American politicians surprise, agreeing that China must be confronted
[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Defense.]
By Seth Cropsey
Real Clear Defense
Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan is a rare and commendable act of strategic sense that received equally rare and commendable bipartisan support. Yet considering the geostrategic and economic conditions that China faces, it is not without risk. The CCP faces a closing window of opportunity. It must act soon to shape the battlefield and divide the United States from its Taiwanese partner. The U.S. should act accordingly, making contingency plans for a military response if needed, staging major exercises to demonstrate its seriousness, and above all, accepting that deterrence in this crisis will not reduce the possibility of conflict in the next one.
Leading Democrats and Republicans publicly opposed the Biden administration’s skittishness over Pelosi’s visit. Senators Bob Menendez, the Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, and Republican John Cornyn, who visited Taiwan in 2021, agree on very little. But both explicitly endorsed Pelosi’s visit, demanding that the U.S. not cave to the CCP’s blatant public pressure.
Regardless, the Biden administration has been sent a clear message. Despite brutal domestic divisions over social policy, an intensifying inflationary crisis, and a still poisonous political culture, America’s major parties are in broad agreement on China policy. The PRC and CCP must be confronted. Beijing has designs on Taiwan. Capitulation to Chinese pressure today guarantees aggression tomorrow.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration is correct in a sense: the CCP will act, and it may do so sooner than expected. The so-called Davidson Window – named for Admiral Philip Davidson’s (USN, ret.) warning that China would move on Taiwan, possibly within the decade – assesses the situation correctly. The PLA is assembling the capabilities for a high-intensity amphibious assault on Taiwan to subjugate the island, shatter the U.S.’ Indo-Pacific position by breaking the First Island Chain, dominate East Asia’s sea lanes, and acquire Taiwan’s world-leading semiconductor industry.
However, the Davidson Window overestimates the time that China must achieve its ambitions. Domestic-economic, geopolitical, and military trends suggest that, by the end of this decade, China may be in a far weaker position vis-a-vis the U.S. and Taiwan than in the near future.
China’s domestic economy is on the brink of a severe contraction. The CCP is staring at a property crisis of a much greater magnitude than in the 2010s. Evergrande, China’s huge real estate company’s massive liquidity crisis was the canary in the coal mine. Additional major developers like China Properties Group have defaulted, while still others have halted offshore bond payments.
Property plays a unique macroeconomic role in China. The average Chinese citizen has few places to invest savings given the country’s financial regulations. Hence millions of Chinese have purchased unbuilt homes. Now that construction has stalled, many have halted mortgage payments. Property is also commonly used as collateral for Chinese loans, raising the prospect of a subsequent credit crunch. Additionally, the property sector comprises around a quarter of China’s GDP. The Peoples Bank of China, in concert with municipalities, may be able to relieve some market stress – bailouts and restructuring have belatedly begun in late July. However, the sheer scale of the crisis implies a significant drag on economic growth, particularly as Xi Jinping’s CCP persists in its Zero-COVID policy. Chinese asset prices are due for a large-scale devaluation. And as foreign investors lose confidence even with a central government response to the crisis, capital flight is possible.
In sum, the consistent economic growth that both made China an attractive market for Western financiers and provided the CCP with the funds to expand the PLA’s capabilities is now doubtful. The real possibility of two percent GDP growth faces a serious challenge to a surging economy. If China’s supposedly inexorable economic rise slows, its military expansion may slow with it.
Even worse, Vladimir Putin’s gambit in Ukraine is souring. Xi Jinping almost certainly knew of Putin’s plans – his only request, we can infer from the invasion’s timing, was to postpone the assault until after the Winter Olympics. Yet like Putin, Xi likely assumed that Ukraine and the West would crack like an egg. Overawed by a ferocious Russian assault, Ukraine would collapse, the West would be humiliated, and Putin capable of consummating his autarkic greater Russian empire.
Even a longer war was not necessarily disastrous for Chinese interests. Western sanctions pressure has allowed China to buy Russian oil and gas at cut-rate prices. Thus far, China has avoided providing direct economic and military support to Russia, likely out of fear of Western secondary sanctions just as Xi Jinping calculates the approaching 20th National Congress. However, Beijing probably expected the Kremlin to either outlast the West and Kyiv, or at least to have a relatively strong position over Ukraine’s east and south by this point.
In fact, Russia’s position is increasingly weak. Ukraine has blunted Russia’s Donbas offensive, admittedly at high cost to both sides. But Ukraine is fully mobilized and receiving increasing quantities of Western arms—and additional four HIMARS rocket systems arrived on 1 August according to Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov. Russia is not mobilized, and sanctions cut it off from critical technical components for military equipment, as the precipitous drop in Russian defense production since 24 February has demonstrated. Even worse, Ukraine has intensified its pressure in the south, and now threatens to expel Russia from the Dnieper’s north bank, retaking Kherson and Nova Kakhovka. It will press its attack over the Dnieper in time.
Regardless, long-range Western munitions, UCAVs, and Special Operations Forces collaborating with partisans will erode already overstressed Russian logistics, ultimately destroying Russia’s position in southern Ukraine. Peace is unlikely before next year, barring Franco-German or Russian capitulation. Yet Russia will progressively weaken, and the war will stress Russian society. Mobilization is of no help: that sets the conditions for revolution. And with Europe set to phase out Russian petrochemical imports by the year’s end, a return to normal becomes less viable by the day.
Xi is unlikely to abandon Putin. Russia provides China strategic and economic depth and is a useful spoiler in Europe that distracts Western attention and capabilities from Taiwan. Moreover, Putin is Xi’s closest international compatriot. Yet a weak, bloodied Russia will require Chinese sustenance, adding another economic stress to the Zhongnanhai. Most dangerous, if Russia is defeated and Putin loses power, not only may Beijing’s most notable international partner vanish, but the U.S. can reorient towards Asia in earnest.
Diplomatically, a Russian defeat will also enable far greater trans-Eurasian coordination against China. A post-Ukraine Russia, even with Putin in power, will find it difficult to sustain its position in the Middle East and Levantine Basin. This removes a crucial stress point in the U.S.’ relationship with Israel and the Gulf Arabs. Some Gulf Arab states, notably Qatar, have signalled their willingness to cooperate on China issues, while Israel is slowly but appreciably shifting its policy away from Chinese investment. More formal mechanisms are also coming into focus like the Israel-India-U.S.-UAE joint initiative. For China, non-alignment is a victory – and in Ukraine, apart from the West and its Asian affiliates, virtually the entire world has little interest in confronting Russia. But trends may be shifting. And with Mr Biden’s concrete guarantee to Israel that the U.S. will not allow an Iranian nuclear weapon, the Gulf Arabs have yet another reason to deal with the U.S. constructively over China. The much-feared far blockade is coming together.
Finally, while the increase in military spending that the Ukraine War has prompted will not have an immediate impact, Western stockpiles will be replenished. And trans-Eurasian defense coordination has begun, most notably with the Polish-South Korean tank deal. Europe’s defense industrial base is too small to absorb significant spending increases. Asia’s is not. It is Asian capabilities, not European, that trouble China vis-a-vis Taiwan, and it may be Asian producers that ramp up production the most.
All this points to a nightmarish scenario for China by the late 2020s. Russia is economically hollow and technologically and financially dependent upon China, while lacking the ability to rattle Europe and divert Western resources. Iran and perhaps Pakistan are increasingly in China’s orbit, along with Venezuela and Cuba. But the Gulf Arabs and Israel, both backed by the United States, are comfortable restricting Chinese petrochemical, technology, and investment flows. Taiwan is armed with new mobile anti-ship and anti-air missiles, UCAVs, and counter-UCAVs that indicate a protracted conflict over the island. And China, with sluggish growth, an ageing population, and a colossal Eurasian dependent-cum-vassal, has no conceivable way of conquering Taiwan beyond a multi-year Pacific War, one that is likely to break the Chinese state.
For the next eighteen months, however, Western stocks will remain low. American diplomacy may jeopardize Chinese interests in the Middle East, but any set of agreements will take several more years to implement. The U.S. and its Asian allies will still be digesting the results of the Ukraine War, and their capabilities will not yet be expanded. Nor will Taiwan have received many of its promised weapons.
In turn, the most crucial lesson China may draw from Russia’s experience in Ukraine is the necessity of battlefield isolation. Absent significant Western support, and public expressions of strategic unity, Ukraine might have collapsed. Even if it survived the initial Russian onslaught, Russia could have overwhelmed Ukraine, forcing Kyiv to expend its limited ammunition stockpiles until Ukrainian artillery ceased firing in May. A protracted insurgency would remain probable, but Russia would have achieved its strategic and territorial goals.
The CCP must split the U.S. from Taiwan if it wishes to conquer the island-republic absent severe risk. Perhaps patience may succeed, and American political volatility will destroy the U.S.’ Western Pacific position. But that is itself a risky bet. Far more reasonable would be to provoke a crisis in the very near future, signal to the U.S. and the West China’s resolve, and at minimum clarify the stakes of a conflict over Taiwan – unlike in Ukraine, the U.S. could not remain a non-combatant.
The Pelosi visit is an ideal opportunity for this preparatory crisis. Outright war is unlikely. But a major military exercise that spans all of China’s theatre commands, combined with cyber probing, grey zone harassment using the China Coast Guard and People’s Maritime Militia, alongside an elevation in combat readiness may put the United States on its back foot – or at least convert President Biden and General Milley into dogged accommodationists between now and 2024.
The U.S. must respond accordingly. Two steps are necessary.
First, the U.S. should surge two Carrier Strike Groups into the Philippine Sea. Already, two CSGs are in the Indo-Pacific, the Lincoln in the central Pacific and the Reagan near the South China Sea. They should bracket Taiwan, daring the PLA to jeopardize American air control to the island’s east.
Second, the U.S. should surge submarines to the Western Pacific. It should establish a constant submarine cordon north and south of Taiwan and push forward as many submarines as possible – ideally up to twenty – from California and Pearl Harbor to Guam. Naturally, Guam must also receive additional air defenses as soon as possible, including the long-awaited Patriot batteries planned for the island.
If China does act to disrupt Pelosi’s visit, these military forces must be used to maintain air and sea control of the Taiwan Strait. Constant fighter and submarine coverage will be necessary, and there will be near misses with the PLA Navy and Air Force. But a sustained period of tension is superior to capitulation or humiliation following Chinese escalation.
From this, however, the U.S. must take additional steps to shore up its defense posture today, given the likelihood of a foreseeable Chinese move against Taiwan. An immediate step is necessary beyond the standard arms packages and military exercises.
Third, the U.S. should re-establish Taiwan Defense Command. De-activated in the 1970s, a re-activated TDC would connect Taiwanese, American, Japanese and allied military planners, allowing for the joint coordination a major war with China would demand. It would also send a strong signal to China that the U.S. is serious about the defense of the island-republic.
Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is wise. A reversal of her decision or modification that avoided standing on Taiwan’s soil would have been an expression of temporizing at the highest levels of the American government that would bring more and graver challenges to the U.S. and its allies around the world. Her demonstration of resolve is an example of how to deal with the PRC.
Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as an officer in the Navy and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.
[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Defense.]
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