We Shouldn’t Underestimate the Incredible Danger Posed by the Taiwan Crisis

Lyle Goldstein

The media isn’t conveying how serious the Taiwan situation is. China is willing to fight for the island — possibly with tactical nuclear weapons — and if war comes to the Taiwan Strait, the US has a high chance of losing.

Tourists look on as a Chinese military helicopter flies past Pingtan Island, one of mainland China's closest points to Taiwan, as part of Chinese military exercises in response to Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit, August 4, 2022. (HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Branko Marcetic

As predicted, Beijing did not respond well to Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan.

It imposed new trade restrictions while embarking on a series of days-long military drills encircling the island, which at one point saw four Chinese missiles sail over its territory. Yesterday, Beijing sanctioned Pelosi and her family and cut off dialogue with Washington on military matters and climate change, potentially setting back international efforts to deal with what is the most serious and urgent threat to global security.

Pelosi’s provocative visit had come in the face of numerous warnings from experts like Lyle Goldstein. A researcher on Chinese and Russian strategic military development who taught at the US Naval War College for twenty years, Goldstein spoke with Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic shortly after Pelosi’s visit.

Goldstein explains the fraught significance of Taiwan to China’s leaders, the risk of nuclear war, and why the United States could very well lose a war with China over the island.

Branko Marcetic

Why was Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan considered so provocative by China?

Lyle Goldstein

A lot of people already are genuinely surprised, even me a little bit. I thought that Beijing might just send a hundred aircraft into the zone or something, but the reaction seems to be large-scale and involves a variety of unprecedented moves.

But if you read Chinese and see what I’ve been seeing the past five years, this is not surprising. I’d say for at least five years or more, we’ve been in a slow-rolling crisis, where the issue of Taiwan in particular, and US-China relations in general, has been escalating to a very dangerous level. China views this is as one more blow against the One China policy framework, and they don’t like the trend lines. A lot of people say, “Newt Gingrich went there in in 1997, there’s precedent, what’s the big deal?” But that’s not at all how China sees it. Their approach is, in 1997, they hardly had a navy to speak of and couldn’t do anything. They feel like they have the power now to adjust the situation.

Hong Kong has caused many Chinese leaders and the PLA [People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese military] to consign the “one country, two systems” framework, which I think was useful for all sides, to the dustbin of history — concluding that peaceful integration or unification is impossible, and that force is the only solution. That’s a very dark view, but I’m afraid it’s become more and more pervasive.

We would be hard-pressed under any conditions to change China’s mind on that view, but we seem to be doing the opposite, compounding all their fears and sending higher and higher–level visitors. People don’t realize: we sent two senators — and that’s not a minor position in the US government — to Taiwan two months ago, and China did bang its fists and use vitriolic language. But it doesn’t appear in the mainstream media.

On Twitter, I’ve made it a personal mission to document all the threats that China has issued over Taiwan. You at least see one a week. It goes something like this: “The PLA has the will and capability to ensure national unification.” Over the last year, this statement has appeared dozens of times, but it’s willfully ignored by the Western press, because they can’t understand it or they dismiss it or wish to ignore it.

In a nuclear-armed world, to just outright ignore the warnings of the other side is reckless beyond belief, and potentially catastrophic.

Branko Marcetic

Why is Taiwan such a redline for China?

Lyle Goldstein

I think reasonable people, even historians, have disagreement on this. I don’t want to pretend this is a simple right and wrong. How do countries attain their shape? A vast cauldron of mostly gnarly warfare, to put it mildly, that’s caused most countries to have their current shape.

China has had roughly this shape for a couple of thousand years, and for that reason the Chinese are very sensitive to issues of territorial integrity. Of course, layer on that the period of European predations — and most people don’t realize, but the United States was quite involved in that. From about 1850 to about 1920, almost a century, you had the US Navy patrolling the Yangtze, which involved gunboats operating together with the British Navy, and we were policing China. This was a form of imperialism, and if the natives got restless, then the gunboats would circle up. There are myriad instances of the US acting together with Japan and Britain to suppress rebellions.

The predations of Europe were followed by the ultimate predation of Japan, which conquered a lot of China. Where did it begin? In Taiwan, and China remembers that dearly. For Western readers not well acquainted with Japan’s conquest of Taiwan in 1894–95, ghastly atrocities were perpetrated. It was kind of a precursor to World War II, where the Japanese mercilessly slaughtered people in Taiwan during the initial period of colonization.

The Chinese have a particular animus toward Japan, because there was never really a reckoning for all the crimes committed, there were no reparations. But it started in Taiwan, and that’s why it becomes a focal point of Chinese nationalism, which is, to a large extent, built on anti-Japanese sentiment. And I always note to Chinese audiences, they have the United States to thank partly for saving China from Japan. So it’s not a one-sided story.

In 1683, the Qing Dynasty took over Taiwan. There were already a lot of Chinese on the island, and it became integrated into the Chinese empire, and later became its own province. That’s almost a century before the American Revolution, and many years before the United States even thought about Hawaii or California, Taiwan was part of China. So it’s a strong claim.

It wasn’t just in 1972, with the Shanghai Communiqué, that the United States endorsed the idea that Taiwan was part of China. I’d urge Americans and all people around the world to read the statements by Franklin Roosevelt in the Cairo Declaration and Harry Truman in his speech of January 1950, where he states very clearly that Taiwan is part of China that was taken by imperial Japan.

Branko Marcetic

If tensions boiled over and there was a US-China war over Taiwan, how would it actually go?

Lyle Goldstein

I worked at the US Naval War College for twenty years researching Chinese naval development, Chinese military development, so I’m well versed on all their systems. There’s quite a significant chance that the United States would lose a war over Taiwan.

The obvious reason is geographical. China is fighting a war, as they put it, right on their front doorstep, and can bring all their immense military power to bear — not just the manpower and logistics power China has great strengths in, but we’re talking combat aircraft, helicopters, and every kind of ship you can imagine. Every point of China is essentially one day’s sail to Taiwan.

Compare that with the United States. We do have immense military power, but we cannot bring it into the field, and even if we could, could it be supported? Even submarines, which are our ace in the hole — the one force that can get to battlefield and fight strongly against an invasion — couldn’t be supported. They’d quickly run out of torpedoes, as submarines don’t have a large magazine, so in navy speak, they’d be “Winchestered,” meaning out of ammo and useless, and forced to sail the twenty or thirty days back to the rear to refill and refit supply, and then another twenty or thirty days to go back. So even the force that’s most prepared to go into the fight can’t sustain it.

The situation is much more dire when talking about what the air force or army could bring into the fight, which is nearly zero. Let’s not forget, the air force is totally dependent on runways. And while there have been some air force engineers scraping around in Tinian [one of the Northern Mariana Islands, 1,800 miles off China’s coast] — from where we launched the Enola Gay to drop the atomic bomb — as soon as we started playing with air forces there, they’d be right on it. I can give you the citation where they say, “Just add it to the target list.”

And all the runways in proximity would be destroyed: I’m talking about Guam, Okinawa, and further afield. China now has the ability to target Hawaii and Alaska. I’m talking about day one, or at least day seven of a conflict. I briefed an air force general, saying, “Sir, are you aware the assets you’re keeping in Alaska would likely be targeted in the first week or two of a war with China?” He was surprised, but he shouldn’t be. Turnabout is fair play, and they’d strike these targets.

This is a long way of saying, the amount of firepower and the ability to sustain it is not there on the US side, and why, repeatedly, it’s been shown in the open press that China nearly always wins the war games. That’s a bad sign. We have to grapple with reality, and the reality is China wields immense military cards in the Taiwan scenario.

A lot of people point to the Ukraine war. Taiwan is fifteen times smaller than Ukraine. One of Russia’s major problems is that it’s spread its forces too thin and the firepower is dispersed, because Ukraine is a huge country. In Taiwan’s case, the firepower would be much more concentrated in a small area, and half of Taiwan is mountains, so it’s an even smaller area. China’s military budget is also about five times the size of Russia’s, and Taiwan is more easily cut off from arms shipments. You don’t want to be in Taiwan when this unfolds.

Branko Marcetic

What is the risk of nuclear escalation over Taiwan?

Lyle Goldstein

So many people ignore that possibility, and it’s completely irresponsible. If I were to blame Pelosi for anything, it’s that, in the nuclear age, this kind of posturing is ridiculous and should be condemned widely.

One can think of many ways that a nuclear scenario would unfold. One that keeps me up at night these days is that, in the field of US-China military studies, we don’t talk a lot about tactical nuclear weapons, but Chinese strategists talk about this a lot these days, especially because they were a feature of the US-Soviet rivalry.

The Chinese noticed we were putting tactical nuclear weapons back on US submarines and wrote about it extensively. They said, “This looks a lot the kind of weapon the United States could deploy in Taiwan scenario.” And they say, “If the United States is going to go this route, then other countries will” — an obvious reference to the fact that China is developing similar weapons and will be ready for that day. I have no confirmation of them deploying battlefield nuclear weapons — it’s just my suspicion, and they have threatened to do so, and I have a lot more evidence to show.

What it means is that, if war begins between the two, if either side starts to lose — let’s say ours does, they sink a carrier and it looks like the invasion is succeeding — does one of our submarines sitting thousands or hundreds of miles away, launch a battlefield nuclear weapon that hits the invasion force, and they respond in kind against Guam or Hawaii? It could go the opposite way: if China invades and the invasion is stalling or losing, and American forces are surging into the area, do they say, “We can’t afford to lose this the way that Vladimir Putin seemed to be in the initial stages”? We have to wonder, in the nuclear era, at that point would China resort to some kind of nuclear use to warn the others away. I do fear China could use the nuclear card against Japan.

One more thing: China is very energetically developing their nuclear forces. That’s sad — I don’t think it had to be this way, because China previously was quite proud of its low-level nuclear deterrent. But they think the likelihood of war with the US is quite high, particularly over Taiwan, and they want to match the US strength for strength.

Nuclear war could also happen by accident. A lot of US analysts are talking about how China increasingly colocates nuclear warheads with conventional warheads — they fly on the same missile even. So how do we know if Chinese missiles flying at Guam or Hawaii, as they might in this scenario, aren’t carrying a nuclear weapon? You have minutes to decide what to do.

The buildup of missile defenses has also spurred more and more exotic weaponry. There’s a move toward hypersonic weaponry, and the Chinese are, like the Russians, obsessed with how to penetrate missile defenses. One way is to destroy the missile defense radars in the opening salvo. So there are all kinds of disturbing escalation incentives built in here.

Branko Marcetic

The China-US relationship presumably doesn’t have the kinds of Cold War–era safeguards and mechanisms for de-escalation and conflict avoidance.

Lyle Goldstein

A Chinese analyst told me, the US and China have never had a Cuban Missile Crisis. That was a very stark moment. Both sides looked into the apocalypse, literally, and there’s no question in my mind, the world could’ve been destroyed in that moment. The more we learn about it, the more horrifying it is.

I interviewed a Russian submarine captain who literally had his finger on the trigger of a nuclear-armed torpedo that was designed to hit the US amphibious group off the coast of Cuba, and the US Navy did not even know that Russia had deployed tactical nuclear weapons in the crisis. We were operating totally in the blind on that trigger for nuclear war. And the same is true probably in Taiwan. We don’t know completely what weapons they have, and they don’t know completely what weapons we have. Both sides are keeping some cards behind their backs.

Branko Marcetic

There was a 1966 study about US war planning for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the 1950s, where officials agreed they would quickly resort to nuclear strikes on China. Is this something that US strategists and military leaders would be discussing today too?

Lyle Goldstein

I think that was an important revelation, and it shows you something about this scenario. People who know the history of the 1950s know that, at the highest levels, the president was thinking about ordering nuclear strikes on China because of these Taiwan-related issues. I say related because it was mostly about these offshore islands. Dwight D. Eisenhower and other American leaders thankfully realized this was crazy, that you’re going to use nuclear weapons to defend these little rocks.

But it didn’t stop there. We know that we deployed nuclear weapons to Taiwan; I think they were there for seven or eight years, these Matador tactical missiles. At some level, brilliant: that’s how you defend Taiwan, since you can’t possibly put enough firepower there to sink the whole Chinese fleet and prevent them from invading, so you use nuclear weapons.

Thankfully, they came out as part of the whole Kissinger diplomacy. But it shows the fundamental principle here, which is that the United States in this scenario can’t possibly bring enough firepower to win unless it resorts to nuclear weapons. That was understood in the 1950s, and nothing really has changed.

I’ve seen idle speculation in the military press that no country would ever think of sinking a US carrier, which is five thousand Americans, and would entail nuclear retaliation for sure. Well, what if China got it in its head to sink two or three or five carriers. I don’t even want to think about that, but it’s quite possible.

One of the worst scenarios I’ve considered over the years is what if China severely damages a carrier, and the carrier is sinking, and we have to rescue the three or four thousand people who are swimming somewhere in the East China Sea. You’re going to have to put together a task force of fifteen or twenty ships to pull off this rescue mission. But of course, in modern naval warfare, when the enemy knows where all the ships are collecting, they’re easily targeted. That’s a scenario to lose at least half the US navy.

Let’s turn it around: what if the United States sinks a Chinese carrier. Could that entail nuclear escalation? Increasingly, when you talk about these kinds of losses, China might. We don’t know where the nuclear threshold is. A major war has never been fought between nuclear powers. Often when I deal with US military leaders, I say what was said during the Cuban missile crisis: “You and I have fought the same number of nuclear wars, so please don’t tell me you know what’s going to happen.”

Branko Marcetic

What can or should we learn from the crisis, and ultimately war in Ukraine, that we can apply to these currently rising tensions with China?

Lyle Goldstein

I get this question all the time, but in a different form: How can the Ukraine war can inform us about defending Taiwan properly? Like if we had sent all these weapons to Ukraine five years ago, then Russia would’ve never considered it. I don’t think that’s true, and, in fact, I think piling in the weapons during November, December, and January partly triggered the conflict. The same thing could occur in the Taiwan context. You’re just waving a red flag in front of a bull. You’re trying to foreclose their options in a military sense and therefore pushing the security dilemma to the breaking point.

The primary lesson that needs to be learned is that you cannot just willy-nilly transgress upon the redlines of great powers. To me, it’s incredibly stark. I circulated Putin’s discourse on redlines, starting around 2020, around Naval War College, where I worked, because I saw my job as saying to my colleagues, “Whatever happens, you’d better understand Russia’s redlines.” Because it was very clear we were getting close to those lines. And we more or less blew right by them, ignored them, said, “This is posturing, this is unacceptable, you can’t say that.” That kind of approach is beyond foolish, it’s catastrophic for the people of Eastern Europe and Ukraine and Russia.

That does lead to the spheres of influence argument. I argued in my book in 2015 that spheres of influence are the only way forward to manage conflict with China and Russia. They’re not something you can accept or not accept, they are just a fact of the world. And so you have to align your policies to accept that, because when you fight against it, you’re swimming against the tide, and it leads to horrible disasters like Ukraine.

There are some specific lessons from a military point of view. I agree Javelins and Stingers and things like that are somewhat useful for Taiwan, though I warn that piling these weapons in could trigger what you’re trying to prevent. Should Taiwan invest in counter-drone technology? Sure. One could work through numerous lessons, but I don’t have a lot of hope that Taiwan could possibly even begin to match Chinese military power. They’ve just now exceeded 2 percent in defense spending, but to really match China somehow, they would have to go well over 10 percent of GDP and continue that for a decade. At that point, they might have a chance. Otherwise, I don’t see any real possibility.

So the real lesson for Taiwan is not a massive buildup — I think they’d have to go full North Korea and dig and pour concrete everywhere, and more or less destroy the island to save it. The main lesson is diplomacy, of course. So many opportunities were missed to avert the war in Ukraine. To state the obvious, if they had simply declared that Ukraine would be a neutral state, how hard would that have been? There are plenty of examples of neutral countries that are very happy and are very well armed. That was a completely feasible option, but it just didn’t fit with our ideology. The idea that we might climb down, that we might compromise — that’s showing weakness, so we can never do that.

Taiwan has all kinds of diplomatic positions. We should be encouraging those. In December 2015, the leaders of Taiwan and China had an excellent, friendly meeting. They have a lot in common. There are so many ties across the Strait. Millions of mainlanders have come across to Taiwan and seen how beautiful the island is and how clean the air is and how well-governed it is. That’s the best way to approach cross-Strait relations. There are all kinds of compromises to be made, people-to-people exchanges, military confidence-building measures. All of that should’ve happened with Ukraine and Russia, but no, we insisted on confrontational approach, and now we have a ghastly war.

Branko Marcetic

NATO recently named China a security challenge for the first time, at the same time that it invited several Asia-Pacific countries for the first time to speak at its summit. How significant of a shift is this? Does it represent some kind of fundamental expansion of NATO’s mission?

Lyle Goldstein

I’ve been observing NATO’s lean to the east for several years now, and I remember watching the British and French send carriers and submarines across. I gave a lecture in Germany a couple years ago, and people in the German navy asked me point blank: “We’re eager to send a ship to the South China Sea, would that help?” And I said, “No, it’s kind of crazy for Germany to insert itself in this. It’s going to do more harm than good for sure.” They didn’t like my answer. “We were hoping you’d be rah-rah and think it’s great.”

That little story encapsulates this dynamic, which is really disturbing. NATO already didn’t have the best reputation in China, for various reasons going back years. Though ten to fifteen years ago, NATO had a reasonable working relationship with China, and the European Union had set up some really good defense exchanges and contacts with China. That was very helpful, and I had urged that Europe act as a cushion for the US-China rivalry and be a friend of the court to both sides, tell each to chill out a little. Help China to mitigate its worst nationalist tendencies, but also help the US contain its seemingly endless desire for rivalry.

I thought Europe was playing their role pretty effectively until 2016 or so. Then things seemed to start to change, and European discourse on China radically moved to the right and became very anti-China to the point, I’d argue, of even surpassing US rhetoric on China. I found this very disturbing. I could give you endless examples of this, but if you read the Economist magazine, it’s become extremely hawkish on China over the years. In the European mind, they more or less associate Russia and China together, as authoritarianism writ large, though the Russian and Chinese regimes are very different, so lumping them together I think is misplaced.

I remember, in 2017, as the Korean crisis was unfolding, a squadron of French ships came across, and Chinese coverage of that was very upset. It was the Europeans who were leading the carving up of China in the nineteenth century, and China fought multiple wars against France and against Britain. So the idea that you’re going to have these European navies sailing around, it triggers this anger.

The other phenomenon here is NATO’s search for missions. God bless the Ukraine war, because this has given a lot of new life to NATO and given NATO bureaucrats something to do, though I think Turkey’s diplomacy and playing footsie with Russia should make people realize the alliance isn’t as together and cohesive as some would hope. On some level, there’s a silver lining to that — Europe should focus on Europe, and take its nose out of Asian affairs. To put it less charitably: What have you been doing? Was this lurch toward Asia why they seem to have been caught unawares in the war with Russia?

There’s also the cheerleader effect, which is very powerful in Washington, when whatever the United States does, we always hope and expect this round of applause from the Europeans. This has been very destructive, in my view. Would the United States really have spent twenty years in Afghanistan without this cheerleader effect from NATO? Half the argumentation for the last ten years of the mission in Afghanistan was, “Well, we can’t possibly pull out because what would NATO say? We can’t leave our allies in the lurch.”

I’m critical of NATO’s stance here. I think Europeans have surrendered their diplomatic cards, which were substantial, and China has become more skeptical of Europe. And this is sad, because I really thought Europe could help bring about a new, more peaceful world order.

Branko Marcetic

How alarmed should we be by China seeking to expand its foreign bases and strengthen its military?

Lyle Goldstein

First, I always point out to people, the United States has something like eight hundred military facilities abroad, and China has one. It’s sort of like, call me when China gets 799 more. In other words, we’re really not at a place where we should seriously worry about this. What I’ve seen doesn’t really bother me.

Look at their base in Africa. That’s really their only foreign base. Those little reef bases in the South China Sea really can’t be called foreign bases. Regarding the African base, there are some things that are a little concerning, like when it was being built, it has really deep bunkers — it’s built to take punishment.

But other than that, look, this base is in Djibouti. Three miles away, you have a pretty large American base. Around the corner from there is a French base, and around the corner from there is a little Japanese base, and it goes on and on. Everyone and their mother has a base in Djibouti. If China had really nefarious designs on Africa, they probably wouldn’t put their base right there, next to all these other bases, where we can easily monitor what they’re doing.

If I had to summarize Chinese policy in Africa, they do a lot of peacekeeping, and that’s difficult — and they deserve a lot of credit for peacekeeping. Number two, there are a lot of Chinese nationals and businesses in Africa, and I think they’re concerned that they may have to do what in the navy we call an NEO — a noncombatant evacuation operation — and that can be a high-risk operation.

My view is we’re basically in a cold war with China, and they’re acting like we are now. They’re starting to adopt strategic positioning in case they have to struggle and strike the United States. There’s a rumor that we’ll see a base in West Africa. China has legitimate interests in all these places, but would that base bother me? A little bit. I’m not thrilled to see China have a base on the Atlantic. That’s a major step.

But most of the major blame for China wanting to dip their toe in the Atlantic there — I studied a series of Chinese official articles called China’s Atlantic Strategy. One of the things they said very clearly was, “The Atlantic is absolutely critical to the United States, and the United States is coming to our backyard and poking around in the South China Sea, so we have to go to their backyard.”

Branko Marcetic

Western discourse on the war in Ukraine, and this now seems to be being transplanted to China and Taiwan, has tended to be dominated by appeals to progressive values around defending democracy and self-determination. But there is not much acknowledgment of the risk of military and nuclear escalation.

Lyle Goldstein

For progressives around the world, their first take is absolutely, “This is good versus evil, and we have to step up and do what it takes and be the greatest generation.” I’m not sure why they’re not able to appreciate how the subsequent steps are so tragic, and there’s not much thinking about the costs. We seem to be in a period now like the 1940s and ’50s with these proxy wars, like the Korean War, which has been compared to the Ukraine war.

In the 1950s, we had statesmen like Eisenhower, and arguably even figures like Richard Nixon, who had fought in World War II and seen huge numbers of people die with their own eyes. They’d been there and were able to put aside this crusading mentality and realize they had better protect the peace, what peace there was. The United States made a lot of mistakes in the Cold War, but it was able to not go over the edge. And maybe Russia also had that kind of baked-in appreciation for the costs of war that just seems to be totally missing today.

I’m watching a lot of Russian media now. The level of frustration there is immense. They’re more or less calling for American blood, one way or another. Their view of it is that this war is being run out of the Pentagon, and a lot of Russians and Ukrainians are dying, but the Americans are just kind of laughing about it. This is not sustainable, and could really explode. I’m absolutely sure that a lot of smart Russian strategists are thinking about how they can make life very painful and kill lots of Americans in various ways, and that’s a bad thing.

Most journalists that I encounter and people who are educated, they don’t think through steps three and four. They just have a gut reaction — it mostly plays into this good-and-evil narrative — and they just assume blithely that we haven’t had a nuclear weapon used since 1945, so we understand no one is going to go there, and anything else is okay. It’s very sad, that’s for sure.