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The possibility of a war over Taiwan between China and the United States in the coming years is very real. But does it matter for Switzerland and Europe at large that China not emerge victorious in any such context? The answer is yes, and in very practical ways.
It is now increasingly clear that there is a heightening possibility of a Sino-American war in Asia centered on Taiwan. On China’s side, Beijing has always been clear that it regards Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic of China, but under Xi Jinping it has become much clearer that it wants to resolve the issue – by force if necessary. Beijing has undertaken an historic military buildup designed precisely to defeat the United States in such a conflict. As part of this, China is rapidly expanding and diversifying its nuclear forces, a telling signal that it anticipates the potential for a war with America. It is also attempting to sanction-proof its own economy while deepening its leverage over America and its allies – signs of a country preparing for confrontation and the sanctions that would accompany it.
On Washington’s side, the United States under both the Trump and Biden Administration has become far clearer about the Chinese threat to Taiwan, and has also heavily signaled Washington’s commitment to Taiwan’s defense. Fear of a war with China is not confined to hawks. President Biden’s Secretary of State Tony Blinken and trusted CIA Director Bill Burns have both openly spoken of Beijing’s aim to be ready to successfully seize Taiwan, and Democratic political appointees as well as uniformed defense leaders regularly underline the danger.
China is preparing
Moreover, there are serious reasons to worry that the threat of war is not some distant prospect, but rather much more urgent. China’s leadership appear to believe the PRC is being contained by the United States and its allies, which means that Beijing may thus see advantage in breaking out of any such «strangulation» – as Xi Jinping himself reportedly puts it – before the ring tightens too much. Further, China’s relative military advantage in the Western Pacific may peak in the coming years, as Beijing has been working on its military buildup since the 1990s while the United States has only shifted focus to China recently, even as America’s Reagan-era forces age into obsolescence. And Xi himself is not immortal and has evinced a desire to make a fundamental mark on his country’s progress toward his central goal of «the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation». Xi has explicitly linked that core goal with the favorable resolution of the Taiwan matter, and his instructions to the People’s Liberation Army to be ready to consummate that aspiration have a due date attached to them: the year 2027. No one knows if or when Beijing might strike, but Pentagon leaders are right that we must act as if it could happen anytime.
Even worse, there are serious concerns that Beijing might do well in such a fight, or even prevail against America and its allies. This is not mere threat inflation. Respected analytical outfits such as the RAND Corporation have assessed that America could well be defeated in such a conflict.
The classic behavior of a rising great power
Why would such a war, and especially an American defeat, matter for Europe? The most fundamental reason is the same one why the United States itself must be so concerned: Both American and European interests would be profoundly compromised if China were to dominate Asia, which would leave Beijing as master of half the world’s economy. And a major defeat of the United States by China in a confrontation in the Western Pacific centered on Taiwan would go a long way toward that outcome.
It is important to underline a critical point: China’s ambitions are not merely about territorial irredentism concerning Taiwan, the «unfinished business» of the Chinese Civil War, though they are surely that in part. Rather, Beijing evinces all the hallmarks of a rising great power, especially one powered by a confident but also aggrieved nationalism. Such powers almost invariably seek to expand their influence, above all by securing a large geoeconomic sphere to provide themselves with confident access to big and growing markets, natural resources, and scale, all with the goal of becoming a preeminent economy and society. It is this potent incentive that structurally underwrites China’s ambitions to become the regional hegemon in Asia. If Beijing could attain such a position, it would very likely refashion first the world’s largest market area and then the global economy around itself, with enormous benefits to China’s prosperity and status. There is a reason this is a natural incentive for rising great powers – because it is a very desirable outcome.
Yet that does not make such a goal benign or tolerable for the rest of us. The reason is that it would invariably involve China, which would become the center and gatekeeper of the world’s largest economic zone, with the ability to exercise a domineering influence over the rest of us. We would thus be at Beijing’s mercy in the ability to access that absolutely essential market. This enormous leverage would give Beijing the ability to decisively influence and shape, if not control, our economies and thus our political systems and liberties. We can already see what such Chinese hegemony might look like by observing how China’s internal politics and society are run. And there is no reason to imagine that the famously proud and patriotic Chinese would treat foreigners any better, especially those whose nations were responsible for the ignominious «Century of Humiliation».
Fear of this eventuality is what underlies America’s deep and growing concern about a Beijing that could become Asia’s hegemon. And bear in mind that America is a global superpower, China’s only peer in comprising roughly one-fifth of the global economy. Now imagine how much greater a hegemonic Beijing’s leverage would be over a fractious and economically slowing Europe. Europe as a whole is now roughly a fifth of global GDP, but according to Josep Borrell will be a tenth of the global economy twenty years from now. And Europe is not a cohesive political entity. This means that a Beijing that secured dominance over Asia, the world’s vital economic center, would wield dominant economic and thus political influence over Europe. Where would Europe export to, if not to Asia’s huge and growing markets, to which Beijing would control access? If countries like America, with a fifth of global GDP, would have to fear such a China, smaller countries like Germany and France, let alone Switzerland, would be in a far worse position. In other words, if America is afraid of such an outcome, then Europe should be terrified.
Hyperfocus on Asia
It is vital to see the Taiwan issue in this frame. The significance and repercussions of a war between China and America centered on Taiwan would not be limited to the particular issue of Taiwan. Rather, it would be a conflict determining whether China would dominate Asia as its hegemon or, on the other hand, whether the world’s economic center would have a balance of power as the basis of its stability. If China were victorious against Washington in a major regional war, it could well eject America from Asia and bring Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, and others in the region to heel. Even if Beijing won only in a smaller conflict, it would gravely weaken the U.S. and allied position in the region, raising the chances of subsequent moves by Beijing, as Berlin’s revisionist wars against Austria in 1866 and France in 1870 followed its 1864 victory over Denmark.
Moreover, a conflict between America and China would have an even more immediate impact on European security. If a war breaks out and Chinese forces do not wildly underperform expectations, then the U.S. military will – at best – be highly stressed to resist Beijing’s assault. In order to have a chance of succeeding, the United States will have to draw forces, resources, and political capital from every corner – very much including Europe – to the fight in Asia. This is a product of the simple reality that, despite spending huge amounts of money on defense, the U.S. military does not have the ability to fight a major war in Asia and another one elsewhere at even approximately the same time. Thus, even if the United States prevails or holds the line against China, the costs are likely to be great and sustaining deterrence after such a war will require hyper focus of U.S. resources on Asia. Worse, if the U.S. is defeated, it will need all hands on deck to prevent its expulsion from Asia and China’s resulting achievement of regional hegemony. In any of these scenarios, there will be a major drawing away of U.S. military resources and attention from Europe. This does not mean America’s abandonment of Europe, but it does mean Europe should prepare for a considerable reduction of U.S. military forces and effort – especially if war comes.
Europe is not the center of the world anymore
The consequences for Europe should be clear. Relying too much on America’s continued dominant role for its security going forward asks for trouble. If there is a war with China, America will have no choice but to focus on Asia, and a security vacuum will open in Europe. Even worse, a Russia now tightly aligned with China may well seek to exploit such needed American focus on Asia to make aggressive moves in Europe.
«Relying too much on America’s continued dominant role for its security going forward asks for trouble.»
The proper European and American response to this is not just to hope China doesn’t move, pray for a decisive elimination of Russia as a threat, or wish America will always put Europe first. Rather, the appropriate response is a continuation of the strong transatlantic alliance but with a clear-eyed recognition on both sides of the Atlantic of what America can and will realistically provide. This means Europe must step up to shoulder a greater fraction of the burden of providing for its defense, especially in the conventional realm.
Above all, Germany must rapidly move to meet its longstanding commitments to collective defense and restore the military strength it fielded in the Cold War. Only Germany has the economic and population scale to fill much of the gap resulting from the drawing away of American focus toward Asia. Other countries like Poland and the Baltic states, the Benelux, and the Scandinavians can then work with German mass under the aegis of NATO and continued, more focused, American contributions to provide a strong collective shield against Russian aggression.
This is feasible. Russia will continue to be a serious threat to European security, but today’s Russia is a far cry from the Soviet Union. Practically speaking, its ability to project military power into Europe will be more limited. Meantime, while Germany and other European countries face economic and political challenges to meeting this standard, these concerns are not sufficient to justify lassitude. America spends 3 per cent of its GDP on defense. Why can’t Germany spend 2 per cent or more? Poland is showing what European countries with requisite willpower can do on this front.
Europe remains one of the most important regions of the world. But, for the first time in centuries, it is not the economic and thus the geopolitical center of the world. This means that Europe’s fate, like America’s, will be settled in Asia, which is reemerging as that center. We all must ensure the world’s largest market area does not fall under the control of a domineering hegemon. Europe lacks the capacity to materially affect that outcome. But what it can and must do is take more responsibility in ensuring its own security, ensuring the United States is best positioned to guarantee China cannot dominate Asia. If Europe fails to do that, it will leave itself vulnerable when the United States does what it must, regardless of who is in power in Washington, and focuses on Asia.