Will He Go?

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 03-01-2021
That question was asked in early 1939 of Hitler.
The question bears reuse, this time directed at Emperor Xi and his intentions vis-a-vis Taiwan. This is particularly true in light of the possible changes in course of US foreign policy as the Biden Administration begins to get its feet under it.
In a recent article several authoritative China experts offered that they believed that Xi and the PLA simply are not ready to conduct a successful invasion of the island of Formosa and that politically, Xi won’t risk any such operation before the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress, scheduled for October 2022.
But, it would seem the experts are asking the wrong questions…
First, consider an analogous situation from the 1930s.
At the simplest level, knowing when a dictator will actually do something can, indeed, require more than reading his mind. If you’d been able to read Adolph Hitler’s mind from March of 1939 until the middle August 1939 you could have told everyone on what day he was going to invade Poland. And you would have been both right and wrong. 
The day for which the German General Staff had planned to begin the invasion was September 1st. On August 23rd, with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement signed, Hitler decided to move the date to the 26th. Yet, for a number of reasons Hitler developed cold feet on the 25th and pushed the start date to the right again. 
The point is that the final order to conduct an invasion - of any place, in any time, eventually devolves down to the decision of one man. Whether Pharaoh or King or Shah or Emperor, or General Eisenhower at his headquarters, in the end someone is going to be left holding the platter and has to decide whether it’s time.
This remains true when we discuss whether Emperor Xi is going to invade Formosa any time in the near future.
It matters only a little bit whether China can, in fact, successfully carry out an operation of this complexity. Maybe they can, maybe they can’t. Invasions over water are horribly complex and easily go awry. The Chinese have been thinking about it for at least two full generations; they have a great deal of modern gear: ships, aircraft, amphibious assault craft, etc. The ROC military also “has a vote” in all this; as does the US, and other nations in the region. Whether such an invasion would work is not, and never will be a given. 
But, whether the PRC can objectively succeed is, really, never the question. Rather, the questions are subjective, what matters is whether they Xi thinks they can.
Another look at Germany in the days immediately prior to the attack into Poland can again provide some interesting comparisons.
Did the Germans think they would succeed in Poland? Yes. But what about what would then happen? It’s interesting that a few senior officers, in particular General Georg Thomas, head of the Economics and Armaments Branch of the German Staff, dared to push back and question what was about to happen. In a memo he wrote in the middle of August and presented to General Halder, Chief of the General Staff, he argued that a “quick war and quick peace were a complete illusion.” Yet, General Halder held that England and France wouldn’t fight for Poland, “You don’t get yourself killed for an ally.”
We need to ask ourselves what the planners, the senior officers of the PLA believe; do think they can win? And more importantly, Does Xi think they can win?
Do they, does Xi, think the time is now? Said otherwise, if waiting places the success at greater risk, either because some perceived shift in the balance of power OR because Xi is facing his own mortality, will he act?
And is there a General Thomas equivalent somewhere in the senior echelons of the PLA who will argue - more successfully than did Thomas - that an invasion would not be quick and easy? And may well go awry.
Consider that any objective staff analysis of Napoleon’s assault into Russia would have said: “Don’t do it, Boss.” But that was true of a half-dozen of his campaigns. Napoleon was a true genius for war, to quote Clausewitz. He did things - again and again - that others would have said could never happen. Yet, in the end, Napoleon destroyed his army, losing nearly a half million men in the process. 
So, can the PLA / PLA-N / PLAAF defeat forces on Taiwan and seize the island? Who knows? That would require a detailed analysis of their actual capabilities - ships, men, aircraft, weapons inventory, etc. Plus a detailed knowledge of their actual training and readiness, and an accurate assessment of their tactical eldership. And the same for ROC forces. That is the objective analysis. 
But it doesn’t answer what Xi, or his generals, think and feel. To quote Napoleon, “in war the moral [Napoleon uses the word to mean morale] is to the physical as three to one.” And that works in both directions. An army with high morale can often perform miracles. And an army convinced of its own inadequacies can fall apart before your eyes. 
So, will he go?
Who knows? In fact, no one really knows except Xi. And, even he may not know. Saying: “I will do this under the following circumstances” is one, thing. Actually giving the order is another.
It’s possible he will, at the least, take a very hard look at both his own capabilities, and the relative strengths and merits of possible foes, and then wait until the 2022 Olympics and the CCP National Congress are over, and then he will make a choice…
So, if the US and its allies in the Quad (Australia, Japan and India) want to prevent such a war, the first thing they must do is send clear and unambiguous messages between now and 2022 that Xi must not act against Taiwan.
We might well begin by asking ourselves what Russia saw in the way of strategic signaling by the US just before and then during the Sochi Olympics. And then make certain we don’t do those things…
But more to the point, we must make crystal clear that we - the US, India, Japan, Australia - and any other nations wishing to join the alliance - will absolutely not tolerate any aggressive Chinese action. 
History is full of vast mistakes made because of ambiguous signals sent by one nation to another. Now is not the time for ambiguity.