Looking back: WWIII remembered
This was not supposed to happen. Not in the year 2029. A nuclear war, millions dead, firestorms, irradiated cities. How did we get here?
The first ever nuclear war — “exchange” doesn’t capture it, nothing captures it. Millions dead. The skies are full of ash, dust and soot. There are rumours of forthcoming famines and a little Ice Age. The plight of refugees.
Only recently, optimists announced that war was obsolete. Violence was out, from dropping bombs to spanking children. Permanent peace and prosperity was at hand. Major conflict between great powers was in history’s dustbin. Nuclear war was unthinkable. I suppose the gap between “one” and “zero” is a rounding error we must live with.
Because the war was nuclear, it was different from 1939, 1914, 1803 or 1756. The difference isn’t some new scale of death. As Thomas Schelling noted, our ancestors could wipe out civilisations with ice picks. But then, back in the pre-nuclear world, you had to win on the battlefield first before annihilating the enemy’s cities. Then, the defeated enemy couldn’t inflict the apocalyptic dying sting that China just landed on Los Angeles. Then, the megadeath wasn’t so mutual. Then, “victory” meant something. Now it tastes of ashes.
It began with a struggle in Asia as China pursued its “dream” of greatness. Its economy kept growing. It built up its military forces. It threw around its weight — coercing neighbours, crushing protesters and minorities, bribing politicians, stealing intellectual property, seizing contested reefs and atolls. It declared its overlordship of the “three seas” — South, East and Yellow. Unsure where it was headed, countries hedged between the old superpower and the new. America, the weary titan, grew scared of China’s rise and the defection of allies. It buckled under the costs of debt, guns and butter, and increased domestic strife. It tried to turn the tide.
It started decoupling its economy. It progressively enlarged its naval, air and cyber forces, increasing American garrisons across Asia, launching ever-larger “freedom of navigation” operations. It declared a “league of democracies” against the world’s dictatorships. In the contest for opinion, Washington claimed “moral leadership” with a “no first use” nuclear policy.
But the rivalry escalated. Who moved first is unclear. The focus and the flashpoint became Taiwan, the island democracy China regards as a renegade province. The US increased its informal commitment to Taipei, outraging China with enhanced arms sales, diplomatic contact, naval port visits, even sailing a carrier through the Taiwan Strait. China menaced Taiwan with increased naval circumnavigations, military exercises, cyber attacks, and commercial embargoes. It threatened reunification by force.
Then, without warning, Taiwan’s president announced a referendum on independence. Beijing responded with a total blockade, demanding it acknowledge “One China”. The fighting started.
Hackers leaked transcripts from both leaders’ crisis meetings. Make of them what you will.
Washington, 2 a.m.
President: So where are we on this?
Cassandra Blood (Secretary of State): Madam President, as you know, China has imposed a comprehensive blockade of Taiwan, demanding it cancel the referendum and acknowledge “One China.” Beijing has ignored demands that it desist.
Howard Blob (National Security Advisor): This is effectively a siege to starve Taiwan. The lights have already gone out in Taipei. They request our assistance.
Blob: Given the urgency, you asked for options that would bite quickly. There are two. One: a counter-blockade against China, from a distance outside their land-based conventional missile range, to impose costs on its aggression and reassure allies, while leaving room for a diplomatic resolution. Or a seaborne military intervention, into the Taiwan Strait, to force it to back off.
President: What do you advise?
Blob: I’m sorry but we have no choice. If Beijing strangles an allied democracy into submission, with us only applying economic pressure from a distance, then our reputation as the leaders and guarantors collapses. A counter-blockade will take too long. We have to draw our sword.
President: Cassandra, you disagree?
Blood: I do, Madam President. Taiwan is not an ally. We don’t even recognise it. We don’t have a firm commitment to ride to its rescue. They have requested assistance — a counter-blockade does that. If we sail into China’s neighbourhood we invite a clash, over something China values more. If we calibrate our response, we can keep space for negotiation.
President: Sounds rational but won’t we look weak? We moderated our response before and their appetite has grown. I’ve made a point of resisting China’s bullying and encouraging Taiwan’s aspirations for freedom. Rather too well, it turns out.
Blob: Also, we only have a few weeks before Taiwan is brought to its knees. It depends on imports for food and fuel. China will absorb a blockade from us for longer.
President: So — what happens if I send in carrier groups to break the blockade?
Blob: Well, we’ve been here before over the Taiwan Strait, twice in the 1950s and 1995-6, and when we signalled resolve, China backed off. We have the bigger stick, so they are more likely to back off first.
President: What if they don’t though? Would we back off?
Blob: We will have to be prepared to sink some ships, if necessary.
Blood: And what would happen next?
Blob: That’s up to China, but if they think we are willing to go to the mat over this, they’ll blink first.
Blood: It’s different this time — this time Taiwan has de facto declared independence. And China is stronger, with more capability. It can find and sink our ships. 1996 was a humiliation that Beijing is determined not to relive. So don’t use bullshit examples.
President: Easy there. What’s the military balance?
Blood: To put it bluntly, Madam President, we ultimately have the upper hand but China could still hurt us badly. We’ve gamed this out. We have the technological lead but our forces are globally dispersed. China can concentrate its forces at home and flood the zone. China’s upgraded missile systems and range … even if this escalates without going nuclear it would get intense. They could try to blind us — knock out our satellites and sensors in space — and write down our forward bases in Guam and Japan, and right quick.
Blob: It’s not so clear — they haven’t fought a war since 1979. Their whole system is untrained.
Blood: Well, since we don’t know, we should be cautious about testing it. We should assume they are effective. If we start a shooting war, soon we will attack mainland targets. That looks like an attack on their nuclear forces, and then we’re away.
President: So who wins?
Blood: Given both sides would bleed a lot here, it comes down to the balance of wills. Taiwan is everything to China, it’s a very red line.
President: This isn’t just about Taiwan. It’s about our whole position in the world.
Blob: The whole Asian strategic order … we’ve publicly identified our interests with Asian democracies. And rightly so.
Blood: A big costly war would damage the regional order too.
President: Our allies are already nervous. If we blink here then what happens down the road?
Blood: Our allies are the problem.
Blob: No, they are our best asset. God almighty.
Blood: Not in this case. We can never care about Taiwan like China cares, so effectively we were bluffing. That’s why we should have just armed Taipei and kept it ambiguous, without increasing our commitments. Upping the ante emboldened Taipei and now their president’s declaration caught us off guard.
President: Ambiguity wasn’t working. China was pushing everywhere.
Blood: Not in Taiwan until we started …
President: We are where we are. So we can’t back down on this but it can’t go nuclear. Is that … possible?
Blob: To the contrary, Madam President, the risk of this going nuclear gives us a bargaining advantage and helps us prevent war. We have the larger arsenal and the ability to overmatch them in an escalation, and they know it.
Blood: So a game of chicken? And we could make them think we’d sacrifice Los Angeles for Taipei?
Blob: It’s called extended deterrence. We did it with West Germany.
Blood: Thanks professor. The Soviet Union didn’t regard West Germany as a breakaway province. Madam President, could I suggest we aren’t there yet — China’s blockade is earning worldwide condemnation. There are no signs of a military buildup on the mainland. Maybe a signal they are limiting this.
Blob: Limiting? They are starving a country! China is taking a run at hegemony in Asia without invading countries. It’s not a beauty contest, it’s a strength contest and if Taiwan falls, we lose. We wake up without allies and are evicted.
Blood: If we sail in now we force their hand and won’t look so strong afterwards. There has to be be another way. Remember the Berlin airlift?
Blob: Berlin? Give me a break. That would be an unauthorised flight into “Chinese” airspace.
Blood: If it was humanitarian flights …
Blob: That won’t cut it. Taiwan has 32 million people, Berlin had 2 million and that was hard enough. We are dithering. I’m getting calls from ambassadors in Singapore, Seoul, Tokyo, Jakarta and Canberra asking what we’re doing. And while our allies shake, Taiwan is being strangled. The optics here — a totalitarian state is strangling a US-supported democracy, while we hang back.
Blood: It’s more nuanced — a distanced blockade sends a signal but gives us space …
Blob: No. It signals reluctance. For once, this is non-nuanced. We either risk war to drive them off, or we effectively back down. And then it’s over.
President: Why doesn’t China get the message here? We’ve been building up in Asia and doing everything short of war to check it. They could have been rich and at peace … and now this.
Blob: Madam President, it’s because we never truly confronted them.
President: So if we do this, what’s your best guess?
Blood: The animal is very dangerous. When attacked, it defends itself.
Blob: No, they are a thug and they will back off.
Blood: Beg to differ.
Blob: We can stare them down, because they know we will prevail if it escalates. If it does, it probably won’t go nuclear. They are unlikely to cross the nuclear threshold because they know our stick is bigger and we can dominate if it goes nuclear. It’s about showing resolve. China must know that it can’t just attack us “a bit” and sink a few ships. Any tango with us would go big quickly. Against this aggressor, the safest way is to overmatch them.
President: China … it grows and grows. Taiwan cannot fall. If it does the danger increases. I wasn’t elected to preside over the liquidation of America abroad. We have to run the risk. Dispatch the fleet.
Beijing, One hour later
Paramount Leader (PL): So — what’s going on?
Zhang Zi (Air Force General, Vice Chairman of NSC): Sir, as you know, we have intercepted comms traffic to indicate that a US fleet — two carrier battle groups plus supporting assets — is heading towards the Strait. This can only be to force us to give in to Taiwan province’s illegal secession.
Li Huang (Foreign Minister): You asked us for options. We have two, presuming we sustain the blockade?
PL: Correct. Proceed.
Zi: Sir, we can await their arrival and maintain readiness to defend our fleet. Or, using our shock weapon and activating our older plan, we send a warning shot before they get here.
PL: The Sunshine Bomb?
Huang: Yes. A demonstration explosion with a nuclear weapon.
Zi: A controlled detonation, relatively isolated and separate from the military forces or any population centre, not injuring people. But a big bang.
PL: What happens then?
Huang: It creates clarity. America cares about Taiwan, but not as much as we do. America is confused about how much it is willing to bleed. It doesn’t know its own mind. We signal what’s at stake.
PL: Uh, OK … downsides?
Zi: It might clarify, sir. But at a cost.
PL: What cost?
Zi: We get worldwide condemnation. We lose the moral advantage that we have from our history of nuclear restraint. We look like the aggressor. And by detonating, it makes it about more than Taiwan — it makes it hard for America to pull back.
PL: Well, if they sail in, it will be hard to avoid a shooting war. We either send a warning shot or wait for them to join the party, then the stand-off leads to shooting, and that’s riskier.
Huang: Yes, and on the opinion side we’re being condemned anyway. We can defend our vital interests and ride out international criticism. Like Israel.
Zi: “Sunshine” makes it harder to win over Asian opinion, sir, as the new leader … and it violates our “no first use”.
Huang: No it doesn’t —“use” means attacking the adversary.
Zi: In terms of perception …
PL: Well, it may offend but it also surely signals that we don’t want to start hitting them — yet.
Zi: Maybe. Or it will look like the prelude to attack.
PL: That’s a risk we might have to bear. If this was some lesser dispute I’d agree, too risky. But this is Taiwan. It’s first-order.
So what happens if they keep coming — after Sunshine?
Huang: Well, the burden of first strike is still on their shoulders — they aren’t escorting a humanitarian convoy. This is direct confrontation. We should expect some kind of attack.
PL: Then we respond. How far does this go? Can we keep it conventional?
PL: That narrows it down. Go on.
Huang: We have higher stakes in this, sir, and if it goes nuclear then it becomes hard to control the spiral. So America faces the question: is it worth it? Remember, this is a country that is increasingly averse to nukes generally: no first use, talk of taboos and “zero” and all the rest, and de-alerting their forces …
Zi: They’ve reduced alert times, but not mothballed the bombs. The gun isn’t cocked but is loaded.
Huang: They’ve got to be insane to start launching …
Zi: It doesn’t work like that. We get into tit-for-tat and someone thinks they are about to be nuked and it’s time to “use it or lose it.” Or one of their nuclear submarine captains misperceives things. Or America attacks our command and control systems on the mainland, which looks to us like a nuclear attack …
Huang: It probably won’t get to that. If we put down some aircraft carriers, just “mission kills” not even sinking them, Americans doubt whether the province is worth it.
PL: How does it end, then?
Zi: Heavy mutual damage with conventional arms, sir, but over a week or two — then we magnanimously offer talks on condition that the status quo “One China” is agreed again.
Huang: We help America dress it up as a “draw”.
PL: So everyone bleeds, but we get the prize?
Zi: If it goes right … if a worldwide audience sees China’s defiance and strength. We keep growing our sphere.
PL: Plus it would warn off America’s cubs. I see Britain and France are sending ships. If “Global Britain” wants our business but wants to get in our face — it’s time for some barbarian management.
Zi: America’s a big military player, sir …
Huang: They haven’t won a war since 1991.
Zi: There was Kosovo …
PL: Colour me underwhelmed.
Huang: They probably don’t have the stomach for this one.
Sir, this is a gamble. We can cave in on Taiwan, with all the danger to us. We get another century of humiliation. Or we can stare them down. If it comes to it, I don’t think it will escalate to nuclear attacks. We could be wrong but — this is Taiwan. This is us. It’s worth the risk.
PL: Our People’s Republic won’t be humiliated. Not today.
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Any views expressed in this article are the author’s alone
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