January 5, 2023 | Foreign Policy

Don’t Fight the Last War

January 5, 2023 | Foreign Policy

Don’t Fight the Last War

Politicians, like generals, have a tendency to fight the last war. But Chinese leader Xi Jinping likely understands that he cannot wage a future conflict over Taiwan by replicating the strategy that failed Russia in Ukraine. Instead, rather than risk a similar stalemate, Xi will almost certainly double down on the nonmilitary, less visible, and more cost-effective war that Beijing is already waging—and, in many ways, winning. 

By declaring last September that the United States would defend Taiwan if China attacked, U.S. President Joe Biden complicated Xi’s calculus about an amphibious invasion—Beijing’s most ambitious and aggressive option to pursue reunification. No doubt the military balance of power in the Taiwan Strait is trending in China’s direction. One day, the pace of China’s military modernization and the poor state of Taiwan’s defenses could render an invasion a rational decision for Beijing.

For Chinese leaders, however, the war in Ukraine has laid bare the undeniable risks and prohibitive costs associated with a full-scale assault on Taiwan. Trying to distill only the military lessons of Russia’s war therefore distracts from much more likely Taiwan scenarios.

Indeed, Beijing has long recognized that a direct military engagement with Washington and its allies over Taiwan could result in a decisive defeat for China or lead to nuclear war. Beijing likewise understands that conventional conflict escalation often leads to strategic and political failure—even for a superpower. With these lessons in mind, China has hewed closely to a broad-spectrum gray-zone campaign focused on disrupting the Taiwanese government’s functions, paralyzing the island’s infrastructure, and leveraging an unrelenting disinformation campaign to undermine Taiwan’s political processes and bolster pro-unification narratives.

Yet the status quo remains politically untenable for China, as Taiwanese sentiment on reunification drifts ever further from Beijing’s goals. Moreover, China’s short-of-war strategy, in which pressure necessarily begets more pressure, has thus far failed to achieve the degree of political control or military supremacy that Beijing requires to shift its focus toward more conventional military operations. Russia demonstrated the importance of establishing these prerequisites when it successfully invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. In all likelihood, therefore, Beijing’s coercive campaign against Taiwan will reach new heights in 2023.

To undermine the Taiwanese public’s faith in the ability of the armed forces to protect the island’s sovereignty, China’s near-daily aerial and naval incursions will likely increase in number and intensity. So, too, will media images broadcast by Beijing about threatening military exercises—for instance, depicting Chinese forces storming a replica of Taiwan’s presidential palace. Beyond straining Taiwan’s defenses, such actions relentlessly reinforce China’s narrative that reunification is inevitable, one way or the other. Nevertheless, what seems like the next logical step in the coercion campaign—applying an aerial or naval blockade—appears less likely, because doing so could galvanize separatist sentiment and international sympathy for Taipei, neither of which Beijing is currently prepared to counter.

In further weaponizing the information space, Beijing will leverage social media platforms, online chat groups, and traditional media to bolster its reunification narrative.

With an imminent military scenario increasingly unlikely, the bulk of China’s strategy will fall to its Central Propaganda Department, which trains cyberarmies and disseminates disinformation aimed at demoralizing and dividing Taiwanese society. In further weaponizing the information space, Beijing will progressively leverage social media platforms, online chat groups, and traditional media companies to bolster its reunification narrative. It will also use these channels to draw investment and tourists away from Taiwan and toward China. Additionally, Beijing will escalate cyber- and other network attacks against Taiwan’s critical infrastructure, financial institutions, and other targets. The goal is to exploit the island’s asymmetric economic dependence on China to pressure its politicians from pursuing policies that would bring Taiwan closer to formal independence.

Lastly, China will escalate its nonmilitary war of attrition on Taiwan’s political processes and international standing. Beijing will continue covertly funding pro-unification political parties and candidates before Taiwan’s next national election in 2024. China will similarly sustain its efforts to diplomatically strangle Taiwan, principally by degrading its participation in international forums and further winnowing down the small number of countries that recognize Taiwan.

Xi’s problem in all this—which he may not yet realize—is that China’s aggressive attempts at maneuvering below a crisis threshold could have the unintended effect of catalyzing the very superpower crisis he seeks to avoid. Gaming out these gray-zone efforts suggests that seriously escalating these provocations could lead the United States and its allies to embrace more forceful counter-responses in the future. In other words, unchecked hybrid war against Taiwan runs the real risk of resulting in a hot war with Washington, perhaps sooner rather than later. Should that happen, all bets are off. Just ask Russia.

Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he serves as the deputy director of FDD’s China Program. Follow him on Twitter @CraigMSingleton. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.

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