to use a current Pentagon buzzword) will solve the problem of a powerful rival.

Xi’s predecessors told their generals: “What the Americans fear, build that!” That’s because they believed that a shock which made the U.S. question its technological supremacy would, on this theory, break the spirit of Americans.

So: In what military technologies are we most confident that we have superiority, relevant to a war with China? The answer is clear: American nuclear submarines and stealth bombers. Xi must be reviewing with his generals what demonstrations China could conduct to make the United States question its technological superiority in those areas, perhaps at the moment of a political crisis over Taiwan.

A student of history would also recall the use of diplomatic shocks to dissuade nations from using force. The most infamous case is the Hitler-Stalin pact on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland which constrained French and British military action. China and Russia have a security relationship that, quite literally, knows no bounds. Russia needs China more every day, and while Xi is saying comforting words to the West, he is buying Russian gas and oil. What repayment will China demand in return?

China is already participating in military exercises with Russia. Those exercises could expand in scope. Americans could discover that the PLA is operating in the waters of the Russian far east that dominate the northern Pacific sea lines of communication from California to Japan. Those sea lines would be crucial for supplying Japan with oil if the sea lines through the South China Sea are blocked.

Finally, Xi would note the importance of Volodymyr Zelensky in mobilizing the west. He was the man who courageously and charismatically stood up to Russia. We do not know who a similar figure might be for Taiwan, but we should expect the deep intelligence files and disinformation bureaus of the CCP’s United Front departments to be prepared to “reveal” information about the “corruption” and “predatory sexual history” of any Taiwanese leader who tried to be the Zelensky of his country.

The CCP might not try to invade Taiwan but also, it might not have to. Disruption of Taiwanese data links, harassment of its sea and air lines of communication, ambiguous sabotage and stoking political unrest could pressure Taiwan to end its efforts to improve its defenses and instead negotiate with the CCP. How would the U.S. respond if confronted with such actions? Might Xi win without fighting?

Possibly. In such a scenario the United States would need the ability to unilaterally engage in operations that were not open warfare, but which convinced Xi that he had more to lose than he bargained for.

We should continue and redouble our preparations to defeat a regular military attack on Taiwan, but we should also give equal attention to the problem of deterring and defeating an irregular assault on Taiwan.

Stephen Peter Rosen

Stephen Peter Rosen is the Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard University.