Successful U.S. efforts to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could push China to attack other countries.
American foreign policy in Asia focuses on preventing China from expanding into Taiwan or usurping U.S. partners’ claims in the South China Sea. Yet effective U.S. deterrence in the Pacific might push China to shift its aims inland, where it could assess its capabilities against more vulnerable neighbors before engaging targets like Taiwan.
There are few opportunities for American force projection to inland Asia, meaning the region presents China with lower-risk opportunities to test the capabilities of their recently overhauled military. China has not had a major military operation since their 1979 humiliation in Vietnam, so a smaller intervention could allow them to test their capabilities, as well as global reactions to a Chinese projection of force. Accordingly, the United States should encourage regional power balancing to deter military action by China in these areas.
Chinese President Xi Jinping faces unique internal political pressures that drive him toward foreign military action. Xi faces party expectations to rejuvenate a stalling economy and to display the Chinese Communist Party’s strength domestically and internationally. He also wants to demonstrate the value of his extensive reforms to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Considering China’s rapidly inverting population pyramid, its significant domestic unemployment and growing dissatisfaction, and Xi’s own age, time is running short to meet these expectations. That is why U.S. concerns about Taiwan’s security are growing.
That very U.S. attention to Taiwan might push Chinese ambitions toward other goals. Taiwan’s physical geography, porcupine defense strategy, and American patronage make it difficult to conquer. Coupled with the PLA’s lack of combat experience, a war with Taiwan is not a wise way for Xi to relieve the pressures he faces. Xi might first pursue limited military action in lower-stakes theaters in Central or Southeast Asia.
Xi’s persecution of China’s Uyghur minority has raised border security concerns with states like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, which have limited ability to protect their sovereignty. Xi could leverage events like the collapse of Afghanistan and terrorist attacks on Chinese nationals as reasons to intervene militarily, perhaps through limited anti-terror campaigns. This would provide the PLA with valuable real-world experience and give Xi a chance to both assess PLA readiness and prove the value of his extensive reforms to the military. Evidence that those expensive reforms were successful could relieve political stress as China’s economy begins to falter. In the past, Russia’s military dominance in this region would have been a deterring factor, but their war in Ukraine has led to increased reliance on China, diminishing Moscow’s ability to credibly challenge Beijing.
China could also choose to intervene in a conflict in Southeast Asia. China shares a long border with Myanmar, a country embroiled in a seemingly interminable civil war since May 2021. China has long maintained proxy buffer states in Myanmar, and political and security concerns could create an opportunity for military experience. The threat of a climate refugee crisis in the Bengal flood plains could exacerbate perceptions of instability, or distract India from challenging an unprecedented Chinese intervention.
Myanmar is a member of ASEAN, but its regional partners have been ineffective in their efforts to address the conflict. Moreover, China’s actions in the South China Sea imply they don’t view ASEAN as a serious deterrent. As such, China might engage in military campaigns to “stabilize” the region, providing similar benefits to hypothetical actions in Afghanistan: military experience for the PLA, and resultant political capital for Xi.
A third target is perhaps more likely: militarily weak Mongolia. Mongolia’s shared border with China holds some of the world’s richest deposits of coal, uranium, molybdenum, copper, tin, and more. These resources could help fuel China’s growing nuclear programs, coal-plant construction, and electronic innovations — particularly regarding semiconductors. These expanding projects are critical if China wishes to protect itself from American trade warfare and international sanctions. Mongolia’s significant debt and recent domestic unrest, particularly related to coal production, have hindered Ulaanbaatar’s full utilization of these deposits and threatened the status quo in trade between Mongolia and China.
In 2022, the International Monetary Fund declared that Mongolia faces global shocks, border conflicts, and economic stagflation. Mongolia’s “political instability” is capable of “significantly disrupting strategic mining projects” favoring China, the IMF stated. With no formal foreign defense commitments and a tiny military, Mongolia’s precarious situation might tempt Beijing to forcefully seize and exploit underutilized border resources, providing invaluable and relatively low-risk real-world experience to the PLA, extremely valuable resources, and much-needed political capital for Xi Jinping.
In any of the above scenarios, the military experience and economic gains, as well as the political benefits to Xi, might motivate unexpected foreign action on China’s part, especially since the United States would have limited options to counter Beijing. There is little recent precedent for serious Chinese activity in any of these theaters, but given the fact that military experience and economic strength are vital to China’s ability to challenge America in the Pacific, there is enough risk that the United States should encourage regional powers like Russia and India to balance China and prevent such test runs.
America’s containment of China in the Pacific Ocean is important to American interests. But denying China control of valuable assets and the opportunity to prove the PLA’s capabilities could in turn prevent Xi from ever developing the confidence to take more active measures in the Pacific.
Regional powers balancing China out of Central and Southeast Asia could indirectly protect American investments in the Pacific. This is why it is so vital that America not only be aware of the risk China poses to Central and Southeast Asia, but also be active in encouraging regional powers to do something about that risk. America should utilize the interests of powers with stakes in the region before China takes the first step to launching a potentially disastrous war.
Patrick Fox is a Program Assistant at the John Quincy Adams Society, the Co-Host of the Security Dilemma Podcast and the Editor-In-Chief for the Realist Review. He holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Syracuse University and was a Fall 2022 Marcellus Policy Fellow. You can follow him on Twitter at @patrckfox.
Garrett Ehinger is an Assistant Editor at Realist Review and a China analyst who holds a bachelor’s in Biomedical Science with a minor in Mandarin Chinese from Brigham Young University in Idaho. He is currently a master’s student at the University of Utah studying public health. He has studied Chinese culture and language for over a decade. You can follow him on Twitter at @GarrettEhinger.