The “Doomsday Clock” stands at 90 seconds to midnight. It’s the closest it’s ever been to armageddon. With good cause.

Global tensions are spiralling out of control.

Russia has invaded Ukraine. But that brutal fight is a harbinger of what could come to Southeast Asia.

This week, Chairman Xi’s newly hand-picked parliament set the tone for the next five years. It’s assertive. It’s defiant. It’s aggressive. It wants Taiwan – preferably peaceably, by force if necessary.

At the same time, Washington’s newly Republican-controlled Congress is determined to demonstrate its support for the distant island democracy. No matter the diplomatic cost.

It’s a standoff that has the world fearing war between the two nuclear powers.

But how real is that risk?

One camp blames Beijing.

It points to the relentless escalation in military intimidation over Taiwan, the Himalayan mountains, and the East and South China Seas. It highlights the repression of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. It underscores the economic coercion applied to those who defy its will – such as Australia, South Korea, and Lithuania.

The other blames Washington.

It insists Beijing is simply reclaiming what it has lost. It denies the Huang-dominated Communist Party is waging cultural genocide. It accuses the West of imposing its rules on the world. It argues Beijing’s rise is a “force of history” that cannot be held back.

The battle lines have been drawn.

It comes down to how determined Beijing and Washington are to stand their ground.

Chairman Xi has 10 years of action to be balanced against his words. And he’s successfully altered the Communist Party’s constitution to give him a third term in power – and potentially rule for life.

The next US Presidential election is in 2024. And the extreme polarisation of US politics has already demonstrated long-held international alliances, standards, and agreements are on unsteady ground.

But Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (the home of the Doomsday Clock) analysts believe war will come “if the People’s Republic of China (PRC) does what its communist leaders have long threatened to do: use force to compel Taiwan to ‘reunify’ with the motherland.”

Imminent threat

“The risk of war between China and the United States is rising,” says Cato Institute senior fellow Doug Bandow.

“Bilateral relations were inflamed by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s highly publicised trip to Taiwan last August. The prospect of current Speaker Kevin McCarthy doing the same has Chinese diplomats warning US officials that Beijing would respond aggressively.”


It boils down to pride.

There’s the need for autocrats to appear infallible.

And the desire among democracies to stand up to bullies.

“For China, reunification with Taiwan is, above all else, an issue of territorial integrity and national pride; as such, it is critical to the legitimacy of the Communist Party regime,” argues Quincy institute senior research fellow Michael Swaine.

“For the United States, Taiwan is linked to Washington’s credibility as a loyal supporter of a democratic friend and an ally to others such as Japan and South Korea.”

Both sides have different audiences to play to.

And the next act appears to be the current House Speaker’s desire to lead another delegation to Taipei – despite the angst caused by the visit of his predecessor Nancy Pelosi last year.

Republican Kevin McCarthy says such visits have always been a part of US-Taiwan relations and that Beijing is attempting to change the status quo.

But his colleagues are openly talking about the elephant in the room: Taiwan’s independence.

Nebraska representative Don Bacon urged the US to end ambiguity over its “One China” policy.

“China will be mad; they’ll throw a fit. They did when Pelosi visited,” he said. “That’s all right. They can throw a fit.”

But the Chinese Communist Party has staked its future on Taiwan.

It’s gone so far as to pass laws mandating military action if Taipei was to openly assert its independence.

“The PRC government’s legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens would simply not survive if Beijing failed to respond to such a basic challenge to its nationalist credentials,” argues Swaine.

The heart of the matter

Taiwan is an unconquered outpost of China’s old autocratic Nationalist Party. But it has changed since the civil war ended in 1949.

It remained independent. But rapid economic modernisation saw its newly empowered population demand greater representation – ultimately leading to democratic elections in 1991.

It’s become the pin-up nation for the West’s idea of a post-World War II world order.

But not until after recognition of its sovereignty was diplomatically traded away to help keep Communist China from aligning too closely with the former Soviet Union.

Now, the longstanding crisis can no longer be swept under the carpet.

“After decades of following Deng Xiao-ping’s famous dictum, “Hide your strength, bide your time,” the PRC under President Xi Jin-ping is done “hiding and biding”,” Hoover Institution fellow Larry Diamond and retired Admiral James Ellis argue in the Bulletin.

“Having received his coveted third term as China’s paramount leader at the CCP’s 20th Party Congress last October, Xi is now bent on achieving his grand strategic aims to achieve “national rejuvenation” and to end the “century of humiliation” that occurred from 1839 to 1949.”

Allowing Taiwan to remain independent is incompatible with this rhetoric, they add.

“Beijing would no doubt prefer to wait to use force at least until its current campaign of military modernisation is complete. The new (accelerated) deadline for that is 2027, marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s People’s Liberation Army, or PLA.”

Military defeat also isn’t an option for Beijing, argues Swaine.

“Given the incredibly high political stakes involved, even a failed effort to forcibly prevent the loss of Taiwan would be viewed in Beijing as favourable to doing nothing,” he writes. “The latter would almost certainly result in a severe domestic crisis, putting at risk not only the personal positions of China’s leaders but the stability of the entire PRC regime.”

Is deterrence possible?

The Chinese Communist Party was outraged at the democratisation of Taiwan. During the 1996 Presidential election, it threatened to invade and unleashed a flurry of missile launches into waters off its coast.

US President Bill Clinton ordered two aircraft carrier battle groups to stand off the island in response. One even passed through the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing was forced to back down.

“But Beijing resolved then to build up the military strength to succeed in imposing its will at some later date, and to avoid being humiliated again by the US Navy,” the Bulletin analysts write.

The enormous build-up and modernisation of China’s navy, air and missile forces result from that standoff.

“Assumptions that the United States would win any conflict are foolhardy at best,” says Bandow. “Geography is strongly against the US. American forces would be operating thousands of miles from home, while the Chinese could use numerous mainland military bases.”

And allied support from nations including Japan, South Korea and Australia, he says, isn’t certain.

Bulletin analysts Diamond and Ellis agree military deterrence needs a united front.

“Taiwan and the United States, and our key allies Japan and ideally Australia, must project a clear resolve to fight and a readiness to win. This will require rapid enhancements in force composition and posture.”

No surrender, no retreat?

“There is no consensus on whether or when China will use force to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland. But most experts agree that the risk is rising dramatically and that the time horizon has now shrunk from decades to years,” the Bulletin analysts argue.

“We have no time to lose. We must embark on a comprehensive strategy of deterrence through strength and preparedness because some of the steps will take years to accomplish.”

That appears to be the purpose of AUKUS and Australia’s $368 billion spend on nuclear-powered submarines. Japan and South Korea are also dramatically expanding their defence budgets.

Military assets, however, are just part of the equation of deterrence.

“Beijing must come to realise that a military assault on Taiwan would devastate China’s economy and thus put Xi Jinping’s power at serious risk,” write Diamond and Ellis.

“We are now in a race against time to reduce our dependence on the Chinese economy … so that we would have the manoeuvring room to impose crippling sanctions on a Chinese state that had committed naked aggression against Taiwan, even if these sanctions also impose great pain to our own economy.”

But a shooting war is also hazardous for Washington and its allies.

“War with China would not be a proverbial cakewalk, or even the sort of destructive failure suffered by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Bandlow. “A conflict with the PRC certainly would be disastrous — and potentially nation-ending if attempts to limit escalation failed.”

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