Preventing a US-China war as a policy priority

Note: I am not an expert on foreign policy. This is a revised cross-post from my Facebook wall.

In the 21st century, China has emerged as a powerful economic and military force. Yet they still have substantial room to grow, and some models predict that they will attain their apex power by the mid-2030s, after which demographic trends will decrease their competitiveness relative to the United States and the West more generally.

Direct confrontation between rival great powers is not inevitable, as we saw during the Cold War. Unfortunately, this time may be different, as the question of Taiwanese sovereignty weighs heavily in the background, and a number of factors are now coming together that make war more plausible.

In case you’re unaware of what’s going with China and Taiwan, I’ll explain the gist of their geopolitical situation, and then go on to explain why I’ve recently become worried about a potential war between the US and China. Since a war between the US and China could easily become catastrophic, and have downstream consequences on existential risk mitigation, it is imperative for EAs to figure out how we should prepare for, and address the situation.

The situation with Taiwan

The official situation is as follows. The government of China (the People’s Republic of China) claims to be the legitimate government of all of China, and that Taiwan is part of China. In turn, the government of Taiwan (the Republic of China) claims to be the legitimate government of China, and that the mainland is part of China.

Unofficially, only China — the PRC — claims to be the real China. The majority of the population of Taiwan simply want to be left alone, as a sovereign nation—which they already are, in every practical sense. The reason why Taiwan plays along with this ruse about who the ‘real China’ is, is because if they didn’t, mainland China would invade them. Here’s why.

The Chinese leadership really care about controlling Taiwan. The ultimate reason is kind of complicated, but the short story is that the Chinese government sees itself as in the line of succession from the Qing dynasty, which held power over Taiwan for centuries. From about 1839 onward, however, China began being carved up by hostile imperialist powers, in a period often referred to as the Century of Humiliation. In the midst of all of this, in 1895, China ceded Taiwan to the Japanese, who demanded it in their treaty (deemed an “unequal treaty”) at the conclusion of the First Sino-Japanese War.

Since then, a version of Taiwan that is independent from China has been viewed as a symbol of Chinese weakness, and of its subjugation at the hands of foreign powers—an insult to the dream of completed Chinese nationalism. As Alison Kaufman put it,

This persistent feeling of insecurity today is used by China’s leadership – and by its people – to frame both China’s current national concerns and its future national aspirations. China is often portrayed as having suffered three kinds of loss during the Century of Humiliation: a loss of territory; a loss of control over its internal and external environment; and a loss of international standing and dignity. Each of these represents an injustice to be rectified.

On the issue of territory, there is a fairly straightforward consensus that China’s work is not yet done. From the height of China’s regional power during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to its nadir in the 1920s, China effectively lost control over one-third of its territory, a process that later came to be referred to as being “carved up like a melon” (guafen). Thus far the PRC has been able to reassert control over Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong, but not over Taiwan – and the view is nearly unanimous that the losses of Century of Humiliation will not be fully rectified until Taiwan is returned to the mainland. This is considered a non-negotiable policy, a “sacred duty of all the Chinese people,” and indeed this position has been strengthened in recent years with the passage of the PRC’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law, which made clear that China was prepared and willing to use force to compel reunification if it could not occur peacefully.

At the end of World War 2, China regained control of Taiwan from the Japanese, but this reunification proved to be short-lived. When Mao Zedong took over in 1949, the previous American-backed government fled to Taiwan, causing the current split between the PRC and ROC we see today.

For the next several decades, the authoritarian Kuomintang government of Taiwan kept insisting that they would one day return to the mainland and take power back from the communists. But it’s now been nearly 73 years since that happened, and in that time, Taiwan became a full-fledged democracy that operates completely separately from China. At this point, most people in Taiwan don’t consider themselves Chinese anymore and simply want to be their own nation instead, indefinitely.

This general opinion has been upheld in numerous elections and surveys in recent years, including through the current president Tsai Ing-wen who won by a large margin in the last election and insists that Taiwan is independent from China. Young people in Taiwan, in particular, are most likely to reject the China label, and it’s probable that this perspective will only become more common in the future.

Even the current minority coalition in Taiwan, the Pan-Blue Coalition who represent the “old guard” in Taiwanese politics, doesn’t really want to be part of China. Their stated hope is technically to reunify with China peacefully, one day, but they say that the PRC is currently too authoritarian to even begin the process.

China doesn’t see things the same way, to put it mildly. Their official party line is that Taiwan is an inalienable part of their territory that is temporarily being administered by their civil war opponents. That’s why they’d invade if Taiwan stopped playing the whole game of pretending that Taiwan is the real China, because then it would symbolically entail the end of the Chinese Civil War — which was a struggle over the control of China — and signal the beginning of Taiwanese independence, which is different, because that would be an act of rebellion. In the event of a Taiwanese declaration of independence, China is obligated to “suppress the rebellion” under their anti-secession law, which effectively means invading the country and conquering it.

Looking forward

The main reason I’m worried about all of this is because an invasion of Taiwan would be similar to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but at least an order of magnitude worse. For one, China is way bigger than Russia across a variety of measures—militarily, economically, and by population—and therefore, is way more powerful. Two, an invasion of Taiwan would, in a logistical sense, be the most incredible amphibious assault in world history, surpassing even the invasion of Normandy in World War 2. It is plausible that at least a million soldiers would be required to subdue the island.

But most importantly, while the United States had no legal obligation to defend Ukraine in an attack, many people believe that the US has an obligation to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion. This is not just speculation: Joe Biden has literally said he’d defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion on multiple separate occasions now, though for reasons of maintaining “strategic ambiguity” (another complicated ruse that I won’t explain here for brevity) these statements are usually backtracked in a limited form by his staff.

The situation with China and Taiwan is critically important to understand as a world citizen, because if China invades Taiwan, and if the US responds, then that seems reasonably likely to result in actual, literal, World War 3.

And I totally get that we shouldn’t be alarmist about literal World War 3, but, unfortunately, this time it’s getting pretty real. I am now aware of a few signs that China will make a move in the next fifteen years. Let me go through some of these pieces of evidence.

The most important piece of evidence is what I’m tentatively calling the “deadline hypothesis”: the idea that China will soon reach a relative peak of power and influence, after which its influence will stabilize or even shrink, relative to the US and US sympathizers. If China really intends to deal with Taiwan by force, it would be wisest to strike during this peak period, and not wait any longer. I currently expect this peak time period to come about some time in the 2030s, but I acknowledge that there is reasonable room to debate the specifics.

There are many good reasons to believe in the deadline hypothesis. The main reason comes from simple macroeconomic models, most of which forecast China to slow down its growth over the coming decades, and converge to the growth rate seen in frontier nations. Secondarily, India—who has long been a foe of China—is currently on a long road towards being a superpower on par with the United States and China. It would greatly benefit China to not wait too long before India approaches this level, and becomes a strategic counterbalance on China for the US & allies in Asia. At that point, I believe, the Chinese leadership will judge an invasion to not be worth the potential political cost, and thus, will be forced to abandon Taiwan forever.

And as I have mentioned previously, the youth in Taiwan increasingly identify as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese”, increasing the costs of potential future occupation. This constraint puts a long-term pragmatic deadline on how long China can wait.

Other than the deadline hypothesis, there are also direct observations that conflict between the West and China is currently “heating up”. Since the pandemic began, public opinion of China, as measured by Pew Research, has hit historic lows around the West. More politicians are now coming out with openly antagonistic stances towards China, condemning their treatment of the Uyghurs, and testing the waters to see how much they can get away with recognizing Taiwan as an independent state without China declaring war. China, for their part, is becoming openly antagonistic towards the United States, in a strategy characterized by so-called wolf-warrior diplomacy. Many scholars are describing this shift as indicative of a new cold war.

I’m also informed greatly by the Taiwanese and US intelligence: the former now reportedly projects that China will be ready to invade by 2025, and the latter has now talked about a 2027 date. These dates should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt; and no one has yet offered any definitive evidence of intent to invade in the near or medium-term future. But these dates also demonstrate that the threat of a near-term invasion is being taken seriously by those who know a lot.

On Metaculus, I have written the following questions about a future invasion. I roughly agree with the worrisome stance that the Metaculus community has taken.

Will China launch a full scale invasion of Taiwan before 2025? Currently at 9%

Will China launch a full-scale invasion of Taiwan before 2030? Currently at 25%

Will China launch a full-scale invasion of Taiwan before 2035? Currently at 39%

If China launches a full-scale invasion of Taiwan before 2035, will the US respond militarily? Currently at 66%

If China launches an invasion of Taiwan before 2035, and the US intervenes, will China attack the United States? Currently at 60%

If China launches a full-scale invasion of Taiwan before 2035, will they successfully control Taiwan within three years? Currently at 56% (I’m at 75% personally)

Long-term impact, and policy choices

Beyond just the immediate impacts of a Chinese invasion, and the lives that would be lost, a war of this magnitude would likely precipitate a shuffling of the geo-political order, having profound impacts on AI arms races, our ability to cooperate on a global scale, and in turn, our posterity.

On top of all this, nearly all of the most advanced integrated circuits are manufactured in Taiwan, which could mean that invading Taiwan would give China a substantial advantage in any sort of AI-driven war.

For these reasons, it is worth taking the potential for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan extremely seriously, both as something to take into account when planning for the future, and something to prevent, if at all possible.

EA political funding has an enormous potential to help elect politicians who will take rational positions on this issue. It is my desire for more EAs to start thinking about this issue seriously, so that we can figure out the best way of addressing it through our political funding.

If the Chinese invasion at some point appears inevitable, I personally think it makes most sense to advocate that the United States abandon Taiwanese independence. At that point, any deterrent we thought we were imposing on China has clearly failed, and the risk of a catastrophic world war is simply too great to be worth the benefit of saving a vibrant democracy from the claws of authoritarianism.

Given current xenophobic attitudes towards China, I expect war to be an overrated strategy in the sphere of public opinion once an invasion has already commenced. Thus, it is worth making it clear now that direct US military intervention in Taiwan — while perhaps noble in a moral sense — is probably an extraordinarily bad policy choice. I stress, however, that this is simply my own opinion, and I remain agnostic about the best strategy to take in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Luckily, an invasion is not yet inevitable, and so there are still many choices on the table other than abandoning Taiwanese independence. First and foremost, the United States could help arm Taiwan through the so-called porcupine strategy, giving them resources to defend themselves. However, any strategy must take into account the probability of triggering a crisis, as any attempt to aid Taiwan militarily — even indirectly — will be viewed as extremely hostile to the PRC regime.

More generally, anyone who wants to work on this issue should approach the subject with a sense of humility, especially as a foreigner. Being dogmatically anti or pro-China from the outset is an extremely common mistake that I expect people to make when they first look into this situation.

2035 is not that far away, and mega-wars have happened repeatedly in history. It is not all that unlikely that another one will happen again soon. We need to think seriously about what may turn into one of the most deadly conflicts in world history.