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Are we really ready to escalate to war with China over Taiwan?

Written By: - Date published: 6:47 pm, July 29th, 2021 - 38 comments
Categories: China, defence, Hong Kong, jacinda ardern, Pacific, Peace, us politics, war - Tags:

“What will the role of New Zealand be should China invade Taiwan?” was by far the  most popular question for Jacinda Ardern after she spoke at a NZIIA seminar last week. Promising to be benign, Ardern said we are “very predictable,” cited alleged human rights abuses in Hong Kong, and went on to say we will “continue to escalate and raise our voice as our concerns are heightened by activity in the region.”

The fact that the Prime Minister tried to side-step the question was not a surprise, although speaking of escalation did not seem wise in my opinion. What was a surprise is that it was already the question on the top of the minds of  conference participants as she was the first speaker and she certainly did not  mention war over Taiwan in her speech. She was followed by senior US official Kurt Campbell, the “Asia Czar” and author of Obama’s pivot to Asia. In his speech Campbell affirmed official US adherence to the one-China policy, which recognises Taiwan as part of China.

The reason appeared later in the conference, as anti-China war talk predominated in the rest of the geopolitical sessions so the question was presumably the main concern of the conference organisers NZIIA and sponsors, including the major Government departments MFAT, Defence, and DPMC. If this is an insight into their thinking then I do think we all need to be concerned.

The most egregious example of China war talk was a presentation by American think-tanker and Indopacom adviser Oriana Skylar Mastro based on an article she wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine arguing that Xi Jinping was likely to invade China within the next few years, and that the US would certainly fight back if it did so. Other speakers dwelt on the same theme. American expert Michael Swaine disagreed with Mastro.

There is no doubt that anti-China war rhetoric has escalated particularly in the United States. What is also true is that China is showing more and more signs that it will push back against this rhetoric. This was evident in last week’s meeting between US Assistant Secretary Wendy Sherman and Chinese official Xie Feng in Tianjin. And the push-back is not limited just to Party officials, as shown by reports of angry Chinese telling BBC and other journalists to piss off as they tried to report on the flooding, as they are seen as anti-China.

Rhetoric is one thing and war is another. But what recent experience from the disastrous Iraq war in 2003 tells us is that repeated demonisation of the designated opponent in the Western media is often a prelude to war. War over Taiwan is indeed possible, but in my opinion only if China is provoked by the US moving to a two China policy.

And war between China and the US would rapidly turn nuclear. Japan has recently announced it would defend Taiwan, and Biden has told Japan it would defend it with all the powers at its disposal, ”including nuclear.” Nuclear war means nuclear winter which means we are all dead.

Which is why any talk of escalation, even if it is only about words, is very unwise in my opinion. Words matter and it is high time to dial down the rhetoric, to talk about peace not war, and co-operation not conflict.

There is another reason to be careful about what we say. Diplomatic language is rapidly disappearing on all sides, and New Zealand may find that China re-evaluates its so-called ‘mature relationship’ and we see some of the economic consequences that Australia has faced. And we don’t produce iron ore.

It is also crucial that we do not do not follow Australia, the UK and NATO in getting involved in any of the more aggressive actions the US is proposing for its allies as Admiral Stavridis notes:

… “the battle” between Washington and Beijing “may come much sooner. US allies play a central role and the USA is deliberately involving them in “more aggressive” operations, for example, in the South China Sea.

The Prime Minister was also asked if New Zealand would work more closely with the “Quad,” the alliance between the US, India, Australia and Japan to contain China. It has not yet developed into a southern NATO but that is where it is heading. Her answer was that it was “one of the areas we have flagged.”

We all need to  know a lot more about what is planned. It could get serious.

38 comments on “Are we really ready to escalate to war with China over Taiwan? ”

  1. Michael 1

    We'll be on the sidelines when China invades Taiwan (one American expert puts the chances at 50:50 within the current decade). We don't have any military capability thanks to decades of neglect by successive governments (same old story). China won't stop at Taiwan either. Already it is projecting tis miltary power far into the Pacific, including extensive efforts to shape the battlefield in Melansia and develop facilities in Polynesia. We haven't seen anything like this since Japan was on the rampage in 1942. The best thing we can do is rebuild our defence so we can collectively deter and deflect China, together with our Allies. Forget all the "neutrality" bollocks. Beijing classifies us as part of the US alliance. It seeks to detach us, of course, but we should be under no illusion as to our treatment if it prevails in the Great Power struggle now underway.

    • Morrissey 1.1

      … one American expert puts the chances at 50:50 within the current decade.

      Who was that "American expert"?

    • DS 1.2

      Beijing sees us as its source of dairy produce (just as Australia is its source of coal), and the USA as its destination for manufactured-exports.

      The regime is nasty, not stupid, and has zero interest in provoking something when the status quo trends in its favour.

  2. Stuart Munro 2

    It's an interesting prospect, and perhaps more interesting still that Japan seems poised to gain status among smaller Asian states by offering to defend them. But considering the question in isolation of why China might 'need' to invade or occupy Taiwan necessarily attributes belligerence to western forces who, judging by the enthusiasm with which they evade such questions, does not entirely reflect their stance.

    If the rattling of sabres suffices to keep Xi within his borders – rattle them. Shame it doesn't work on Putin.

  3. Thanks for this timely update of the widely held British opinion ca 1939: "Are we really ready to escalate to war with Germany over Poland?" Worth keeping in mind that the correct answer was "Yes, we are."

    • Subliminal 3.1

      The continual need to compare China to Hitlers Germany seems a little infantile, No one had nuclear weapons then,. It is not possible for the West to win a war in support of Taiwanese independence without the use of nuclear weapons. The reason for this is very simple

      (T)he mainland’s ability to coerce Taiwan was long limited by its own military incapacities, a convincing American deterrent capability, and Taiwan’s readiness to mount effective resistance to invasion and occupation. But, beginning in 1995, escalating assertions of an identity separate from China by Taiwan’s leaders and sympathetic endorsement of such aspirations by American politicians kicked off a major program of modernization by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aimed at being able to conquer the island over American military opposition.

      The PLA, according to some U.S. military and intelligence experts, could now destroy Taiwan at will and take it in as little as three days. Retaking the island – if that were possible – would take many tens of thousands of U.S. casualties. It would also require air and missile strikes on the Chinese homeland that would justify counterstrikes on ours. If U.S. recovery of Taiwan were successful, the mainland would just bide its time, rebuild its strength, and try again. As was true of Hanoi, Beijing is a determinedly nationalist opponent that enjoys the balance of fervor in its struggle to end the American-backed division of its country. (Bold mine)

      In short, this would be a war between two nuclear super powers conducted on the territory of one of them. It is inconcievable that the one would allow the other to escape a similar level of pain when there can be no doubt that it has the ability to do so. There are no proxies or third countries. Therefore escalation is a certainty.

      • Psycho Milt 3.1.1

        You do know that Britain declaring war on Germany over Poland ended up costing millions of lives, right?

        • Subliminal

          It would be more precise to say tens of millions with the true cost closer to one hundred million or are you just trying to minimise the lives lost? I repeat that your attempt to compare China to Nazi Germany is infantile in the same way that WMD, babies tipped from incubators and Libyan soldiers on viagra was infantile.

          • RedLogix

            Your attempt to parse the term "millions of lives" as 'minimising' isn't going to work. Everyone who knows the historic record is aware of the accepted number – which is around 65-80m depending on the method used to evaluate it. In order for any conversation to proceed it's necessary for the speaker to assume some common understandings – and in this context everyone here knew exactly what PM was saying – I did, you did and everyone else who read that comment.

            And as far as I'm concerned the parallels with Nazi Germany are becoming more chilling with every year that Xi Xinping remains in power. One party state – tick. Totalitarian "President for Life" – tick. Uber jingoistic foreign policy – tick. Feverish military build up – tick. Aggressive expansion of territorial claims – tick. Willing to use said military forces to bully neighbouring countries into submission – tick. Scapegoated minorities in 'work camps' – tick. Tight control of the public discourse and suppression of dissent – tick. Fondness for massive public rallies and military parades – a whole flock of fucking ticks.

            All that's missing are the sieg-heil salutes and the moustache.

            • Subliminal

              Well I for one dont live in memory of WW2 and had to look it up.

              Obviously if you can convince enough people that the propaganda equating Xi Xinping with Hitler is true, you will get your war on China since Hitler is the benchmark for wars of agression.

              However, many people are aware that the real danger posed by China is that it exposes the eighties lie of Thatcher and China shows that there is actually an alternative to being on your knees to the 0.1% and that through big government the parasite rentier and speculative class can be sufficiently strangled to allow the productive forces of a nation to be unleashed to the extent that housing is affordable, health care is free and education is avalable to all free of charge. It is inconcievable that the parasitic nature of the US and Western neoliberal economies (NZ included) could compete with a nation that continually purges any attempt to concentrate financial parasites. The conservative neoliberal US is running out of time. All they have left is a military that is also fast decaying. Even Jeffrey Sachs has come to see that cooperation with China would be a far more productive path

            • DS

              The comparison is Kaiser Bill, not Adolf, and re-running 1914 because you think it is 1939 would be… unwise.

  4. Andre 4

    There's a notable absence in the OP of any consideration of what the people of Taiwan themselves want. Since the right to self-determination is a strong fundamental human right, supporting what the people of Taiwan want should be a very strong factor in our responses.

    What the Taiwanese want is a very complex issue with lots of nuance, but something a huge majority of Taiwanese agree on is they do not want to be ruled from Beijing. And we should do what we can to support that if Beijing tries to impose their might and will on an unwilling Taiwan.

    To way oversimplify what I kinda picked up on my trips there in the 90s, there's a segment of Taiwanese that want to formalise independence and gain full recognised status as a sovereign nation.This segment skews younger and is increasing.

    There's a segment that accepts the status quo as the best answer for now and don't want to rock the boat. But if push comes to shove, they too would strongly oppose re-unification with mainland China.

    There's a segment of mostly older reactionary Kuomintang types that still fantasise they are the rightful ruling class of mainland China, who are currently under the rule of illegitimate rebels. Nominally they support re-unification under the fantasy that they would be in charge. Obviously re-unification with mainland China under CCP terms is unacceptable to them.

    • Mark 4.1

      "huge majority of Taiwanese agree on is they do not want to be ruled from Beijing. "

      You miss the point. Its not about being ruled from Beijing. The PRC wants the status quo in which the Taiwanese continue seeing themselves as part of China, as they currently still do.

      "There's a notable absence in the OP of any consideration of what the people of Taiwan themselves want"

      So if Northland wants to break away from NZ, is that a matter of Northlanders only, or all New Zealanders?

      • RedLogix 4.1.1

        Northland has not been an independent, self-governing nation for the past 72 years. Nor did the people of Northland flee to that place to escape a mass-murdering marxist who led the once great nation of China into one catastrophe after another.

        Taiwan is the country the whole of China could have and should have been if it were not for the endless cultural desecrations of the Maoists. It would be better to say that China is a part of Taiwan …

      • Andre 4.1.2

        So if Beijing don't make any moves to break the status quo, there won't be a problem.

        But Beijing's moves to break the status quo in a bunch of other places such as the South China Sea, suggest the world should be ready for Beijing breaking the status quo with respect to Taiwan.

        And if that happens, as far as I'm concerned we should be strongly on the Taiwanese side.

      • alwyn 4.1.3

        " the Taiwanese continue seeing themselves as part of China, as they currently still do.".

        This appears to be a thing of the past. Thirty years ago it may have been true but, at least according to material published in The Economist, that is no longer the case.

        " In 2020 a poll by the Pew Research Centre, a Washington-based research outfit, found that about two-thirds of adults on the island now identified as purely Taiwanese. About three in ten called themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese. Just 4% called themselves simply Chinese."

        That was in the 29/04/2021 edition. I can't give you a direct link as the magazine is subscription only.

  5. Sanctuary 5

    For anyone with eyes to see it is obvious that China plans to confront the United States, in a shooting war if necessary, over Taiwan within the next decade. If we, a free, peace loving and democratic island nation value the right of 23 million Taiwanese – a free, peace loving and deomcratic island nation – to self determination and democracy then we must stand alongside them if China attacks. We will have no other choice, although choice is probably an illusion anyway. The idea we would could stand aloof while Taiwan, Australia, the United States, Japan and probably Canada, the Philippines, and Singapore fought China in a existential naval struggle is a nonsense. Public opinion would almost certainly strongly favour war alongside our traditional allies.

    This interesting article: https://chinapower.csis.org/china-naval-modernization/

    underlines the size of the Chinese naval build up and the size of the naval arms race going on in the North Pacific right now. The top five shipbuilding nations by tonnage of construction are currently (in order) China, South Korea, Japan, Philippines and Vietnam. The Japanese just this month – https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/07/06/national/taro-aso-taiwan-defense/ -pledged to defend Taiwan which is I believe the first time Japan has committed to defend another country proactively since before WW2, and the Japanese Navy is a large and powerful force.

    The arms build up isn't limited to North Asia – Australia is planning for a fleet of a dozen large fleet attack submarines, along with the F-35 fighter, the latest in US airpower.

    The time has come for NZ to begin to modestly re-arm, a five frigate navy plus 2-4 submarines, re-establish a strike wing and beef up the P-8 force would be a good, but as always with military equipment, jaw droppingly expensive start.

    • Stan 5.1

      Agreed. And if Taiwan (peace-loving island nation) falls, only a matter of time before China moves on the rest of the Pacific, including NZ. If their treatment of minorities is anything to go by, they won't show much pity for anybody non-Han.

      • Mark 5.1.1

        Both mainland Chinese and Taiwanese see themselves as part of China. This is an internal family dispute. China has no interests in the rest of the Pacific aside from trade and economic cooperation.

        • Andre

          If a family takes away the freedoms of a functioning adult member of that family, and forces them into things against their will, then I've got a problem with that.

          As it happens, most countries also have problems with that, and have laws to protect against it.

          So the 'family dispute' analogy still suggests we should be strongly on the side of the Taiwanese, should Beijing attempt to break the status quo.

          • SPC

            Why not the protesters of Tiananmen Square – because that was part of the one China's internal affairs?

            The UN provides for the collective security of nation states – but Taiwan is not recognised as being a nation state, nor as being outside of China.

            • Andre

              Not really interested in playing the whataboutery game for a completely different situation from over thirty years ago.

        • alwyn

          "Taiwanese see themselves as part of China"

          Not true any longer, apparently. See the quote in my comment at 4.1.3

    • Peter 1 5.2

      As far as I,am concerned Taiwan is part of China and I do not want my children fighting in a war that does not concern us, if you fee different send your kids not mine.

      • Ad 5.2.1

        It's government policy across the entire world bar 6 countries that Taiwan is a part of China.

        • Andre

          It's a legal fiction across the entire world bar a few countries, that the rest of the world goes along with with a hidden eye-roll in order to try to maintain polite relations.

          Hopefully that legal fiction never gets strength tested by Beijing trying to make it reality.

    • SPC 5.3

      A military build up, to prepare for war, leads to war.

  6. Ad 6

    Ardern will wring her hands on the news like it's a liberal virtue, then make an offer to take in a few hundred wealthy Taiwanese refugees, then weep a little tear for the camera to make sure MSNBC knows she's on the side of the gods.

    Even if there's a UN resolution to defend Taiwan, Ardern will make the excuse that the second Gulf War UN resolution was based on lies, and that neither our efforts in Iraq nor Afghanistan have on balance done much good (all generally defensible arguments for a quietist). She'll bring her baby to the UN again to make sure no one can criticise her – because she's a mother.

    That will of course align us with Xi Jinping and outrage both Australia and the United States.

    We will claim effective neutrality, like it's worked for every country around China. On her current record failing to defend Hong Kong or Laos or Myanmar or any other democracy China has undercut to death, Ardern will continue that neat trick of looking liberal and empathic and wan, but not defend actual democracy and not actually having any spine at all.

    • Drowsy M. Kram 6.1

      Ardern will wring her hands… weep a little tear…

      She’ll bring her baby to the UN again to make sure no one can criticise her – because she’s a mother.

      …not actually having any spine at all.


    • Mark 6.2

      "Even if there's a UN resolution to defend Taiwan"


      The West can't even muster up a resolution when it comes to Xinjiang

      I simply can't see any New Zealander with a modicum of common sense wanting to place their sons, and daughters, in harms way for someone else's family dispute.

  7. Mark 7

    The fact that both the Taiwanese and the mainland Chinese agree they are part of China, and the fact that almost every country in the world, including NZ, recognizes the 'one China' policy tells us anything that happens between mainland China and Taiwan is an internal affair of the Chinese people.

    Any New Zealander who advocates New Zealand getting involved in a someone elses family dispute that has manifestly nothing to do with New Zealand, historically or currently, 10,000 km away, and sacrificing NZ lives for the cause of US empire, should be considered a traitor acting in a way totally contrary to the well being of New Zealand.

    • Drowsy M. Kram 7.1

      Any New Zealander who advocates New Zealand getting involved in a someone elses family dispute that has manifestly nothing to do with New Zealand, historically or currently, 10,000 km away, and sacrificing NZ lives for the cause of US empire, should be considered a traitor acting in a way totally contrary to the well being of New Zealand.

      Revealing opinion. My response, as a Kiwi, is to formally advocate for the continuation of Taiwanese democracy – hope that free speech won't be contrary to my ‘well being’.

      One way to apparently respect the wishes of ~24 million Taiwanese, while ensuring Taiwanese democracy is dismantled, is for the CCP to extend the "One country, two systems" principle (wink wink) to Taiwan. It's a matter of trust – ask the Myanmarese.

      • alwyn 7.1.1

        "ask the Myanmarese."

        Please tell me you meant the people of Hong Kong? I would hate to think that China was involved in occupying Myanmar.

        • Drowsy M. Kram

          Much like the dismantling of (true?) democracy in Hong Kong, Myanmar was offered as an example of a country (which shares a border with China) where democracy has recently been dismantled.

          I believe that China has some influence over what happens in Myanmar, and an interest in dismantling Taiwanese democracy, but those are just my reckons which could well be wrong.

  8. SPC 8

    It all depends on who you mean by "we"?

    For New Zealand the short answer is, no.

    I would add, war (with China by others) is unlikely. Military confrontation entirely possible – but neither China, or those others, would want to escalate that to war.

    Taiwan wants continued self government within the one China. This is all the USA is supporting (by opposing any China mainland use of force). That Japan has said it would assist Taiwan (more able to than the US and the US would aid Japan) stiffens the deterrent.

    The Chinese mainland is asserting its one China territorial rights air and sea, over and around Taiwan.

    A student of history would note the Soviet American relationship for cues to the dynamic (American missiles in Turkey removed as part of the Russian retreat from Cuba)

    By building unsinkable aircraft carriers in the South China Sea China is threatening the territorial sovereignty of others and sea lanes … as leverage over Taiwan (seeking the end of American arms sales to Taiwan and Taiwanese acceptance of one China mainland supremacy over defence and foreign policy).

    • RedLogix 8.1

      Taiwan wants continued self government within the one China.

      As with Australia and New Zealand, China and Taiwan share a common heritage and deep cultural commonality. There is even merit in the idea that the political ties between the two close neighbours could be repaired and rebuilt into a functioning, common federation.

      But until that day is possible – Xi Xinping's openly expressed intention to absorb Taiwan by force (heavily underlined by constant military greyzone threats in the past few years) is as equally unacceptable as Scott Morrison insisting that NZ was "always a member of the Australian Federation and must be reunited at all costs". And then parking a frigate or two just off our shoreline to emphasise the point.

      • aom 8.1.1

        For twenty years, there has been an understanding that has diminished the likelihood of China and Taiwan engaging in armed conflict. What has changed?

        Seemingly China is supposed to take no notice of the fact that under the Biden Presidency, the US Navy have had the job of sticking it to the mainland with the brazen provocation of at least seven 'freedom of navigation' exercises through the Taiwan Strait already this year. It is probably also worth noting that Taiwan has purchased over $5 billion in arms from the US – no doubt with a bit of arm up the back leverage. It seems the Eagle hasn't got the message, "Don't wake the sleeping dragon."

        As for those that think NZ should take sides, hope you are up to massive taxation increases to fund extensive re-armament and have plenty of kids to send as gun-fodder. Also, don't forget, our 'me too' militarism has never served us well when tagging along behind the US.

  9. aj 9

    After the Trade War, a Real War with China?

    Remarks to the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs 2019


    Below, some excerpts of a speech by Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.) | Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University.

    It's worth reading the entire article, and remember the Chinese are patient and understand that economic power, like gravity, is an attractive force that can be attenuated by distance but that cannot repel. Like Europeans, they see economic measures as usually best employed to link peoples rather than to punish them. Economic issues ultimately will resolve China’s Taiwan conundrum. Peacefully, I hope, for myself, my children, and their children. New Zealand must steer a very careful path here. When elephants dance, the grass gets trampled.

    Already about one-fourth of the world’s STEM workers are Chinese. This Chinese intellectual workforce is eight times larger than ours and growing six times as fast. By 2025, China is expected to have more technologically skilled workers than all members of the OECD combined. (The OECD is not a trivial grouping. It consists of the world’s most advanced economies: the United States, Canada and Mexico, all non-Russian-speaking Europe, Australia, Israel, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Turkey.) By severing ties with the Chinese, we Americans are isolating ourselves from the largest population of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in the world.

    Chinese on the mainland see their country’s continued division as an artifact of U.S. policy. While they have pledged to try to resolve their differences with Taiwan peacefully, they remain determined to erase the humiliation that the continued foreign-supported separation of Taiwan from the rest of China represents. War is not imminent, but it is an ever-present danger, with the potential to produce a nuclear exchange between China and the United States.

    A Sino-American war over Taiwan could quickly escalate to the nuclear level. China has a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons but it could deliver a devastating counterstrike on the U.S. homeland if we attacked it. There is very little substantive contact between the U.S. and Chinese militaries, and there are no mechanisms for escalation control in place. It is not clear how either side could fend off domestic pressures for escalation if we come to blows, as we may. Instead of exploring means of establishing and managing a strategic balance with China, we are withdrawing from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in part to enable us to deploy nuclear weapons closer to China.

    China is fully integrated into the global economy. George Kennan’s grand strategy of containment was based on the correct judgment that, if isolated for long enough, the defects in the autarkic Soviet system would cause it to fail. China cannot be isolated, and its economy is currently outperforming ours.

    Our competition with China is primarily economic. It will not be decided by who has the more appealing ideology, the most aircraft carriers, or the greatest stash of nuclear weapons, but by who delivers the best economic performance and by which country’s statecraft is soundest.

    An across-the-board assault on China of the sort we have just mounted is not only likely to fail, it entails risks we have not adequately considered. These risks include armed combat with a nuclear power. And China is getting relatively stronger, not weaker, even as our inept handling of foreign affairs increasingly marginalizes the United States in areas of human endeavor we have traditionally dominated.

    We have given inadequate thought to how to leverage China’s rise to our advantage. Trying to tear China down will not succeed. Neither will it cure our self-induced debilitation as a nation.

    We have launched a comprehensive competition with China for which we are not ready. We cannot afford to learn this the hard way. Whatever we do about China, we have to get our act together and do it now.

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