The real and acute threat of a Sino-US conflict over Taiwan
The prospects of an attack by China on Taiwan and thus a war with the US and its allied forces are not mere speculation, but a real danger. Such a conflict would have direct and grave implications for India
India should worry a great deal about a Sino-United States (US) war over Taiwan. To be fair, why it should is not necessarily obvious. After all, the Western Pacific is far from India. And many in New Delhi appear sceptical that Beijing would risk a conflict with the US. The reality, however, is that there is an acute danger of a Sino-US war over Taiwan in this decade. And an American defeat, which is far from impossible, would be disastrous for India.
To be sure, no one knows what Xi Jinping or his successors will decide to do, but the factors and evidence pointing toward the possibility of China attacking Taiwan are very concerning. Beijing’s efforts to use economic leverage to pursue its grand ambitions of regional hegemony and global preeminence have thus far found limited success. The trouble is that it has another, quite possibly more effective, option: The use of military force against Taiwan. Success in such an assault would help break apart the aborning coalition forming to check Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions and markedly strengthen China’s military advantages in the region.
If Beijing does decide to try to seize Taiwan, Russia’s experience in Ukraine shows that Beijing’s best strategy is to use overwhelming, direct force to compel Taiwan to surrender. As Napoleon put it: If you want to take Vienna, take Vienna.
Unfortunately, this is not mere speculation. Rather, China is visibly building and exercising a military to do just this, and to take on the US and its allies as part and parcel of doing so.
Furthermore, Beijing has reason to think its opportunity to act may be time-limited. Beijing can see that there is a coalition forming to check its overweening ambitions. Beijing feels the growing constraints America and others are placing on China’s further growth; these may well convince Beijing that waiting will result in it being contained.
Beijing also has military reasons that might militate against waiting. China has been preparing for a Taiwan fight for the last quarter-century, and its investments are now paying off with its staggering military build-up. The US, on the other hand, did not wake up to the China threat until recently, its necessary shift toward Asia has been uneven and halting, and its defence investments will take until the 2030s to really pay off. Japan and Taiwan are finally raising defence spending, but their efforts, too, will take time to mature. If China waits too long, it may face far more capable US and allied militaries by the 2030s, meaning it has a potent incentive to move before any such window closes. Finally, Xi has repeatedly emphasised his personal investment in resolving the Taiwan issue in Beijing’s favour — and he is not immortal.
For these reasons, while there are serious questions about whether Beijing believes itself to be adequately prepared for such a momentous conflict yet, the US security establishment — not merely hawkish analysts — is increasingly alarmed about the possibility of Chinese action this decade, with estimates commonly clustering around or after 2027. No one knows for sure what China will do, but the threat is real and urgent, and if a war occurs, American victory cannot be taken for granted.
Such a war — and especially an American defeat — would have the most direct and grave implications for India.
First, a conflict over Taiwan is likely to stretch far beyond the island. China probably now assumes the US will come to Taiwan’s aid. This means that, if Beijing leaves US forces alone, they will be able to come to the island’s assistance unhindered. Beijing is unlikely to do that, since it would lead to failure. Instead, Beijing is visibly preparing to strike the US and quite possibly Japanese and Australian forces early, across the region and beyond. Therefore, a Taiwan war could very well be a regional war. And a regional war means Indian interests are far more likely to be impinged upon.
But it is an American defeat over Taiwan that would be the most perilous for India’s interests. The reverberations of a Chinese defeat of the US in a large war in Asia would be enormous. A weakened US would likely be pushed back to the defence of Japan, the Pacific islands, and Australia. An ascendant China would presumably secure control of the South China Sea as many countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and elsewhere in Asia would move to accommodate Beijing, enabling its military to project power and its deeper economic control of the region. China would thereby solve its “Malacca Dilemma,” gaining uninhibited access to the Indian Ocean. Beijing is already building a blue ocean fleet, a long-range air force, and a massive space architecture while securing or exploring basing in places from Cambodia through Pakistan to Africa. Once China secured its dominance in the Western Pacific and gained a freer hand, Beijing would likely turbocharge its military presence and aggressiveness in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.
In this context, Beijing would very likely press to isolate and diminish powerful India, the strongest remaining challenger to its dominance of South Asia and the Indian Ocean. And with a freer hand because of its victory in the Western Pacific, China would be far better positioned to do so, not only in the Indian Ocean but directly along its shared border with India. Meanwhile, the US would be weakened and ill-equipped to help India. Smaller countries, intimidated by China, would be hesitant to join New Delhi in checking Beijing’s ambitions; others would seek to join with Beijing to take advantage of India’s predicament. India’s prospects in this world would be grim.
This is not to say that India must join directly in defence of Taiwan. India has plenty to deal with, addressing China along its northern border, Pakistan in the west, and other security threats. And for its part, Washington should look for every possible way to strengthen New Delhi against China and Pakistan and to promote India’s influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean area. But it also means that India should take very seriously the potential for a war over Taiwan and its consequences, especially if America loses. It has a profound interest in avoiding that catastrophic outcome, and should act accordingly.
Elbridge Colby is a principal at The Marathon Initiative. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development in 2017-2018 and is the author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict
The views expressed are personal