In summary, we already know that Ukraine is on fire. Nearby Azerbaijan launched a new offensive today to reclaim its disputed territory Nagorno-Karabakh region inhabited by ethnic Armenians. These two countries fought a war in 2020, and the ceasefire was controlled by Russia, which was happy to incite such breakaway regions to destabilize the entire region. With no one to fear Russia anymore, Azerbaijan has broken the ceasefire with Turkey’s eager encouragement (and arms supply). Armenia has never forgiven the Turkish genocide during World War I, and fears that it will be repeated in Nagorno-Karabakh. If you’re looking for “good guys” to root for, don’t bother with this one. It’s very shitty.
There is a brutal civil war Ethiopia, whose people can’t really break away. The Tigray region is surrounded by hostile Ethiopian national troops in the south and Eritrea in the north. About 500,000 people have died in about a year and a half. Elsewhere in Africa, wars are raging in Mali, Nigeria, Congo, Central African Republic and Somalia.
Yemen’s eight-year civil war, mainly between Iran and Saudi Arabia, has killed an estimated 150,000 people, with an estimated quarter of a million more due to starvation. Iraq is in trouble, Turkey is building forces to attack the Kurds in northern Syria, and the rest of Syria is a nightmare disaster. Palestine is always smoldering. Serbia and Kosovo (maybe) fired at each other in the restive border region on Sunday before declaring a 30-day truce to cool off. (The Virginia National Guard is currently stationed in Kosovo.)
Mexico is a drug country, the unfortunate home of five of the six most violent cities in the world. China and India are at loggerheads over a border dispute. And now China is losing its mind over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s planned visit to Taiwan, an island nation founded in 1949 by the losers of the Chinese Civil War. Official US policy is to oppose Taiwan “independence”, but that’s all semantics. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 states that the US must hold actually diplomatic relations and help Taiwan defend itself. The official policy of “strategic ambiguity” is designed to prevent Taiwan from aggressively pursuing formal independence (thus leading to a major war), but also to deter China from doing so itself. Somehow it has worked for decades.
Pelosi’s visit to the island next week threatens to upset that balance. Chinese state media threatened unspecified military retaliation if Pelosi went to Taiwan:
China on Monday once again warned the United States that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will not sit idly by if US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visits Taiwan.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian warned in a daily news briefing.
China has repeatedly expressed to the United States its serious concerns over the issue and solemnly opposes Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and has emphasized the severe consequences if Pelosi visits Taiwan, Zhao said.
“The will of the people cannot be ignored, and those who play with fire will die from it,” Zhao said. “It is believed that the US side is fully aware of China’s strong and clear message.”
China is closely following Pelosi’s route, Zhao said. “Her visit to Taiwan would mean gross interference in China’s internal affairs, seriously undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, recklessly trample on the one-China principle, seriously threaten peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, seriously undermine China-US relations. and lead to a very serious situation and grave consequences .”
China’s Ministry of Defense echoed the threat: “If the US insists on its course, the Chinese military will never sit idly by.”
China has built up forces across the Taiwan Strait, but nowhere near enough to attempt an invasion. Russia spent six months gathering forces to invade Ukraine without having to cross 180 kilometers of sea. President Joe Biden shrugged it off when he spoke with the Chinese leader last week.
He is not wrong. Dictatorships are often confused when other countries do not exercise iron control over their people.
An invasion of Taiwan would be costly, and there are real doubts that China could pull it off. Its last war was in 1979 against Vietnam … and it lost. While many have suggested that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made war with Taiwan more likely, the opposite is equally likely: Can China’s leaders trust the messages they have received from their military leaders over the years? China is as corrupt as Russia, and dictatorships have no mechanisms to expose the flaws in the system. There is no independent media to act as a watchdog. There is no whistle-blowing culture. And at least Russia got to test some of its equipment against the powerless Syrian opposition. The Chinese leadership really has no idea what they have in the military.
That doesn’t mean China couldn’t level Taiwan with ballistic missiles. But, as with Russia, the world would not sit idly by. Europe has already announced that any hostile move against Taiwan will be met with even tougher sanctions than against Russia:
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted European policymakers to ponder the previously unimaginable consequences of imposing economic sanctions on the world’s second-largest economy should Beijing make a military move against Taiwan.
“In the event of a military invasion, we have made it very clear that the EU, together with the US and its allies, will take similar or even greater measures against Russia than we have taken now,” said the EU’s new ambassador to China. Jorge Toledo said earlier this month.
Europe could afford to be more aggressive with China – it does not depend on the world’s second largest economy to heat its homes. Neutral Switzerland has already agreed to follow suit. On the other hand… China is the second largest economy in the world. An economic war would have catastrophic global consequences.
Russia lost about 40% of its GDP as Western companies pulled out after the invasion of Ukraine. China would be in a similar position, with about 40% of its GDP in the manufacturing sector, the largest in the world and largely exported. China cannot afford to lose the hundreds of millions of jobs that depend on the American, European, Japanese, Australian and other aligned markets. Likewise, its service economy, which includes hotels and transportation, would be greatly affected by the suspension of foreign business travel.
Here are some numbers:
- China’s GDP: $14.6 trillion (US is $21 trillion)
- China’s exports to the EU: USD 557.31 billion (2021)
- China’s exports to the US: $450 billion (2020)
- China’s exports to Japan: $151 billion (2020)
- China’s exports to South Korea: $149 billion (2021)
- China’s exports to Taiwan: $82 billion (2021)
- China’s exports to Australia: $58 billion (2021)
- Chinese exports to Canada: $51.5 billion (2021)
Trade alone would affect about 10% of China’s GDP, but the economic pain would go deeper and deeper, for example by threatening China’s access to global capital, closing factories (and all the ancillary businesses that depend on those workers, like restaurants, parcel delivery, etc..) and losing access to Taiwan’s semiconductors, its greatest strategic asset. No one makes as many chips as Taiwan, and China is as dependent on them as the rest of the world for appliances, computers, phones, cars and anything else with a brain. In fact, the threat of semiconductors is so real that a United States Army War College Quarterly the article argued that Taiwan could repel a Chinese invasion by threatening to annihilate it own chip factories.
Of course, such an economic war would absolutely destroy the entire world economy. Forget the iPhone, clothes, appliances, furniture…or anything no made in china anymore? Companies like Apple began diversifying their manufacturing centers after the COVID-19 pandemic, when logistical bottlenecks threatened manufacturing supply chains to a degree from which they have still not recovered (a major contributor to global inflation). But these efforts are still in their infancy.
If it looks a little like nuclear weapons, it has the same “mutually assured destruction” feel to it. It is hard to see how China’s leaders could keep order with hundreds of millions of restless unemployed Chinese workers. China enjoyed this opportunity in Shanghai, where desperate residents rioted under a strict COVID lockdown.
So is China really going to retaliate against Pelosi’s visit? All the “PLA will not sit idly by” rhetoric can cover a range of possibilities. One tabloid editor and state propagandist, Hu Xintweeted, “If US fighter jets escort Pelosi’s plane into Taiwan, that’s an invasion. The PLA has the power to forcibly expel Pelosi’s plane and US fighter jets, including by firing warning shots and conducting tactical obstacle maneuvers. If it’s not effective, shoot them. (When Twitter took down a tweet calling for violence, Hu complained about “Western censorship,” which was laughable given that Twitter is completely censored in China.)
There is also a lot of domestic instability in China right now, as leader Xi Jinping seeks an unprecedented third term this fall. Much of this saber-rattling could simply be to ward off any opponents from the nationalist wing of the Communist Party. Some might see Pelosi’s visit as a “humiliation” of Xi, requiring a dramatic show of force in response. (At the same time, everything that shakes China The currently fragile economy also cannot favor Xi’s candidate.)
In reality, the most likely outcome is China engaging in “military exercises” off the coast of Taiwan, and lots of spitting and yelling. The USS Ronald Reagan is steaming north with other American military assets closer to Taiwan to protect the speaker and demonstrate its power. It’s a geopolitical pissing match.
Pelosi is the highest-ranking American to visit the island since then-Speaker Newt Gingrich did in 1997. Why then is the Pelosi visiting Taiwan, especially at this time of global tension?
No idea. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, the stop is not included in her official itinerary. And if it’s not on her official itinerary, apparently that means no one wants to talk about or justify the trip. But maybe I missed something.
Regardless, all this “living in history” we’ve had for the past several years is getting old. Hopefully no one has one real appetite for another global calamity.