Beijing has greatly expanded its military weapons resources and provocations against Taiwan at a time when its economy is in dire decline ... yet also as America's defensive leadership commitment and competence are globally disputed following the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle.
Whereas no one can confidently predict where this confluence of destabilizing conditions will lead, it is the latter — uncertainty by allies and adversaries alike of U.S. willingness or capacity to respond to a China attack on Taiwan and other Indo-Pacific nations — that poses the greatest danger.
The Growing China Military Threat
Astounding recent investments and progress in advanced weapon technologies and inventory assets, in combination with taunting displays of aggressiveness, clearly underscore Beijing's determination to become the world's leading global economic and military power by midcentury. This aspiration was articulated by President Xi Jinping in 2011, and it was adopted in 2017 by the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China as formal policy.
In August, China tested a hypersonic nuclear-capable missile. This is particularly ominous, because after being launched briefly into orbit, such missiles can glide back to targets anywhere on Earth just like the space shuttle and go boom before being detected.
As previously discussed in this column, this hypersonic test followed the discovery earlier this year of satellite images revealing that China is building more than 300 new intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile (ICBM) silos in its western desert — plus an unexpected revelation that it recently began work on a similar site near Ordos City not previously associated with ICBMs.
This silo-based component of China's nuclear force alone could be larger than the 1,550 operational nuclear warheads permitted to the U.S. or Russia under the 2009 New START agreement. This could exceed the total number of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons by 2030.
China's newest ICBMs are being deployed in a rail and road-mobile configuration which can be stored and hidden away in a 3,100-mile network of tunnels stretching throughout the country.
According to the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of those missiles— a long-range DF-41 ICBM — is designed to deliver as many as 10 independently targetable warheads, or MIRVs, with nuclear yields ranging from 20 to 250 kilotons.
China's recently discovered missile field under construction is estimated to be able to hold more than 100 new DF-41 ICBMs.
This capability, along with a new submarine-launched missile with six warheads and a new strategic bomber, could allow China to deploy more than 3,000 warheads on top of the 350 existing warheads.
In addition, China has six new nuclear submarines equipped with JL-3 missiles, hypersonic missiles capable of evading U.S. missile defenses along with nuclear-capable H-6 bombers.
Over a four-day period in August Beijing sent about 150 warplanes, including some of those nuclear-capable bombers, over Taiwan's defense zone. China claims the island as a province, and it has vowed to take it by force if necessary.
Taiwan's Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng has described current tensions with China as the worst in 40 years, and he has warned that while Beijing is already capable of launching an attack, it would be completely prepared to mount an invasion within three years.
Beijing's Deepening Economic Woes
While there is growing speculation that China may make a move on Taiwan, the timing and nature of such action may be influenced — either sooner or later — by worsening economic conditions as well as Beijing's strategic assessments of responsive U.S. backlash.
China's economy is growing at the slowest pace in a year as the country reckons with power shortages, supply bottlenecks, and a slowing property sector. Real estate problems are made critical by an overextended government funded Evergrande company, a leading Chinese developer in an industry that contributes almost one-third of the country's GDP.
Evergrande is struggling with more than $300 billion in debt, and it has missed three rounds of bond payments in less than a month.
Leland Miller, the chief executive of the economic forecasting firm China Beige Book International, equates Evergrande's operating model to a Ponzi scheme that finances money by promising an ever-growing number of apartments to Chinese families, and then uses the money to pay back loans packaged as high-interest investments.
China's 4.9% gross domestic product (GDP) growth during the third quarter was three percentage points down from the previous quarter, and worse than the already revised-down projections that analysts gave.
Evergrande's woes are a reminder that China's political economy has become more unstable, potentially making Beijing even more impatient to displace America as the dominant power.
On the other hand, Leland Miller predicts that with Chinese leader Xi Jinping's anticipated third term and the Beijing Winter Olympics at stake, the regime will do its utmost to defer any politically damaging news until at least after next year.
Miller said during a recent virtual panel event hosted by the Hudson Institute: ''It'll be a political decision'' whether this will happen in the next two or three years, or over a decade, but ''growth is going to slow down, and quite dramatically.''
The Big Biden Risk Factor
Beijing has good reason to calculate that any staging of an assault on Taiwan should take advantage of America's presently weak and confused White House and Pentagon leadership.
China's state media have claimed that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan signaled the ''death knell of U.S. hegemony'' as well as the end of U.S. military credibility. The CCP even warned Taiwan that the fall of Kabul was proof that Taiwan had lost its best ally in a war for independence.
President Joe Biden didn't offer any confidence to refute such doubts when asked by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper during his recent Town Hall discussion: ''Can you vow to protect Taiwan?''
Biden answered, ''Yes, we have a commitment to do that.''
The actual U.S. policy toward Taiwan is ''strategic ambiguity'' about U.S. intentions, where the Taiwan Relations Act commits the U.S. to help Taiwan defend itself, but it does not include a NATO-like commitment to go to war to defend the island democracy.
Although the White House soon walked back Biden's apparent confusion on this basic policy position, as The Wall Street Journal points out, ''Wars have started amid such mixed signals to adversaries.''
Topping this, the greatest danger of all is that we now have a president in Biden who believes global warming and white supremacists are greater threats to the world than coldblooded Beijing Maoists.
Be afraid that Taiwan is only the beginning.
Be very afraid.
Larry Bell is an endowed professor of space architecture at the University of Houston where he founded Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture and the graduate space architecture program. His latest of 10 books, "What Makes Humans Truly Exceptional," (2021) is available on Amazon along with all others. Read Larry Bell's Reports — More Here.
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