Great Writing on the Myths of Empire and the Roots of Realism

May 22, 2014 - Comments Off on Great Writing on the Myths of Empire and the Roots of Realism

Successive crises in Ukraine, the Senkakus and Syria have inspired some great writing, including:

Peter Beinart on credibility anxiety;

Michael Cohen on the false notion that America is in retreat;

the surprisingly liberal origins of the term Realpolitik in the modern age, as the pursuit of ‘liberal, enlightened goals in a world that does not follow liberal, enlightened rules; and how to ensure political and social progress in an unstable and unpredictable environment.’

Worth a read!


Arguing about Thucydides

May 7, 2014 - Comments Off on Arguing about Thucydides

I recently published an op-ed on the ‘Thucydides Trap’ at The National Interest, that can be found here.

It has been critically analysed by a Professor of Classics, Neville Morley, in a blog post. While I’m pleased that the piece has drawn attention, I am disappointed at his mixture of passive-aggressive tone and tortured reasoning. So I’ll respond, below, ad seriatim.

Here goes:

If International Relations theorists are going to continue citing Thucydides – and there’s no real sign of a let-up any time soon – then at least it’s a good sign if more of them have read more than just the Melian Dialogue.

With that offering of faint praise, Morley suggests that there is something tiresome and regrettable about the fact that some International Relations theorists cite Thucydides (‘no real sign of a let-up’, ‘at least its a good sign…’). Does he believe that IR scholars should not cite Thucydides? Who, then, should they be restricted to citing? IR theorists are concerned with the dangers of conflict and insecurity in our world. So surely its legitimate for them to study the great texts of past. The past, after all, is the only guide we have. Heavyweight political minds have long been drawn to the Athenian’s history for this reason, from Thomas Hobbes to Richard Ned Lebow. But maybe they should have heeded the irritation of specialists, and stayed out of Morley’s turf.

We then have this:

In a new article in The National Interest on the prospects for US-China relations, ‘Thucydides Trap 2.0′, Patrick Porter not only cites some ideas from the Corcyrean stasis but also distances himself from crass evocations of ancient Greece: “That Thucydides did not lay out a sustained explicit theory, and that his opinion is hard to extract from the arguments he recreated, does not stop people from ransacking his history for lessons.” Of course, that’s a conventional rhetorical move to imply that this reading of Thucydides in terms of contemporary lessons is complex and sophisticated and can be trusted…

Of course I believe my interpretation is ‘complex and sophisticated.’ There aren’t many scholars who believe their own work is simplistic and crude. I argue for a more careful reading that looks beyond mere external foreign relations, but I’m not sure where Morley gets the idea that I believe readers should just ‘trust’ what I say. I argue for an interpretation. Readers can look and disagree.

After this beginning, complete with suspenseful ellipsis, Morley goes on:

Porter’s argument, as evident from the title, sets off from the idea of the ‘Thucydides Trap’, the inevitability of conflict between an established power and an upstart rival (see previous posts). History shows that such ‘power transitions’ do not inevitably lead to conflict; the true ‘trap’ is rather an internal one, as Athens’ rising power led to excessive ambition and poor decision-making:…

In Book Three, Thucydides’ description of wartime rhetoric bears resemblance to today’s gridlocked politics. ‘Words had to change their ordinary meaning….Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any…The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.’ An aristocrat exiled by the people’s vote, Thucydides portrayed a volatile Athenian population misled by demagogues that whipped it up. Even allowing for his disdain for unruly democracy, we can recognize in his History a useful warning. Power generates an obsession with status and the projection of strength, mutates into imperial swagger, and coarsens domestic politics. Domestic political spite in the imperial capital leads to moral and strategic failure, precisely because it makes sober debate difficult.

There’s a certain amount of sleight of hand here, conscious or not; the casual reader would quite reasonably conclude that the words quoted from Book III were explicitly offered as a description of Athens, rather than being an account of a completely different city that Thucydides intended to serve as a paradigm of the consequences of stasis across Greece. It’s a perfectly reasonable reading of the debasement of political rhetoric and the failures of deliberation in Athens – but it’s slightly strange that it isn’t developed using the more direct examples of the Mytilene Debate and the decision to send the expedition to Sicily. Is that perhaps precisely because those are debates, in which the outcome was uncertain and hence could have turned out differently, whereas Porter seems keen to imply that catastrophe is the inevitable result of such internal divisions and debased political discourse? One might even wonder whether there is a superstitious evasion of the example of Nicias, given that Porter’s basic message is a rather Nician one – “A climate of hysterical accusation prevents the formation of a party of caution, and impedes the measured consideration of hard choices.”

Its not easy to disentangle Morley’s message here from all its contradictions. On one hand, I am guilty of ‘sleight of hand’, though on the other it might not be ‘conscious.’ Its not clear how one can unintentionally be dishonest. On one hand, to believe Book III refers at all to politics in Athens is wrong, given that its about a ‘completely different city’, though on the other hand to see Thucydides statement about the debasement of language as relating to Athens is ‘perfectly reasonable.’ As Winston Churchill said of his desert, this section has no theme.

Then with a series of weasel qualifiers (‘certain amount’…’slightly strange’…’perhaps’…’One might even wonder’) Morley then speculates that I leave out mention of the Mytilene and Sicilian debates because I have dubious motives to twist the story. Actually, for what its worth, the reason is shallow. I had 1500 words to make a point about how to relate Thucydides’ history to the US-China rivalry, and how disaster begins at home. My omission of details is not, as Morley alleges, motivated by ‘superstitious evasion’ or a desire to dupe the reader, but by an editorial word count. Morley is pleased, however, to interpret silence in the most creative way possible, and allege unspeakable motives. Whose rhetorical moves are conventional, we might ask?

But there’s more:

The strangest aspect of this piece is the use of the phrase “suicide”. To be fair, “superpower suicide” appears only in the title and might not be Porter’s doing, but he certainly evokes the idea: “The real snare in [Thucydides’]  History was not the murder of great powers, but their suicide.” (It may be wholly coincidental, but this immediately brought to mind the remark of an early C20 French historian whose name I can’t for the moment remember that the Roman Empire didn’t die a natural death, it was assassinated). In what sense did Athens commit suicide? It didn’t choose to destroy itself; the problem was rather excessive hope in the prospects for success and a glorious future, and various failures in short-term strategy and planning. I suppose this is rather a matter of ‘effective’ suicide, pursuing an obviously dangerous course of action in the face of all common sense and good advice

In a crowded field, this is Morley’s most ill-considered claim. The difference between a metaphorical and a literal statement is something any reasonably talented infant can grasp. But Morley gets there in the end. As it occurs to him eventually, I used the word ‘suicide’ not to mean that the Athenians decided deliberately to destroy themselves, but to mean that the disaster came about primarily because of self-defeating behaviour. Morley’s slide into literalism here is ironic, coming from a classicist who doesn’t like outsiders crudely misreading texts.

Finally, Morley has this to say:

but surely part of the message of Thucydides’ account is that the decision to send an expedition to Sicily was finely balanced, even if it ended in disaster – not as a matter of inevitability, but as a result of various different circumstances, some foreseeable but others not, that made it seem a poor decision in retrospect.

Porter’s main concern is the absence of a ‘party of caution’ and the domination of bellicose, hubristic rhetoric in US foreign policy circles. The Athenian case is rather different; clearly there was a party of caution, in the form of Nicias and his supporters, but they lost the argument. Thucydides may well have intended us to conclude that things would have been better if they had won, but there’s enough evidence in his portrayal of Nicias’ actions in Sicily to raise doubts about his overall judgement, and one might equally conclude that the fatal step was the decision to recall Alcibiades. The idea of a straightforward “if X, then Y will follow” principle – whether “if  rising power confronts established power then war”, or “if internal divisions and debased political rhetoric in context of power transition then war” – is quite alien to his sensibility.

For the record, here is Thucydides’ own comment on the Sicilian expedition, which is more robust than a view of it as ‘finely balanced’, from book 2. It leaves little doubt about the domestic roots of the problem:

Thus Athens, though still in name a democracy, was in fact ruled by her greatest citizen, But his [Pericles’] successors were more on an equality with one another, and, each one struggling to be first himself, they were ready to sacrifice the whole conduct of affairs to the whims of the people. Such weakness in a great and imperial city led to many errors, of which the greatest was the Sicilian expedition; not that the Athenians miscalculated their enemy’s power, but they themselves, instead of consulting for the interests of the expedition which they had sent out, were occupied in intriguing against one another for the leadership of the democracy, and not only hampered the operations of the army, but became embroiled, for the first time, at home.

If Thucydides is clear about one thing, it is that the expedition to Sicily was a bad idea, conceived in ignorance and strategic innocence, and that it was a mistake symptomatic of the decline in Athenian leadership. Morley is right that Thucydides also blames errors of execution. But consider the examples he offers. The recall of Alcibiades was as a result of domestic power struggles, just as the decision to appoint a reluctant and flawed Nicias to the command was an unintended result of perverse, emotive debate. Private quarrels in pursuit of power at home undermined the campaign at the front. There were parties of caution in the Greek world – and as Thucydides indicates, they were subjected to all kinds of abuse. Political disunity and bad faith was his obsessive, recurring theme.

In the article, I built on a legitimate and defensible reading of the text: that though nothing was inevitable, the permissive cause of Athens’ fall and the wider tragedy of the Greek world was the loss of restraint, the rise of destructive ambition and the defeat of the voice of cautious reason, all of which spiralled after the death of Pericles. If Thucydides had a ‘sensibility’, it was to illustrate how the Athenian empire’s growth contained the seeds of its own temptations, how it tragically brought about its own defeat, and through its mis-steps made itself vulnerable to opponents from Sparta to the Persian Empire. It held on for years after Sicily, but internal dissension again laid it low.

To end at the beginning, the original point of my piece was that a Thucydidean approach to US-China antagonism should turn attention primarily to failures at home, both moral and strategic. If Morley is truly interested in my views and has time to spare, he might read my other work on the issue of security in East Asia, which is anything but fatalistic or formulaic. If anything, this interpretation leaves room for hope that a tragic clash with China might yet be avoided, if sober leadership could be brought to bear. There are plenty of differences in context between today and the Peloponnesian war. But the danger of self-inflicted wounds is a theme that rhymes.


Book Teaser: The Global Village Myth

January 28, 2014 - Comments Off on Book Teaser: The Global Village Myth

Though I’m not posting much these days, War on The Rocks have been kind enough to post this, the argument of the book in nutshell form.


What Times, What Customs

November 25, 2013 - Comments Off on What Times, What Customs

Twitter is a phenomenon that attracts superficial, lightweight, gossipy commentary on the few days we have on this earth.

So I thought I’d join in.

I suspect it will be mostly a little newsagency for collecting the best feeds on the things that obsess the Offshore Balancer, plus some occasional sports journalism thrown in.

If you can bear this cultural decline, here it is.


The Great War of…1990

November 6, 2013 - Comments Off on The Great War of…1990

The year 2014 is nearly on us, and reflections on World War One are already weighing down bookshop shelves. In my own research, I’ve stumbled across an odd tendency: that whereas in Britain the cause of World War One, if not its conduct, attracts strong supporters as well as critics, the first Gulf War is remembered as a bit of a disappointment.

Consider the difference with one of history’s archetypal ‘limited’ wars, which few seem keen to defend.

In early 1991, having defeated the fourth largest army in the world after a bombing campaign and 100 hours of ground war, President Bush I called a halt to operations and stopped US forces at the Iraqi border. Despite majorities in polls supporting the overthrow of the defeated but surviving enemy Saddam Hussein, despite the belief of commander General Schwarzkopf that the US could drive on to Baghdad with virtually no resistance, despite the apparent opportunity to finish the job, Bush held back.

Ever since, observers have debated whether this consciously limited war was worth it. A rough consensus emerged in the literature – both journalistic and historiographical -that this was a hollow victory. It achieved its central declared aim, of expelling the Iraqi invader from Kuwait whose sovereignty was restored. But it failed to achieve the aim that gathered force as the war proceeded – more of a hope than an aim – that defeat would lead to Saddam’s demise at the hands of a palace revolution or popular uprising.

This unsatisfying outcome led to a decade of drift, a containment regime that was breaking down and serial breaches of UN resolutions. Critics also complained that the defiant Saddam used the opportunity to arm himself with apocalyptic weapons, but that line of critique has fallen out of fashion. So too has the loose counterfactual, that America could just have occupied the country and overseen a transition to democracy at minimal cost. That also is heard less often these days. But for critics, it was, allegedly, a ‘triumph without a victory.’

Speaking of which, that is the verdict British historian Brian Bond in his account of the pursuit of victory in the modern world. For Bond:  ‘The ironic result of the Gulf War seems to be either Saddam Hussein will be left in power to build up his forces for renewed aggression or, by some means short of another great coalition war, he will have to be deposed. There can rarely have been a case in history where the chasm between a decisive military victory and an unsatisfactory political outcome has been so wide. It was a “triumph without victory.’

Bond and I would have to agree to disagree on this one. The Gulf War was fought primarily to expel an invader from a territory, prevent Saddam’s regime from threatening the wider balance of power, keep his foot off the West’s windpipe, and shackle a predatory state. That American diplomacy (and indeed Arab diplomacy) had helped to generate this problem does not remove the question that Bush’s war addressed: was the invasion to be tolerated or not?  To judge wars only worthwhile if they achieve far more, if they destroy regimes or transform regions, is to ask too much. Most conflicts, even the ‘good’ ones, leave other tragic legacies in their wake. Just try telling Poles about the moral triumph of World War Two, or Serb minorities about the justice of the Balkans interventions.

Unless we fall prey to that ahistorical, utopian standard, its fair to say that whatever else happened, the 1990 war achieved a negative gain: a recession-fatigued, Vietnam-haunted America under a UN mandate with a broad coalition turned back an invasion and annexation of a small state. What’s more, Bush did try to convert this momentum into a settlement of sorts over Palestine, having just thwarted the main rejectionist regime in the region. But that is another story.

Regardless of all this, here is what’s truly odd. Having judged Bush’s war in the Gulf to be an extreme case of battlefield victory and political failure, Bond a few years later had this to say about Britain’s Great War of 1914-1918:

“It was, for Britain,a necessary and successful war, and an outstanding achievement for a democratic nation in arms.”

There’s something very wrong here. By what standard should we define and measure victory?  The Gulf War was hardly a picnic. It cost the US four casualties but killed thousands of Iraqis, and smashed up a good deal of infrastructure, and led to sanctions that ravaged Iraqi society. But compare it to the big one: to the first day of the battle of the Somme, or just about any day of Ypres, or the crippling naval blockade on Germany, or the atrocious occupation of Belgium, or  the disastrous aftermath and legacy of Leninism, economic dislocation, hypernationalism…by what standard, exactly, do Haig and Lloyd George get commended while Bush and Schwarzkopf are condemned?

Heavy costs and tragic unanticipated consequences came with both causes, the cause of preventing the Kaiserreich from crushing Europe, and the cause of preventing Saddam Hussein swallowing up Kuwait.  Whether one or both were worth it comes down to difficult value judgments that political change over time can alter. But as 2014 looms and poses the question of what standards to hold up to these questions, some proportion might be in order.

The Offshore Balancer in Space

October 18, 2013 - Comments Off on The Offshore Balancer in Space

After Britain fended off Nazi Germany’s assault in 1940 and Washington was persuaded that it was a horse worth backing,  the United States acted as an offshore balancer. Styling itself the arsenal of democracy and the guardian of the oceans, it gave material assistance to the British empire, began protecting Atlantic shipping lanes, expanded its defence perimeter, and by throwing its weight into the struggle, helped ensure that Britain could hold on as a vital base and counterweight to the growing Reich.  By the time it entered the struggle as a belligerent, it had had time to mobilise, rearm and plan.

For the review of all this and more, I was lucky enough recently to play a minor role in the retelling of the history of America’s world war two on the History Channel. ‘World War Two’ from space combined very cool digital graphics with historians like Richard Overy to produce an unusually worthwhile television event. Its now on Youtube – and here is the episode where yours truly chipped in with a few sentences.

Its just won an Emmy too – for graphic design, so congrats to all the team! That award for aesthetic achievement was won despite the face below.

The Offshore Balancer in Space

October 18, 2013 - Comments Off on The Offshore Balancer in Space

After Britain fended off Nazi Germany’s assault in 1940 and Washington was persuaded that it was a horse worth backing,  the United States acted as an offshore balancer. Styling itself the arsenal of democracy and the guardian of the oceans, it have material assistance to the British empire.

I was lucky enough recently to play a minor role in the retelling of the history of America’s world war two on the History Channel. ‘World War Two’ from space combined very cool digital graphics with historians like Richard Overy to produce an unusually worthwhile television event. Its now on Youtube – and here is the episode where yours truly chipped in with a few sentences. Its just won an Emmy too – for graphic design, so congrats to all the team!

That award for aesthetic achievement was won despite the face below.



Hitting Assad is unwise. But if done, it should be a punch, not a slap

September 2, 2013 - Comments Off on Hitting Assad is unwise. But if done, it should be a punch, not a slap

It would be unwise to attack Syria. But it would be more unwise to believe that a one-off slap will succeed.

President Obama now seeks Congressional support for an air-strike against the monstrous regime of Assad after it allegedly used poison gas against civilians. The purpose is twofold: it is punitive, to punish the regime for violating a long-standing international norm against the use of chemical weapons. And it is preventative, intended to disrupt the regime’s capability for doing it again.

In brief, this exercise in missile diplomacy strikes me as imprudent.

Firstly, the evidence is not in, not to a satisfactory standard at any rate. The same President that rose to prominence condemning the unilateralism and illegality of Bush’s war in Iraq is now pushing for a resolution in favour of bombing a country in defiance of the UN Security Council vetoes it would get, and weeks before the UN’s own deliberation about what happened is due. Personally I don’t regard UNSC agreements as morally compelling as some commentators seem to , given that it is made up of states that all carry out unilateral war when it suits them. But if war is to be waged – and that is what this is – surely the threshold should be sufficiently high for the evidence to be properly assessed. If it is so painfully clear that Damascus is the culpable party, then the evidence will reveal this. The bad faith and misrepresentation of evidence in building the case for Iraq haunts us still, and that is one reason the House of Commons has rejected Prime Minister Cameron’s plea for support for war against Syria. Now is no time to be cavalier about matters of proof.


Secondly, it places undue moral and political weight on one method of atrocity over others.  Regimes kill civilians often and with much simpler methods that usually kill at a faster clip. Tyrants do not need poison gas to terrorise civilians, even if they think they do. A well-organised political machine, radio broadcasting and machetes killed people fast and on a great scale in Rwanda in 1994. As the wolfish assassin played by Tom Cruise in Collateral quipped, no-one has killed that many people that quickly since Hiroshima.

For some reason we attribute chemical weapons with exceptional barbarity, possibly because they are linked to the scientific genocide carried out by Nazi Germany in World War Two. But most slaughters, such as at Srebrenica, are done with cruder methods. And Assad’s assault on a neighborhood with poison gas seems to have been less murderous than his use of munitions, as hundreds of thousands of Syrians could attest if they were alive to tell it.

Either we say that chemical weapons use deserves more severe punishment than other methods, in which case an argument should be made as to why, precisely. Or we say that all outrages against civilians must be punished, which will put the weary, debt-laden, divided United States on a course Obama claims to oppose, a path of endless war.

Thirdly, Obama’s case for a limited bombing conducted to defend and consolidate a norm and prevent an aggressor carrying out one kind of atrocity places too great a faith in the effectiveness of a one-off act of war. Obama presents America as a judge dispensing justice to an offender in the dock, to teach it and everyone else a lesson, and prevent them doing it again.

But if America bombs Syria, it will not be handing down a verdict in a civilian court. Objectively, whether it likes it or not, it will be joining one side in a brutal and very messy civil war. The opposition knows it. The Syrian regime knows it. Onlooking states know it – Turkey, Russia, Iran -backing one side or the other. And Assad will likely conclude that the cruise missiles fired at him from the sea are not the instruments of international justice, but a declaration of war by a superpower joining the other side.

This will likely have consequences that Obama’s arguments have hardly addressed.  The Tomahawk missiles will probably not topple Assad quickly, given the poor success rate of strategic bombing for regime change. They will, however, elicit open hostility and hostile retaliations from the regime and its backers. Assad will promise revenge, via cyber assaults on terrorist strikes against any American base, or American, he can get his hands on. Hezbollah and Iran will vow likewise and possibly also vow to punish Israel, America’s main ally in the region. And, distressingly, Russia’s hostility can be reliably expected across the board. America will find itself in an intensifying conflict where a coalition of enemies directly threaten it.

And herein is the problem: Obama wants a limited, punitive, one-off airstrike to make a point. But what he will get is something far more fraught: the opening shots in a new round of a war which will become more internationalised. Assad will likely survive and look defiant. This will make Americans, with little appetite for more war, feel humiliated, angry and/or frightened. For Obama, the downstream pressure to escalate will be strong.

And the slaughter of civilians will continue.

So, if America is to do this, let it not be a foolish slap conducted to avoid embarrassment. It should know that by stepping into this fight, it is joining a side, making fresh enemies and raising the stakes for itself. In which case, it must punch Assad with great force, not just slap him in a pinprick measure that is enough to kill bystanders and escalate the conflict, but not enough to succeed.

Given that public opinion and war weariness will circumscribe any military action to standoff strikes, they must be targeted at the regime’s capability to wage war across the board: its airpower, its cyber-capabilities, its command and control centres, its radar systems, its ships and its army on the ground. If America is determined to impress upon the world the extent of its presence and its power, and if it really does believe that this regime should be stopped in its tracks effectively, if it really does identify its security interests with the success of the Syrian rebels, then this is what is required.

If this sounds horrifically unacceptable, and if it sounds like the kind of thing Americans will not shoulder, then America’s policymakers should not delude themselves that a few cruise missiles will be a sensible substitute. Because stepping in to this war will very likely lead to mutual escalation. It is not just a matter of ‘knowing the enemy’, it is a matter of ‘knowing oneself.’ Knowing itself, Washington should realise that it itself will not tolerate the blowback from a bombing slap.

So, its go hard or go home.


Questions about Syria

August 27, 2013 - Comments Off on Questions about Syria

I’ve posted some questions about the looming air strikes against Syria over at the Duck of Minerva

A fresh article on its way in Infinity, stay tuned!

Ham Omelettes and Taiwan’s Defence

August 23, 2013 - Comments Off on Ham Omelettes and Taiwan’s Defence

In the old old question of why the weak occasionally beat the strong, my favourite metaphor is the Ham Omelette. In a Ham Omelette, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.

In a clash over the Taiwan Strait, who would be the pig, who the chicken? This matters, because in the end predicting the outcome of a China-Taiwan clash would not be about the absolutes of military victory narrowly conceived, but about the issue of cost tolerance and the fear of a Pyrrhic result.

Relations between Taiwan and Beijing have eased in the latest ‘detente.’ But some worry that their mutual aims regarding Taiwan’s ultimate sovereignty are still irreconcilable and that they could still deteriorate. One thing driving this anxiety is the shifting military balance between the two, moving in China’s favour. But assessments of the clash are still predominantly quantitative. The debate should focus primarily not just on China’s superior mass and technology, but on whether it would be willing to absorb the costs of an invasion compared to the Taiwanese’ willingness to tough it out.

Some of the most prominent studies of the cross-strait military balance pay little heed to the question of relative will. Which side would be more cost-tolerant? Would the prospect of a Pyrrhic victory deter China? Conversely, would the Taiwanese have the stomach for an all-out clash after a saturation bombing and massed invasion?

The annual ‘Military Balance‘ produced by the International Institute of Strategic Studies is an example. At a mere £300 or so ($467) it is surely a bargain at twice the price (!). But its assessment is overshadowed by the issue of who has the biggest and strongest battalions.

In 2012, it had this to say about Taiwan’s defences:

the ability of such a small military to withstand a concerted invasion from across the Taiwan Strait is doubtful. Moreover, a growing reluctance on the part of the US to furnish Taiwan with advanced military equipment means that China is closing the technology gap with Taiwan. Taipei is currently emphasising the procurement of early warning systems and missile defence to enable the island to withstand an assault for as long as possible, with the goal of buying time for US intervention.

In 2013, here was the verdict, revised only semantically:

the capacity of such a small armed forces [sic] to withstand a concerted Chinese offensive from across the Taiwan Strait is doubtful. Moreover, a growing reluctance on the part of the US to furnish Taiwan with the most advanced military equipment means that China is rapidly closing the technology gap. Taipei is currently emphasising the procurement of early-warning and missile-defence systems to enable the island to withstand an assault for as long as possible, with the goal of buying time for US intervention.

Its not surprising that the MB focuses on weapons and defence budgets, rather than second-guessing the calculus of regimes and speculating on mass psychology. And it does have a point on the narrow ‘capabilities’ question. Measured pound for pound for combat power in any straight two-sided fight, China probably could seize back control of the island if both sides went to the matt. It seemingly, increasingly, has the ‘physical’ capability edge, particularly in the air and missile competition. It has strengthened its arsenal of short range ballistic missiles, for example, and though both sides are modernising their forces, observers fear that Taiwan will suffer in the ‘fighter gap’ with its failure so far to acquire F-16C/Ds.

This is not just a dyadic issue given America’s interests in the question. With its strengthening access and area denial capabilities that might seriously raise the costs of any US intervention, Beijing could plausibly threaten to fight a localised war against an isolated and overmatched Taipei.

Realistically, China’s exploitation of the military gap could take several forms short of outright war. Beijing might hope to deter Taiwan from unilaterally declaring independence and/or to coerce Taiwan to settle on its terms. But in the remote but severe worse case scenario, China might be emboldened by its military strength and doubts about the credibility of America’s commitment to strike.

Equally, as some incisive commentaries argue, it is probable that even a Taiwan being defeated in the air and on the ground would inflict some serious stings that make the question of political will vital. When it had the greater qualitative military edge, Taiwan defined victory in offensive terms – to win in a direct clash for control of seas and skies, overpowering China’s larger but less advanced forces. It designed its defences accordingly, around capital ships and advanced planes and matching its adversaries’ investments. Judging by its own published doctrine, the National Defence Report of 2011, Taiwan recognises that victory in these terms is no longer realistic and it is switching accordingly. Taiwan now defines victory as ensuring the survival of enough forces and preventing land forces establishing a foothold on Taiwan. The same logic that enables China with today’s tools to raise the costs of US intervention into its maritime space to unpalatable levels, also enables Taiwan to do the same at a price more suited to its limited GDP expenditure on defence.

Taiwan could carry out a range of active defence measures to make any invasion attempt a bloody proposition. To turn the nautical approaches to the island into contested zones, it could exploit ‘swarming’ methods by using small-attack craft armed with anti-ship cruise missiles as light guerrillas at sea. To turn the point of amphibious landing into a shooting gallery, it could use entrenched anti-ship and anti-air missile sites. To make both the approach and the beachhead more perilous, it could use sea and land mines. All of these would need to be coordinated by surviving command-and-control and C4ISTAR network. To resist further incursions by Chinese forces, Taiwan could stress small-unit tactics and prepare for urban combat by civilian militias as well as professionals. And through passive defensive measures, Taiwan would aim to keep its forces survivable: through mobility, redundancy, and the hardening and camouflage of its assets, as well as the stockpiling of food and fuel. These would not prevent large-scale damage to Taiwan’s military and civilian property but could preserve enough combat power to keep material costs on following-on invading force high. Once it takes delivery of and stands up its expanded Anti-Ballistic missile system, this could also shield it further, though there seems to be a wide array of opinion about how effective this would be against a saturation missile attack. Anyway, this doctrine properly applied would help it raise costs on amphibious force as it approached and as it reached the shore in the following phases.

Now that Taiwan shows signs of adopting a more achievable doctrine of raising costs on the invader by giving its forces greater survivability (through hardened underground shelters, for example) and dispersing them to hit back after the initial onslaught, China might have to reckon, amongst other things, with grievous losses of transport ships packed with troops and equipment. It would probably seize some kind of air superiority, but not enough to prevent mobile artillery and infantry turning the landing beaches into a deadly zone, or to prevent even a few air assets like Apache helicopters and planes being shifted from air bases and being able to land some heavy blows.

And then there is the preparation/surprise dilemma. For China to hit Taiwan with a surprising knockout blow from the air, it would not be able to conduct a large-scale preparation of invading forces beforehand to give the game away. The interval between the first strike and the follow-on invasion attempt would give Taiwan time to recover and prepare to defend its ground. On the other hand, were China to prepare an invasion force for days before, this would give Taiwan time to prepare, disperse its forces, and hunker down. No amount of technological advancement can eliminate this tradeoff, and if anything, advances in surveillance technology give defenders a wider and deeper ‘gaze’ if they are paying attention. Taiwan also has the geographic advantage of knowing roughly where troops would have to land, given the small amount of shoreline hospitable to invasion, and could prepare to concentrate its forces there.

But even given optimum diplomatic circumstances for China – having enough strategic ‘sealift’ to transport troops, a localised war, a growing technological edge, a devastating first strike giving it command of the skies, and everything going ‘right’ militarily on the night, there are good reasons to expect that Taiwan could make it expensive. What costs would the assailant willingly bear? What about the Taiwanese population, even after the PLA marched on Taipei? Curiously, in the sophisticated treatments of the issue, the prospect of an insurgency after the end of the conventional war hardly comes up. As Michael Cole argues, there are good reasons to suppose that Taiwanese nationalism would prove robust in a war. If so, there would be an excellent chance of resistance and some heavy urban fighting around one of the questions that Taiwanese national life and politics revolves around:

While the Iran-Iraq War is an imperfect analogy for the situation in Taiwan, it nevertheless forces us to revisit the assumption that Taiwanese — especially those who identify as Nationalists or “mainlanders” — would not fight Chinese invaders. With few exceptions, almost every member of the armed forces today was born in Taiwan. The effect of one’s identification with land and nation cannot be ignored, even among those who are direct descendants of Chinese who fled across the Taiwan Strait in 1949. All, regardless of their “ethnic” identification, are the result of, and were shaped by, the idiosyncratic social forces that prevail in Taiwan, such as its culture and democratic way of life. Consequently, few are those who, when the abstracts of hostility are replaced by the harsh realities of war, would willingly abandon Taiwan, let alone refuse to fight for what makes it their home. In the end, there is little doubt that once bombs and missiles, however precise, began raining down on Taiwan, killing family members, friends, and neighbors, most Taiwanese would rally round the flag. And that flag bears one white sun, not five yellow stars.

Its understandable that debate in Washington is largely about how much material assistance and commitment Washington should provide. Hence the focus on measurable physical capabilities (though there are some very good treatments of the ‘skill’ gap between PLAAF and ROCAF pilots) and on the cause-and-effect questions of alliances, deterrence and security dilemmas. Unlike the in-depth and sophisticated debate about US casualty tolerance and aversion, there is little in the way of recent data to draw on about the populations’ political will in a China-Taiwan clash, because both sides have hardly fought any wars for some time, let alone fighting each other.

But for obvious recent historical reasons, it is worth considering the possibility of ‘post-conflict’ resistance and the greater cost tolerance of local insurgents versus foreign fighters. The prospect of combating a bloody uprising, on top of taking the steep costs of an amphibious invasion, should play against China’s hope that if it did strike, it could be quick and cheap.

This also should reassure US policymakers: that Taiwan can present an ominous defence to an invader without America going to the trouble of ramping up its security assistance and arms trade with Taiwan, and the escalation and deterioration of relations with China that this would probably create. If America is to persist in its dubious ‘Asian pivot’, trying to contain and deter a rising China and getting it to peacefully accept Washington’s hegemony without things kicking off, it would be wise not to exaggerate Taiwan’s vulnerability.


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