There’s a song I like that has a verse, “Fortune presents gifts not according to the book. When you expect whistles it’s flutes. When you expect flutes it’s whistles.” I hear that song a lot these days even as life becomes extremely predictable. Obama makes another speech and continues to avoid the consequences of his actions. Another prominent opponent of the administration gets arrested or audited by the IRS and the media yawns. The stock market rising to greater heights even as middle class wages stagnate.
But as the song goes, when you expect one thing, be prepared for something else completely different. And that something just might be a war with tanks, missiles, ships and men in uniform, a conventional war after years of asymmetric guerrilla-style conflicts in Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Such a war would be fought on a scale not seen since World War 2, with tactics, technologies and weapons that have not seen mass usage since their inception, wielded by soldiers who have grown up in societies where “shared sacrifice” doesn’t go beyond recycling garbage.
For decades Americans have been conditioned to dealing with far-away threats that are small and because of their size, manageable. It was easy to sympathize with the Vietcong as many on the Left did during the 1960s and 1970s when the VC posed more of an existential threat to Saigon than San Francisco. Even today when those like me proclaim the threat posed by radical Islam, the potential of such a threat lies in one-off terrorist attacks and the long-term danger posed by the acceptance of the normality of Islam, due to our culture’s chauvinistic belief in moral relativism, than in cruise missiles striking targets in Washington DC or airstrikes in Los Angeles. Such ideas are almost unthinkable except as fodder for movies like Red Dawn or video games like Call of Duty: Ghosts.
We have lived for generations expecting whistles. Tin-horn dictators causing trouble in small, far away countries. The occasional terrorist attack by radicals, or some despotic regime stirring up trouble like North Korea. What happens when Fortune decides to present us with flutes instead?
If one listens carefully you can hear the high pitch whispering sound in the air emanating from the West. For centuries China has felt disrespected by its neighbors and bullied by the West. Today it is enjoying power and prosperity on a relative scale that hasn’t been experienced since the 17th century. But that economic might hasn’t translated into the military variety, and in some minds it cannot truly be freed from its past unless China takes its place as a military superpower. For many that means a return to a bygone era when China was the center of the world, and all states, especially those at its periphery, bowed to it.
And that time has come. The states at its borders are currently weak and in disarray. The United States is being eclipsed in economic, diplomatic, and military power by the Chinese regime, its president weak and timid. The next two to three years represent the best time for China to act with force and grasp its destiny. After that countries like Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines will have rebuilt their defenses enough to resist Chinese advances, and America will likely replace an appeaser like Obama with a Republican warmongerer the way Reagan followed Carter over 30 years ago.
There are three likely scenarios:
1. Forceful Unification of Taiwan – The Chinese have been building up their amphibious attack capabilities as well as locating several large missile bases across the Taiwan Straits for decades. During the same time they have infiltrated all levels of the government and military making it likely that a cross-straits invasion would be firmly ensconced on Taiwanese soil before any adequate response would be mounted by the Taiwanese government or military.
Then there’s the question of America. Would the Americans go to war over Taiwan? Much has been written about the defense treaty between the United States and Taiwan, but like all treaties, they are only as good so far as the treaty partners are willing to abide by them. The Taiwanese themselves expect an invasion within the next six years and believe the US would be defeated by China even if it did respond. Given the propaganda that would pour out of Beijing, it’s sycophants in European capitals, and its agents in the US all touting the invasion as an internal matter between Chinese, it is unlikely the US would go to war with China over Taiwan at all. The Chinese know this. The Taiwanese suspect this, and the Obama administration won’t admit this.
Diplomats like to state something to the effect that with all the cross-border trade and personal ties between Taipei and Beijing there is no need for a war to forcefully reunify China. Aside from similar attitudes towards Germany in the 1930’s, this ignores the problems of different elites ruling Beijing and Taipei. The princes who run mainland China, the scions and heirs of Communist revolutionary leaders, are not the same people who run Taiwan. Simply put there isn’t room for both in a reunited China, and it’s unlikely the Taiwanese elite, the scions and heirs of the Nationalists who fled China, would allow themselves to be ruled by the sons and grandsons of the enemies of their parents and grandparents. For elites survival is a zero-sum game, and it is likely to be the case with China and Taiwan. War will be the only way to decide who survives and who is forced into posh and comfortable European exile.
It’s not so much about economics or even territory anymore given that most of Taiwan’s investment is in mainland China. It’s about righting a wrong in the eyes of mainland Chinese nationalists. An independent Taiwan is as much an affront and humiliation to Chinese nationalists as the takeover of the American embassy in Teheran in 1979 was for Americans, except the embassy takeover lasted only 444 days while Taiwanese independence has lasted 65 years. Just because Americans have the attention spans of gnats with ADHD they shouldn’t assume the Chinese are the same. What happened in 1949 is just as important to them today as it was in 1949, just as the treatment at the hands of the European powers, and the United States, in the 19th century is as real and important today as it was yesterday, the day before or a 100 years ago. The Chinese have a memory that is just as long as their 5,000 years of history. Americans must remember that.
2. Small Battles Over Disputed Territories - China seems to make claims and demands of its neighbors on a daily, seemingly ad hoc basis. So far no lives have been lost, but it’s only a matter of time before China pushes its luck and a Philippine frigate or a Vietnamese “fishing boat” decides to push back. Such disputes are expected to be more common as China builds up its military and it’s neighbors do the same. While the scale of these confrontations will be small, and the likelihood of a unified aggressive response small, particularly from the United States, over time China will have seized what it covets at the expense of turning east and south Asia into the most heavily armed region in the world.
3. Full-Scale Sino-Japanese War – A small skirmish over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands could easily lead to full-scale war between the second and fourth largest economies in the world. Such a conflict is the least likely of these three scenarios to occur but it also stands as the most dangerous. An attack on Japanese soil by China could not be portrayed as a civil matter between participants as would be the case for an invasion of Taiwan. The Japanese response would also be much faster since Chinese spy capabilities to disrupt command and control in Japan through the spreading of disinformation and sabotage are nowhere near as developed as they are in Taiwan or even Europe and the United States. The Japanese ability to change their collective minds and act accordingly seemingly in the blink of an eye has been shown numerous times, beginning in the Meiji Period when the Japanese embraced modernity and embarked on transforming their feudal country into a modern nation, to the rise of the military junta in the 1930s that united the country in the war effort, to the post-war period when shared sacrifice rebuilt a country ravaged by the deprivations of war. Even more recently the rebound in Kobe after the 1995 earthquake and the effort to rebuild after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster show how quickly Japanese society can mobilize and work together on a common goal.
This ability to change and the national resilience it represents is unlikely to be adequately appreciated by Chinese military strategists. Pacifism has pervaded Japanese culture since the end of World War 2, and on the surface it’s difficult for foreigners to understand how Japan could turn away from it. But this ignores a basic fact: they’ve done it before, in the days after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were smoking ruins. They can easily slip back into a more militaristic stance.
Finally there is always a 4th option: a Black Swan that by definition cannot be foreseen, but could involve North Korea in some way shape or form. Also this analysis ignores South Korea, which at this time finds itself in the middle between China and the US and could play an important role in any conflict in the region. Additionally I don’t mention Russia since it is a weak player in the region.
In the past I have talked about the Chinese point of view of seeing the world in zero-sum terms. It is impossible for Chinese nationalists to believe that China can rise without other nations falling. Such nationalism has been out of favor for so long in the West that it’s difficult to see the world in these terms, yet our failure of imagination should not blind us to the forces motivating China as it takes its place as the world’s hyperpower. Regardless of what Sinophiles like myself and others want to believe about China, it is only the reality that counts. And the reality is that China’s rise is no longer peaceful, and the consequences will likely return the world to its default state of war.