In their 1992 book Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069, authors William Strauss and Neil Howe remind readers of Mark Twain’s quip “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Their thesis describes an American history that exhibits chirality, with four sequential generational “turnings” or periods of time which complete a full cycle roughly every eighty years. Given that, according to the authors, our current cycle began at the end of the Second World War, the question arises as to whether we are due for another seismic historical event.
Of all the geopolitical fault lines that are primed to break under the strain of current events, the most likely region to see conflict in the near future will be when (not if) China decides to invade Taiwan. In the wake of Trump’s loss for re-election, Taiwanese officials have grown nervous and have voiced apprehension at the change in administration, while the mainstream media tries to assure everyone that everything would be just fine with good-ol’ Joe in the White House
A History of a Volatile Region
Following the Qing dynasty, the Republic of China was established in 1912 as an autocracy under Sun Yatsen, which was later unified in 1928 by Chiang Kaishek and his nationalists. During that same time however, the Soviets aided in the formation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921 with Mao Zedong as its chairman. In late 1949, Mao’s forces gained control of the mainland, and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a Marxist dictatorship with its capital in Beijing. China has been ruled by the CCP ever since, and is currently ruled by the nineteenth Politburo Standing Committee led by General Secretary and President Xi Jinping. Taiwan (also called Formosa) was formed when Chiang’s defeated nationalist forces retreated to an island some 100 miles west of China. Taiwan has gradually transitioned into a democratically representative government with its capital in Taipei and is led by its current president Tsai Ing-Wen who was inaugurated in 2016.
Both governments claim to be the rightful authority in China and officially accept reunification in principle. However, Taiwan’s people lack enthusiasm for such an objective despite the country’s official name, while China has become more vocal in asserting the need to employ military force to achieve that integration.
A Nebulous Relationship with a Firm Ally
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter recognized Bejing as the capital of “China” rather than Taiwan’s capital Taipei. In response to this and the Carter administration’s refusal to sell fighter aircraft to Taiwan, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) which declared Taiwan’s legal status as inchoate and nebulous in order to distinguish it from the PRC. Since the TRA would dissolve if a Taiwanese plebiscite acknowledged sovereignty of either Chinese pretender state, the Taiwanese avoid declaring independence as a separate nation to avoid a military response by and absorption into the PRC.
In mid-1996 Beijing began conducting missile firings and naval exercises, but relented in view of two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups that were on patrol near Taiwan. This standoff led the House of Representatives to pass the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA) in 1999 without it being signed by President Bill Clinton, and was meant to increase military support and training for Taiwan. Tensions between the PRC and Taiwan waxed and waned over the next two decades, as Washington sought to maintain a delicate balance of “strategic ambiguity” by deterring Beijing’s aggression without antagonizing diplomatic relations, while at the same time reassuring Taipei but still discouraging independence. Last March witnessed the passage and signing of the TAIPEI Act to foster expanded multinational relations with Taiwan.
Joe Biden, China, and Taiwan- Then and Now
As a senator, Biden voted for the TPA but opposed the TSEA, arguing before the Foreign Relations Committee that “a surefire way to spark… a conflict [over Taiwan] is for the U.S. to reinforce the growing perception in Beijing… that the United States is hostile to China or pursuing the fragmentation of China.”
In 2001, after a U.S. Navy electronic surveillance aircraft was forced to land in Hainan, China, senator Biden wrote in the Washington Post of his continued commitment “to the principle that Taiwan’s future must be determined only by peaceful means, consistent with the wishes of the people of Taiwan” while evading any expectation of resistance while hinting at an excuse to not resist CCP designs: “the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance… provides for joint operations in the areas surrounding Japan, the inclusion of Taiwan within that scope is an issue of the greatest sensitivity in Tokyo. Successive Japanese governments have avoided being pinned down on the issue.”
In May 2019, Biden dismissed China as a threat with his “they’re not competition for us” statement, but then later pivots and declares that “China represents a special challenge. I have spent many hours with its leaders, and I understand what we are up against…. The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front… to confront China’s abuse behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation and global health security.” Then just like everyone else who runs for office (a few with sincerity), he promises to maintain our military strength, while maintaining that force “should be used only to defend U.S. vital interests, when the objective is clear and achievable, and with the informed consent of the American people.”
Biden wraps up his pieces still imagining that global markets can persuade the Chinese to change their ways, extolling Obama’s meager diplomatic accomplishments and its leading from behind strategy, baiting the Russian government and chiding China for burning coal. Unfortunately, for all of Biden's bloviating rhetoric, he is apparently unaware that the CCP has no concern any of these matters.
China’s Long Range Goals are Nearing Completion
In the Pentagon’s 2020 Report on China’s military capabilities, it notes the increasing sophistication of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the modernization of its Navy and Air Force over the past two decades. In accordance with General Secretary Xi’s goal to make the PLA a “world class” military, China has more naval vessels than any other country (to say nothing of its enormous maritime militia fleet), along with ballistic and cruise missiles, and an integrated air defense system. Moreover, as far back as the Obama administration, China has, despite previous denials by its defense spokesman, admitted to converting reefs among the Spratly Islands into fortified platforms using sand-sucking ships.
All of this, according to one report, China does in violation of international law and in defiance of the ire of the international community. Meanwhile, the PRC continues to modernize its warfare and electronic capabilities, acquiring overseas bases to assist in deployment and supply, and exercising diplomatic influence (or intimidation) to get other countries to accept the CCP’s initiatives. This of course includes a defense policy with the expressed objective “to oppose and contain ‘Taiwan independence’”.
Furthermore, according to a Defense Intelligence Agency report, the growth in China's military capabilities in multiple domains across the globe has increased its options to coerce Taipei to capitulate on its own terms. Options such as a maritime blockade, cyber attacks, sabotage and assassination. Failing these more subtle options, China envisions a coordinated and interlocking joint island landing campaign that would combine logistics, air and naval support, and electronic warfare to penetrate or circumvent Taiwan’s shore defenses. It would establish and build a beachhead, then transport personnel and materiel to designated landing sites for ultimately seizing the entire island.
Full aware of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet ability to inflict serious damage, Beijing prefers to dissuade Washington from interceding in all of its planned scenarios. Nevertheless, China still fields many medium range bombers that carry cruise missiles and hyper-sonic glide missiles, as well as being able to disrupt communications by attacking our satellites with laser or kinetic weapons. Their intention would be to cripple and/or sinking enough American naval warships to eliminate any chance of retaliation.
A New Administration Means an Uncertain Future for Taiwan
Historically, the United States possesses the naval strength and trade interest to enforce tranquility throughout the sea lanes, and impose restrictions on the belligerency of coastal countries along the western Pacific. However, while China’s designs on Taiwan are kept in check by a prospective American intervention, uncertainty over America’s response to Chinese truculent aggression invites opportunism by Beijing. How a Joe Biden administration will react to such aggression remains as vague and uncertain as his past statements on the issue, and our allies should not assume consistency in American foreign policy across administrations.
Furthermore, even if the Biden administration shows reluctance to confront Beijing, the 7th Fleet could still be drawn into conflict with China under the terms of the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with Japan. After all, since the election, Tokyo’s defense minister Yasuhide Nakayama has expressed concern over Beijing’s bellicosity in and subjugation of Hong Kong and has called Taiwan as a “red line.” Thus in order to protect its Senkaku islands, which China also claims as theirs, Japan could operate its naval vessels in close proximity to and risk attack from China’s navy. Congress might feel compelled to establish a defensive posture on behalf of Japan, no doubt over Beijing’s vehement objections.
All of this uncertainty is unfortunate for the people of Taiwan. For despite having a very robust and modern military force, its ability to repel an unprovoked assault from combat flight squadrons five times its size and naval forces with three times as many ships for more than a week seems at best optimistic. Even resorting to asymmetric defensive tactics would only delay the inevitable against an enemy indifferent to civilian casualties and collateral damage, without dedicated American aid and support.
Any indication of appeasement or vacillation in America’s resolve to defend Taiwan from being absorbed into the PRC, will only embolden China to cross the "red line." If Beijing is even remotely confident that Washington would stand idly by, an invasion could happen as soon as September of this year, at the close of the monsoon season- which coincidentally mark’s the CCP’s centenary- or it could be later. There is an old Chinese curse that says, “may you live in interesting times.” We’re poised to discover whether that aphorism will apply to this emerging bi-polar era or not. Time will tell of course, but 2021 or the next few years could become quite bloody. Historians will be ecstatic about the prospect of having something exciting to write about. The rest of us ought not be so sanguine.
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