The most recent flareup between the Global American Empire and China has brought forth all of the usual commentary about the rise of China, its plans for Taiwan and the relative decline of America. The underlying assumption is that China could take Taiwan if it wanted and there is not much the United States can do about it, short of a nuclear strike on mainland China. Further, it is assumed that China will one day make its move on Taiwan when it feels the time is right.
This is an odd set of assumptions. If China can take Taiwan and wants to take Taiwan, then why are they not taking Taiwan? The standard answer is that they think they can wait out the American empire. That could be true but there is good evidence to suggest the clock is ticking in her ability to make war. China is hitting the wall demographically and she knows it. They have a lot of young military age males right now, but a decade from now they will be nearing middle-age.
The more likely reason for China’s hesitance is that taking Taiwan would be an enormous gamble. It is a big island with no beaches. It has great ports, but those are heavily defended. The Taiwanese military is exceptionally good. They have the best weapons America can produce and they may have the best air defense system on the planet, thanks to America using Taiwan as a listening post. At the top of the island is advanced radar used to listen to the Chinese.
Even if America does not come in to defend Taiwan, China would be facing something similar to what the Marines faced in the Battle of Saipan. The Japanese were dug in and the besieging Americans had to first create a beachhead and then root out the Japanese from the well defended positions. It took 70,000 Marines to root out the 30,000 Japanese defending the island. The Americans suffered 14,000 casualties while only one thousand Japanese survived.
The big difference is that Taiwan will fully mobilize their army of over a million men and be dug into a highly urbanized island of twenty-three million. That means the Chinese will need to mobilize a two million man invasion force. The general rule is you need at least a two-to-one advantage as the attacker. China has the people, but mobilizing, organizing and coordinating such a force is a huge task. That also means the Taiwanese will have months to prepare for the assault.
The Chinese certainly have gamed this out many times and they understand the mathematics of conquering Taiwan. That said, it is all theory as the Chinese have not waged serious war in a long time. The last large scale amphibious landing on a populated Pacific island was in World War II. An attack on Taiwan would be the first of its kind in the era of high tech weaponry. As the Russians have been learning in Ukraine, technology has radically changed the battlefield.
For example, cheap drones have proven to be a valuable tool. The Ukrainians had a lot of these to start the war and they proved to be a big problem. The Russians had to alter their tactics to account for this new weapon. One reason the fight in Ukraine has settled into an artillery duel is it is too easy for defenders to use cheap drones to disrupt the lines of the attacker. Cheap drones have a limited range, so the Russians operate outside that range to soften up Ukrainian positions.
Taiwan is not a backward kleptocracy. It is one the most high tech societies on the planet and they make most of the world’s chips. Taiwan could deploy massive swarms of cheap drones against the ships of an attacker. That is another lesson from Ukraine with regards to drones. This weapon does not require a lot of infrastructure to operate so artillery strikes are not a great deterrent. As long as you have soldiers who can do the minimum you can keep using your drone weapons.
Another aspect of cheap drone technology is they can be turned into what the industry calls a loitering munition. This is a weapon that flies over an area program to look for targets like tanks and supply vehicles. Once it spots one, it then attacks the target, usually by flying into it. One result of this has been that the Donbas militias which make up the bulk of the infantry in the Donbas have to operate from cover. There is no cover in the straight between China and Taiwan.
When you examine what is going on in the Donbas, it becomes clear that technology has had some unexpected consequences to war fighting. It is not the cutting edge technology that is shaping the battlefield. It is the commodified technology that is changing the mathematics. A defender employing lots of cheap drones against the attackers expensive assets has a clear edge. If it takes ten cheap missiles to take out an expensive tank, that is a good deal.
This is the problem China now faces with Taiwan. Their invasion fleet would be awfully expensive and the Taiwanese would have lots of targets. The Chinese would have to follow the Russian lead in the Donbas. That means siege warfare. China would have to blockade the island and relentlessly shell the urban areas hoping to degrade their communications and defense. The most likely result would be China eventually conquering a bombed out island with millions of dead.
Technology has made China less vulnerable to American military power by diminishing the value of sea power. Those giant carriers can now be hit from a long distance by ship-killing missiles. The same technology, however, is making Taiwan less vulnerable to Chinese military pressure. The same ship killing missiles can be used against an invasion force and cheap drones can radically increase the cost on infantry trying to assault Taiwanese defenses.
The point of all this is that the blithe assertions about the Chinese ability to take Taiwan are completely wrong. It would be a massive undertaking and even under ideal conditions it would create an enormous strain on China. Add back in unlimited submarine warfare from the American side and the taking of Taiwan becomes a massively expensive gamble. Further add in the closing of Western markets and taking Taiwan no longer makes any sense at all.
That is another lesson of Ukraine. The Russians have weathered the economic war because they are not dependent on the American economy. Russia primarily exports commodities into the global market. There is no practical way for Washington cut the Russians out of the marketplace. China, on the other hand, imports commodities and sells finished goods. Washington can cut off the sale of finished goods. It can also shift production to other areas, which is currently happening.
A blockade of Taiwan would certainly mean a blockade of Chinese goods not only by the United States but by Europe. The American Navy still controls the shipping lanes in the Pacific and China can do nothing about it. Unlike the Russian economy, the Chinese economy has no way around this problem. An attach on Taiwan would bring about a massive shock to the Chinese economy and that is before the West unleashed a currency war on the yuan.
The reason China is making a lot of noise but not doing anything rash over the Pelosi stunt is she understands the dilemma. Because of China’s dependence on Western markets, she has to be much more delicate in how she responds to American provocation than the Russians. That means increasing the flow of bribes into the imperial capital in order to get more friendly voices in Congress. It means a more flexible approach to the Russia issue.
The bottom line with China is that the threat she poses is not her agility to wage conventional war against her neighbors. The real threat of China is her ability to purchase favors in Washington. The Taiwan issue is a nice way for the American ruling class to shift the focus from that problem. The Chinese know this and mostly likely see the Pelosi trip as a demand for bigger bribes. If they do not want to see more trips to Taiwan, then they better hire better lobbyists.
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