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Taiwan and World War III

(Jason Lee/Reuters)

The question of Taiwan is never far from the Chinese President’s thoughts, and nor should it be far from ours. The fortunes of the world rest on that island. No conflict in Eastern Europe or the Middle East is as likely to spiral into a global war.”

Five years before his famous 1972 overture to Maoist China, President Richard Nixon warned that “Asia, not Europe or Latin America, will pose the greatest danger of a confrontation which could escalate into World War III.” Nixon placed the peril in “the final third of the twentieth century,” but his counsel is more relevant in this third decade of the 21st century. Why? Because the world is now home to a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with the military strength successfully to invade Taiwan, and—equally important—a growing dread of imminent decline: enough, perhaps, to push a nervous dictator to make his move while he still can.

Over recent weeks, China’s economic slowdown has prompted President Xi Jinping to embark on a charm offensive, meeting with various world leaders to present a less belligerent face and assure the world that China remains open for business. But there is no sign of any change in President Xi’s obsession with conquering the coveted island. Indeed, at their recent meeting in San Francisco, President Xi tried to persuade President Joseph Biden to depart from the long-held American position of “strategic ambiguity.” He wanted the United States openly to oppose Taiwanese independence.

President Xi did assure his counterpart that American reports of a planned invasion in 2027 or 2035 are false, but, lest we forget, this is the same man who once assured President Barack Obama that Beijing would never militarize the South China Sea, after which he proceeded to do exactly that. The question of Taiwan is never far from the Chinese President’s thoughts, and nor should it be far from ours. The fortunes of the world rest on that island. No conflict in Eastern Europe or the Middle East is as likely to spiral into a global war.

There are personal reasons for this. President Xi longs to elevate himself to the legendary level of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, his bloodthirsty forebears. He first attempted to achieve the feat doctrinally, aping Mao Zedong Thought to produce “Xi Jinping Thought On Socialism With Chinese Characteristics For A New Era” (about as sexy as it sounds). This doctrine was codified in both the CCP’s constitution and China’s state constitution. In similar fashion, the President co-authored a third “Historical Resolution” in 2021 (Mao and Deng had passed numbers one and two, in 1945 and 1981).

One final gamble is left to him. Taiwanese “reunification” is his only realistic chance of a lasting legacy in the eyes of the Party and a majority of the Chinese public.

All this, of course, is wind and smoke, and President Xi knows as much. History is unlikely to look favorably on a leader who spent his tenure waxing lyrical and smug about his great importance, while never achieving anything of note. And so, China’s President has pursued more concrete goals. A good example can be found in his decade-long anti-corruption campaign, about which a great deal of noise is still being made. Over the years, Western acquaintances who lived out there would return and rave to me about the campaign’s effectiveness and popularity. By 2021, however, it turned out that hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens were still using bribes and personal connections merely to secure public services. After all the bluster and bravado, nothing had changed.

Then there was the Zero-COVID policy, which probably seemed like a sure bet to secure the President’s legacy. That was until it stalled the economy, damaged society in myriad ways, and drove the Chinese public to such suicidal desperation that they actually protested in the streets and called for the end of the Party (and the end of President Xi). Zero-COVID was abruptly shelved: yet another failure. No matter what he does, President Xi just cannot get it right; like a hapless reverse-Midas, he spoils everything he touches.

One final gamble is left to him. Taiwanese “reunification” is his only realistic chance of a lasting legacy in the eyes of the Party and a majority of the Chinese public. There was a time when such unification might have been achieved peacefully (“one country, two systems,” the Taiwanese were told). That time has passed. In 2020, the Taiwanese saw President Xi crush Hong Kong, ignoring the Sino-British Joint Declaration that Beijing had signed, trampling all promise of the region’s own “two systems” underfoot. They will not be tricked into the same fate. And so, once again, China’s blundering President has made life harder for himself. Now Taiwan can only be incorporated by force.

The task would appear to be foremost in his mind. On more than one occasion, I have heard it from mainland Chinese acquaintances that President Xi had only abolished term limits because he needed more time to complete his chief ambition of conquering the island. These acquaintances had the information, directly or indirectly, from senior Party officials. Historian Niall Ferguson later reported that he had been told the same thing in a private conversation with one of President Xi’s economic advisers. And the scrapping of term limits marks the point of no return. If President Xi does not take Taiwan, then his historical legacy will be marred by the embarrassing fact that he prolonged his tenure permanently for no reason.

Not only that, but he needs to take Taiwan soon, for two reasons. Firstly, the Chinese economy is stuttering, fatally undermined by the collapse of public confidence after the upheavals of Zero-COVID. It appears increasingly likely that the much-mooted Chinese century will not come to pass; China will not overtake the United States to become the global hegemon, as was widely prophesied. This means that China (and by extension the CCP) is sitting at a historical peak of power, with no hope for the future. Now is the time for President Xi to realize key policy goals like “reunification.” Economic considerations give him a decade or two, perhaps, but the second reason narrows his window considerably.

Over the next few years, American military power will sink to a temporary nadir. Scholars Hal Brands and Michael Beckley provide us with a damning appraisal:

“Many of the Pentagon’s workhorse ships and combat aircraft are literally falling apart or bursting into flames. Their aging hulls and airframes can’t withstand another upgrade, let alone accommodate the modern engines, sensors, and munitions they would need to compete with China’s new forces. These US capabilities have to be retired.”

And so those old cruisers, bombers, and submarines are on their way out. By the end of this decade, the United States Navy will reach a low of 290 battle force vessels. Washington has belatedly realized its vulnerability and is now beginning the process of building up the necessary military capacity to counter Beijing, but much of this will not be in place until the early 2030s. American military space architecture will not be resilient enough for a wartime environment until 2026, at the earliest.

The United States’ problem is further exacerbated by the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. The latter runs a particular risk of escalation—a development which would overstretch an already strained Washington. The more arms and hardware it sends to the Middle East, the less it can spare for the Indo-Pacific. And those are the same weapons systems that are most urgently required in both regions: Harpoon missiles, Patriot air defense systems, etc. Already at a low ebb, the United States now risks depletion that could severely damage its ability to fight and win a major war over Taiwan.

All of this means that China’s authorities find themselves facing a unique historical opportunity. A few short years ago, China was not capable of conquering Taiwan. Today and tomorrow, it may be capable. In another few years, it will certainly lose that capability. The window has opened, and the clock is ticking.

President Xi is aware. He is not idle. In Fujian province, which sits across the water from Taiwan, the CCP has begun constructing air raid shelters and wartime emergency hospitals, conjuring buildings from the earth at its signature breakneck speed. From Shanghai in the east to Sichuan in the west, the authorities have begun opening military recruitment centers. To prepare the populace, nationalist rhetoric is being inflated to hysterical levels. China’s past victories, the people are told, “shocked the world and caused ghosts and gods to weep”—a Qing idiom repurposed for the Korean War. (This would not be the first time the Party has asserted its dominance over the afterlife, having previously banned the Dalai Lama from reincarnating outside Chinese borders.) More than 50% of mainland Chinese currently support an invasion—just 20% believe that no unification is necessary—and public opinion is increasingly molded by the most hawkish voices.

State documentaries laud the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), trumpeting its ability to take Taiwan. Soldiers declare themselves willing to die in the attempt. The PLA has been practically deified, as a luckless comedy troupe discovered recently when one of its stand-ups poked fun at China’s armed forces. Li Haoshi told an audience that his dogs’ aggressive pursuit of squirrels brought to mind the PLA slogan Fight to win, forge exemplary conduct. The troupe was fined ¥14.7 million for “wantonly slander[ing] the glorious image of the PLA.”

The Party is also priming states in the region. Attempts have been made to bribe politicians from the Federated States of Micronesia. These politicians were offered smartphones, alcohol, envelopes of cash, and private flights to any location, all in return for a promise of support in the event of a Taiwan invasion. When the Micronesian President proved resistant, he received, in his own words, “direct threats against my personal safety from PRC officials acting in an official capacity.”

In anticipation of the inevitable American response, China’s military is swelling to resemble its great adversary—adding aircraft carriers, space satellites, nuclear-powered submarines, ballistic missiles able to strike targets thousands of miles from the country’s shores, and so on. In fact, China has already surpassed the United States in hypersonic military technology. Meanwhile, cyber attacks against American power grids, gas pipelines, and water installations act as dry runs for the wartime crippling of key infrastructure, which could throw the United States into chaos at the moment of Taiwan’s greatest need.

Beijing is taking steps to protect the Chinese economy from international punishment. The pursuit of coal liquefaction is designed to pre-empt an American blockade of the Strait of Malacca, through which China imports most of its oil. To the same end, growing volumes of black gold are now pumped through pipelines from Russia, Myanmar, and Kazakhstan. We are faced with the alarming prospect of a CCP ready for war. And President Xi just keeps raising the stakes: “If we do not deal with [Taiwanese independence],” he intones, “we will be overthrown.” At this stage, an invasion appears almost inevitable.

When might this happen? The Biden administration has made it very clear—via President Biden making supposed gaffes on no less than four separate occasions—that the United States will defend Taiwan. But other presidential candidates for 2024 have been equivocal. President Xi may wait to see if one of them makes it into the White House, thus raising the prospect of a non-interventionist United States. Of course, what a candidate says on the campaign trail and what a President does in office often have little relation; the United States could still go to war. But President Xi may gamble, sensing that the four years from January, 2025 to January, 2029 provide his best chance to invade.

When it comes, we will all feel it: a Great Depression spanning the globe. Taiwan imports and exports more than $900 billion in goods and services per year, and much of this trade would be severely disrupted. The most vital shipping lane in the world would be jeopardized. China, meanwhile, makes about 20% of global manufacturing exports. Western clusters that rely on China would face a shock: technology in the United States, cars in Germany, etc. We could see shortages with potentially catastrophic ripple effects: medicines, defibrillators, harvesting equipment, mining equipment. Researcher Rhodium Group warns of “a global economic recession, sustained inflation, widespread sovereign defaults, rising unemployment, and potential social unrest,” concluding that “the global disruption from a Taiwan conflict would put well over two trillion dollars in economic activity at risk.”

The CCP craves control of TSMC, Taiwan’s world-beating chipmaker. In theory, such control would enable Beijing to hold to ransom any nation it chose, withholding crucial semiconductors and demanding that its demands be met. In practice, however, TSMC may not survive long once the shooting starts. Firstly, no one in China has the necessary skills to operate or maintain the fabrication plants (that is why there exists no comparable chipmaker in Shanghai or Shenzhen). It would become necessary to demand, at gunpoint, business as usual from Taiwan’s experts. But business as usual would be impossible because of the second problem: Vital components are needed to build those spectacular chips, and the components are shipped in from states that would likely join any international sanctions program. Without lithography equipment from the Netherlands’ ASML, for instance, TSMC could not operate.

Taiwan’s national security chief is sanguine: “Even if China got a hold of the golden hen, it won’t be able to lay golden eggs.” Perhaps not, but the world still needs golden eggs. No nation can match Taiwan for semiconductor quality. Rob Toews, partner at capital firm Radical Ventures, explains the company’s invaluable global status:

“TSMC makes all of the world’s most advanced AI chips. This includes Nvidia’s GPUs, Google’s TPUs, AMD’s GPUs, the AI chips for Microsoft, Amazon, Tesla, Cerebrus, SambaNova, and every other credible competitor. Modern artificial intelligence simply would not be possible without these highly specialised chips…The entire field of artificial intelligence faces an astonishingly precarious single point of failure in Taiwan.”

Were TSMC to go offline, we could look forward to a future with no cutting-edge artificial intelligence chips anywhere in the world. 

Ironically, in the attempt to seize control of TSMC, the CCP would be sabotaging its own manufacturing masterplan (the vaunted “Made in China 2025”), not to mention those dreams of a “fully modern military by 2027.” Such ambitions cannot possibly be realized without the best semiconductors. China will suffer like everyone else if the PLA invades Taiwan.

An invasion will certainly spell bad news for hypocrites closer to home. In a country like the United Kingdom, university campuses teem with Chinese students. Their presence has made cowards of faculty members, many of whom shrink from critiquing the CCP’s brutality for fear of losing a lucrative income stream. British higher education is positively addicted to Chinese money: Vice-chancellors now pay themselves “drug-cartel salaries,” in columnist Allison Pearson’s stinging accusation (£542,000 per year at Oxford, £714,000 at Imperial College). Knowing this, we may be tempted to a certain grim pleasure when the conflict triggers major China-West disengagement, causing these institutions to lose billions of dollars per year. But all students would suffer from the subsequent downsizing.

Universities represent a section of society that would have it both ways. These people stand at French President Emmanuel Macron’s “third pole,” taking no sides in the Second Cold War. If the war turns hot, such a stance will prove costly. Take multinationals: If their home countries condemn an invasion, they are likely to face boycotts and protests in a China driven to nationalist frenzy. But they will face identical boycotts and protests back home if they continue to operate in China. By attempting to please everyone, they will end up pleasing no one.

The collision with reality is long overdue. I have sometimes wondered at this, when watching certain Brits and mainland Chinese forge friendships that sidestep politics. They laugh and embrace and find so many shared points of interest, and all the time their friendship stands on a fault line they cannot see because those Chinese are hyper-nationalists. When the PLA storms the beaches at Linkou and Jhuwei, and images of the resulting bloodbath are plastered across social media, such friendships will find the ground splitting open beneath their feet, exposing a gulf too wide to cross. Do the photographs capture a glorious national triumph? Or do they expose a shameful atrocity? It will suddenly become clear to both dim-witted Brits and nationalist Chinese that they were never really the same. Their worldviews were always impossibly divergent. They never knew each other.

After eight fraught decades, we could finally see an end to the long nuclear peace.

We might find hope in the thought that China’s forces have had no serious military experience for almost half a century. In that time, the PLA’s services and regional commands have been run like “fiefdoms.” There is always the possibility that in a real combat situation against American troops, the Chinese army will quickly fold (as it did time and again during the conflicts of the 19th and early 20th centuries). Brands and Beckley put the point with acid candor: “Because the PLA has mainly killed its own people since the invasion of Vietnam in 1979, it hasn’t tested its command-and-control processes under wartime stress.” 

In this 21st century, however (and for the first time in history), China is a bona fide great power. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, wars between great powers have tended to drag on for years. They turn into nightmares of attrition. A war in Taiwan is likely to follow the same pattern. Knowing that defeat would lead to his own overthrow (and probably the messy collapse of the Party itself), President Xi will see every reason to keep sending troops into the meat grinder: month after month, year after year. In such a scenario, that global depression is not going to end quickly.

Perhaps a prolonged conflict will eventually peter out. Perhaps the world will see a shell shocked and weakened Beijing agreeing to a not-entirely-satisfying armistice—a pledge, for instance, that Taipei will never officially seek independence and that Washington will never support independence. President Xi might be able to spin it as a victory back home. But there is no guarantee of such an outcome. We must consider the likelihood of alternatives, and the worst of these invokes the shadow of Armageddon. After eight fraught decades, we could finally see an end to the long nuclear peace. For both the United States and China, the incentive for a first strike will be strong, considering the immediate and decisive advantage it would grant.

Even if neither power makes the fateful step toward apocalypse, a Taiwanese defeat (or even a prolonged war) threatens lethally to undermine American promises of security, leading, in the end, to nuclear proliferation. Gone will be the protective “nuclear umbrella” that Washington extends over troubled parts of the Indo-Pacific. As things stand, Western intelligence relies heavily on Taipei’s “early warning radars and listening posts” to monitor PLA plans. That crucial window would slam shut, making it far more difficult to effectively defend the region. Whether or not they capitulate instantly to their terrifying neighbor, those newly exposed states that had previously opted out of nuclear armament—such as Japan and South Korea—will be forced to rethink their defense policy.

They will have good reason. Back in April, the Chinese ambassador to France made headlines with his insistence that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania do not have post-Soviet sovereign status (implying that these countries still belong to Moscow). Beijing quickly distanced itself from the comments, but the ambassador was likely voicing a common belief in CCP circles. Deep inside every good communist lurks a frustrated imperialist. If former Soviet states “belong” to the Russian regime, then all territories once controlled by an Emperor in Beijing must “belong” to today’s CCP. President Xi has indicated as much: “We cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors.” This is ominous news for Vietnam, South Korea, and the “Outer Manchurian” region in the Russian Far East.

It may be worse news for one neighbor particularly. PLA documents suggest that after “reunification” with Taiwan, an emboldened Chinese army would quickly turn its attention to Japan: “Japan’s maritime lines of communication will fall completely within the striking ranges of China’s fighters and bombers…Blockades can cause sea shipments to decrease and can even create a famine within the Japanese islands.” With such a future looming before it, Japan can hardly build up a nuclear deterrent fast enough.

Because the American military will be more fully distracted than at any point in its history, there is also a chance the North Korean regime will see a green light finally to attack South Korea (let us not forget: the Korean War of 1950-1953 never reached a formal peace settlement). Again, this is a scenario that may well involve the use of nuclear weapons.

As for the people of Taiwan, a successful invasion will only herald new horrors. PLA officers have described the Taiwanese as “tumors” in need of the Party scalpel, a metaphor that may provide some flavor of the future that awaits them. Lu Shaye, the aforementioned Chinese ambassador to France, speaks casually of the island’s “re-education.” The vast majority of Taiwanese do not currently want unification. As such, that is a lot of people who stand to face the scalpel, in whatever form it takes.

Ultimately, of course, we still do not know what a conflict would look like. The world has never seen a major war involving the kind of high-tech arsenal now available: a war in which both combatants are able to employ smart mines, drone swarms, and space satellites, as well as long-range missiles capable of shattering targets on both land and sea from hundreds of kilometers away. The international community would be marching into true terra incognita.

Would the threat of massive sanctions deter President Xi? Geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan says that China is “the most vulnerable country in the world right now,” due to being targeted by the Biden administration’s devastating new tech barricades, as well as being the world’s largest importer of both food and energy. If China were to be exposed to the same sanctions recently imposed on Russia, he predicts that the nation would suffer deindustrialization and a famine killing 500 million. At the other end of the prophetic spectrum, Oriana Skylar Mastro (world expert on the PLA) believes that such sanctions could be absorbed easily. China’s own productive capacity, resources, and friendly partners will allow them to survive on their own,” she says. Again, no one really has a clear picture of what will happen.

These endless question marks should give us hope. President Xi, too, is only guessing, peering like the rest of us into a darkened room. For all his emphasis on the pressing importance of taking Taiwan (a “historic mission” that “cannot be passed down from generation to generation”), and for all the leaps and strides made by the Chinese military, the President has still not made his move. This suggests a caution that we might aim to manipulate. If he will not do it until he is certain of success, we need to perpetuate his doubts. We need to keep him guessing, year after year. The man is 70, overweight, and a heavy smoker; he is not going to live forever.

We should also recall that President Xi once had a grand long-term plan to “defeat” the Coronavirus (COVID-19) via the Zero-COVID policy (a plan he even tied to his personal legitimacy as leader), and yet this all-important plan was shelved at lightning speed when mass protests threatened political instability. Frighten him enough, it seems, and he will change his mind. Unification with Taiwan is immensely important to President Xi, but it still comes second to his great religious cause, his reason for living—the CCP’s grip on power. He would not jeopardize that for anything.

Even if President Xi currently has a detailed plan to invade Taiwan in 2027, we can be sure he will scrap this plan if he comes to believe such an invasion could spell the end of the Party. He will aim for a later date—and then a later one. In the end, one man’s chronic fear of failure could save Taiwan, and, for that reason, Western governments must be far more bullish on the issue.

Aaron Sarin is a freelance writer living in Sheffield, United Kingdom. His work currently focuses on China and the Chinese Communist Party. He can be found on X @aaron_sarin

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