(CNN) China could be ready to mount a ‘full-scale’ invasion of Taiwan by 2025, island’s defense minister says.
When I was a child, I had a dog, a collie-terrier mix. Her sprint resembled a greyhound’s, a talent she used with ferocious terminal strategy to depopulate the local rodents. She never caught a rabbit. Although she was faster, the combination of speed and awareness of the lagomorph could not be contested by her instinctual abilities.
The neighbors had a slow moving, short legged beagle, who consistently caught rabbits. Although the way a dog approaches prey is largely instinctual, her skill resembled a thoughtful strategy. To the human observer, she would simply walk slowly up to a rabbit that appeared paralyzed. She had some instinctual knowledge of how slowly she must move in order not to excite the flight instinct of the rabbit, a form of hypnosis.
Fables are fictitious. The above is true. It is instructive on how China might gain Taiwan without invasion. Though China may exercise the rat-catcher option, destroying Taiwan to remove the threat of an adjacent, culturally compatible democracy, other options exist.
Beagle-rabbit-hypnosis is made feasible by geographic proximity. In this scheme,
- Military display has primarily psychological purpose, as misdirection, and to weaken the will.
- Force is applied in measures below the threshold that would provoke a significant retaliation.
- Repetition habituates the adversary, raising the response threshold.
- The object is military investment of Taiwan, from which digestion can be completed by economic coercion.
In the military tactic of investment, an adversary position is surrounded, cut off, often left in the rear as the front line advances. The naval form of this, conceived in the 1921 war plan of Earl Hancock Ellis, was key to U.S. strategy in the World War II Pacific theater, where it was called leapfrogging. A century later, military strategists on both sides are preoccupied with use of this strategy, and defense from it.
If there were another island beyond Taiwan that China could leapfrog to, the danger of investment would be obvious. With China’s proximity, a virtual form is possible, a zone surrounding Taiwan in which commercial shipping is subject to coercion:
- A few ships are damaged or sunk by deniable methods more sophisticated than Iranian attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea.
- Insurance becomes unaffordable, which U.S. naval escort cannot remedy.
- China offers “escort” in return for hefty payments, which are not covered by insurance. Shipping resumes.
- In the next phase, China requires all shipping to and from Taiwan to transship through China. Initially, this is by reflagging vessels.
- Tariffs, origin and material restrictions follow, accompanied with continuing military displays. Death by a thousand cuts is a Chinese invention.
- In the darkest hour, China offers inducements.
- Taiwan’s weary electorate concedes; absorption proceeds.
- This is the theater of carrot and stick, which you are encouraged to embellish freely.
(Jamestown Foundation, 2020) Taiwan Opinion Polling on Unification with China, Figure 3, explains why this is possible. In Taiwan, unification is not a treasonous idea. Though unification has become a minority opinion, it is a significant minority:
- 32.04% under “ideal conditions”
- 20.53% if “under attack.”
As long as unification remains part of Taiwan’s schizoid political dialog , Beagle-rabbit-hypnosis is viable for China. It hampers Taiwan’s attempt to show a deterrent face. The legacy of past Kuomintang repression shows in broad detestation of the self-defense forces. Unhappy conscripts train like boy scouts, with little or no weapons training. The idea that the youth of Taiwan will pick up the gun for national survival is somewhat speculative.
Schizoid sentiment has severely impacted U.S. arms sales. Security for advanced technology is considered impossible. Multiple pilots have defected with their planes. (Militarywatchmagazine) How Taiwanese Veteran Pilots Defected to China With Their American Jets. In 1992, the U.S. declined to sell the F-15, then the world best, but was willing to risk the F-16. (USC U.S. China Institute, 1992) Bush Announces Sale of F-16 Aircraft to Taiwan.
In 2018, Taiwan requested the F-35, which was denied, so Taiwan settled for 66 more F-16s, which rank much lower in relative capability than they did 30 years ago. The F-16 may be a viable option for Pakistan fighting India. It is not viable in a conflict with China, in which the kill ratio would approach zero.
The pattern repeats: inferior soldiers, airplanes, submarines. New projects to produce indigenous fighters and submarines will result in a tier of inferior weapons. Reasonable milestones of maturation to reliable mediocrity cannot be met by 2025; it takes a decade or so. Yet this cannot be remedied by arms sales. The risk of transfer of U.S. weapons technology to China via Taiwan is real.
The leverage of Beagle-rabbit-hypnosis is additive to considerable interdependence:
If you want to replace the Taiwan electorate’s fatalism with optimism, it’s up to us to improve these figures.
This is an unpleasant sketch. Some part of Taiwan’s culture is aligned with the Western democracies, while putting bread on the table is aligned with China. Which comes first, empty bellies or empty heads?
Whether China can be deterred is an open question. In any case, U.S. strategy, focusing on military defense of Taiwan while neglecting soft power, is misaligned to the threat of the sketch. Von Clausewitz wrote, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” In recent years, the multifarious reciprocal has been observed of Russia and China:
Politics is the continuation of war by other means.