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Coming War over Taiwan

With its global power at a peak and domestic problems mounting, China is likelier than ever before to make good on its threats.

Taiwan has become a key front line in the U.S.-China rivalry, with both countries ramping up military posturing in the region.

The U.S. is running out of time to prevent a cataclysmic war in the Western Pacific. While the world has been focused on Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine,

Xi Jinping appears to be preparing for an even more consequential onslaught against Taiwan. Mr. Xi’s China is fueled by a dangerous mix of strength and weakness: Faced with profound economic, demographic and strategic problems, it will be tempted to use its burgeoning military power to transform the existing order while it still has the opportunity.

This peaking-power syndrome—the tendency for rising states to become more aggressive as they become more fearful of impending decline—has caused some of the bloodiest wars in history. Unless the U.S. and its allies act quickly, it could trigger a conflict that would make the war in Ukraine look minor by comparison.

No one can say we didn’t see it coming. Just this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi paid a high-profile visit to Taiwan, and Beijing responded by encircling the island with several days of live-fire military exercises. For the past decade, China’s factories have churned out ammunition and put warships to sea faster than any country since World War II. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) regularly practices missile strikes on mock-ups of Taiwanese ports and U.S. aircraft carriers, and PLA vessels and aircraft menace Taiwan’s territorial waters and airspace several times a week. The regime has issued bloodcurdling threats toward the island and countries that might come to its aid. “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” Mr. Xi told President Biden.

Beijing’s belligerence might look like the mark of an ascendant superpower. But the reality is more complex. China isn’t so much a rising state as a peaking power, one that has acquired fearsome coercive capabilities—and soaring power ambitions—but now faces worsening challenges at home and abroad.

Such a combination of aspiration and anxiety can be explosive. From ancient times to the present, once-rising powers have taken up arms when their fortunes faded, their enemies multiplied, and they felt they had to lunge for glory or lose their chance forever. Fast-growing countries have responded to economic slumps with reckless expansion. Revisionist states that find themselves cornered by rivals often use force to break the ring. The ghastliest wars of the last century were started not by rising, optimistic powers but by countries—such as Germany in 1914 or Japan in 1941—that had crested and begun to decline. Now China is following this arc—an exhilarating rise followed by the prospect of a hard fall.

Taiwan has become a key front line in the U.S.-China rivalry, with both countries ramping up military posturing in the region.

Look closer, however, and China’s future doesn’t seem so bright. Once-torrid growth had already slowed dramatically before Covid-19 compelled the government to lock down major cities indefinitely. Water, farmland and energy resources are becoming scarce. Thanks to the legacy of its one-child policy, China is approaching demographic catastrophe: It will lose 70 million working-age individuals over the next decade while gaining 120 million senior citizens.

And whereas the outside world once aided China’s rise, now advanced democracies are kicking Chinese firms out of their financial markets, strangling China’s tech giant Huawei, boosting military spending and creating multilateral coalitions to check Beijing’s expansion.

In the long term, China’s woes will make it less competitive. It probably can’t outpace America in a superpower marathon, let alone America plus its allies. But in the near-term, we should expect a more dangerous China—one that gambles big to reshape the balance of power before its window closes.

Taiwan is the most likely target of this anxious expansion. Reclaiming Taiwan would eliminate a government whose very existence disproves the Chinese Communist Party’s claims that Chinese culture is incompatible with democracy. It would give Beijing a commanding position in the Western Pacific and terrify U.S. allies like the Philippines and Japan. Not least, it would cement Xi Jinping’s legacy as a leader on par with Mao Zedong.

Mr. Xi has repeatedly said that the task of ‘liberating’ Taiwan cannot be passed down for generations.

If war comes, it is likely to feature the massive application of force. Beijing could theoretically try to coerce Taiwan into unification with a more limited operation, such as an air-sea blockade or the seizure of Taiwan’s small offshore islands.

The economic fallout would also be horrendous. Vital waterways would become shooting galleries; the world might find itself cut off from the more than 90% of cutting-edge semiconductors that are manufactured in Taiwan. According to the RAND Corporation, one year of fighting would reduce America’s gross domestic product by 5% to 10% and China’s by 25% to 35%. A global depression would be all but guaranteed.

U.S. firms eye Taiwan exit on Chinese invasion risk. U.S. companies with Taiwan-based operations are panicking about the impact of possible Chinese military aggression toward the self-governing island.

U.S. also needs to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses. Because the PLA hasn’t fought a major war since invading Vietnam in 1979, it hasn’t tested its modern command-and-control processes under fire.

The crisis over Speaker Pelosi’s visit is just the beginning. The U.S. is entering the most crucial phase of its rivalry with China, when the risk of war is highest and decisions made, or not made, will reverberate for decades. America can win a protracted competition against a formidable but faltering China, but only if it braces now for the very real possibility of a dramatic attack on Taiwan.

Relations between Taiwan and China appear to have deteriorated sharply following Ms Pelosi's visit, which Beijing condemned as "extremely dangerous". China says its military exercises are focused on six danger zones around Taiwan, three of which overlap the island's territorial waters. Taiwan says the move, which will force ships and planes to find routes around those areas, violates its sovereignty and amounts to a blockade.

CA Harshad Shah, Mumbai

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