The ominous drumbeat around Taiwan grows louder with every passing month.
China clearly covets Taiwan, having long made reunification the cornerstone of its foreign policy. Beijing has also grown more and more confident in its ability to take the island by force. Yet Taiwan is an increasingly distinct society that largely no longer sees itself as Chinese, and China's bellicosity has only bolstered the determination of the Taiwanese to stay out of China's clutches.
America, meanwhile, is ever more concerned with Chinese power, and is in the process of reorienting its foreign policy more thoroughly around deterring and punishing Chinese aggression. Taiwan is by far China's most-likely target, and therefore America has edged closer than ever to an explicit commitment to defend the island. No wonder some see prosperous, peaceful Taiwan as the most dangerous place on Earth.
War over Taiwan would be catastrophic on multiple levels, regardless of the outcome, so both sides undoubtedly hope to convince the other to back down rather than face the prospect of terrible loss. But games of chicken are precisely how wars frequently start; deterrence is far more likely to work when it's fairly clear that the balance favors one side and not the other. So who is right? If war did erupt across the Taiwan Strait, who is more likely to prevail?
The uncomfortable answer is that it's quite possible everyone would lose. Not only could China and America both suffer losses that would in retrospect make war an irrational choice, but both sides could also well fail to achieve their most important objectives that led them to war in the first place.
Let's consider the Chinese side first. China's overwhelming objective is to reunify Taiwan with the mainland. This has been a linch-pin of Chinese foreign policy for decades, and has become central to the increasingly nationalist ideology that legitimates the Chinese Communist Party's rule. Moreover, Chinese President Xi Jinping himself clearly sees reunification as a key part of his intended legacy; even if achieved by force, bringing Taiwan into the fold would definitively establish the arrival of the Chinese century. Yet an invasion would be very risky. Failure could lead to a catastrophic collapse in the regime's credibility at home, the worst nightmare of the party's leadership.
And failure is very possible, notwithstanding China's vast military bulk and increasingly sophisticated armaments. A successful invasion would require an amphibious assault across treacherous waters — difficult for any military to achieve, and something well beyond anything the People's Liberation Army has undertaken in the past. It would be relatively easy to spot in advance — and therefore to attack, from the sea, land, or air. Once across, an invading force would have to conquer the island and hold it — not a straightforward proposition if the Taiwanese are determined to resist — with any resupply facing many of the same obstacles as the initial invasion did. The balance has unquestionably shifted in China's favor, but an invasion is still an exceedingly dicey proposition.
For all these reasons, China's longtime strategy has been to try to coerce and/or entice Taiwan into accepting the mainland's embrace rather than seriously entertain a frontal assault. But Taiwan's increasingly independent frame of mind coupled with China's increasingly repressive behavior at home (specifically the crushing of Hong Kong) have taken enticement largely off the table. Coercion short of invasion, meanwhile — attacks on Taiwanese military assets followed by a blockade, say — would likely bring China into direct conflict with America without any assurance of taking the island.
That, you would think, would be an outcome China strenuously wants to avoid — but perhaps not. China may well believe that America has far more to lose from such a conflict than China does. And they may well right.
The United States has gotten used to overwhelming dominance of the battlefield in our conflicts with other countries. We have by far the world's most advanced military, generally have complete control of the air and outer space, and we use the incredible scope of our awareness to limit our own exposure while precisely targeting our opponents. These advantages have often proved insufficient against relatively low-tech insurgencies, but they have been more than adequate in any conflict with a conventional opponent.
But China has invested heavily in weaponry specifically designed to target America's own advantages. If our aircraft carriers, bases, and satellites were attacked and destroyed in a conflict with China, the United States would be revealed as far more vulnerable militarily than we project ourselves to be. Nor could we restore our reputation by a tit-for-tat retaliation; America has far more to lose reputationally-speaking. Escalation, meanwhile, would risk a much more devastating scale of conflict — even, given China's and America's strategic nuclear arsenals, the possibility of the ultimate catastrophe. If America goes to war with China over Taiwan, we'd be fighting primarily to preserve our position as the security guarantor in Asia and as the preeminent military power on the planet. But those are precisely the assets we are at real risk of losing in a fight with China, even if the outcome of battle is equivocal.
Both conflicts, in other words, are essentially asymmetric. Though Taiwan is smaller and weaker, China is actually more vulnerable in a conflict with Taiwan because they need total victory to achieve their war aims, and would suffer grave political peril if victory were not achieved. America, on the other hand, has far greater force-projection ability than China does, but we are ultimately more vulnerable in a conflict with China because battlefield losses would do far more damage to America's position and reputation than they would to China's. Indeed, bloodying America could well be viewed as having such political benefit to the Chinese leadership that it could offset a failure to actually coerce Taiwan into accepting Chinese rule, which means China might well rather fight a battle with the American navy than with the Taiwanese army.
The best way to deter China on Taiwan, then, is for Taiwan to demonstrate its own robust commitment to asymmetric defense, something they have begun to do, and that America can assist with. If Washington grew confident that Taiwan could defend itself, it could position itself more distantly and hope to avoid direct conflict even if China were foolish enough to use force. But that process could take several years. The question is what to do to avoid war in the meantime.
And therein lies the paradox. A greater commitment by America to the island's defense could well increase rather than decrease the likelihood of war, both because it would bring American assets more regularly into the zone of potential conflict and because China might actually welcome opportunities to show its power and resolve, and thereby intimidate Taiwan, without having to launch an invasion. But backing away from such commitments in any official way would rationally be read by China as signs of weakness to be exploited. And while China might view time as being on its side, given the rapid growth in their military capabilities, a reinvigorated Taiwanese commitment to self-defense might well alter Beijing's view — particularly if, as is likely, it was accompanied by more gestures toward outright independence.
It's an exceedingly difficult problem, and it's going to make for a very tense few years even if it we do manage to avoid war. But if it were easy to get out of, it wouldn't be called the Thucydides "Trap".