That is the topic of my latest cheery Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:
It’s not as if all of a sudden one morning the news will be filled with reports of bombs falling on Taipei. China has other options: It might occupy the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, just off the coast of China but claimed by Taiwan. Imagine China taking the islands, possibly with zero casualties, and then calling both Taipei and Washington to discuss what should happen next. Taiwan would have to think long and hard.
It would hardly be new for China to target Quemoy and Matsu. In 1958 Taiwan defended those islands with U.S. support after a Chinese incursion. An uneasy stalemate followed. There was also a crisis in 1954-55, again with inconclusive results. A possible confrontation today, in view of growing Chinese military and economic power, requires a fundamentally different calculus.
The most common argument against imminent Chinese action is that “time is on China’s side.” The size of China’s economy relative to America’s is likely to rise over time, along with China’s relative military prowess.
But China’s GDP as a share of global GDP may already be near a peak, depending on how well the rest of the world does. China has also to worry about the rise of India, the continuing rearming of Japan and a possibly recalcitrant Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the Communist Party itself may face increasing fractures and lose some of its grip on power. If China is going to take significant action against Taiwan, now may be the easiest time to do so.
The evolution of military technologies would also seem to argue for Chinese action sooner rather than later. Even a very powerful China might find Taiwan difficult to conquer in 20 years. At the current moment, Taiwan’s defense capabilities seem especially run down.
Momentum is another reason why China might decide to act soon. China recently changed the status of Hong Kong, and has taken increasingly concrete steps to tighten its grip on Xinjiang, in both cases facing an international opposition that is modest and manageable.
Once countries start down such an aggressive road it is sometimes difficult for them to stop. Both the Chinese military and the organizational infrastructure of the Communist Party are currently geared toward “solutions,” activism, and the notion of bringing everyone into the fold. China is used to receiving foreign criticism, and its leaders seem to be consolidating their power. Because of its success in halting the spread of the pandemic, the party currently enjoys a status that it might find hard to regain.
Is it possible for the party to put the brakes on this process and restart it 20 years later? Maybe — but again, the view that China is prepared for imminent action on Taiwan is a plausible one.