Discussions of war with China over Taiwan often assume a short, regional war won by superior American technology, after which things go on approximately as before. A few observations:
First, overconfidence is an occupational disease of militaries and militarists. Wars very often fail to proceed according to the expectations of the aggressors and not infrequently end in catastrophe. The American Civil War was expected to be over in an afternoon at First Manassas; wrong by four years and 630,000 dead, equivalent to over six million today.
When Napoleon invaded Russia, he did not foresee Russian troops marching in Paris, which is what happened. When Germany invaded France in 1914, it expected a short, victorious war of movement, and got four years of a losing attrition war. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, GIs sleeping with their daughters in Tokyo was not among their war aims, but it is what happened.
When the French went back into Vietnam after WW II, being catastrophically defeated by les jaunes at Dien Bien Phu was not a strategic objective. When America invaded Vietnam, Washington did not expect a panicked flight from atop the Embassy. When Hitler invaded Russia, GIs in Berlin were not in his plans. When Russia invaded Afghanistan, it did not expect the same outcome that the Americans should have expected, but didn’t, when they did exactly the same thing. The list could be extended. Caution often is a wiser plan than martial enthusiasm.
Second, America starts its wars by overestimating its own capacities, underestimating the enemy, and misunderstanding the nature of the war it is getting into. There is probably a manual on this. Usually the US has no end game and no “what if” plan in case the unforeseen occurs. These traits are clear in America’s wars since Korea.
The reason for this curious behavior is that war is only tangentially a rational endeavor, being chiefly a limbic, instinctually driven habit probably of genetic provenance. War is just what men do, tribe against tribe, country against country, empire against empire, world without end. War is a major, perhaps the major, focus of human endeavor. A glance at history reveals it to be chiefly a tapestry of war. The literature of civilizations reflects this: The Gilgamesh Epic, the Iliad, the Aeneid, El Cid, Orlando Furioso, Lord of the Rings.
Does America have a clear reason for defending Taiwan? It is not of vital importance to America, and arguably not of minor importance. Few Americans know quite where it is, and few can distinguish it from Thailand. If it became part of China almost no one would notice. Before getting into an unpredictable war with a massively populous nuclear power of formidable economic and military resources on the other side of the world, it might be wise to answer the question, “Why? What do we gain? How do we get out of said war?”
Regarding war in Chinese waters:
The US fleet has not been in combat since 1945, over seventy-five years ago. American pilots have not flown against a competent enemy since 1973, almost half a century ago. Enormous changes in technology and armament have occurred in the intervening years. Nobody really knows what a battle of naval forces against modern antiship missiles would look like. Those who can guess are not sanguine. Most warships today lack armor. Anyone looking at what a couple of French Exocet missiles did to the USS Stark in 1987 would not bet on equally unarmored Ticos or Arleigh Burkes. An aircraft carrier is a large bladder of aviation fuel wrapped around high explosives. Look at the accidental launch in 1967 of one Zuni five-inch ground-attack missile aboard the USS Forrestal, igniting raging fires, cooking off bombs, killing 134 sailors and putting the ship in the repair yard for many months.
Militaries grow slack in extended periods of peace. Training decreases to save money. War stocks of tank treads are cannibalized for training and aren’t there when war comes; the company that made them has gone out of business. Supplies of critical parts dwindle as budgets go to procurement of future hardware. After all, nobody really expects war. Rapid mobilization, it turns out, is impossible.
If the war was not won as quickly and decisively as hoped, as it very likely would not be, would an American public already under severe economic stress support the heavy cost of a war having no obvious end point or relevance to their lives? Conscription?
Within the Beltway many seem to think that China is Cambodia with more people. Some in Washington harbor a residual belief that America is militarily supreme, that its mere entrance into war seals the outcome. Think again, carefully. Rand has wargamed regional war in the Strait and South China Sea and concluded that America has a very good chance of losing. he Chinese are smart, and excellent engineers. Chinese students dominate America’s best technical universities and the elite high schools. CalTech and MIT, for example. Look at the Chinese space program, the upcoming 360 mph maglev trains using high-temperature superconductivity. The Chinese are not little-leaguers. They have put many resources into antiship missiles specifically designed for US carriers. These, note, greatly outrange carrier aviation. Iraq was predicted to be a “cakewalk.” China won’t be.
Allies? In naval circles there is much talk about the First Island Chain and an assumption that Japan will join a war against China to protect Taiwan, or at least let its bases be used by American forces. Are we sure? Japan is within missile and air range of China. All of its petroleum arrives by sea, and China has pretty decent submarines. Japan’s trade mostly moves by sea. China is a crucial trading partner whose elimination in a war would devastate the Japanese economy. Japan is close to China. America is not. Tokyo might worry that America would grow weary of the war and go home, as it usually does, and leave Japan, all alone, in a shooting war with China. How would that end?
What stake does Japan have in the independence of Taiwan? Today it trades with both Taiwan and China. If China absorbed the island, Japan would continue trading with both. Only the letterhead would change. Are we quite, quite sure Tokyo would want any part of this?
South Korea? Its cities and entire economy are within missile range of China. Does it really want to get into a shooting war with its huge neighbor, which has a land border with the peninsula, to maintain American hegemony in the Pacific? Having gotten into a war, how would it get out? The Koreans may have thought of this.