Following a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping just this week, U.S. President Joe Biden promised there would be no “new Cold War” with China. The U.S. leader also told reporters he did not believe China would invade Taiwan, despite Beijing’s persistent saber-rattling.
The Chinese Communist Party sees the self-governing island as a breakaway province that will be returned to mainland control, by force if necessary. The Party retains that stance even though it has never actually ruled the island. Taiwan, then known as Formosa, was under Japanese control until the end of the Second World War, and the Chinese Kuomintang retreated to the island at the end of the Chinese Civil War, in 1949.
What Did Biden and Xi Discuss?
During their meeting at the G20 summit in Bali – the first in-person meeting between the two superpower’s leaders since Biden took office – they also discussed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as issues relating to North Korea.
Biden had previously reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan, but it is unclear how that might influence China’s decision to actually use force.
Though some U.S. officials have warned that a Chinese invasion could come sooner than later, there is another school of thought that says Beijing’s bluster will never give way to an attack.
First, military action against Taiwan would be extremely costly. It could result in the loss of countless People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels, and the Taiwanese would fight for every inch of the island. China’s intention isn’t to “make a desert and call it peace,” but to regain control of Taiwan and its industry. Destroying it will not benefit Beijing.
Likewise, there are lessons from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Instead of a swift victory, Russia is facing humiliating setbacks and is unable to sustain its battlefield losses. It has also become a pariah state, and it languishes under intense sanctions.
Beijing clearly sees that it cannot risk making the same missteps as Moscow. China’s massive Belt and Road initiative would also be put in jeopardy if it sought to invade Taiwan.
China Remembers the Bloody Sino-Vietnamese War
Then there are the lessons from the largely forgotten Sino-Vietnamese War of early 1979. Though it lasted less than four weeks, the bloody conflict saw massive losses on both sides.
Additionally, while both sides claimed victory, Beijing was unable to dissuade Hanoi from its involvement in Cambodia. Moreover, border fighting continued between the two communist states for more than a decade. It was only with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which resulted in the end of Moscow’s support for Vietnam, that the Sino-Vietnamese border was finalized.
According to Western estimates, Chinese casualties included 26,000 troops killed and upwards of 40,000 wounded. Vietnam claims Chinese casualties were actually much higher, with as many as 62,000 People’s Liberation Army personnel killed. Those numbers, in a month-long war, would exceed the official 58,220 U.S. deaths from the nearly decade-long American involvement in Vietnam.
In addition, the PLA is believed to have lost some hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers. By contrast, the Vietnamese losses may have been around 10,000 dead.
Instead of repeating the mistakes made by France and then the United States in Southeast Asia, Beijing called it off. After only weeks of fighting, China suddenly declared that it had taught Vietnam the intended lesson, and Beijing withdrew its forces from the fight.
The world largely ignored the conflict, and it didn’t get the attention that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has received, yet the parallels are readily apparent. A larger, more powerful nation attacks a smaller one and gets its nose seriously bloodied.
Both sides recall the brief Southeast Asian conflict in film and in song. It is likely a lesson Beijing still considers, as it was unable to mount a successful land invasion, albeit in harsh jungle terrain. A costly war is the last thing China wants, especially when victory isn’t certain.
Massive losses, a destroyed island, and harsh global sanctions are the best outcome Beijing could expect from a war against Taiwan.
A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.
November 16, 2022 at 2:42 pm
‘After only weeks of fighting, China suddenly declared that it had taught Vietnam the intended lesson, and Beijing withdrew its forces from the fight.’
Reminds me of Germanicus’ campaign against Arminius. He failed, withdrew and claimed that punitive action was the intended purpose of this gigantic and costly adventure.
November 16, 2022 at 8:04 pm
The Communists must be made to pay for their belligerence.
The 1st island chain around the China Sea should be armed to prepare to impose a strategic blockade on China. Companies doing business with China should be informed that doing so is risky. Raise tariffs for continued violations/squatting on South China Sea militarized islands, add additional tariffs for every belligerent or objectionable reason.
The Communists have no chance at invading Taiwan, but they still are hateful criminals that used a bioweapon on mankind. Have they ever made an agreement that they haven’t violated? Treating with them should be done with cash on the barrel head only.
November 17, 2022 at 3:52 pm
While the points raised are very valid, we cannot discount the ego of Xi. Much like Putin who is blundering in a war of attrition in Ukraine.
Xi is building a modern armed forces and experience shows that totalitarian countries that build such armies soon want to exercise them.