Keeping China out of Taiwan will take a tough stand from Biden
As U.S. relations with China have deteriorated, there has been a great deal of alarmist comment on the possibility of the People’s Republic of China attempting to reunify with Taiwan by force. These reflections are often tossed off a bit glibly: For historical comparison, the Taiwan (or Formosa) Straits are 120 miles wide, six times the width of the English Channel, and the 1944 invasion of Normandy was supported by overwhelming air, land and sea forces against the Nazi defenders.
Any Chinese invasion force would have to include a huge number of amphibious craft, as the Chinese could not imagine that they could simply deliver large numbers of armed men straight onto Taiwan’s sea walls and piers, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur did in part of one of the 20th century’s great military actions, in 1950 at Inchon, Korea. The People’s Republic could not possibly imagine parachuting into Taiwan forces adequate to take over the island of 28 million people. The Taiwanese army has (depending on whose statistics are used) between 170,000 and 290,000 full-time personnel and 5.8 million trained men, including all reserves; it has more than 1,300 tanks, 2,050 armored fighting vehicles, 1,785 artillery pieces and 800 aircraft, including 125 first-class fighter aircraft.
Unless the Chinese imagine that they could gain their objective by intimidation alone — which is unlikely, even if approximately a quarter of the Taiwanese population were to be amenable to becoming citizens of the People’s Republic — then any such move by China to gather Taiwan into its fold would require a seaborne invasion assured of a vexed passage and an inhospitable reception. Such an initiative would be a direct breach of the Shanghai agreement made in 1972 by then-President Nixon and then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and would invite American military intervention. Even if the United States judged it prudent to play a supportive role, rather than a direct combat role, it could resupply Taiwan with advanced aircraft and all the most sophisticated equipment in the world on a scale that would almost certainly make such an invasion practically impossible.
I am among those who have expressed concern about the determination of the Biden administration to maintain the strategic interests of the United States abroad, and its ambiguous attitude to China has been a matter of widespread disconcertion. Yet, with that said, it is not easily conceivable that the United States would acquiesce passively in any direct military assault or in a comprehensive, intense campaign of isolation and intimidation of Taiwan.
The People’s Republic is a much more vulnerable country than it ever concedes or is generally recognized to be. It has very few resources of its own, still is a 40 percent command economy ordered by the government, has a substantial number of people who still live almost as they did a century or more ago, and China makes its neighbors uneasy. The absurd fixation of Washington’s Democrats on Russia — culminating in President Biden’s gratuitous description of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a killer two weeks ago, which caused the withdrawal of the Russian ambassador from Washington — has helped to propel Russia into the arms of China. But Russia is a proud nation and, despite the loss of more than half of its population in the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it is one of the world’s distinguished civilizations, one of the world’s richest countries. Unless American foreign policy is unimaginably incompetent, Russia will not accept a distinctly subordinate status to China or to any other power.
A Chinese military takeover of Taiwan is practically impossible, and China’s imposition of its own authority over the international sea lanes of the South China Sea is also beyond the capability of its navy, and would in any event constitute an act of war against a range of important countries. Thus, the range of options by which China would increase its influence in Eurasia and East Africa to one of dominance — which is the relatively easily discerned ambition of its “Belt and Road” plan, for a vast expanse of Chinese influence over its neighbors — is limited and not obviously accessible.
American defense planners have committed a serious error in failing to develop and deploy an effective response to Chinese and Russian hypersonic missiles. This can and should be put right in the time until the end of the Winter Olympic Games, which China wishes to turn into a prestige success for itself next year. But it will be difficult for the Pentagon to do it with no increase in the defense budget, one of Biden’s latest policy targets.
China’s incremental invasion of India may be assumed to be an attempt to humble its great rival in South Asia, but it is a very imprudent step. India is not as militarily powerful as China, but it is a nuclear power with substantial armed forces, and is no trivial adversary. For China to launch any kind of invasion across the Himalayas and into the vast Indian subcontinent would be a colossal military and strategic error. Japan is steadily strengthening its armed forces, too, and cooperating with India, Australia and the United States.
The world has every right to require a much more serious explanation from China about the origins of the coronavirus. This process should become the beginning of a balanced and multinational requirement of China to behave seriously as one of the world’s greatest nations. The People’s Republic is concerned about its status, but it must understand that this involves certain responsibilities that China has never accepted. The world should require more responsible conduct from China, and a firm will from the Biden administration — out of character though it is — could achieve this end.
Conrad Black is an essayist, former newspaper publisher, and author of ten books, including three on Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Follow him on Twitter @ConradMBlack.