Watch closely and you see quantitative changes – in weather and international politics. Events pile up until a sudden, qualitative change. As winter approaches, temperatures fall and what was liquid is suddenly ice. Communist China’s incursions on Taiwan – and now on the United States with a surveillance balloon – continue to grow. They signal a qualitative change. We need to prevent war with China if we can…and prepare for it, if we cannot.
These are tough words to hear, tougher as China continues to up-arm and apply relentless pressure to Taiwan, sending squadrons of fighters and ships into Taiwanese territory, pushing rhetoric harder and farther. Now, they even reach out and test the Biden Administration over US soil. Where all this leads – and when – is not clear, but crystal clear is a changing op-tempo.
For good reason, talk of war with China is increasingly common. From early 2021 to 2023, a marked turn has occurred in global assessments. Even before the Chinese “surveillance balloon” over US cities, the dialogue had shifted. The tempo has grown quicker, more than “business as usual” is afoot.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) noted an invasion of Taiwan would be devastating, impose enormous costs, even if Taiwan survived with US military support. Meantime, three weeks ago, China’s “Taiwan Affairs Office” got belligerent, noting China would be “safeguarding” the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Taiwan, “smashing plots for Taiwan independence.” All this was before invasion of US airspace with a “balloon.”
China added, as if setting for the spike, “malicious support for Taiwan independence among anti-China elements in a few foreign countries are a deliberate provocation.” Big words for a nation that just lofted a “Sputnik balloon” over the continental United States.
These statements echo words of Taiwanese intelligence authorities in 2022, who warned that China might be planning to threaten war in 2023 – seeing the US as weak, compelling Taiwanese submission, concessions, surrender.
China’s recent saber-rattling is like reading the old Soviet playbook before invasions of Poland from the East in 1939 (Nazi Germany from the West), East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1967, and a soft reinvasion of Poland in 1980.
Communist China pushed a similar “stick it to the West” approach before taking Hong Kong in 2020, militarizing “artificial islands” in the South China Sea, testing illegal weapons in space, and pretending a “belt and road initiative” was not for global dominance – until it was.
On the kinetic side, the recent deluge of military actions – not unlike Russia’s buildups prior to moving on Ukraine in 2022 – has been remarkable. “Largescale military exercises” were conducted around Taiwan in January, unprecedented numbers of fighters and ships.
Throughout January, heightened anti-Taiwanese rhetoric from Chinese authorities and actions resembling a trial run at invasion of the island nation have been observed. Although offering just words, the US State Department described recent “record incursions” as a “danger zone.”
Then a US four-star general predicted the US will be at war with China in two years, by 2025. Public acknowledgment of the threat, possible “hot war” with China, with fewer but highly capable weapons – is stunning, and sobering. Even mainstream media is starting to perk up.
Few thought Japan would do what it did in 1941, Germany in 1939. Few imagined Soviet invasions in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Few imagined Putin’s crimes against innocents and devastation in Ukraine a year ago. As we keep learning – somehow too late – life changes fast.
Now we have Taiwan – in some ways a leading indicator of which way freedom’s winds will blow for 50 years – at risk. What should we do? The answer is step up – now. Add the Chinese “balloon” and need for action becomes obvious.
We should have two carrier battle groups within range of Taiwan, for maximum deterrence. We should be prepared to hit China’s artificial islands if fighters are deployed. We should be sending cyber-signals that we will respond with a devastating blow to China’s military in cyberspace.
At home and around the world, we should be preparing defensively with readiness not wokeness, warfighting drills, ramped up ballistic and theater missile defenses, reaffirmations to allies in the region and globally. We should be sending clear signals that the US will defend free nations, and that any war begun implicates us. We will fight without limit and win. In short, we should be assuring “peace through strength” lives – to borrow on Ronald Reagan.
If we do these things, we will back down a restless, testing Chinese Communist state, opportunist and blundering, not focused on history or logic. We create focus, staunch the tilt toward war, but we must also be ready. If required, we must be prepared to engage.
Water can become ice fast, or go back to liquid. We have to exercise the power we have to keep change within margins, not let quantitative moves turn qualitative. Wars, once started, are hard to stop. They are always better deterred than fought. The “balloon” is just the latest, but it reminds us we must dare – to prepare.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.