China’s Closing Window of Opportunity on Taiwan

September 25, 2022 Topic: Taiwan Region: Asia Tags: TaiwanChinaNuclear WeaponsDeterrenceSSBNCCPXi JinpingRussia

China’s Closing Window of Opportunity on Taiwan

Xi Jinping must make his move within a generation, before a growing India, climate change-induced ecological costs, demographic weakness, or even further political liberalization in China put Taiwan beyond reach.

The policy of strategic ambiguity maintained by the United States vis-à-vis the status of Taiwan is an absurdity that has lost its initially intended purpose of drawing Communist China away from the Soviet Union. It is not a subtle declaration, as its proponents in the U.S. government claim, intended to preserve peace because it appeals to some imagined political equilibrium. Taiwan has all of the desirable properties of a country that deserves the close protection of allies: it is a very liberal democracy, a key component of the world’s economic system, and a geostrategic cork against Communist China’s easy access to the Pacific Ocean. 

Virtually every major war was initiated by leaders concerned by irreversibly closing windows of opportunity. Building on the diplomatic histories of A.J.P. Taylor, University of Virginia professor Dale Copeland wrote in his 2000 book, The Origins of Major Power War, that this fear provoked Germany’s move to arrest its relative decline to Russia in the First and Second World Wars. Israel’s attack on Egypt in 1956 was driven by the preventative calculus of responding before Cairo fully assimilated the weapons it had imported from Czechoslovakia. Pakistan’s attack on India in 1965 was driven by a closing opportunity to resolve the Kashmir dispute before Delhi’s buildup (a response in turn to India’s defeat by China in its 1962 War) eclipsed Islamabad. Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 was exploiting a brief moment of Iranian weakness caused by the latter’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, to redress the imposition on Baghdad of the harsh terms of the 1975 Algiers Accord, by Tehran.

Similarly, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary Xi Jinping faces multiple closing windows of opportunity. In the long term, China’s growth is nearly half that of India, a major competitor in Asia, and Beijing is facing a secular decline in its economic growth rate. With the passage of time, China’s working age population is expected to shrink by 35 million, and it faces daunting ecological challenges that threaten its food security. In the short term, Xi is facing the rearming of Taiwan; heavy investments by Washington in the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines; and the gradual coalescence of an anti-Chinese alliance in the Pacific littoral. Xi is also not likely to move against Taiwan until after he consolidates his third term, which may take a few months, if permitted by the other CCP factions. Xi also faces a strong incentive to move before he loses his Russian ally to a color revolution, which may have been accelerated by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The loss of Russia will adversely affect Beijing’s supply of non-Persian Gulf fossil fuels and food, necessary for China to survive against an extended U.S. naval blockade. In such a scenario, Beijing could also lose its partnerships with Kazakhstan and Belarus, see Moscow squarely move into the Indian camp, and become distant from many Russian Soviet-era client allies, like Syria and Cuba.

However, a Chinese blockade or invasion of Taiwan depends on three other capabilities that China is moving rapidly to address. First, China needs to be able to dominate its continental shelf sufficiently to exclude U.S. and allied submarines, which requires a major overhaul of its anti-submarine warfare capability. Second, China needs to augment the power of its air force to the extent that it could indefinitely achieve air supremacy over and around Taiwan.

Third, China is working feverishly to build up its nuclear arsenal. In a confrontation between two great powers, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated that a large nuclear arsenal does not automatically neutralize the arsenal of the other power. Had Russia achieved far greater success in its invasion of Ukraine, especially Western Ukraine, there was a high likelihood of a NATO land-based intervention under a U.S. nuclear umbrella. The theory of the stability-instability paradox, which argues that the secure second-strike nuclear arsenals of adversarial powers cancel each other out, does not appear to be in effect where there are major territorial stakes at risk. This is a problem for China, which had originally contemplated intervening against Taiwan under the protective nuclear umbrella of its much smaller “minimum deterrent.” China was following the logic of U.S. nuclear strategist Bernard Brodie, which argued that the devastating threat of even a small nuclear arsenal would have been sufficient to force a pause in the minds of the decision-makers of a major nuclear power.

It appears now that escalation dominance, the advertised threat that in the event of a nuclear escalation one side will be able to inflict far more damage than another, is a prerequisite for a strategic invasion. In China’s case, escalation dominance will be vital to successfully negotiate an escape if its invasion falters and its forces become stuck on a Taiwanese beach, like the Anglo-U.S. forces at Anzio beach in Italy in 1944. Unlike during the 1950-53 Korean War, or the 1954 and 1958 Taiwan Straits Crises, when China nominally benefitted from the Soviet nuclear umbrella, in an attack on Taiwan now, Beijing will be entirely alone. Beijing is aware that China’s current nuclear deterrent is vulnerable to a U.S. first strike. Of its 116 intercontinental ballistic missiles, ten DF-4s cannot reach the continental United States, twenty DF-5s are liquid-fuelled and unprotected by silos, sixty-two solid-fuelled and launch on warning capable DF-31s can only reach the West coast of the United States. In fact, the twenty-four mobile DF-41s are the only system able to reach the entire continental U.S. However, there is considerable evidence that mobile land-based missiles are particularly vulnerable in an age of drone surveillance. To address this, China is also developing a silo-based deterrent with a capacity for 300 missiles, which will be ready by 2024.

China is completing its eighth Jin-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), each carrying twelve JL-2 missiles, with either in turn equipped with a single 1 megaton warhead or up to eight smaller warheads for a theoretical maximum of 768 warheads. However, from their operating base at Sanya in Hainan Island, China’s SSBN fleet cannot cover the entire continental U.S. without venturing considerably outside of the South China Sea. The northern half of the South China Sea is dangerously shallow for SSBN operations, whereas the southern half of the South China Sea is compromised by the presence of hostile submarine patrols, like that of the U.S. Navy. Because the heavier medium of water amplifies the shock waves of explosives, submarines can be disabled by nuclear depth charges kilometers away, rendering the South China Sea too small a bastion for SSBNs. The Jin SSBNs are also too acoustically compromised to be able to venture out into the Pacific Ocean without the protection of a surface fleet. There is the possibility that Russia will host the Chinese SSBN fleet in its bastion of the Sea of Okhotsk, where it currently deploys its own SSBNs, but this depends on Moscow’s alignment at the moment of the conflict over Taiwan. China is developing the Type 096 SSBN, which is intended to address these performance limitations.

China also has no response to the U.S. strategy of conventional deterrence against an opponent’s nuclear arsenal. In the event of a Soviet conventional invasion of Western Europe, the United States and allies’ navies had planned to search out and destroy the Soviet Union’s ballistic missile submarine fleet in the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk. The Soviet Union, seeking to complete its armored conquest of West Germany, the Dardanelles, the Persian Gulf, and Hokkaido before the initiation of tactical nuclear warfare slowed its advance, had a strong incentive not to respond with nuclear weapons. Because Beijing knows its SSBN fleet and ground-based nuclear weapons would be targeted and destroyed early in a conflict over Taiwan, it is faced with a “use-it-or-lose-it” dilemma, which it cannot resolve until it can impose a similar threat on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This would require China to have a navy with a global reach, including a worldwide network of friendly bases providing support to a large fleet of silent attack nuclear-propulsion submarines. Currently, China has fifty-eight submarines, of which only six are nuclear. In comparison, the USSR had 300 submarines, even though it never achieved the capability of hunting U.S. SSBNs across the world’s oceans.

Xi Jinping is caught between a slew of countervailing windows of opportunity. He requires a minimum quantum of political consolidation to be able to bear the consequences of provoking a U.S. commercial and possibly naval blockade, an expected response to a Chinese bid to take Taiwan. He needs to move soon enough before the Putin regime is felled by Russia’s younger generation. He needs a robust air and naval force able to withstand attrition, while also protecting China’s nuclear deterrent. And he must make his move within a generation, before a growing India, climate change-induced ecological costs, demographic weakness, or even further political liberalization in China put Taiwan beyond reach.