The U.S. Needs to Talk About the Risk of War With China

Doug Bandow

The risk of war between China and the United States is rising. Bilateral relations were inflamed by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s highly publicized trip to Taiwan last August. The prospect of current Speaker Kevin McCarthy doing the same has Chinese diplomats warning U.S. officials that Beijing would respond aggressively.

Much of the Republican caucus is likely to seek to join McCarthy’s delegation. Few members understand the significance of Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), treating one of the most politically explosive issues in China as though Beijing could simply get over it. For instance, in a recent webinar, Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon urged steps toward de facto recognition of Taipei’s independence—a topic about which Beijing has literally passed a law mandating military action: “China will be mad; they’ll throw a fit. They did when Pelosi visited. That’s all right. They can throw a fit.”

That and a lot more, alas. A memo from Gen. Michael Minihan, recently leaked to NBC News, warned his troops that “my gut tells me we will fight in 2025.” The ever-hawkish Wall Street Journal lauded Minihan, noting that it is necessary to show “Beijing that the U.S. has the means and the will to fight and repel an invasion.”

The Minihan revelation would appear to be explosive, especially since China has announced a major expansion of its nuclear arsenal apparently because it believes war is increasingly likely. Indeed, generals in the People’s Liberation Army probably are writing memos that sound a lot like Minihan’s.

Yet there has been little reaction in the U.S. capital. After receiving brief television attention, Minihan’s memo disappeared from public discourse, replaced by debates over sending tanks to Ukraine, avoiding a federal debt default, and assessing the 2024 presidential campaign.

Perhaps the scariest aspect of the Minihan memo is that most Washington policymakers broadly share his views. The United States must defend Taiwan. Beijing would lose, so Zhongnanhai’s denizens won’t do anything stupid. If for some strange reason the Chinese leadership doesn’t see reason, the United States will triumph. And peace will reign, causing the lion to lie down with the lamb.

Every one of these assumptions should—indeed, must—be tested if disaster is to be avoided. The most important is that the United States should protect Taiwan. The Republic of China has long-standing ties with the United States. More important, contrary to Beijing’s claims, few Taiwanese, especially among the young, identify with the PRC. The crackdown in Hong Kong ended any possibility of a truly voluntary reunification.

However, Washington’s promiscuous war-making of late shows the problem of treating military action as just another policy option. War is different and should be restricted to truly vital interests, existential threats to the United States itself. Taipei’s status is not such a concern. In contrast, Taiwan, which lies just 100 miles off China’s coast, cannot be seen as anything but a vital interest for Beijing.

Although some Chinese officials hope to scare Washington away from the island’s defense, there appears to be widespread recognition that U.S. intervention is possible, if not likely. Continuing to deter Beijing is not a given even if Washington makes an unambiguous commitment. Taiwan is more important to China than to the United States. The first issue is raw nationalism, seen by Beijing as reuniting a country wrongly sundered. The second concern is security. Which is why the PRC’s ongoing military buildup has focused on the capability to coerce and, if necessary, seize Taiwan. U.S. policymakers are foolish if they assume Chinese officials will back off.

U.S. leaders should look back at American history. The North refused to let the South go in 1861 because of nationalism, a belief in the almost sacred mission of the United States. Secretary of State William Seward warned against foreign interference. “A contest between Great Britain and the United States would wrap the world in fire.” France and Great Britain stayed out.

Assumptions that the United States would win any conflict are foolhardy at best. Geography is strongly against the U.S. American forces would be operating thousands of miles from home, while the Chinese could use numerous mainland military bases. The PRC could have air control over the island and would threaten to sink any U.S. naval forces that approached. Allied support is not certain, despite relatively more hawkish rhetoric coming from both Seoul and Tokyo.

Unfortunately, the United States has lost the majority of war games held for a Taiwan conflict. Even more optimistic outcomes, including a series recently run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), found the cost of victory to be extraordinarily high. Taiwan remained unconquered, but, reported CSIS: “In most scenarios, the United States/Taiwan/Japan defeated a conventional amphibious invasion by China and maintained an autonomous Taiwan. However, this defense came at high cost. The United States and its allies lost dozens of ships, hundreds of aircraft, and tens of thousands of servicemembers. Taiwan saw its economy devastated. Further, the high losses damaged the U.S. global position for many years.”

Although a Chinese amphibious invasion would be difficult, lesser actions, such as a blockade, would be possible, posing greater political challenges for Washington. Depending on circumstances, the United States might find itself in a standoff that could escalate into firing the first shot. Moreover, escalation would be a constant threat—the United States could not ignore mainland bases, but striking them would almost force Beijing to widen the war. Never have two major conventional powers fought a full-scale war while possessing nuclear weapons.

Finally, though a PRC defeat might be politically destabilizing, it would not be likely to bring to power a liberal, peaceable, pro-Western regime. Far more likely would be the rise of a more nationalistic regime that would begin arming for a second round, rather like Germany after World War I. In short, to protect Taiwan militarily Washington must permanently seek to contain a great power and likely peer competitor along its border half a world away. The United States is already overextended financially, with the numbers rapidly worsening in the coming decade and beyond. The expense would only grow in the future, especially after a war.

The catastrophic cost of conflict makes it even more important to prevent a war. A premium should be placed on diplomatic efforts to forge an agreement among the PRC, United States, and Taiwan to step back and lower the temperature, preserving today’s admittedly uncomfortable but nevertheless peaceful status quo. The successful application of allied sanctions on Russia suggests there could be efforts to forge a similar coalition to warn China of the economic penalties it would face if it used force against Taiwan.

U.S. policymakers need to have a serious conversation with the American people about the possibility of conflict over Taiwan. War with China would not be a proverbial cakewalk, or even the sort of destructive failure suffered by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. A conflict with the PRC certainly would be disastrous—and potentially nation-ending if attempts to limit escalation failed. The Minihan memo should be the trigger for an urgent debate, not another one-day news story lost to the daily chatter of life.

Source: Foreign Policy.