Like a traveler sailing the Archipelago who sees the luminous mists lift toward evening, and little by little makes out the shore, I begin to discern the profile of my death.
– Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian
It may seem far too early to make any calls about how the escalating power struggle between the US and China will resolve itself. But in reality, the end point is certain. The open question is how long and bloody the path there will be.
As we’ll argue, the Chinese threat display of wargames that were technically not a blockade of Taiwan but more than sufficient to show it could be done, and also pointedly breached a polite former acceptance of Taiwan’s claims to air and water ways, were directed most of all to the population of Taiwan. It was already not happy about this level of US provocation:
According to a poll quoted in The Guardian 👇, almost two-thirds of Taiwanese said Pelosi's visit was destabilising.
And then they blame China for "breaking the status quo"…https://t.co/YO5z2R5UCk
— Arnaud Bertrand (@RnaudBertrand) August 3, 2022
So China by its so-far narrow barring of Taiwenese goods is in combination with its military show is sending a message that this situation can be resolved the hard way if it has to go that way. One can think of China’s action as an extremely heavy-handed, frontal version of the color revolution/regime game change the US likes to play.
But the US is determined to try to undermine China’s latest gambit. A new story from RT:
US Navy ships and planes will transit the Taiwan Strait in the next two weeks, the White House announced on Thursday. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby condemned Chinese military drills in the area and said the Pentagon had ordered the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and her escorts to remain near Taiwan to “monitor the situation.”
The Reagan and her accompanying ships are based in Japan and were deployed to the East China Sea in recent days, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi paid a visit to Taipei against Chinese objections. Beijing has responded to Pelosi’s visit by launching extensive drills around Taiwan and firing a dozen missiles across the island.
Amid heightened tensions, US President Joe Biden decided it would be “prudent” to order the US aircraft carrier strike group to stay in the area “for a little bit longer than they were originally planned,” according to Kirby. The spokesman also condemned the Chinese missile tests as “irresponsible” and “at odds with our longstanding goal of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan strait and in the region.”
READ MORE: US calls off nuclear missile test
“We will not be deterred from operating in the seas and the skies of the Western Pacific, consistent with international law, as we have for decades, supporting Taiwan and defending a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said.
The UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea does limit territorial waters to 12 nautical miles, while the Taiwan Strait is 86 nautical miles wide at its narrowest point. So even if China asserted its position that Taiwan is part of China, that would in theory enable it to restrict access to only 24 nautical miles of the Strait.
However, the US is not party to the UN Convention of the Laws of the Seas, so it’s pretty cynical for the US then to invoke it when convenient. And why is the US not a party? Per Wikipedia, one reason is “In 1983 President Ronald Reagan, through Proclamation No. 5030, claimed a 200-mile exclusive economic zone.”
China invokes the same notion of a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone and further asserts it can limit military activity in that areas. And it does have some company for this view, so it is more an aggressive than an insane position. From the Lowy Institute:
Lastly, China claims 200 nm from the end of the territorial sea as its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), where it claims to have the right to regulate military activity. The US insists that freedom of navigation of military vessels is a universally established and accepted practice enshrined in international law – in other words, states do not have the right to limit navigation or exercise any control for security purposes in EEZs. Australia shares this view, but not all countries accept this interpretation. Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, the Maldives, Oman and Vietnam agree with China that warships have no automatic right of innocent passage in their territorial seas. Twenty other developing countries (including Brazil, India, Malaysia and Vietnam) insist that military activities such as close-in surveillance and reconnaissance by a country in another country’s EEZ infringe on coastal states’ security interests and therefore are not protected under freedom of navigation.
An armada making a show of its right to trawl the waters is arguably not “close-in surveillance and reconnaissance” but one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. It will be interesting to see how the press in the Global South, particularly India, reacts.
These developments sadly prove out an observation we made on Gonzalo Lira’s roundtable with Alexander Mercouris and Brian Berletic, that the Pelosi visit was not just a crisis but a watershed event.1
Taiwanese were presumably happy with the status quo ante. But those relatively untroubled days are over.
The US and the secessionist forces in Taiwan will lose. And that should be an obvious call.
It therefore should also be obvious that the US is making Taiwan its victim. It pushed China too far in its tolerance of the ambiguous status of Taiwan and embarrassed Chinese leadership over not having a concrete date or plan for reunification, despite the mantra of its inevitability.
But the even bigger offense from China’s perspective has been the arming of Taiwan, since many of the supposedly defensive weapons the US has been selling to Taiwan also have offensive uses. And China was never going to tolerate an unduly well-equipped Taiwan.
Even though China’s screechiness in the runup to Pelosi’s visit was aimed at the US, it was also a warning to Taiwan. Former colonel Douglas MacGregor explained why a garrisoned Taiwan, which is clearly where the US, in shades of Ukraine, looked to be taking matters, is an existential threat to China:
Perspicacity! This colonel speaks his mind. He’s a man of integrity & morality pic.twitter.com/K7AW371vkA
— Hailu AT (@at_hailu) August 4, 2022
To put it perhaps another way, Taiwan as a wanna-be country needed to learn the lesson of small countries who via geography or resources are of too much interest to big powers. They need to be skillful is playing one off against another. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen, by contrast, was called out in the South China Morning Post for making Taiwan look like America’s 51st state by not taking any position on Pelosi’s visit, as if the Taiwan government had no say in the matter.
Instead, in yet another parallel to Ukraine, the US has led Taiwan down what professor John Mearsheimer has called the primrose path to catastrophe. From New arms sales send the wrong signal on Taiwan in Defense News, August 2021:
The Biden administration recently approved its first arms sale to Taiwan for $750 million worth of howitzers and high-tech munitions kits. Proponents incorrectly argue that this sale will enhance stability in the region by sending a strong signal to China of America’s commitment to Taiwan’s security and by complicating any Chinese plans for an invasion of the island. In fact, the sale will accomplish nothing of the sort. To avoid enflaming tensions in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. needs to halt sales of weapons to Taiwan.
This sale will not allow Taiwan to better defend itself in any clash with China. It will, however, tell Taiwan that it’s OK to keep passing the buck to the United States for its defense…
Despite inaccurate claims that weapons are helping Taiwan become capable of defending itself, decades of American arms sales and reassurances have convinced Taiwanese leaders that the United States is ultimately responsible for Taiwan’s security. Taiwan’s defense spending has remained stuck at about 2 percent of its gross domestic product for years, a great deal of which it has spent on high-tech American weapons that will be of little value in case of a war.
According to a report published by George Mason University for which the authors interviewed Taiwanese military officials, senior lawmakers, elected leaders, former government officials and defense scholars, the U.S. arms sales let “China know America would intervene on our behalf in a conflict.”
In short, when it buys American weapons, Taiwan is simply making insurance payments to guarantee American intervention in response to a Chinese invasion…
Attempts to deter China with an enhanced U.S. military presence and arms sales to Taiwan are having the opposite effect. China’s defense budget has doubled in the 10 years since Obama announced the pivot….
Taiwan is in an unenviable position, but defending Taiwan at the risk of war with China is a bad gamble for both Taipei and Washington to take, especially as Taiwan would almost certainly be reduced to cinders in the process.
If Global Times is any guide, Chinese officials seem chuffed about their practice blockade of Taiwan, which they’ve decided to extend by another day. It’s sobering the minds of Taiwan citizens by demonstrating that China can bring the island to its knees without an invasion. Keep in mind not only can China obstruct air and sea landings, but it takes to running these exercises often, it will wreak havoc with shipping, causing backlogs at ports and potentially leading insurance rates to skyrocket over perceived hazards. From PLA’s ‘Taiwan lockdown’ drills stun secessionists, external forces as precision strike, area denial capabilities proved:
Surrounding Taiwan island with six large maritime areas and its airspace in its north, northeast, east, south, southwest and northwest from Thursday noon to Sunday noon, the unprecedented drills featured advanced weapons, including long-range rocket artillery, anti-ship ballistic missiles, stealth fighter jets and an aircraft carrier group with a nuclear-powered submarine, as well as realistic tactics that simulated a real reunification-by-force operation, demonstrating and honing the PLA’s capabilities to not only take over the island, but also prevent any external interference including from the US, experts said…
With a range of more than 300 kilometers, long-range rockets can easily cover targets on Taiwan island from the Chinese mainland, Song Zhongping, a Chinese mainland military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times.
Long-range rocket strikes could be one of the first moves in a potential reunification-by-force operation, as the low-cost weapons can be launched in mass numbers from the mainland across the Taiwan Straits to destroy hostile military facilities…
Area denial is a concept that describes denying external forces to interfere within a specific area. In this context, it means that the PLA’s conventional missile launches practiced hitting foreign aircraft carriers that could intervene from the Philippine Sea in a possible reunification-by-force operation, experts said.
The missiles, which are more powerful than long-range rockets, can also hit targets on the island, analysts said.
A number of PLA conventional missiles, including the DF-21, DF-26 and the hypersonic DF-17, can hit moving targets at sea, observers said….
“The PLA operations could form a complete blockade around Taiwan island,” Zhang [Junshe, a senior research fellow at the Naval Research Academy of the PLA] said.
Mind you, this “reunification by force” operation did not appear to contemplate a landing. It looks to focus on the destruction of military capabilities along with a blockade.
And the amount of pixels devoted to the reaction of Taiwan citizens suggests they were a major target of this exercise. Again from Global Times:
Media on the island expressed worries not only from a military perspective, but also other fields concerning people’s daily life such as energy supplies and flights on the island, as the PLA’s drills basically form a three-day blockade of the island.
The drills are expected to affect the transportation and replenishment of natural gas vessels that are vital to power generation in the island. According to local media, natural gas vessels at ports in Taichung and Kaohsiung are currently operating normally, but a local petrochemical energy company has been closely observing the situation and drawn up emergency response plans.
Citing an economic affairs authority in the island, media said that the company has enough oil supplies for 40 days. The total oil stocks of authorities and civilian institutions in the island are enough for 100 days’ usage. Fire coal stocks in the island are sufficient for about 30 days, while there are enough natural gas stocks on the island for only 10-11 days.
So energy supplies are the choke point. It would not be long at all before Taiwan would be out of fuel.
Another Global Times article indicates the Chinese authorities believe that Taiwan is getting the message that China can also restrict exports from Taiwan to China, which would be a serious blow. Note that China does not have to use formal sanctions. It can simply strangle Taiwan exporters with new red tape. That would create uncertainty and increase costs and delay. With perishables, that could lead to them being rejected by buyers for having gone bad. Too many hassles would also lead customers to shift their purchases to more reliable vendors.
The current restrictions are small scale, so Global Times is likely exaggerating their practical and psychological impact. But it’s not hard to tighten these screws. From DPP faces backlash following mainland’s import suspensions, slammed for damaging residents’ interests. The first quoted part is explicit that the move is intended to punish pro-independence parties:
Analysts said that for the sake of Taiwan residents, the mainland did not adopt tougher sanctions, but they need to realize that voting for the DPP will not lead to good results. The mainland will still actively promote cross-Straits economic and trade bonds, but at the same time, it will continue to strengthen the crackdown on and punishment of Taiwan secessionists.
Starting on Wednesday, Chinese mainland customs authorities suspended the entry of citrus fruits including grapefruits, lemons and oranges, as well as two types of fish (chilled large head hairtail and frozen horse mackerel) from the island, in accordance with regulations and food safety requirements.
Those goods have been repeatedly found to be harboring pests or contaminated with excessive chemicals…
According to a Thursday poll from udn.com, 70 percent of respondents in Taiwan had no confidence in Pelosi’s “determination to safeguard Taiwan’s democracy.” An earlier poll from udn.com showed 65 percent of respondents would not welcome her visit.
udn is a Taiwan-based outlet, but I am unsure of its political bent. It has some harsh quotes about the impact of the sanctions. Global Times also cited two Yahoo News pols which showed concern about the mainland’s actions, including the not-quite sanctions, but they were online polls and hence not all that reliable.
I reiterate a point made by Brian Berletic: China does not need to invade or even blockade Taiwan. All it has to do is stop trading with Taiwan to kill its economy. But a blockade would accelerate the capitulation.
Finally, if the confrontation winds up in a hot war between the US and China, which is all too possible given the odds of accidents plus US stupidity, readers have debated hotly whether China is able to take on the US. Aside from having a presumed home territory advantage, US military assessments seem to greatly undervalue the importance of layered offensive missiles in favor of airplanes. Our fondness for manned vehicles may prove to be chauvinistic. Another area where most analysts are at risk of ignoring important Chinese capabilities is in space warfare, where there’s good reason to think China could quickly knock out or otherwise neutralize a lot of our satellite capability in very short order. I hope to return to those topics soon.
In the meantime, I am re-embedding the current Defense Intelligence Agency “Worldwide Threat Assessment”. As you can see, it clearly underestimated Russian capabilities. I would be curious to get reader reactions to its take on China.
1 Lambert and I remain convinced that this visit was a combination of Pelosi’s ego at work (hostility to China is part of her branding) and securing more funds for the 2022 midterms (recall she is a national figure and all House members, save rebels like The Squad, are required to kick in a substantial amount of their donations to the DCCC). So Pelosi presumably was not currying favor with California anti-mainland Chinese so much for her election but to bolster party coffers generally. But there does seem to have been some double-dealing too. We see conflicting reports, that a lot of senior Administration figures, including Jake Sullivan, tried to talk Pelosi out of going. Biden allegedly didn’t talk to her because he didn’t want to appear soft on China (you cannot make this stuff up). However, NPR reported that Sullivan made very loud anti-China noises after Pelosi’s visit. So did he really make much of an effort to deter her from going?
And let us not forget:
BREAKING: A newly uncovered document has found Taiwan's government spent $3.1 million on lobbying Nancy Pelosi from 2018 to 2022. pic.twitter.com/hLOv3rvOuq
— The Chollima Report (@ChollimaOrg) August 4, 2022
00 Defense Intelligence Agency Threat Assessment