Why Taiwan Could (Still) Start World War III

If Donald Trump pushes China too far, its leaders may feel they have no choice but to respond.

American Japanese fighter jets
An American B-52 Stratofortress bomber leads a formation of American and Japanese fighter jets over Guam, February 21, 2011 (USAF/Angelita M. Lawrence)

Surely you know already the tripwire: Taiwan is a de facto country but a de jure province of mainland China. The people’s republic wants to bring it back under mainland China’s rule while the people of Taiwan want exactly the opposite.

Moreover, Taiwan’s military security is guaranteed by the United States via the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which stipulates the United States must respond militarily to a communist invasion.

So if the PRC tries to bring Taiwan back into the fold by military force, the United States must retaliate. Conventional battles turn to nuclear battles and then we all die in the irradiated glow of our own monstrous weapons.

That much is common knowledge, which is why even Donald Trump walked back from his inopportune phone call from the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen. The diplomatic implications of the phone call are better detailed elsewhere. What is not being detailed is why China could well end humanity over the island.

This requires a deep dive into China’s geopolitics and understanding why the communists, the latest Chinese dynasty, cannot afford to let Taiwan officially slip from their grasp.

The nature of China: huge, isolated, powerful and prone to corrective self-destruction

China is a unique geopolitical entity. It is gigantic by both land and population: it is the largest by population and fourth largest by land. This gives it tremendous power. Geography and demography, after all, are the pillars upon which power are made.

Is also, however, uniquely isolated. That doesn’t seem the case by glancing at a political map. It looks like its a big state in a crowded neighborhood. But to look at a map of Asia’s human distribution and you see the distinction.

Virtually all of China’s population is crowded either along the coast or near the interior province of Chengdu. The especially ultra-crowded Shanghai-Beijing corridor is historically where Chinese elites made their homes and the backbone of Chinese society lay.

What might seem like threatening states — Russia, India or Japan — are in fact isolated from the heart of Chinese power.

India is barred by the impassable Himalayas and the sparse Tibetan plateau. Russia’s Far East is nearly empty. Japan’s highly developed population is isolated by sea and completely dependent on outsiders to supply it.

This affords it a level of powerful isolation only equaled by the United States. Unlike the US, however, China has had huge problems managing change.

The Mandate of Heaven: corruption, destruction, rebirth

America was a do-over nation. It sought to improve on the political models of Europe, at the time mired in increasingly ineffective monarchies and empires. China is no do-over. It’s a first nation, with all its original geopolitical sins still intact.

Chief of these sins is the inability to modernize the state and society without mass violence.

This isn’t a Chinese sin so much as first-nation sin: trying to upend society anywhere is extraordinarily difficult and almost always comes with hefty doses of violence. Tribal chiefs resent being replaced by kings; kings despise being replaced by prime ministers and presidents. The elites of one outdated era often fight against the winds of change.

This is the stuff civil wars are made of. One part of the state and society recognizes things must change to keep up with competitors and to rationalize the distribution of resources and power. Another part doesn’t want to rationalize anything, lest they lose privileges. As Oliver Wendell Jones acutely observed, there is no remedy then but force.

But China is unique in the way it fights these relatively normal civil wars. Many other states have collapsed or been conquered in the course of such shifts: a wily adversary takes advantage of their weakness to bring them under their control. But China’s isolation has allowed it to corrupt, collapse and coalesce at least sixteen times since the Zhou Dynasty three thousand years ago. That number may wobble depending on how you define a dynasty and collapse, but it is regardless extraordinary. How many other nation states exist today after more than a dozen huge civil wars over three thousand years?

And the communists are all too aware of this

The Chinese Politburo, the ruling cadre of the Communist Party, knows their history. Their spasmodic anti-corruption drives are not merely for the betterment of Chinese society, but to stave off what they see as the looming repetition of Chinese history. Each dynasty grows lax: it becomes corrupt, losing the favor of its subjects. These subjects, and the elites they empower, revolt, overthrow the dynasty and start afresh.

Worse, most Chinese elites know they are too big, too powerful and too isolated to be conquered readily by some outside force taking advantage during this violence. The Japanese tried during the last great civil war and failed. This can breed a complacency toward stability: Chinese can think they can afford a violent uprising to better their lot.

And so the communists worry not about the extinction of China, which would be very difficult to achieve, but the dissolution of themselves. It is they, and not China as a nation state, that fears the loss of Taiwan.

To lose Taiwan to independence is to put the communists’ critical credibility on the line. When the communists under Mao first declared Taiwan would never be abandoned, they believe that Taiwan would soon collapse to communist forces as the rest of the country had. As decades have gone on, it’s become addicting: it allowed the communists to whip up anti-Yankee nationalists to crowd out dissidents in the public sphere. But it also has become a critical means test for their rule.

For Taiwan is not the only part of the old Qing Empire that has agitations to secede. There is, famously, Tibet: the very frontier that protects China’s heartland from Indian influence and invasion. But there is also Muslim Uyghurstan, the huge, resource-rich Xinjiang Province in the west once on the Silk Road and linked culturally more with Arabia than Beijing. There is also the less murderous but still worrisome Inner Mongolia, as well as the distant possibility of an independent Manchuria.

We’ve seen this happen before. When the USSR began to lose credibility in the late 1980s — especially when it abandoned its Warsaw Pact allies to revolution in 1989 — various Soviet subject-elites took the opportunity to break away.

China is not structured like the ex-USSR with ready-to-go republics, but it doesn’t have to be for this disaster scenario to replay itself.

If Taiwan declares formal independence and gets away with it, it will prove China’s communists are, ironically, the real paper tiger. For secessionists, that time would be perfect to launch full-scale uprisings and revolts. It’s not that China’s People’s Liberation Army couldn’t crush said revolts; they probably could, since all the secessionists are coming from sparsely populated regions. It’s that they could inspire others in the heart of China’s society.

1.1 billion people cannot uniformly do anything, let alone agree on leadership. There are millions of dissident Chinese; within them are shadow societies with shadow elites who aim to empower themselves at the expense of the ruling communists. Just because we don’t see them in the public light doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They may be small, but if the communists look anything less than dangerous, they could inspire many millions.

There are doubtless more dissidents than we realize because of the truth of life in an authoritarian state. They can do big things well, and quickly, but not much else.

Thus China can build massive, ultra-modern cities — but then can’t find ways to convince people to move into them.

It can arm and corral some 1.8 million troops, but then makes a hash of a small peacekeeping mission in a much weaker country.

It can outperform many countries on standardized tests, but cannot prevent many of its students from cheating their way through university.

When focused, authoritarian states can get high-profile stuff done: The Soviet Union was especially proud of its annual steel output. But day-to-day life is often mired in corruption, frustration and incompetence. It’s very normal for citizens to want their government to be better; in authoritarian states, that universal truth is denied and instead frustrations hide in plain sight.

And so for the highly populated coast, Shanghai-Beijing corridor and Chengdu province, the masses merely need to see their leaders fail to spark an uprising that could well repeat history.

For the communist elite, this distant fear alone is worth the threat of nuclear war.

Another frozen conflict

The communists benefit immensely from this frozen conflict. They can rail against the Americans to the right sort while not actually having to do anything about it. Mutually assured destruction is a completely rational reason not to invade Taiwan; even hardcore communists, few as they are, can see that.

They do not benefit in any change in status, unless that status is to bring Taiwan into the mainland’s fold. If Taiwan acts like an independent nation, it reveals the Politburo’s threats as just propaganda and undermines the whole regime. Calling Donald Trump was the act of a free nation; him picking up implied he, or his advisors, believe so too.

Thus to ensure credibility on the matter, the Chinese must retaliate.

Right now, they seem interested in brushing it off as the accident of yet another idiot American president. This suits their purposes nicely, slandering both the Americans and the democratic system that produced their inept leader. If that’s all that happens, little will change.

But there is a sense that perhaps Trump’s advisors wish to push the envelope further. Many of them are diehard anti-communists; an odd anachronism in the twenty-first century, yet one that would push a policy of using Taiwan as a wedge to undermine Chinese power. If I can see the writing on China’s wall sans Taiwan, surely so can Trump’s people. If their goal is to destabilize China as Ronald Reagan once destabilized the Soviet Union by supporting Poland’s Solidarity Movement and sending arms to the Afghan rebellion, their best point of attack is through Taiwan.

Yet this puts Beijing in a bind. To not respond at all is to threaten the existence of the communist regime; to retaliate is to perhaps spiral toward Armageddon. How far will China’s leaders go, if Trump’s people push too far?

The problem of remaining credible

China is at a disadvantage. It prefers to get Taiwan back, but can maintain the status quo. The Americans, on the other hand, can upset the applecart. China needs America more than the other way around, at least for now: China holds much of America’s debt, yet if tensions rose such debt could be frozen, seized or outright canceled by an aggressive White House. China also needs the United States as an export market; without manufacturing, the Chinese miracle is dead on arrival.

While Russia can supply China with all the energy and raw material it needs to support its industrial base, it cannot replace the United States or its allies as a consumer. If America ratchets up tension, and if China appears the aggressor, Europe may also close its doors to Chinese goods. That would leave only the developed world left for Chinese materials and many of them too would choose sides. It’s the USSR all over again: a closed system, sealed off by the Americans, with ever diminishing returns.

So instead China could flex its military muscles, especially its nuclear ones. To stop an aggressive White House might require Beijing to bring us all to the brink. And in that there lies the road for miscalculation or, worse, outright nihilism, as bunkered elites in China decide their massive population can afford a half million losses. This is not far from Mao’s own thinking. Surely in a Cuban Missile Crisis-style confrontation, some generals would offer that.

The terrible thing is that the United States doesn’t need to rock the boat for anything but ideological reasons. To throw China into post-communist chaos is unlikely to repeat the clean dissolution of the USSR, but rather to invite a dynastic civil war which will almost certainly hurt American interests. It’s high-risk and low-reward: the Chinese communists have all the incentive in the world to slowly reform themselves out of power, but will never do so if under threat.

Yet that may not bother a post-truth Trump White House. We may see nuclear sabers rattled yet.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, December 7, 2016.