Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Dangerous Game

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 5, 2021 --  

The tiny island of Pratas may prove an irresistible target for Chinese bullying. It might also spark a major war.

The obscure island of Pratas might seem an unlikely place to trigger a Third World War.  The tiny patch of sand is barely big enough for an airstrip and has just a handful of buildings visited by Taiwanese Marines and fishermen. 
Pratas Island
Map © 2021 David G. Young

Yet every day for the past four days, dozens of Chinese People’s Liberation Army warplanes have provocatively entered Taiwan’s Air Defense and Identification Zone between Pratas island and the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung.  Such aggressive moves have gone on for years, but never in these numbers.  

Without question, it he heightened aggression is yet another consequence of President Xi Jinping’s nationalistic policies.  China’s dictator has forcibly ended Hong Kong’s democratic autonomy, shattering forever the “two systems” formula for peaceful reunification implicitly offered to Taiwan.  So long as the Communist Party holds power on the mainland, Taiwan will never agree to a peaceful solution.

Yet a military invasion of Taiwan would be disastrous for China.  Even without tensions over the territory, the world economy is constrained by a global microchip shortage, with the largest chip foundry in the world on Taiwan. If Taiwanese foundries were taken offline by conflict, global electronics and machine production would grind to a halt. This is as true for mainland China as it is for the West.

Would Xi really risk crippling China's economy by invading Taiwan?

Probably not, but that is where Pratas Island could come in.  The tiny bit of Taiwanese sand has no civilian population, probably no more than a few dozen Taiwanese Marines, and is hundreds of miles away from reinforcements.  An amphibious assault on the island would send a chilling signal to the Taiwanese that they must submit to the mainland. It may be an irresistible target for Chinese bullying.

But this is a dangerous game. If the People's Liberation Army takes over the island, there is no doubt that Taiwan and to a lesser degree the United States will respond. Neither country would seek war over Pratas, but they would both undoubtedly increase military activity in the region. The more warplanes and naval assets from three different countries you have moving about the region, the greater the risk of an accident that will spiral out of control.

China is aware of these dangers. But there is a risk that the country could still do something foolish. Ever since America's disastrous pull out from Afghanistan, China has been pumping up the rhetoric about America being an unreliable ally for Taiwan. Communist Chinese leaders probably know better than to equate the two alliances, but once heightened rhetoric becomes dogma, people have a tendency to start believing it.

What's more, China is currently facing an economic crisis from its deflating real estate bubble. Xi might decide that a quick victory on Pratas Island is just what the country needs. As Russia has shown in Ukraine and Syria, nationalist fervor is great way to distract from a flagging economy.

With any luck, none of this will happen and cooler heads will prevail. But so long as the risk remains, the United States must make clear -- though words, gestures, or a routine diversion of a warship -- that nothing has changed in its commitment to Taiwan. Now that America is freed from its Afghan distraction, it must show that is more able than ever to stand up for its interests.