China accused the United States of “creating risk” in the South China Sea after the USS Curtis Wilbur (pictured here in 2018) sailed in disputed waters – Copyright US NAVY / AFP / File Benjamin DOBBS
The relentless buzz of Chinese propaganda and Chinese actions around Taiwan and around the world have led to a torrent of war predictions with China, presumably over Taiwan. It is certainly not beautiful; Chinese rhetoric has become bolder, more threatening, and openly stating aggressive intentions.
There is a problem, however. A real war with China would disrupt just about any human activity, almost instantly. It’s not 1914 or 1939. Distance doesn’t matter in a multidimensional, multi-asset world war.
Time, resources and space are different this time:
- Things won’t happen in days or weeks, but in milliseconds.
- Communications around the world will be severely disrupted by a massive cyber war, far more destructive than the one that has been unfolding for a decade. This is particularly the case with satellite communications and the Internet.
- Global trade will be chaotic at best, affecting supplies of all ranges of materials, especially food. The West would likely cease trading with China altogether in the event of an attack on Taiwan.
- Billions will be wasted in seconds as financial and investment markets try and likely fail to adapt effectively for a long time. Personal wealth around the world will be immediately threatened.
The military situation does not look better.
- The battles will be random and ad hoc, cobbled together after the battles and countermeasures initially planned. Never has the statement “no plan survives contact with the enemy” been more appropriate. Nothing is easily predictable. Mistakes will be made on both sides, as they always are in any war.
- A “secondary war” of agents and actors on the ground is more than likely, with China using local cadres to attack targets around the world. This means huge internal security and intelligence problems for the West.
- Territorial gains are likely to be much smaller in this war. Assets matter in modern warfare, and those assets are limited.
- Military resources are limited on both sides and this is a major problem. China, like America, has a higher level of combat-ready forces. Many of these forces and their systems require very high maintenance, requiring a lot of logistics to be fully operational. Inevitably, such systems cannot do everything, and attrition is inevitable. It could mean a long and indecisive war.
- War at sea is probably the deciding factor in Taiwan’s case. The Chinese Navy has an advantage on the ground, but only up to a point. The air coverage and capabilities of Chinese systems are questionable at best. Submarines operating outside of China’s regional coverage may or may not be effective.
- China’s ability to physically move its forces is not the problem. It is about the ability of these forces to be effective and whether war at sea is winnable or not. Taiwan is a large country, about the size of Florida, with widely varying terrain, many built-up areas, and complex geography. If the war at sea was lost, Chinese forces in Taiwan would be stranded in very hostile territory.
- The risk of escalation towards nuclear war can unfortunately no longer be ruled out. China has also disagreed with Japan on many issues. Recent comments from China indicate that Japan would be the target of any war. It’s not such a good idea, even in theory. Diverting major resources into war with Japan would create problems for China, and any use of nuclear weapons would be an instant game-changer, with likely horrific consequences.
What about Russia?
Russia can support China in several ways, with or without getting involved in a gun war. Russia is already providing support, weapons and weapons systems and other assets. That’s not to say that Russia wants anything to do with a war with the United States and its allies. Hostile neutrality, with open support for China or not, is the most likely scenario.
Russia has nothing to gain from a war over Taiwan or any other Chinese problem. Russia is also very vulnerable to trade barriers, as a large part of Russia’s income comes from the West. It is hardly worth their time, or their money, to be actively involved in a Chinese war.
Who wins? No one.
There is an old Chinese saying that it is better to fight on someone else’s territory than on your own. This is absolutely the case in any Taiwan war. This war would inevitably endanger the targets, infrastructure and people of mainland China. Recent wars have pretty much devastated even large countries like Iraq, taking decades to rebuild, and China has many more assets in place.
China also has more than a few post-war problems. Even a successful attack on Taiwan would definitely change relations between China and the rest of the world, for the worse.
Failure would be catastrophic, destroy trade with the West as well, jeopardize China’s future and destroy its credibility. Economically, it would be a train accident. China is not self-sufficient, or anything like that. Basic products like food and materials must be imported. Victorious or vanquished, China’s problems are only just beginning.
China’s minor league allies can’t help China much in either scenario. They just don’t have the resources.
A win or lose scenario makes any war a very expensive gamble for China in every way. If I advised Xi Jinping, I would advise dropping the whole idea. There are far too many obvious, serious and almost intractable problems for the future.
Regime change in China? Difficult at best.
If China has fought a war and lost, be extremely careful of what you wish for. This scenario is almost incredibly complex. Regime change could be worse than the fall of the Soviet Union, and it was horrible.
There is an analogy. When the Qing Empire fell, China fractured. There was no one in place capable of ruling for long. The warlords have taken control of entire regions of China. Chiang Kai Shek never really managed to effectively control all of China for some time before the Japanese War.
The modern China version would be a little different, but there are obvious problems. Who is able to rule China? There is no clearly identifiable political group. Even with a lot of goodwill, it is a huge country. There are many regional, social, ethnic, economic and business interests.
At least part of the existing system should be the default to run the country, because there is nothing else.
Just one more thing – Mankind has made bad calls on just about everything since 1914. This could be one of the worst calls ever. The smart move would be to avoid a war, but the usual move is the dumbest move possible.