The world is on fire, and oh good, now it’s China’s turn to threaten war.
To recap, we already know Ukraine is on fire. Nearby, Azerbaijan launched a new offensive today to recapture its disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is populated by ethnic Armenians. Those two countries fought a war in 2020, and the cease-fire was policed by Russia, which has been happy to stoke such separatist regions to keep the entire region destabilized. Given that no one fears Russia anymore, Azerbaijan has broken the cease-fire, with Turkey eagerly cheering it on (and supplying weapons). Armenia has never forgiven Turkey’s genocide during WWI, and it fears a repeat in Nagorno-Karabakh. If you’re looking for “good guys” to root for, don’t bother with this one. It’s a whole lot of suck.
There is a brutal civil war in Ethiopia, whose people really can’t catch a break. The Tigray region is surrounded by hostile national Ethiopian troops in the south and Eritrea in the north. An estimated 500,000 have died in just about a year and a half. Elsewhere in Africa, wars rage in Mali, Nigeria, Congo, Central African Republic, and Somalia.
Eight years of civil war in Yemen, mostly a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, has killed around 150,000, with another quarter million estimated dead from famine. Iraq is having issues, Turkey is building up forces to attack Kurds in northern Syria, and the rest of Syria is a nightmare disaster. Palestine is always smoldering. Serbia and Kosovo (maybe) fired shots at each other Sunday at a restive border region before calling a 30-day truce to cool off. (The Virginia National Guard is currently in Kosovo.)
Mexico is a narco-state, the unfortunate home of five of the six most violent cities in the world. China and India are skirmishing over a border dispute. And now, China is losing its mind over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s planned visit to Taiwan—the island nation founded by the losers of China’s civil war in 1949. Official U.S. policy is to oppose “independence” for Taiwan, but that’s all semantics, as the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 requires the U.S. to hold de facto diplomatic relations and help Taiwan defend itself. An official policy of “strategic ambiguity” is designed to prevent Taiwan from aggressively pursuing official independence (thus sparking a major war), but also to deter China from making moves of its own. Somehow, it’s worked for decades.
Pelosi’s visit to the island next week threatens to upend that balancing act. Chinese state media threatened unspecified military retaliation if Pelosi lands in Taiwan:
China on Monday once again warned the United States that the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) will not sit idly by if U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visits Taiwan.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian made the warning at a daily news briefing.
China has repeatedly stated to the United States its grave concern over the issue and the solemn position of resolutely opposing Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, and stressed the severe consequences if Pelosi visits Taiwan, Zhao said.
"The will of the people cannot be defied, and those who play with fire will perish by it," Zhao said. "It is believed the U.S. side is fully aware of China's strong and clear message."
China is closely following the itinerary of Pelosi, Zhao said. "A visit to Taiwan by her would constitute a gross interference in China's internal affairs, seriously undermine China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, wantonly trample on the one-China principle, greatly threaten peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, severely undermine China-U.S. relations, and lead to a very serious situation and grave consequences."
China's Defense Ministry echoed that threat, "If the U.S. insists on taking its own course, the Chinese military will never sit idly by."
China has been building up forces opposite the Taiwan Strait, yet nowhere near in numbers necessary to attempt any invasion. Russia spent six months amassing forces for its invasion of Ukraine, and that didn’t require crossing 180 kilometers of rough seas. President Joe Biden, speaking to the Chinese leader last week, shrugged his shoulders.
He isn’t wrong. Dictatorships are often confused when other countries don’t exercise iron-fist control over their people.
An invasion of Taiwan would be costly, and there is real doubt whether China could pull it off. Its last war was in 1979 against Vietnam … and it lost. While many have speculated that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made war with Taiwan more likely, the opposite is just as plausible: Can Chinese leaders trust the reports they’ve received over the years from their military leaders? China is as corrupt as Russia, and dictatorships have zero mechanisms to expose flaws in the system. There is no independent media acting as a watchdog. There is no culture of whistleblowing. And at least Russia got to test some of its equipment against a powerless Syrian opposition. China’s leadership truly has no idea what they have in their army.
That doesn’t mean China couldn’t level Taiwan with ballistic missiles. But like with Russia, the world wouldn’t sit idly by. Europe has already announced that any hostile move toward Taiwan would be met with even harsher sanctions than those against Russia:
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted European policymakers to mull over the previously unimaginable consequences of imposing economic sanctions on the world’s second-biggest economy, should Beijing make a military move against Taiwan.
“In the event of a military invasion, we have made it very clear that the EU, with the United States and its allies, will impose similar or even greater measures than we have now taken against Russia,” the EU’s incoming ambassador to China, Jorge Toledo, said earlier this month.
Europe could afford to be more aggressive against China—it doesn’t depend on the world’s second-largest economy to heat its homes. Neutral Switzerland has already agreed to follow suit. On the other hand … China is the world’s second-largest economy. An economic war would have catastrophic global consequences.
Russia lost around 40% of its GDP as Western firms pulled out in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. China would be in a similar place, with around 40% of its GDP in its manufacturing sector—the largest in the world and heavily export-facing. China can’t afford to lose the hundreds of millions of jobs dependent on American, European, Japanese, Australian, and other aligned markets. Similarly, its service economy, which includes hotels and transportation, would be heavily impacted by the halt of foreign business travel.
Here are some numbers:
- China's GDP: $14.6 trillion (U.S.’ is $21 trillion)
- China’s exports to E.U.: $557.31 Billion (2021)
- China’s exports to U.S.: $450 billion (2020)
- China’s exports to Japan: $151 billion (2020)
- China’s exports to South Korea: $149 billion (2021)
- China’s exports to Taiwan: $82 billion (2021)
- China’s exports to Australia: $58 billion (2021)
- China’s exports to Canada: $51.5 billion (2021)
Trade alone would impact about 10% of China’s GDP, but the economic pain would dig ever deeper, such as threatening China’s access to global capital, shutting down factories (and all ancillary businesses that depend on those workers, like restaurants, package delivery, etc.), and losing access to Taiwan’s semiconductors—its biggest strategic value. No one makes as many chips as Taiwan, and China is just as dependent on them as the rest of the world for appliances, computers, phones, cars, and anything else with a brain. In fact, the semiconductor threat is so real that a United States Army War College Quarterly article argued Taiwan could potentially ward off a Chinese invasion by threatening to destroy its own chip factories.
Of course, such an economic war would absolutely devastate the entire global economy. Forget iPhones, clothes, appliances, furniture … is there anything not made in China anymore? Companies like Apple began diversifying their manufacturing hubs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic when logistical bottlenecks threatened manufacturing supply chains to an extent from which they still haven’t recovered (a major contributor to global inflation). But those efforts are still in their infancy.
If this feels a bit like nuclear weapons, it absolutely has the same “mutually assured destruction” feel to it. It’s hard to see how China’s leaders could maintain order with hundreds of millions of restless jobless Chinese workers. China got a taste of that possibility in Shanghai, where desperate residents, under strict COVID lockdowns, erupted into riots.
So is China really going to retaliate against Pelosi’s visit? The whole “PLA won’t sit idly by” rhetoric can run a whole gamut of options. One tabloid editor and state propagandist, Hu Xijin, tweeted, “If US fighter jets escort Pelosi’s plane into Taiwan, it is invasion. The PLA has the right to forcibly dispel Pelosi’s plane and the US fighter jets, including firing warning shots and making tactical movement of obstruction. If ineffective, then shoot them down.” (When Twitter pulled down the tweet for its call to violence, Hu complained about “western censorship,” which was hilarious given that Twitter is censored entirely in China.)
There is also a great deal of domestic instability in China at this time, as leader Xi Jinping seeks an unprecedented third term this fall. A great deal of this saber-rattling might simply be designed to ward off any challengers from the nationalist wing of the communist party. Some might see Pelosi’s visit as a “humiliation” of Xi, thus requiring a dramatic show of force in response. (At the same time, anything that roils China’s currently fragile economy can’t be good for Xi’s candidate, either.)
In reality, the most likely outcome is that China engages in “military exercises” off the coast of Taiwan, along with a whole lot of spittle and bluster. The USS Ronald Reagan is steaming north along with other American military assets closer to Taiwan to protect the Speaker and display its own show of force. It’s a geopolitical pissing match.
Pelosi is the highest-ranking American to visit the island since then-Speaker Newt Gingrich did so in 1997. So why is Pelosi visiting Taiwan, particularly in this time of global tension?
No clue. Given the sensitivity of the matter, the stopover isn’t on her official itinerary. And if it’s not on her official itinerary, apparently that means no one wants to talk about the trip or justify it. But perhaps I’ve missed something.
Regardless, this whole “living in history” thing we’ve had going on for the last several years has gotten old. Hopefully, no one has any real appetite for another global calamity.
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