Some things are just too unpleasant to contemplate, too far in the future, or too complicated to demand attention. Or too scary. Or conflict with other things we know – or think we know. A North Korean nuclear attack on an American island would be one of those. An Iranian attack on Israel would be another. A Chinese attack on Taiwan would be all of those. “It won’t happen,” people say, “because the consequences (for the attacker) would be too terrible.”
Too terrible, perhaps, for American sensibilities – we like to think most people prefer peace to war, negotiation to shooting, and kicking the can down the road to making a stand. And certainly we like to think people prefer building military forces for defense, not for offense. But The Chinese Invasion Threat by Ian Easton of the Project 2049 Institute is a chilling reminder that not everyone sees things as we do and some countries prepare for the future they expect to have, even if they expect to have it at great cost.
The Project 2049 Institute presents its mission as seeking “to guide decision makers toward a more secure Asia by the century’s mid-point… fill(ing) a gap in the public policy realm through forward looking, region-specific research on alternative security and policy solutions.” Easton is a research fellow, previously a visiting fellow at the Japan Institute for International Affairs, and a China analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. If the goal is to focus attention on parts of the international security system governments might prefer to ignore, Easton – on behalf of the Institute – succeeds mightily. He begins not with U.S.-China trade or political positions, but with the fundamental point of communist China’s policy.
The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) believes the island nation of Taiwan belongs to Beijing. The PRC has spent decades planning and arming for the invasion of Taiwan and the restoration of the island to its rule. Planning and arming to win. Yes, if it could get the Taiwanese government to capitulate peacefully, China would take it. But as Easton details with maps, charts and great familiarity with Chinese military journals, Taiwan is the first national priority of the PRC government, if for no other reason than that a flourishing democracy in Taiwan provides Chinese people with a model for life inconsistent with communist rule. The repressive nature of the PRC government is a running theme, coloring choices the government makes and accounting for it looking over its shoulder at the possibility of rebellion at home if it is too adventurous and not successful enough abroad.
The Taiwanese view the whole thing from the other end of the telescope. Taiwan is planning and arming not to lose. Easton reads their journals as well.
The United States, true to its post-Cold War form, broadly believes engagement with the PRC, trade deals, “confidence-building measures” and points of common interest will create a web of ties China will not risk for the restoration of Taiwan. Easton contends there is no common interest. “China has made clear that its primary external objective is attaining the ability to apply overwhelming force against Taiwan during a conflict and, if necessary, destroy American-led forces.”
At this point, the American reader should be saying, “But it will be so destructive that no one – particularly the PRC government, which has worked assiduously to build a Chinese middle class – would do that.”
Maybe not, but maybe. The PRC is no less clear than the Ayatollah Khomeini was when he said an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel would result in Israeli retaliation leaving 10 million Iranians dead. The exchange, he said, would be survivable for Iran but not for Israel. It was, therefore, an acceptable trade-off. Americans generally think of Khomeini as having been a raving lunatic, but somehow think of the Communist Party of China as a responsible partner for trade and politics.
Our political differences exacerbate our misunderstanding of Chinese policy – or at least, our understanding of the PRC commitment to winning. The good news is that the U.S. is bound to Taiwan through the Taiwan Relations Act, which clearly states America’s responsibilities:
To provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character and to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic system of the people of Taiwan.
Even if we find it hard to imagine the PRC invading Taiwan, the United States has to be prepared to help Taiwan defend itself.
Easton, a rare Chinese-speaker in U.S. policy circles, draws on Chinese-language defense manuals, journals, and papers to understand what the PLA is thinking, planning and buying. He balances this with Taiwanese writings on the same subjects. One useful conclusion is that professional military planners are well aware of, and highly attuned to, things that could go wrong – which makes sense because if something they advocate goes south, so do their careers and maybe their lives. Papers filled with bombast about the ease of invasion and occupation, Easton says, are more likely written by unimportant, low-level political operatives.
Take the pessimistic papers the most seriously.
Although focused on what the PRC plans to do, a fascinating chapter brings attention to Taiwan’s coping mechanisms – military, economic and social. Taiwan plans the way Israel plans. Drills, reserve service, dual-use ships, planes and airports, and national mobilization drills are part of life from childhood to adulthood. But the objective is to convince the Chinese not to invade – and only secondarily to defeat invasion if necessarily. Easton quotes a Taiwanese scholar:
If China even threatens to attack Taiwan, it could greatly damage our economy. Investors will flee. That happened to us in 1996, and we haven’t forgotten it. We are now in a position to cripple Shanghai’s economy in return…an economic blockade would really hurt us too! Nonetheless, our businessmen are some of the most flexible in the world. They would move on to other markets and recover in a few years. China, on the other hand, would be devastated. The pain would be unbearable for the Communists.”
Perhaps. But the Taiwanese are also preparing military obstacles in the event of a Chinese invasion across the Straits. Much of the book focuses on scenarios for an invasion and Taiwan’s plans for stopping it.
Easton provides clear themes, clear scenarios, clear policy predictions, and clear recommendations. There is even an interesting section on weather patterns and their impact on invasion plans. He argues for an American policy based on understanding that our long-term interests in the Pacific are tied to Taiwan and democratic American allies in Asia, not to the PRC. An American failure to support Taiwan in an emergency would have an impact across a wide area of the world. He dates a change in PRC behavior toward the United States to 2007, when China “shot a ballistic missile into a target satellite in low earth orbit… which clearly demonstrated China’s intention to weaponize space and neutralize the eyes and ears of American military power in a conflict.” Further aggressive activities followed, but each was minimized or ignored in favor of positive U.S.-mainland relations.
Everything is clear in The Chinese Invasion Threat except the geography.
Americans are not familiar with the geography of Taiwan, and the lack of good maps is an enormous drawback. Although Easton talks the reader through Chinese considerations for where it might invade and how its forces might travel through the island, it is hard to envision. He writes about ports, airports and cities that are invisible. The maps that are there – 9 in 275 pages of text plus 15 pages of invasion scenarios in an appendix – are amateurish and not helpful at all.
This is not an easy book, and the average reader can skip over some of the tables and a few of the hardware descriptions – although he doesn’t go overboard on those. Do not skip the invasion scenarios at the end. Consider The Chinese Invasion Threat the kale of national security books. You know you won’t especially enjoy it, but you know you should do it, and you will be better off when you do.
Shoshana Bryen is the editor of inFOCUS and the Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center.