James Stavridis

A US-China War Over Taiwan Isn't Happening Anytime Soon

Tensions, already very high between the US and China over Taiwan, were exacerbated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “farewell tour” visit to the island. Many analysts are warning that an invasion by Beijing could come sooner rather than later — within 18 months is a common projection — often citing the Ukraine conflict as a model: China playing the part of Russia and bringing what it views as a non-nation sharply to heel.

Based on many years of engagement with the Chinese around the Pacific both operationally and diplomatically, I believe we are years away from any potential military move by Beijing against Taipei, and it is particularly unlikely to happen in the immediate future. There are several reasons.

First, events in Ukraine are likely to give Chinese President Xi Jinping pause, not encouragement. He must be asking himself, “I wonder if my generals and admirals are as bad as those Russians appear to be?” Xi was probably assured by Putin, when they met at the Olympics in February, that this would be a sharp, short war and that the Russians would have full control of Ukraine before the West could get its collective boots on. Things turned out very differently for the Kremlin.

The Chinese military, similar in many ways to Russia’s, lacks even the level of combat experience the Russians had in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria, and in the previous invasions of Ukraine and Georgia.

A second reason for Chinese hesitancy is uncertainty about the Taiwanese. Would they fold or fight? Polling is never fully reliable, but all indications are that the Taiwanese have a strong sense of national identity and are unlikely to simply roll over when the first wave of Chinese missiles strike on the island. (Beijing gave a preview of its muscle in the exercises responding to the Pelosi visit.)

President Tsai Ing-wen is a steely leader — she’s not unlike Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy — and my assessment is that the Taiwanese will fight, and fight hard. The geography of the island — mountain and forest — is a nightmare for an invader, especially one that must mount the assault by sea.

Third, Beijing is watching the alignment of the Western democracies across Europe and the Far East in enacting crippling sanctions on Russia, causing Moscow to default on its debt for the first time in more than a century. Almost all Western corporations decamped from Moscow, helping cause a collapse in imports, and few look to be going back anytime soon. The NordStream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany will have nothing but air whistling through its long tubes for the foreseeable future, and the Europeans are making strides toward energy independence from Moscow.

Sure, the Chinese will say to themselves, our economy is too big to sanction, and they would be largely correct. But could the West produce real pain-inducing sanctions on specific sectors? Absolutely. And at a moment when the Chinese economy has been slowed by the ravages of zero-Covid lockdowns, this prospect is particularly unappetizing.

Fourth, as the old saw goes, “all politics are local,” and Xi has a very delicate political situation before him. At the 20th Communist Party Congress late in the fall, he will almost certainly be given a third five-year term. It is a remarkable achievement, vaulting him into the company of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. He does not want a major conflict with the US to interfere with this anointment, and even after he fully consolidates control it seems unlikely he would quickly manufacture a crisis that could crater the global economy.

Finally, China’s military and political leaders probably assess that they are not (quite) ready for a full-scale war with the US. They have a backlog of military capability they will want to fully integrate into the People’s Liberation Army: a new strategic nuclear force, nuclear-powered warships (notably aircraft carriers), hypersonic missiles, improved offensive cyberwarfare techniques, and a far better satellite network for reconnaissance and actual combat in space.

A war between the US and China, of course, is possible in the near term. I co-authored a novel a year ago with the depressing title, “2034: A Novel of the Next World War.” But I wrote the book not as predictive fiction, but rather as a cautionary tale. The US still has time to construct the coherent strategy — militarily, diplomatically, economically, technologically — that could deter such a conflict. The clock is ticking, but the hour of maximum danger almost certainly lies some years ahead.