Chinese and American military maneuvers around the main island of Taiwan are not heralding an imminent war. Quite the opposite, in fact. Each country appears to be displaying the full extent of its power—but only to avoid using it. Both nations also know that the cost of war is always greater than expected, and neither is sure of how much it would benefit them.
America has therefore adopted a clearly defensive strategy, showing off its arsenal and verbally puffing out its chest. As part of this approach, the United States is bolstering alliances with neighbors in China’s shadow, including South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and India. If Beijing attacked Taiwan or blocked the South Pacific, it would be met with an Asian coalition—just as Russia is currently surrounded in Ukraine. The Americans have a pronounced preference for the status quo, reaffirming their role as world police in the Pacific while ensuring a reliable supply of microprocessors and electric batteries.
What’s more, the U.S. military has no desire to enter a prolonged and complex conflict. The army remembers that it has not won any decisive combat since World War II. It failed to reunify North and South Korea in 1950, lost in Vietnam in 1975, in Afghanistan, and partially or completely failed in Syria and Iraq. There have been no American military successes since 1945, only economic, ideological, and cultural ones.
The most significant among them—the end of the Cold War—was not achieved on the battlefield, but through the domestic collapse of the Soviet Union, amplified by Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Ronald Reagan’s leadership contributed to that outcome, certainly, but the U.S. military was not the decisive factor. Since 1991, Russia has become a weak power with a declining population and a primitive economy. Such is Putin’s track record, not the work of America or Europe. Instead, NATO has proved its effectiveness as a deterrent, not an aggressor. What the United States is currently building is akin to an Asian NATO, with China as the target.
Meantime, is Beijing planning for war? Signs indicate otherwise. Chinese leaders descend more from the emperors than from Marx and Lenin, and they know their history. They realize that their country has a sparse military tradition, and that all contemporary conflicts—against Japan in 1895, against Vietnam in 1979, and against South Korea in 1950—have been disasters.
Some may point out that the Chinese army has changed considerably. Yes, but China is still rooted in the same tradition created by the hallowed founder of Chinese strategy, Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Sun Tzu’s teachings are applicable to Taiwan. Power-hungry leaders in Beijing are obsessed with this island nation and constantly threaten to conquer it, yet I doubt that they would engage in an armed conflict. They know that they would be surrounded by the Asian NATO, while a military victory would be as unlikely as Russia’s success in Ukraine.
And what good would come of taking over such a comparatively tiny region, whose people would flee to Singapore, Australia, and the United States rather than submit to the Communist Party’s rule? The Taiwanese would leave with their world-leading industrial and computing know-how. What’s more, attacking Taiwan would cause an economic catastrophe in mainland China, the biggest investors in which are the Taiwanese themselves. In the wake of an invasion, they would move their factories to neighboring competitors such as Vietnam and Indonesia—a trend that has already started, preventatively.
Beijing is all too aware of this context. But are Chinese leaders thinking rationally? Would they go against their own interests in the name of some misplaced military prestige? Once again, China’s history leads me to think that rationality will win out. Economic development is still Xi Jinping’s priority, as it has been for his predecessors since Deng Xiaoping in 1979. This objective is entirely founded on the globalization of capital, trade, and knowledge. Any attempt to conquer Taiwan would therefore immediately undermine the drivers of Chinese growth.
Yet China remains a relatively poor country per capita, as the CCP knows all too well.
These realities are better understood in Asia than in Europe. And no people are more aware of it than the Taiwanese, who have not shown any real concern about the situation. They know that Beijing’s government wants one thing above all: to amass wealth and to command the same respect as the emperors of old, who obliged European ambassadors to bow before them.
Skeptics will say that my analysis is too rational, that it fails to include the potential for a mishandled military exercise. This may be true, but I believe that the greatest risk lies in the West, not in China. Each meaningless statement about Taiwan from Western leaders—such as Emmanuel Macron suddenly declaring that the United States has no say in Europe’s presence in Asia—only reinforces China’s position.
International solidarity with Taiwan is the best guarantee of peace, just as it guarantees victory over Putin in Ukraine. We should also be wary of dramatic gestures from what President Eisenhower described in 1960 as America’s “military-industrial complex,” for which war is the stock in trade. China’s political regime is a disgrace, but containing the dragon means not pointlessly provoking it with saber-rattling.
This article was originally published in City Journal.