The Next Ninety days and China’s Coming Invasion of Taiwan: 3 November 2020 as possible D-Day
William M. Darley, Colonel (ret.), U.S. Army
Source: File art
The next ninety days, from today through the end of 2020, constitute the most dangerous period that the United States has ever faced in its history. Not only does the United States face numerous menacing foreign adversaries with sophisticated weaponry, but it at the same time faces disruptive domestic enemies as the continuing chaos in our urban centers attests together with an already compromised process for selecting its political leadership in the 3 November elections that will likely be widely and passionately disputed over a prolonged period of time perhaps extending into 2021. These events coincide with a long-festering lack of moral cohesion within the nation as it relates to popular identification with the traditional mores associated with the value of upholding the rule of law and sustaining the U.S. Constitution as the law of the land. These mores appear badly eroded in many key geographic areas of the country as well as among the occupants of many principal nodes of power and influence within the United States’ most basic institutions.
The moral erosion is especially evident at present in our major urban centers, which have dominant economic as well as cultural control over the country. It is ominously on display among many of the nations’ local leaders who clearly lack commitment to containing civil unrest, and frankly barbarism, and in some cases appear to actually support destructive instability for their own political and partisan purposes. This situation should be viewed as something more than a temporary passing phase in the evolution of our society but instead as a cause for genuine and profound alarm among the balance of the U.S. population on par with the kinds of fears, concerns, suspicion, and confusion that citizens of the United States no doubt widely felt in the years just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. In the same way as the run up to that war, the severe fissures in the foundations of our society pose the threat of uncontrolled fracturing and institutional collapse if brought under the extreme test of some series of highly stressful events either domestic or foreign.
As a consequence, until the persons who will assume the U.S. presidency and the elected offices in Congress are finally decided upon after the 3 November 2020 national elections, the United States will be in the most vulnerable position it has ever been in internationally and domestically because it will be virtually leaderless for months in terms of dealing decisively with the various dimensions of challenges that are all converging at one time in the face of real and present threats.
Such a situation is not lost on the enemies of the United States, such as Iran, Russia, Venezuela, North Korea, China, or non-state players such as al-Qaida and ISIS. No doubt, among the most important observations by such enemies over the last nine months from the COVID-19 pandemic is that the United States was brought to its economic knees, self-confidence in its political processes severely undermined, and domestic stability disrupted not by conventional weapons of war but by the introduction of a virus. They are asking themselves, ‘if our nemesis’s socio-political and economic systems are so demonstrably fragile, what other means might be consciously and systematically employed in concert at some future time to achieve the same kinds of political objectives of a war against the United States, perhaps without firing a shot in conventional war?’
Therefore, as one considers the disruptions and distractions caused by an eroded state of U.S. societal and political affairs limiting the ability of the United States to respond in a decisive way, there is a strong likelihood that U.S. enemies have concluded that any sudden act against a nation in which the United States claims it has national interests during the next ninety days would be met with a minimal if not stultified U.S. response. Further, such enemies may have concluded that there exists as well a credible possibility that a tepid U.S. response to foreign aggression that undermined in a stunning way U.S. national interests overseas could cascade into a complete economic collapse of the United States together with a degeneration into socio-political chaos on a massive scale well beyond that which we have observed since January of 2020.
One might immediately dismiss observations as mere sensational hyperbole, arguing that many other previous eras in U.S. history posed a much greater “existential threat” (to borrow an already hackneyed bromide in vogue) to the American nation as, for example, the mortal threat posed by armies of the British Crown against the rebelling colonies, the U.S. Civil War that temporarily tore the country into fragments, the Great Depression that brought into question the very concept and workability of democracy and capitalism, or World War II and the Cold War that pitted the U.S. Judeo-Christian civilization against an aggressive set of fascist ideologies that had as their actual stated goal eradicating Western civilization in general, along with that of the United States.
However, in each of the events noted above, there were wide oceans with which enemies had to cope that limited the likelihood of intervention from Europe and Asia, and a spacious wilderness into which refugees could find sanctuary if foreign elements could actually negotiate the problems of crossing the oceans in sufficient force to be a credible existential threat. In contrast, the threats posed in those eras of U.S. history did not occur at a time when multiple nations had nuclear weapons and capable delivery systems that could reach the United States in an effective way; and, in a time when our vulnerabilities were so open to attack as, for example, our national power grid, upon which the economic and social wellbeing of the country has come to rely, which could be feasibly decimated by well-placed detonations of electro-magnetic pulse weapons over the United States that not only severely disrupted it but the internal workings of every machine in the United States that depends on a computer chip.
But, most importantly, those events did not occur when the relative social cultural adhesion of the country was so much in doubt in terms of identifying with a common national identity. In former eras of existential threats, the nation was stabilized by a widely shared cultural narrative of unity that stemmed from a more or less common set of values derived from Judeo-Christian influence coalescing around a general notion of common nationality rooted in confidence in basic natural human rights. That sense of a common national identity, which gave it domestic resilience and was a bulwark against previous catastrophes the country faced demonstrably no longer exists among significant swaths of the U.S. population and among some highly powerful cultural, economic, and political elites that heavily influence public attitudes and the direction of political decision making in the United States as related to its security.
In sum, those previous conflicts or events that threatened the existence of the United States as a nation at its various stages of development did not occur in a time of hyper globalization, a global rising tide of ethnic and racial tribalism both domestically and abroad, the ability to cross national borders with impunity due to modern technological means of moving large numbers of migrants, and massive information transfer with the potential to balkanize, organize, and agitate populations for different political purposes at a speed never before experienced in human history.
And, to the specific point of this article, they did not occur in a time with so great uncertainty as to who the political leadership of the country would be and what the condition of the U.S. domestic socio-political environment would be when the persons assuming the presidency and the seats in Congress were finally decided upon pursuant to an election that is likely to be litigated.
The United States has never faced such conditions converging all at once; extreme political uncertainty regarding the legitimacy of its leaders at the same time it is suffering from a startling internal erosion of shared national values and the legitimacy of a national identity as it simultaneously faces determined foreign enemies armed with sophisticated technological means having global reach and almost unimaginable destructive potential.
In other words, from 3 November to the end of the year, there is a window of opportunity for aggressive and committed enemies of the United States to take advantage of the political as well as moral vacuum of authority that will exist starting on the U.S. Election Day. And the most likely enemy that has the economic power as well as the diplomatic, military, informational means, and will to maximize exploitation of U.S. weakness during such a period of political uncertainty is China. And China’s number one current national priority is the conquest and annexation of Taiwan.
A harbinger of what will happen during the authority vacuum that will occur while the United States sorts out its political leadership at the end of 2020 was on display with the aggressive international actions that China has already taken this year on the calculated risk that the international community would do little or nothing to effectively oppose it including mass enslavement of its Uighur Muslim minority, the closure and burning of Christian churches within its borders, encroachment on disputed territory with India, the total subjugation of Hong Kong (including disestablishment of its democracy), and, of course, its failure to acknowledge or take accountability for its role in a global pandemic that has literally killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. Most of China’s actions were met with nothing like international solidarity against its actions but rather by piecemeal and milk toast diplomatic protests and the sanctioning of a few individuals followed by business as usual. Consequently, when forecasting what is next for China, the answer is Taiwan.
Communist China has made no secret for decades that it intends to annex Taiwan by force if other means failed, and so far, all other means have failed. In response, the hardline leaders of the Communist Chinese military have been calling for several years for a confrontation with the United States over U.S. insistence on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, U.S. opposition to China’s militarization of the South China Sea islands—at least one general calling for the sinking of a U.S. aircraft carrier as a warning to the United States--and its increasing effort to fortify Taiwan militarily against Communist Chinese aggression.
Many pundits in the news and “China experts” have, until recently, routinely downplayed such threats from China against Taiwan, asserting it has too much to risk internationally in undertaking an invasion of Taiwan that would offend the world and unduly risk its global economic relationships. It is well to bear in mind these are largely the same experts that asserted Hong Kong was immune to Chinese aggression and Pakistan did not have a nuclear weapon.
The fact is that many Western pundits down playing Chinese strategic objectives view the annexation of Taiwan through the prism of capitalistic Western eyes that calculates the value of policy objectives based on cost-benefit analysis. This is wrong headed with regard to assessing China’s motivations and objectives. The annexation of Taiwan is much more than a cost-risk economic venture for the Chinese Communists. It is an immoral imperative; an essential ideological, nationalistic and cultural objective that must be accomplished. The fact that a free and open democracy practicing capitalism has existed on the borders of China allowing its citizens personal rights and economic freedom is something the Communist government cannot continue to countenance. As long as Taiwan exists, it is a dire moral threat to Communist China because it puts on display an alternative way of governance and life for ethnically Chinese people that challenges the communist system of dogmatism and state terrorism used to govern China. China’s continuing efforts to stamp out any vestige of freedom of expression or personal liberty is both totalitarian and global in scope, and thus Taiwan must be stamped out because it is the mirror it does not want mainland Chinese people to continue to view as juxtaposed against the characteristics of communist state subjugation. Consequently, Western-style cost-benefit analysis is both irrelevant and dangerous. The only variable important to the Communist Chinese despite whatever costs is calculating the actual probability of success. When success seems probable, China will act to destroy Taiwan whatever it takes; and no better foreseeable opportunity will present itself than over the next ninety days.
The current U.S. administration has been hard on Communist China. Its actions have weakened the Chinese economy and therefore slowed the investments China has been able to make in its military as well as other means for exercising totalitarian control over its people, and has also slowed investments in its Belt and Road or “New Silk Road” initiative that aims to expand China’s socio-economic, political, and military influence globally. Recent U.S. actions have reversed decades of Chinese expansion and sent it in to modest decline. Additionally, the United States has been aggressively selling upgraded military equipment to Taiwan, including more than two-hundred M1 Abrams tanks and other advanced systems that will make Taiwan more difficult to conquer militarily if fully delivered and deployed before the PRC is able to act.
Setting their public faces to righteous indignation and protest against all of these actions, upgrading Taiwan’s military has been particular irksome. Chinese leaders are seething against both the perceived humiliation they are receiving from the Trump administration with regard to Taiwan and the obstacles the U.S. administration is now placing in Communist China’s preparations for military conquest of Taiwan and the South China Sea in a manner not seen since the 1970s. This ire together with zealous commitment to consolidate control over Asian island chains and finally annex Taiwan to stamp out any vestige of democracy in their near abroad is increasingly on display in their numerous recent exercises and elevating instances of provocations of Taiwan. Thus faced with the beginnings of a slow economic decline that threatens to sap its strength, there will be no better window of opportunity to achieve the objective of annexing Taiwan than the next ninety days while the U.S. is distracted with internal political uncertainty immediately following its elections complicated by U.S. domestic social unrest that is expected to continue, and while the rest of the world’s nations who might otherwise oppose China’s attack on Taiwan are fixated on the international economic instability that the turmoil in the United States will be causing, which conceivably will drag them into a global depression.
This polemic is intended to stimulate awareness of a plausible scenario that has a very real chance of occurring in the very short term that poses essential questions regarding a clear, present, and immediate danger to the United States, its interests in Asia, and to the U.S. military in the Pacific. Unfortunately, the situation between China and Taiwan and the ramifications that the annexation of Taiwan would have for the United States and the world have often been overlooked or underrated at the policy level due to preoccupation with Russia and its possible military actions in Europe and Eurasia. However, in light of the above circumstances, what realistically is the more likely scenario? A Russian invasion of Central Europe? Or a Chinese invasion of Taiwan?
The People’s Republic of China has long sponsored propaganda that promotes support and enthusiasm among the Chinese people for invading Taiwan. One recent manifestation of efforts to stoke popular support among certain segments of society for an invasion is a widely disseminated series of art works created by students at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute depicting the People’s Liberation Army attacking various targets inside Taiwan during such an invasion. An example from this series is provided above. Copyright waived by owners: weibo.com/5745531486/J30
Setting aside those questions, China’s plans for invasion could be stopped if the United States assumes the alert level appropriate to dealing with a range of current indicators that China is preparing for a move against Taiwan during probable political turmoil inside the United States from Election Day forward. In anticipation of a PRC attempt to exploit this situation to annex Taiwan, the United States should move sufficient forces to the area in anticipation of countering aggressive actions during the expected period of its own internal political uncertainty. Additionally, in anticipation of dealing with a sudden aggressive move against Taiwan, U.S. Pacific Command and other affected organizations should receive immediately specific operational orders approved in legislative language by a specific bi-partisan Congressional mandate regarding how it is to respond to such aggression irrespective of whatever domestic political confusion there might be until whomever the president-elect is decided upon.
Among the obvious questions that anticipating the need for such preparations are the following:
Who in the U.S. government would authoritatively answer Taiwan’s pleas for help if China undertook an invasion under the conditions that will prevail from November through the end of 2020 during a period of political uncertainty at the seat of U.S. government?
After nineteen years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, which bi-partisan representatives in the United States Congress are going to step forward to champion another foreign military intervention, or even strong diplomatic actions, when China attacks Taiwan in the face of popular national exhaustion with war?
If instances of actual armed conflict occur between U.S. and Communist Chinese forces on or about Election Day in the vicinity of Taiwan, or over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, what potential is there for escalation if the U.S. Navy and Chinese Communist begin sinking each other’s ships?
If it went badly for the United States, say the sinking of several U.S. carriers and their related ships, what then? How far is the United States willing to go? In light of a situation where there are casualties and equipment losses, the resulting extreme elevation of tensions will produce a high degree of uncertainty. Such situations greatly increase the risk of decisions being made on hunches driven by fear and panic rather than actual knowledge of intent. What, therefore, is the potential for catastrophic miscalculations being made in decisions that involve nuclear armed foes that have engaged in instances of conventional combat over the defense of Taiwan, and what can be done to mitigate such miscalculations in advance?
Would the continental United States feasibly become a target if it started sinking Chinese ships? If so, what weapons would the two sides elevate to in “proportional response”?
And what would the limit of such escalation be?
In the event of an outbreak of hostilities over Taiwan, who else would likely get involved that has a bone to pick with China or that would become a de facto target (e.g., Japan, Korea, India, Vietnam, Australia, etc.)
The U.S. military has focused a great deal on the supposed conventional Russian threat over the past several years. However, when considering the capabilities of Russia, it is well to bear in mind that Russia has an economy about the size of Italy’s and no expressed ambitions for global domination though their “near abroad” preoccupies their military focus in open source literature.
In contrast, China has expressed as an objective de facto global domination through a range of initiatives, both military and non-military. To that end, China’s economy may have already surpassed that of the United States, which makes it fully capable of conducting a sustained war. And, it has a large, well-equipped, and fairly sophisticated army supported by a sophisticated air force and the largest military naval fleet of combat ships in the world together with hundreds of other ships associated with international shipping and fishing easily capable of providing transport for an invasion force from China’s multiple naval bases already in close proximity to Taiwan. It is there. It is hungry. And it is angry.
William M. Darley, Colonel (ret.) U.S. Army, served thirty-one years on active duty in the U.S. Army, primarily as a public affairs officer. After retirement, he served as a social anthropology team leader for the Human Terrain System in Ramadi, Iraq and editor for the Army University Press at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is a 1977 graduate of Brigham Young University and its ROTC program.