Are Chinese incursions into Taiwan's air defense zone a prelude to war?

Are Chinese incursions into Taiwan's air defense zone a prelude to war?
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Last weekend, China’s air force set new records for intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Almost 150 warplanes – including heavy bombers and advanced fighters – entered Taiwan's defense zone, adopting the same formation that they would during an actual attack. 

While Taiwan’s ADIZ isn’t formally part of its airspace under international law, it is considered an important buffer zone around the island. That Beijing would order its air force to penetrate this zone, as it has with increasing regularity and force in recent months, has prompted many observers to ask just what is going on.

The sanguine view, of course, is that these incursions are nothing new or particularly significant. Such military gestures are simply Beijing’s way of reminding the government in Taipei that Taiwan is part of China and should not stray too far in the direction of formal independence. As long as Taiwan doesn’t make any serious moves in that direction, the gestures are just that — gestures. They are significant political signals, but not a cause for geopolitical concern.

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But there is a different way of interpreting these events — one that is cause for concern.

According to this alternative interpretation, what we are witnessing now – and indeed have been over the past year or so – is a prelude to an actual invasion. Not prelude in the sense of probing Taiwan’s defense in preparation for an attack next month or even next year. Beijing is clearly not yet militarily prepared to act that soon. Rather, preparation in the sense of getting ready to launch a cross-straits invasion sometime in the years following 2025, the earliest point at which China will have the military ability to do so.

And why would Beijing be preparing to launch an invasion in that timeframe? A rising China could anticipate dominating the Western Pacific in the not-too-distant future, isolating Taiwan even further and eventually leaving Taipei with no choice but to acquiesce and unite with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). So why even consider using military force to achieve this goal? And what’s the big rush?

The answer, of course, is that the PRC’s leaders know that their country is peaking and that their chances of bringing Taiwan into the fold (either by intimidation or invasion) may never be as good as they are now. In the medium to long term, both economics and demographics are going to leave the PRC relatively much worse off than it is today.

On the one hand, the country’s heretofore meteoric economic rise is stalling out and there is every indication that it will become ensnared in a “middle income trap” that will undermine both its diplomatic influence and military power. On the other hand, the country’s population is both shrinking and getting old. This means fewer workers supporting a greater number of retirees, with all the predictable effects that this will have on the PRC’s ability to invest in the instruments of hard and soft power.

But these are longer term concerns. For now, the major impediment to Beijing’s core goal of unifying the two Chinas will be geopolitical in nature. Specifically, as the PRC has grown stronger and acted more like an aspiring hegemon in the Indo-Pacific region, a new and increasingly robust counter-hegemonic coalition has begun to form.

This has not taken the form of some sort of Asian NATO — a highly institutionalized, treaty-based mutual defense organization. Rather, it has taken the form of a constellation of partly overlapping “minilateral” arrangements facilitating intelligence sharing, military cooperation, supply chain security and other forms of defense-related collaboration.

Such minilaterals include the recently announced AUKUS security partnership, the Five Eyes intelligence consortium, the Five Powers Defence Arrangements, the Quad/Quad+, the India-Japan-US Trilateral Dialogue (and associated Malabar naval exercises), the India-Australia-Indonesia trilateral and bilateral defense arrangements such as those between the U.S. and Japan, the U.S. and South Korea and the U.S. and the Philippines.

These counter-hegemonic arrangements are a direct challenge to China’s increasingly assertive use of its newfound power — and an indirect source of support for Taiwan.

From Beijing’s perspective, the crystallization of this constellation of countervailing powers means that it will soon have to decide whether to roll the dice and launch an invasion or abandon all hope that Taiwan will ever be brought into the PRC, this latter option being unthinkable from the perspective of the Chinese Communist Party and its leadership.

Perhaps the best historical analogy is the case of Germany in the run up to World War I. 

Germany did not go to war against France, Russia and Britain in 1914 because its leaders believed that they could easily achieve European preeminence by quickly defeating France and Russia and then bullying Britain into accepting German hegemony. Rather, Germany deliberately started the European war to keep from being overtaken by Russia.

German military planners saw a Russia growing demographically, developing industrially and building the kind of rail and road infrastructure necessary for rapid mobilization in time of war. And this terrified them. Indeed, it terrified them to the point that they determined they needed to trigger a war sooner rather than later, because sooner they might have some chance of defeating Russia and its allies, whereas later they would simply be crushed by them.

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The parallels with China, if not exact, are obvious. The growing relative power of Beijing’s adversaries means that it has every incentive to invade Taiwan as soon as it has the means to do so, even if success is far from certain, rather than wait, when defeat is all but guaranteed.

The German decision to attack France through Belgium in 1914 was governed by a similar logic. It was, in effect, a roll of the dice — a “great gamble” as one historian put it. And the results were catastrophic, not only for Germany but for the entire world.

Let’s hope that history does not repeat itself – and certainly not as tragedy.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.