A Western interpretation of the models and the analysis presented in part I of this series on assessing “tipping points” would conclude that within two to three decades China will be in a position to engage in large-scale regional conflict with the United States, and therefore the United States would either have to be prepared to engage in that conflict or simply accept the inevitable and negotiate its withdrawal from the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
The same can be said for Taiwan. The tipping point then is sometime between the years 2030 and 2050 when these material developments are supposed to have become reality. This decision calculus conforms to a Western strategic perspective which posits that military capabilities dictate strategies, but they also dictate likely outcomes and therefore are highly suggestive of likely future political choices left to the parties involved. Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum “that war is an extension of politics by other means” is followed by a less well-known dictum, which says that militaries are best used to eliminate the armies of one’s adversary so that the state can impose its political will on the adversary. The West then is much more focused on the relative military capabilities of competing states. Western strategists are much more inclined to believe that relative material capabilities dictate future realities and are therefore inclined to believe that it is possible to tangibly identify when these realities have changed; hence, Westerners are much more inclined to believe they can measure, assess, and identify tipping points.
The Cultural and Political Dimensions of Tipping Points
While Mao, a central figure still today in Chinese formulation of strategy, recognized the importance of relative military capabilities to the formulation of strategy, he was no adherent to material determinism. For Mao, the human dimension of strategic interactions should be front and center. China has no intention of pushing for a large-scale regional or systemic conflict with the United States. It seeks to gain its strategic objectives with a minimum amount of collateral damage to the international economy, the international system, and to China’s domestic economy and internal stability. It is more likely that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership will take advantage of these projected material developments, these shifts in the military balance, to exert as much coercive pressure on all of the parties to this strategic situation, while seeking to avoid direct confrontation and conflict with the United States. This does not sound like a fait accompli, it sounds like iterative strategic gamesmanship. In other words, a missing component in an analysis focused solely on material elements is human agency and stratagem.
The best most recent example of this East-meets-West strategic interaction is the Vietnam War. By all accounts the United States defense establishment under Robert McNamara had all of the material, military capability, and raw power advantages over Vietnam and its Communist allies. A tipping point would already have been achieved by the mid-1960s when US troop levels had approached half a million personnel in Indochina and more than adequate air, naval, and ground combat equipment in theater. Even after the United States and its Communist adversaries started clashing, McNamara and his “whiz kids” were presenting rosy reports to President Lyndon Johnson that they would win the war because they were “winning the battle of body counts.” A tipping point had easily been reached and the United States could expect victory. What Johnson and McNamara did not sufficiently take into account was the impact of human agency and stratagem in this strategic interaction. They did not take into account that the North Vietnamese would be willing to take over half a million killed; they did not take into account the corrosive effects of Vietcong activities in the South Vietnamese villages and how Communist political strategy was undermining the South Vietnamese ability to effectively govern; they did not take into account a clever one-two punch strategy that the enemy employed in which the US military forces on the ground had to contend both with an insurgency and a conventional threat that could easily penetrate into South Vietnam at a time and place of the enemy’s choosing. In short, US strategists could envisage all the favorable tipping points they wanted, but the reality did not match the conceptualization because the enemy “had a vote” and he voted not to recognize that a tipping point had arrived in America’s favor.
In general, future strategic interactions between China, the United States, and Taiwan are faced with an analogous situation. Are the United States and its allies motivated to take on China under trying circumstances, to include putting troops on Taiwan in case of a PLA attack on the island? Is the United States willing to go up the escalation ladder? What if the US is able to rally not just its Asia-Pacific allies, but its allies in NATO, who have demonstrated an interest in the security of the Asia Pacific, and have also become involved? What if India, concerned over developments in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, also becomes involved as well? Could the US pursue a regional conflict strategy of “Active Denial” in which it would rally countries of the region to deny China access to bases/facilities, strategic passages and airspace as suggested by some analysts?
These developments alone radically change Beijing’s calculus for how a Taiwan campaign develops. If China has fielded an overwhelming force that has the potential to not only blockade Taiwan, but also to invade it, does the fact that Taiwan has developed a “porcupine strategy” whereby its special forces take to the hills and tie down PLA troops for months, change Beijing’s calculus on whether it should or should not invade? In short, the potential strategic choices of the United States, Taiwan, American allies in the Pacific, other interested strategic actors, and China’s calculus of both its external and internal security requirements ultimately determine countless future tipping points. When taking into account the human dimension of strategy and the potential of stratagems to confound Chinese strategic objectives, then identifying actual tipping points becomes a much more difficult task.
This entire discussion over tipping points reminds one of the intellectual debate over the balance of power. It can be empirically tested and measured, but a balance and/or an imbalance really comes down to the “eye of the beholder.” The analysis that most strategists have undertaken is straightforward: Material trends are troubling. They show that by mid-century China may have a $40 trillion dollar economy and a military to match. They show that when hypothetical tactical interactions between the US and China take place near the Taiwan Strait, the advantages enjoyed by the US military may have eroded. They show that even now China may possess the capability to shut down key parts of Taiwan’s ability to defend itself. These developments suggest that China is likely to become more coercive and to be less accommodating to US interests and concerns. They show that the Chinese Communist leadership may be less willing to talk with Taiwan’s political leadership to work out problems between the two. In that sense, Beijing may perceive that its capabilities have arrived at a tipping point and therefore we can expect a much tougher Chinese approach to Taiwan affairs. At the same time, it is also the case that tipping points are much more difficult to measure and to assess than strategists claim.
Some “China Hands” are probably correct when they point out that historically Chinese strategists from Sun Tzu to Mao have paid close attention to the fact that human agency, strategy formulation, and the effects of successful statesmanship can significantly determine outcomes. It is with this in mind that the United States, Taiwan, and America’s allies in the Asia-Pacific should think about its future strategies to preserve the balance in East Asia and peace across the Taiwan Strait.
The main point: When left to assess the US-China or PRC-Taiwan strategic situation solely through material comparisons it is possible to roughly predict that some kind of tipping point will be reached between the years 2030 and 2050. However, history has shown that material factors only represent a part of the strategic equation. Thus, the actual expected outcomes of strategic interactions between China, the United States, and Taiwan come down to the effectiveness of the policies and strategies put forward by the United States and its allies, the willingness of the United States and Taiwan to take bold, innovative actions to counter Chinese actions, and the willingness of America’s allies in the region and outside of it to cooperate for the sake of collective security in the region.