It is often said, in one way or another, that there might be a war, and soon, between the US and China. Countless news articles take the possibility as their premise; books soar to the top of bestseller lists. It is universally acknowledged that this is the chief foreign policy question of the near future. But how likely is war?
Any answer should be tempered by doubt. Some important variables are by nature unknowable. Others are obfuscated by China, Taiwan, or the US. But there are also simple, structural facts that can be observed without access to state secrets and add their weight to either side of the balance. I want to address three of these variables here, each of which I think is commonly misunderstood, and each of which, if weighed correctly, tilts the balance in favor of war.
The Nuclear Question
Let’s start with the big one: nuclear weapons.
China and US cannot possibly go to war, the argument goes, for the same reason that the US and the USSR never did. They are nuclear superpowers. It would mean the end of the world. They know that.
And yet, neither side in the China-US rivalry seems particularly anxious about the nuclear balance, as the US and the USSR were during the Cold War, especially in the fifties and early sixties. In the US there is plenty of preparation for war—and very little talk of nuclear. There is some awareness of the nuclear possibility in the writings of military strategists or the accounts of war games at Washington think tanks, but the overwhelming focus is on conventional war. It is a remarkable difference from how we talk about, say, North Korea. There we talk of little else than nukes. Here we barely talk about them.
So what changed? Are nukes less likely to be used? Are we less risk-averse than we used to be? A bit of both, it seems. In preparation for this piece, I interviewed several military strategists, and in the course of my conversation with one of them, there was this telling moment. I had asked him why the present was not like the Cold War, and he began his reply: “Well, the Russians had a very large nuclear arsenal, whereas China has—had, until recently, a very small one.” He knew perfectly well as an intellectual matter that China has more than doubled its nuclear stockpile in the last five years to over 400 warheads and is expected to reach 1,000 by 2030. He had seen the numbers dozens of times. But they had not sunk in emotionally.
This is not to say that a greater number of nuclear weapons necessarily means a more effective deterrence. There is always a psychological element to deterrence. Nuclear weapons are terrible and scary things. It is hard to believe that anyone would use them. Europe thus faced a kind of paradox during the Cold War, at least during its earlier stages, where if the Allies built up their conventional capabilities too much to correct against the large Soviet conventional advantage, the threat that they would resort to nuclear weapons against the Soviets might lose its credibility. It was not only that they were less certain to use the nuclear option, but that they would only use it further in the future, after conventional fighting. This is one of the forces at play over Taiwan. There is no affirmative reason to use nuclear weapons until the conventional battles, in which neither side is unambiguously favored to win, take place.
This ambiguity also helps differentiate the Taiwan scenario from the Russo-Ukrainian war. Though Russian nuclear threats are not all that deterred NATO intervention, they were nonetheless more believable than Chinese threats would be. In a conventional war between NATO and Russia, NATO would be heavily favored to win. Russian desperation is almost taken for granted. Whereas China can always resort to a relatively low-cost, difficult-to-counter, and still punishing blockade around Taiwan, even after an invasion attempt or a more comprehensive blockade has failed. Needless to say, the US will not go nuclear first, even if it is about to lose.
Still more importantly, the geography of Taiwan and China is very different from that of Ukraine and Russia. There is no threat that the US will seize territory on mainland China and subject Chinese citizens to American occupation. Even should they want to, American forces would have to accomplish precisely the extraordinary amphibious operation that makes a Chinese invasion of Taiwan so difficult in the first place, and that against a much more powerful enemy. By contrast, seizing Russian territory from Russian hands is not much harder on principle than seizing Ukrainian territory from Russian hands. You just keep moving across the plain toward Moscow. To be thwarted in a difficult overseas expedition, with no threat of losing sovereignty over your own territory, even if your ports and airbases or even (as in World War II) cities are bombarded, is one thing; to be threatened with a counter-invasion is another. It produces a wholly different quality of desperation.
Finally, states do not interact in a vacuum of history. Recent and even somewhat distant events set the priorities of decision-makers, change their assessments of risk, and color their opinion of their adversaries and their predictions about how their adversaries will act. In this, the US and China enter “Cold War II,” as it has been called by some, very differently from how NATO and the USSR entered “Cold War I.” We are not fresh from an apocalyptic world war. We are not as desperate to avoid a new one. We have not seen the conditions that drive people to invent and use nuclear weapons. China has not extended its borders an inch for every mile that the Soviet Union annexed during that horrible, and non-nuclear, western conflict, or in the years afterward, when its ambition to expand seemed all the more ruthless, coming at the price of a reconstruction as sorely needed in the Soviet Union as in Germany or France.
No doubt the Russian threats of last year deterred us in part because this history continues to define us in their eyes, and them in ours. The ideological battle is over, but we have been unable to make friends with the Russians. That window opened only for a brief period before closing again in mutual suspicion. And in fact, our relationship with them, and our idea of them as a nation, has continuities stretching through the Soviet period into the distant past. Great Britain struggled against Russia for a hundred years before the United States and the United Kingdom did. The callousness toward human life was already our complaint against the tsar. The great Khan of the Soviet Union was a gangster. We do not have much trouble imagining aggressive, militaristic, paranoid, reckless Russians. We can imagine Russians firing nuclear weapons.
But the Chinese? Perhaps we underestimate them as Russia did Japan. Perhaps we draw conclusions, more or less consciously, from the “Century of Humiliations.” Certainly, the China that we’ve known most recently has been a friendly China. They came over to our side against the Soviets. We became business partners. We helped them out of poverty. Their entrepreneurial energy spilled over into all corners of the world. But we do not consider the Chinese—certainly not the Han Chinese, in whose name this new revisionism is being pursued—militaristic, as we consider the Russians, or for that matter, the Mongols who conquered and reconquered the Han throughout history. It has been more than forty years since they fought a war. Would they really start again with nukes?
Blockade and Aid
But even if China does try to force reunification, it is argued—and this is my second “misunderstanding”—China will likely choose a less aggressive means of doing so: blockade. The problem with this argument is not that it is unlikely that China will impose a blockade, or that a blockade is “technically” an act of war, but that there is a large chance that a blockade will simply trigger war.
The American interest here is in negating any coercive force China exercises over Taiwan, not in allowing that coercion to proceed so long as it does not take a specific form (e.g. the firing of bullets). Should a Chinese long-term strategy of coercion-by-blockade manage to make Taiwan forfeit its sovereignty without a drop of blood being spilled, just about the same number of chips will have been transferred from America to China on the International Poker Table. This means that the US is likely to defy—to force China to enforce—any type of blockade, from the less invasive (China will henceforth search any ships it wants for alleged deliveries of prohibited weapons systems to Taiwan) to the total (nothing can enter Taiwan). Enforcement will always require violence.
Importantly, some of the factors that contribute to the American interest in Taiwan do not depend on the disposition of the Taiwanese people. Some of these are military. Taiwan sits on the edge of the continental shelf that protrudes from mainland China. Occupying this barrier between shallow waters and deep sea would greatly increase the effectiveness of Chinese submarines and surveillance capabilities throughout the region. It could facilitate the blockade of Japan and Korea and alter the nuclear balance between the US and China. But even political causes of interest are not entirely dependent on the democratic will of the Taiwanese. The totally free decision of Taiwan to reunify with China would still be a blow to US power, US alliances, and the American ideological argument. More realistically, the always-fraught persuasion-coercion continuum, and the necessary role of information warfare in any crisis (it is already ongoing for that matter), would make the estimation of “the will of the Taiwanese people” uncertain, heighten the impact of US actions thereon, and provide cover for the exaggeration of Taiwanese support for the policies the US chooses. The Americans could sign themselves and the Taiwanese up for war, more out of fear of abandoning a genuinely independent nation than out of the mercenary enlistment of a nation that was unwilling, only to discover later on that they had made a mistake.
Nor can the crisis of a blockade be defused as it was in the Cold War, if we accept my first point made above. The Berlin Airlift succeeded because the Soviets did not dare shoot down Allied planes flying through West Germany. Nuclear war was too certain and close. No such nuclear insurance will lie behind American and allied planes flying supplies into Taiwan. The planes will be shot out of the sky.
Finally—and this is my third argument as to why the war is more likely than it seems—there is no real way to support Taiwan without sending Americans into the fight. Again, Taiwan is an island, without a Poland nearby through which to ferry arms. China will, of course, forcibly prevent American planes and ships from delivering weapons once hostilities have begun. Nor is it plausible for the US to deliver the kinds and number of weapons that will make a difference, before the onset of fighting. It would require an extraordinary feat of industrial production, taken up entirely prospectively and carried out over years. Still, many weapons would prove obsolete as China adopted countermeasures in the course of fighting. Some, like planes, would be destroyed or rendered useless quickly and in large numbers, if kept so close to the mainland. The rest would need to last longer than the Chinese will to fight, augmented only by what Taiwan can produce at home.
The Water’s Edge
What this means for American politics, is already being demonstrated. It has been noted that Biden is hated less passionately than Obama—and much less passionately than Trump. Some, I will not venture to say how much, of this is surely the effect of the war in Ukraine. When a foreign policy threat looms large enough, Americans unite. There are always naysayers, but they are obviously, in this case, politically powerless. The leftist pacifists do not vote. The right-wing elements that oppose aid to Ukraine are overwhelmingly not friends of Russia, but rather still more bitter enemies of China.
But the distance between the parties even on that point is not wide. True, there was an intense backlash to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it was short-lived. It will play at most a very minor role in the next election. This is because Americans of both parties generally agree with the fundamental strategic logic behind the withdrawal: there was little good that we could do there, and we must pivot further East. On China, Biden has continued the Trump policy, because it was a good policy. That his administration has strengthened our cooperation with the various states that seek to contain China, may be partly due to the fact that Biden is less suspicious of our allies than Trump, but it is mainly the consequence of the war in Ukraine shocking everyone into action. It is true that that war may distract us from, or otherwise impede, the greater contest in Asia, but until now, it has actually accelerated the forging of alliances, the reorientation of institutions, and the political and material preparation for military conflict with China. It is costing us less year by year than we were spending on Afghanistan. It has been more costly in certain ways—the depletion of some weapons stocks that could be used in Taiwan (Javelins), and that we cannot refill at the snap of a finger—but it has been more valuable too, as it is a war between evenly matched foes.
It is in this sense as much as any other that the Cold War is back. We have passed the peak of polarization as a force in our politics. We have passed peak woke. Wokeness is nothing so much as it is a kind of self-involvement, an ignorance of how much worse things can be, of how, actually, to keep things as good as they are itself involves a struggle. We are being drawn out of the self-absorption that is native to all great states, because of the great many things that go on within their borders.
For the time being, the constitutional crisis has passed.