Here’s a truly wild and crazy idea: if China ever hopes to regain Taiwan, the next few weeks are probably the best chance it will ever have. Let me walk you through the logic leading to this hard-to-believe speculation.
Taiwan will NEVER consent to unification
It was conceivable that Hong Kong’s experience with the “one country, two systems” scheme would convince Taiwan that unification with China would be safe. However, China’s egregious violation of its agreements this summer, as well as other aggressive moves on its part against civil rights inside China, provide compelling proof that China would not honor any promises it made to Taiwan. Once the Chinese military is installed on Taiwan, China will impose its will, regardless of any promises it has made. After all, it will regard any such treaty as meaningless, because Taiwan is not an independent nation, but a rebel province (in China’s view). Taiwan is becoming less and less Chinese every year and more and more an independent nation. China had hoped that diplomatic pressure would force Taiwan to admit defeat, but that has not happened. China has exhausted all diplomatic strategies to achieve its objective.
Invasion is the only means to achieve China’s objective
Since all diplomatic means have failed, the only path left to China is the military path. China has been expanding its military at breakneck speed, and its military forces are stronger than at any time in its history. They are certainly strong enough to overpower Taiwan’s military. The only military question is whether they can prevail against American military power. Here we come to the best argument against an imminent Chinese invasion of Taiwan: the Chinese military continues to gain strength, and so its chances of defeating an American intervention will steadily rise.
However, there’s another factor that, I believe, is crucial to Chinese calculations: Mr. Trump. He has demonstrated that he is grossly incompetent and he has avoided military activity. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would present him with a conundrum that he is incapable of solving. Yes, he would certainly hope to benefit from the ‘rally around the flag’ effect — more on that later. Therefore, he would surely commit to a strong response. But then his incompetence would come to the fore. He has publicly derided the generals and admirals. He would treat their advice with the same disdain that he treated epidemiologists’ advice. He would attempt to directly control American military forces, and of course he would botch the response as badly as he botched the response to Covid-19. American military forces would receive orders, countermands, and new orders. Their response would not be coordinated, but instead would be organized to look good on television. As America suffered defeat after defeat, Mr. Trump would cave in and abandon Taiwan, granting China a huge geopolitical victory. The collapse would mark the moment when China passed America as the world’s leading superpower. That is certainly a goal worth aiming for!
Failure is not an option for China
China has long insisted that Taiwanese reunification is one of its highest priorities. Every day that passes without reunification is a stain on Chinese geopolitical power. Yet the ascension of Mr. Biden to the Presidency would make an invasion of Taiwan too risky, and the strong possibility of Ms. Harris continuing on for another eight years after Mr. Biden means that China won’t ever have a better opportunity to invade.
No more Mr. Nice Guy
China has pursued a ‘nice guy’ geopolitical strategy for many years. It has financed infrastructure all over the world, and its “Belt and Road” initiative has poured billions into other nations. The goal has been to gain international support for China’s emergence as a superpower, but the global reaction has fallen short of China’s expectations. China is now learning the lesson that America learned back in the 1950s: money can’t buy love. No matter how much money you give to other countries, they retain their sense of sovereignty and bridle at perceived slights. Some countries are starting to reject China’s offers because they come with strings attached that countries find insulting. China’s global reputation has not improved as well as China thought it would. Increasingly, the Chinese press whispers that perhaps the time has come for “No More Mr. Nice Guy”.
Helping Mr. Trump
From China’s perspective, as well as Russia’s, Mr. Trump’s presidency has been a huge success. He has managed to destroy much of America’s international reputation, weaken its economy, antagonize its allies, and divide its citizens. Who needs a Manchurian Candidate when you’ve got Donald Trump? From China’s point of view, another four years of Mr. Trump would likely spell the end of the US as a superpower. The evidence strongly suggests that he’ll lose the election, but how would a Chinese invasion of Taiwan change the probabilities? Would Americans rally around the flag and re-elect Mr. Trump? If so, invading Taiwan might be the most effective tool in China’s geopolitical toolkit.
After all these arguments, however, we come to the single most important factor, the one that I think will control the decision. The Chinese leadership has always been cautious. They don’t take risks. Their approach to all problems is incremental. They take a small step; if it proves to work well, they take another step. If not, they try another course. Ultimately, the Chinese will most likely not invade Taiwan. Only if the leadership despairs of the other strategies it has been taking for decades will China invade.