Taiwan Strait

Could Beijing Risk a Diversionary War Against Taiwan?

By Timothy R. Heath
Friday, January 13, 2023, 8:16 AM

China’s deteriorating strategic situation and President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power appears to raise the possibility that a desperate leadership might risk aggression against Taiwan. But Xi’s ascent to supreme power masks a far more significant development—the weakening of the Chinese state. Beijing’s military options against Taiwan are constrained by the consequences of declining state capacity and legitimacy. Incapable of reversing the situation, Beijing will face growing incentives to favor more limited courses of action when contemplating military options against Taiwan. More research is urgently needed to better understand how weakening state capacity might affect considerations of the use of force among rival great powers.

Once vaunted as the next superpower, China has stumbled in recent years. Coronavirus-related restrictions may have eased after weeks of protests, but now the country appears to be dealing with a major outbreak of the virus. Beijing’s struggles to contain the virus merely exacerbate a worsening economic situation. Per-capita income growth has slowed to a crawl, and there are few good prospects for reviving the country’s flagging growth. The property market, which drives about one-third of China’s economic activity, remains deeply troubled. Unemployment for the country’s youth has hovered around 20 percent through most of 2022. Owing to unresolved structural factors and looming demographic challenges, China’s economy is, accordingly, expected to slow dramatically in coming years, averaging perhaps 2 to 3 percent annually through mid-century.

The compounding troubles coincide with a dramatic consolidation of power by Xi Jinping. At the 20th Party Congress, Xi secured a third term as supreme leader. He has suppressed rivals and elevated repression of dissent to the highest level since Tiananmen Square. Observers have noted the many ways in which Xi has imitated Mao Zedong’s personalized style of rule. Xi himself has encouraged the comparison with pilgrimages to revolutionary historic sites and incessant propaganda that borders on a cult of personality not unlike Mao. Some experts have claimed that Xi has gained more power than Mao ever had, noting in particular the absence of rivals or organized opposition among elites. Xi also presides over a rapidly modernized military that surpasses—by orders of magnitude—Mao’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in lethality and sophistication. By any measure, the PLA is second only to the U.S. military. China also possesses a large state-controlled defense industry. Some experts have claimed that Xi’s unchallenged political power and control of such a large economy and modern military make him “the most powerful man in the world.” 

The combination of a weakening strategic situation and an increasingly despotic regime has left Xi with few constraints on his power. Many observers fear that a Beijing despondent over the country’s deteriorating situation could risk military adventurism as a diversion. Analysts warn that the situation could motivate China to risk aggressive behavior against Taiwan, disputed islands in the first island chain, and in foreign policy more generally. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provides a vivid contemporary example of such a danger, but experts also cite precedents from World War I and II. Hal Brands has warned that China might consider war once it senses that a “geopolitical window of opportunity” may be closing. Moreover, China’s own history provides a precedent in which an internally troubled China carried out a major war along its periphery. In the early 1950s, an impoverished China still grappling with internal unrest leftover from the Chinese Civil War nonetheless undertook a major military intervention in Korea. Supreme leader Mao Zedong ordered columns of “volunteer” troops to fight American forces to a stalemate, at the cost of over a million Chinese casualties. 

The argument that an increasingly powerful Xi might hope to stave off a bleak future with military aggression appears compelling. A major flaw in that argument, however, is that it confuses Xi’s political strength with the Chinese state’s strength. Paradoxically, Xi’s ascent to supreme power has coincided with a tremendous weakening of the Chinese state. It is the state’s weakness, not Xi’s personal strength, that will most profoundly determine whether and how China can fight against Taiwan and the United States. 

The strength of the state matters in particular for China because of the types of conflicts most commonly envisioned for war involving Taiwan. The U.S. Department of Defense has outlined several possible options, including a joint blockade, a seizure of an offshore island like Kinmen, and a large-scale invasion of the island. Since the U.S. could intervene in any China-Taiwan fight, Beijing would need to prepare for war with the U.S. for any of the options. Combat between U.S. and Chinese forces near the island could involve large numbers of troops, ships, aircraft, and other capabilities—and could result in a massive conflict that proves enormously destructive, as many war games have suggested

The scale and scope of a potential war near Taiwan carries important implications for China’s politics. Any state can initiate hostilities, but large-scale wars, such as the ones described, require strong states. A strong state is one that is regarded by its people as legitimate, that has a well-developed and relatively efficient government bureaucracy, a prosperous economy, responsive politics, and adequate infrastructure. Strong states have the capacity and resources to wage large-scale war due to their ability to efficiently mobilize available labor, political support, and resources. The U.S., Japan, and the principal European combatants in World War I and II all had strong states. They were able to raise powerful armies, mobilize their entire societies, fight large-scale conventional battles, and sustain a war footing for years. 

Such large-scale conventional war is beyond the capacity of weak or weakened states. Weak states are those characterized by high levels of social disorder, unresponsive politics, weak economies, high levels of corruption, inadequate infrastructure, and an inconsistent rule of law. Such states tend to have a low level of legitimacy in the eyes of their people. Accordingly, there is likely to be a high potential for internal political opposition or resistance to state demands. Militaries in such countries tend to feature high levels of corruption, low morale, intercommunal tension, and inconsistent performance on the battlefield. When they fight, weak states often favor mercenaries as both more cost effective and reliable than national militaries. A weakened state with a modern military might be capable of pulling off small-scale attacks against clearly inferior adversaries, as Iraq prevailed against Kuwait and as Russia did in Georgia, Syria, and Chechnya. But they lack the administrative and organizational capacity to sustain large-scale conventional combat against more capable adversaries. Russia’s troubles in sustaining its war effort in Ukraine, for example, owe in part to many weaknesses in state legitimacy and administrative capacity. In weak states located in Africa, operations tend to be smaller scale and consist of irregular operations, often against domestic insurgents. Unmanned systems offer another appealing alternative for weak states that lack resources and access to reliable and effective militaries. 

Given this information, is Xi a strong or weak ruler? Paradoxically, he is both stronger and weaker than his predecessors. Within the highest echelons of China’s central government, Xi appears to be more powerful than Mao. Xi’s relentless accrual of central power has been accompanied by a surprising lack of opposition among elites. Having consolidated control over the party, government, and military, he appears unchallenged and, at least in regards to his anti-corruption campaign, he appears popular with the public. No rival has dared to defy him. By contrast, Mao routinely contended with powerful rivals who openly opposed him, such as Liu Shaoqi. As a result, the central leadership experienced frequent power struggles and political violence. By the measure of control over the state, Xi surpasses all of his predecessors, including Mao.

The state over which Xi presides, however, is far weaker than the state that Mao controlled. In the 1950s and 1960s, the newly founded People’s Republic of China enjoyed an extremely high level of legitimacy and exercised totalitarian control. The strong links with the populace owed in part to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) role in evicting foreign powers, abolishing an obsolete and decrepit imperial system, winning a civil war, and ushering China into the modern age. Extensive party penetration of Chinese society and the popularity of Mao’s messianic ideology permitted the supreme leader to routinely mobilize the populace to carry out astounding acts of national sacrifice. For example, Mao oversaw the collectivization of the economy, the mass mobilization of the populace for political campaigns, and the conscription of vast numbers of troops to fight against the Kuomintang (the Chinese Nationalist Party) and in the Korean War. The poorly equipped soldiers died in droves bravely charging at the enemy in “human wave” tactics. The ruling party also exercised near total control over the lives of individuals. Party cadres determined where people worked, what benefits they received, and even whom they married

China’s state control has decayed considerably from the Mao era. The CCP’s own catastrophic policies, such as Mao’s Great Leap Forward which resulted in the deaths of perhaps 30 million people, are in no small part responsible for the state’s faltering links to the populace. Similarly, the Cultural Revolution instigated by Mao in the late 1960s brought enormous chaos and violence, resulting in the deaths of millions more. These disastrous mistakes discredited the party’s ideology and cost it considerable public support, a point acknowledged by the Chinese government. Deng Xiaoping’s liberalizing reforms in the late 1970s restored some luster to CCP rule when rapid economic growth lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Expanding economic opportunities and rising living standards earned supreme leader Deng Xiaoping broad popular support. China experienced a few major protests, most notably that of the Tiananmen Square massacre, but decades of rapid growth otherwise coincided with remarkable political stability in the 1980s and 1990s.

However, the state’s legitimacy has deteriorated considerably since the early 2000s, when opportunities began to stall and the external costs of rapid growth grew intolerable. Although China became the world’s second largest economy in 2010, wealth and income became sharply imbalanced. When Xi took power, the Gini coefficient reached 0.44, exceeding the threshold identified by the United Nations as destabilizing. China has the most billionaires on the planet, but it also has about 600 million people whose monthly income is less than $154. Two-thirds of the country’s population remains impoverished, with few job prospects beyond informal work as trash pickers or street hawkers. Moreover, income for many people has stalled. China’s per-capita income ranked 77th in 2021. Meanwhile, official malfeasance and corruption surged, toxic industries polluted the country’s air, soil, and water, and social welfare benefits for citizens remain meager. China’s coronavirus crisis owes, in part, to an inadequate medical infrastructure that proved ill prepared for infectious disease and the care of a growing elderly population. 

Accordingly, discontent and disillusionment have soared. In 2005, the last year the government provided data, there were approximately 87,000 protests. By some estimates, the number had grown to about 180,000 protests a year by the mid-2010s, and there is little evidence of abatement. Since 2011, China’s internal security budget has exceeded that of the military, despite hefty annual increases in defense spending. Many young Chinese, facing diminishing prospects for upward mobility and immensely stressful lives, have adopted an attitude of despair and resignation. In recent years, the culture of “lying flat” has gained currency among young people frustrated by unemployment, soaring housing prices, grueling work hours, and low wages. Chinese citizens report an acute sense of anxiety as they struggle to secure a dwindling slice of a shrinking pie. Popular identification with the party has declined, a point acknowledged by dismayed party academics. China’s state is too strong to be labeled a “weak” or “fragile” state, but the country nonetheless has many features in common with weak states. At the very least, it can be considered a weakened state. Political scientists have measured the weakness with various indicators. The Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index, for example, lists China as 98 out of 178 countries (the U.S. is listed as 46).

Further, China does not have a clear path to building a strong state. With Maoist ideology discredited and the economy incapable of sustaining the soaring growth rates of the Deng years, the CCP’s legitimacy increasingly rests on its ability to satisfy an increasingly diverse set of demands by the people. Yet by the party’s own admission, it cannot meet these needs. In 2021, Xi noted that the “people’s aspirations for a better life have generally shifted from ‘Is there enough?’ to ‘Is it good enough?’” But Xi’s remarks provide little hope for optimism. In a speech published in January 2022, Xi Jinping stated grimly that Chinese officials must not “get people’s hopes up by making promises that we are not able to keep.” Nor does Beijing have the luxury of hiding its state weakness by distributing rent from a single source of revenue to buy elite and popular support, as Russia has done with its mineral revenues.

The reality of a weakened Chinese state carries three important implications for Beijing’s potential use of force against Taiwan. First, the country’s tolerance for casualties will likely decline. Second, Beijing’s tolerance for high costs of war will decline. Third, Beijing’s tolerance for risk will likely decline. 

As for the first point—the public’s increasing sensitivity to casualties—calls for patriotic self-sacrifice will ring increasingly hollow to a populace that receives little benefit from the government. Efforts to whip up public enthusiasm for a war that requires immense sacrifices are unlikely to work. After all, the CCP has invested enormous resources to bolster popular support for Xi and the government, with disappointing results. Officials concede that the propaganda is unlikely to succeed on its own and that material incentives are required to extract at least the appearance of public support. 

China is already wary of reporting casualties. In its operations abroad, Chinese military forces have acted with considerable caution, refraining from risky operations and downplaying casualties from the violent brawl that occurred with India. Authorities have also obscured data on the number of casualties from the coronavirus due in part to fears over the impact that such disclosures could have on the government’s legitimacy. 

Accordingly, military options for Taiwan will have to be scaled to what the public is willing to endure. The Chinese people may take pride in key national accomplishments, such as hosting the Olympics, lunar expeditions, and technological achievements, but are not likely to eagerly back imperial adventures that might cost them dearly. Studies show that Chinese people overwhelmingly oppose war. Whether nationalism is truly on the rise remains unclear. Sentiments among Chinese youth appear to include a complex set of views with only a minority hawkishly supporting a more militant nationalism. But studies show that the situation is even more complex than that, with much sentiment resting in between support and opposition to the regime. China could, perhaps, overcome this limitation by depending more on volunteers and contractors who fight for pay as much as they do for the country. In fact, China already relies primarily on volunteers for its military and security contractors to protect its overseas interests. China has already invested enormously in unmanned aircraft and automated systems, the appeal of which could grow, since the loss of robots will be less politically sensitive than uniformed casualties.

 A weakened state also raises the salience of resource constraints. A ruinous war leaving the PLA in tatters would destroy a key pillar of Beijing’s prestige—the creation of a strong military. More importantly, China also faces enormous challenges in accessing the nation’s resources to fund and sustain a large-scale war. Unlike Russia, which can simply extract resources from mineral production, China’s diverse economy relies on taxes from corporations, citizens, and commerce. Accordingly, strategies of total mobilization have become more difficult for China as they are for all other late industrial societies. Military service is unpopular among urban educated youths, despite a dearth of jobs. Resistance to conscription has grown to such an extent that the State Council issued regulations in 2016 outlining penalties for refusal to serve. Further, tax efficiency is notoriously low, owing in part to extensive corruption. The country’s high levels of inequality make it necessary to levy taxes most heavily on powerful, well-resourced elites who may resist such measures. Not surprisingly, Chinese laws and writings on “defense mobilization” use the term to describe a more limited effort than the classic mobilizations of “total wars,” such as those of World War II. 

These limitations will constrain China’s military options against Taiwan. With mobilization for total war looking less unlikely at this point, Beijing might find more appealing coercive options that rely heavily on nonmilitary and nonkinetic methods, such as economic coercion, diplomatic pressure, and propaganda. Military operations could augment such efforts in the cyber, information, and psychological warfare domains. Military exercises, drills, and other forms of intimidation and coercion could be useful as well, especially for a weakened regime. In fact, China is already carrying out many of these activities. If Beijing eventually decides that a military intervention is necessary, any large-scale attack could exceed the state’s strength. Further, a large-scale invasion is especially perilous due to the risk of attrition and consequent need to mobilize additional labor and resources. A blockade or smaller scale operations, such as an offshore island seizure, however, could be more attractive. Yet smaller scale options, like an island seizure, offer less hope of compelling Taiwan’s submission. The PLA’s exercise of a joint blockade during former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) visit could well be an indication of China’s preferred contingency plans. But even in the case of an island seizure or blockade, Beijing would need to face the unappetizing prospect of an uncontrolled escalation should U.S. forces intervene in a significant way. 

Being a weakened state will likely encourage Beijing to be more risk averse. Already, top leaders routinely emphasize the importance of reducing risks. In one speech, Xi stated that the CCP should “take the prevention and resolution of major risks” as an “extremely important task.” Beyond speeches, Xi has exercised caution in his own behavior. Compared to his predecessor, Hu Jintao, Xi may have staked a bolder defense of the nation’s interests. But his willingness to take risks is often overstated. It is true that Xi has overseen the expansion of “gray zone” operations against rival claimants in the first island chain. But these confrontations have remained nonlethal to date. China and India also clashed in a fatal brawl under Xi’s watch, but Beijing subsequently sought to deescalate tensions. In short, China under Xi has been repressive and brutal in many ways, but it has not engaged in any of the risky combat operations that Russia practiced for years against Georgia, Chechnya, Syria, and Ukraine in the lead-up to the Ukraine invasion in 2022. 

Beijing’s risk aversion may partly reflect Xi’s personal preference, but it more likely owes to the state’s declining capacity and legitimacy. The margin of error is simply thinner today than in the past. China faces a perpetually high level of unrest, underscored by the country’s extensive reliance on repression. Any shock to the political economy could generate upheaval. The spread of the coronavirus pandemic provides a vivid example. Protesters denounced Xi and the CCP last year when lockdowns hurt the economy and people felt that their personal freedom was excessively constrained, even though the government’s policies sought to minimize deaths from the virus. Given the state’s already-fragile legitimacy, the shock of war could be regime ending. After all, it is difficult to envision a riskier act than starting a war that could involve the U.S. An untested military that attempts an opposed amphibious landing would carry a high risk of battlefield failure, the political consequences of which could be devastating. The possibility that a war with the U.S. could result in mass death, economic collapse, and escalation to nuclear war cannot be ruled out either. The risks would be compounded if China attempted to launch an unprovoked “surprise” attack that refrained from psychologically and politically preparing the populace for the hardships of war. Given the enormous risks, an attack launched by a stressed Beijing would likely accelerate its collapse rather than ease any pressure. More plausibly, Beijing will probably continue to favor nonmilitary and nonkinetic military methods of pressuring Taiwan if possible. China can also be expected to maximize efforts to weaken and cut off U.S. support to Taiwan. If a pressured Beijing someday feels compelled to take military action against the island, it might favor blockades or punitive strikes as a last resort after efforts to cajole the U.S. into co-managing the situation had failed, although even this seems doubtful given Beijing’s disinterest in war with Washington.

In sum, Xi’s personal strength may give him a key advantage against his foes among fellow elites, but, in matters of war, it is an illusion. Xi and his successors may lament their country’s faltering situation, but the state’s weakness will constrain how they respond to a crisis. Although some experts draw comparisons from the current situation with China and Taiwan to the Central and Axis Powers in World Wars I and II as reasons to support the “diversionary war” idea, they are inappropriate given the difference in state capacity. The major combatants in World Wars I and II were nation-states in their prime. China today is a weakened state. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may provide an alternative example of an aggressive declining state, but although shocking, Russia had telegraphed its intentions years in advance through repeated attacks against its relatively small, vulnerable neighbors. In China’s case, Taiwan poses a far more formidable target due largely to its security ties with the U.S. The risks, and demands of the state for war preparation, are accordingly far greater for China than was ever the case for Russia.

Paradoxically, China may have more in common with other late industrial states that are exhibiting disturbing signs of state weakness, including slowing growth, entrenched inequality, simmering public discontent, and governance shortfalls. The U.S., Europe, Japan, and others have shown a general aversion to waging large-scale war in favor of small-scale contingencies that avoid mobilization and that demand little of the public. Like the PLA, these militaries are staffed by professional volunteers and contractors, and the appeal of automated warfare has grown for them as well. China’s politics may be despotic, but that does not negate shared structural weaknesses of the state that may drive it in similar directions. Declining state legitimacy and capacity provide strong incentives for China to favor lower risk options for military action against Taiwan in a crisis. If U.S.-China relations turned bitterly antagonistic, Beijing might consider options to keep Washington at bay in a Taiwan crisis, such as cyber and information operations to foment domestic turmoil. But how a weakened Beijing might escalate conflict in such a situation without destabilizing itself is far from clear. More research is urgently needed to better understand how weakening state capacity might affect considerations of the use of force among rival powers.