115 Comments
Oct 15, 2023·edited Oct 15, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Good post. More antiship missiles for Taiwan, please.

Sure, Xi has a lot of ships. But missiles are cheaper. The USA can still outspend Xi if our strategy is missile-per-ship instead of ship-per-ship.

Xi can't invade, or even gracefully blockade, if Taiwan has a porcupine's worth of missiles to saturate Xi's navy with explosives. Heck, if you expect in advance that you'll get all your precious ships sunk to the bottom of the Taiwan Strait, you don't launch a war in the first place.

If Taiwan is well-armed enough, far in advance enough, this whole disaster can be deterred.

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Taiwan also now, just recently, has its own, Taiwan built submarine. Which will give the Chinese navy some pause, perhaps.

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"also now, just recently, has its own..."

yeesh

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deletedOct 16, 2023·edited Oct 16, 2023
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If we went down that road (which I'm not entirely opposed to) it the easiest way would be to give them some of ours (along with the detonation codes to use them, which we commonly don't give.) It isn't like Taiwan had some huge source of uranium nearby. Nuclear weapons are the kind of thing they need to have, not know how to make.

I do wonder what Noah would think of this? If the choice is between kitting out Taiwan with enough conflagration power to deter Xi or risking the US pacific fleet and probably the West Coast of the US in a protracted naval and ICBM war the outcome of which is unlikely to go our way, it seems like the former would be preferable.

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In fact, Taiwan was extremely close to developing nuclear weapons on its own, back in the 80s. A "defector" ratted their program out to the US, and the US forced them to dismantle their program.

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Another wrench to throw in is what happens if America re-elects a self-obsessed autocrat as president? The former president has remarked on how little he cares about Taiwan (quoted in John Bolton's book) and is generally inept and unreliable. What would re-electing him say to Taiwan and China (let alone Japan, NATO, Ukraine, etc)? We need to do what you say: rebuild the defense-industrial base, diversify out of China, build deterrence through strength and allies... but all these things require competence and planning and trust from allies. The world is in a dangerous moment and it makes the work of defeating Donald Trump especially urgent.

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I think Noah does a good job of explaining why "deciding we don't care what China does with Taiwan" isn't enough to keep us out of this one. If China decides to invade, there are still a huge number of ways that China and the US can end up killing each others' sailors and troops -- after which the voting public might demand a response. Avoiding this would require an extremely sophisticated effort to disengage in the region, and I just don't see that kind of managed disengagement happening under a Trump administration.

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I can see Trump privately telling Xi we wouldn't intervene. He did that for Hong Kong and also told Xi he would do the same as Xi's doing with the Uyghurs. There would be a lot of outrage but he would just ignore it the same way he did when he betrayed the Kurds in Syria.

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I know we don't have a ton of respect for Xi's intelligence on here but is it so low that we would expect him to wager the whole future of his regime on a promise from Donald Trump?

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Right, so even if Trump is elected we could get pulled into a war with China... but without the competent foresight to have built out our defense industrial base, without the trust of our allies, and most important to me: without being able to claim shared democratic values with Taiwan and allied nations.

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Oct 15, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Electronic components. Not just microprocessors, GPUs and 3nm silicon processes. Resistors, capacitors, transistors, batteries, LEDs, servo-motors, mechanical switches, etc. Optical components. Copper, nickel, rare earth elements (see the debacle that was the Molycorp mine in Mountain Pass, CA.)

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_Pass_mine

Anything that goes into production of weapons systems and ammunition. And that includes the know-how, which we gladly sold off.

See https://www.npr.org/2022/08/09/1116586600/how-the-u-s-gave-away-cutting-edge-technology-to-china

Or let our knowledge of lapse.

See https://www.defenseone.com/business/2023/06/raytheon-calls-retirees-help-restart-stinger-missile-production/388067/

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Re: minerals, I found this article from last year very illuminating - and galling.

https://www.palladiummag.com/2022/08/08/the-mineral-conflict-is-here/

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If the worse comes to worst, and it appears the Chinese will conquer Taiwan, the most important technical sites (or all of them) can either be rigged to blow up or be bombed out of existence by the US Air Force.

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Maybe the Taiwanese don't want this? It would just make life worse for them, and is not the PRC's main reason for invading.

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There's a lot of things I don't understand about the world. One of them is why the government (it's never the people) of one country decides to "take" another country. In my western view of what a government does, it means they have to pave the potholes, ensure food is available, and make the trains run on time. Why would anyone want to do that? So why DOES PRC want Taiwan? Is it just theatrics?

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If the Taiwanese make it clear they want something different, then that needs to be thought through. They haven't said they don't want to defend themselves.

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They also haven't said they want their factories blown up on purpose.

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Goodness knows what plans have been made quietly. Unless you're a spy, there's a lot of things that are not said in public.

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Oct 15, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Thanks Noah, I didn't have enough to keep me awake at night already!

'Pearl Harbour 2' and Japan's involvement are only some of the ways for America to become involved. Things can spiral in other, more chaotic, ways also. Blockades, counter-coalitions, China's many other border disputes, etc. It is never a nice simple choice of fighting an invasion of Taiwan or not. It is worth remembering how surprising people found many of the events leading up to both world war 1 and 2 at the time, even as they look obvious in hindsight.

Interesting to see how Poland is preparing here in Europe. If any country should have learned the lesson of being prepared for the unexpected in a world at war it is Poland. We should all try to understand that perspective.

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It's extremely distasteful and depressing to really and finally accept the fact that serious, global wars are a permanent part of civilization, i.e., we just can't stop invading, fighting, and killing each other in large numbers, generation after generation, as far as the eye can see and the mind can conceive.

Perhaps like many others, I secretly believe that war is over, because we've entered an Age of Aquarius, where relative calm, if not complete peace and love, dominates. What rational adult wants to believe that violence is always to be our unavoidable reality? It's abhorrent to contemplate, much less become resigned to; nonetheless, war seems to be with us always. It's our fate written on stone tablets. Your nation may escape its bloody grasp for years, but others will be caught up in it; and then it'll be your turn to dance with death and habituate to horror.

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Oct 15, 2023·edited Oct 16, 2023

Maybe we can, I've not yet given up on that.

But I have no strong reasons to think we're there yet.

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Age of Aquarius? Maybe for Americans, for the rest of us, there has never been such thing.

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Unfortunately, nor for us. If there's not a war, we start one, e.g., Cuba, Vietnam, Lebanon, Granada, Panama, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen. Or we get heavily involved where one is active, e.g., Korea, Ukraine, Israel. We say we're not trying to be the world's policeman, but our behavior denies that assertion.

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Darn it, Noah! You're usually so optimistic, but lately it's all gloom. Unfortunately, your pessimism is seeming well justified these days. One upside fiscally speaking is that in the face of actual war, Republican resistance to increased taxation might collapse. Always assuming, of course, they won't just want us to surrender to Putin and Xi.

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Oct 15, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Great blog, Noah 👍

"doesn’t seem atypical; when I read personal accounts of World War 2, I’m always astonished by how the narrators discounted the possibility of America entering the war all the way up until they minute the bombs started falling on Pearl Harbor."

RE above excerpt, reminds me of scene from The Big Short. Brownfield/Cornwall Capital (the hedge fund operated from their Dad's garage) explains their investment strategy. In simple terms, humans have a tendency to discount the possibility of bad things happening as they don't like it when bad things happen. They found investment opportunities arising from this skewed cognitive bias.

Read over to current day, the idea of war between Taiwan and China is so unappetisingly bad, most won't believe it until China lands troops on a Taiwanese beach.

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They'd be bombing and shelling the island before landing on the beach.

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Oct 15, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Great post. Is it possible you could maybe discuss how the modern US economy would handle such a war? Does the US even have the fiscal space?

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The obvious solution is to give the missiles to Taiwan. Then Xi doesn't need to game out US or Japanese responses. He can be assured the Taiwanese will sink his fleet (which is planned to consist mainly of converted civilian ferries). He can draw on Putin's experience in the Black Sea, against an adversary with no navy and home-produced anti-ship missiles, to work out the odds.

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A couple of quibbles: 1) You left off North Korea, from the Axis group. It is small, but it also brings to mind, that unlike the U.S. and its allies, this Axis is geographically connected. 2) It was not Cassandra's fault she was not believed, that was Apollo's doing, for not loving him.

You are completely right about our over dependence on China, and our desperate need to both diversify, and ramp up the military munitions budget.

What the program looks like now, is that a prolonged war, Ala Russia and Ukraine, with outside help, can go on a long time, something that I believe Xi has no interest in. Iran is next up versus Israel, as the follow up to Hamas Israel. With our aircraft carriers in the region, that should be interesting and useful for Xi, as he plans his next step. If the U.S. is willing to do whatever it takes, to borrow a current phrase, Xi may or may not rethink his position depending on the outcome and how quickly it unfolds. Xi game at the moment, in my view, is a watch and wait, and see how things progress outside his realm, before being overly hasty, not unlike Mussolini and Italy, prior to the fall of France.

Your list of preparedness, in 1940 FDR increased the army by a 100,000, after the election. While Biden may well want to wait till after the election, am not sure, like you, that he has the time.

Good article.

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The problem with trying to increase the size of the army is that we are not able to meet recruitment goals for any of the four services now.

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Like it or not perhaps a two year draft with benefits for those who can complete it is in order. The two years would have to be in addition to the time it takes to get them in shape to be drafted in the first place.

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Oh boy, would the pleasure-loving youth of America love that one! Don't see it getting through Congress, and if it did isolationism would go through the roof. Better idea, maybe. Offer a green card to any immigrant willing and able to serve in the armed services for four years.

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It is one way to americanize them quickly, and give them a reason to both stay here, and defend us. Great idea!

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I actually think this is probably an incredible idea. You get to train young men and women in productive skills for society, easily integrate them into society, they learn a lot about the US and in return they get significantly more pay than there own country, access to education and benefits. It strikes me as being similar to how the Romans integrated its legions

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I was thinking about the Roman legions when I was writing it, but I didn't want to complicate the comment historically. I was also thinking about the fact that an amazing percentage of the Union Army in the civil war was immigrants just off the boat. It is my opinion that many immigrants make better Americans than Americans do.

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Oct 15, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Chilling, but good overview Noah. One minor quibble - it should read December 7, 1941 rather than 1942 for our entry into World War 2.

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author

Thanks! A typo that will live in INFAMY!!

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good one

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Oct 15, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Rebuilding the defense-industrial base not only prepares for a war, it helps deter one. Xi is less likely to go to war if he thinks he'll lose than if he thinks he'll win, and his (correctly) viewing us as a paper tiger will make him think he'll win.

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Oct 15, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

New Subscriber today... kinda regret reading this whole article now (HAHA!) But seriously...Terrifying. Do you (or anyone else reading) have articles or books to recommend what Americans should do to prepare for "essentials' if a China-USA war does break out? Being vulnerable here... I dont even know where to begin to be prepared for something like this.

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author

I don't know any resources on this, but I'll look.

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I would love this. My thought on the article was: since I can’t do much about it, how do I prepare? - materially but also investment wise. I would assume Dalio has a few nice chart on the history of gold versus currencies in large global war shocks occurring when we are already at the end of the long debt cycle, but as I’m with Munger on gold as an investment I would love to hear your thoughts on these topics. Thanks for the wonderful blog, so glad I subscribed.

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Well said. Agree.

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Decent article... all the points are well taken relative to China (supply chain, manufacturing output, Chinese intent). Having said all of that ... it would be extremely irrational for China to attack Taiwan.

If you flip around the dependencies.. the Chinese situation is far more difficult.

1) Food: Chinese food supply is highly dependent on US Agriculture .. disruption here leads to starvation.

2) Energy: China is a massive importer of oil/gas ... disruption here leads to depression

3) Manufacturing: China is a manufacturing superpower based on deep dependencies on supply chain.

Now...this situation may well change with a Russia/China combination with over land transport. This is not there yet.

Now...flipping to your side of the argument. My argument would have been true for the Japanese in WWII. In fact, the strategic dependencies did play out as expected. All this says that countries/leaders do irrational things ....it is better to be vigilant.

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Oct 15, 2023·edited Oct 16, 2023

It would indeed be irrational for China to attack Taiwan, if the calculus only concerned the issue of economic dependencies and war strategy. But the reason there is increased agitation for war from both the government and associated media in the PRC also concerns the domestic political effects of war. The legitimacy of the government and Party in the post-Deng era are highly leveraged on economic delivery. A war can deflect attention from the Party's current poor economic performance, which is likely to suffer further as the real estate bubble continues to burst. An attack on Taiwan would make Xi Jinping and the Party appear to be finally delivering on the most significant remaining national grievance from China's "century of humiliation" at the hands of Western and Japanese powers. That nationalistic rationale, which is foundational in PRC education and universally appealing, can make economic hardships of wartime dislocations far less salient in terms of popular willingness to support the war and the government launching it.

So it may be that the likelihood of war depends very much on the adequacy of the Chinese economy to stave off a decline that would place the leadership of Xi's cohort of the Party in jeopardy, either of losing its current factional dominance or of popular unrest.

You make an interesting point about Japan in World War II. Japan was already over four years into its imperial war by the time of Pearl Harbor, and US constraints on Japanese trade in SE Asia were in place, hampering an ongoing war effort that had already given Japan control over eastern China and French Indochina. US isolationism had been strong enough to prevent engagement with the European war for over two years, so the Japanese decision to preempt Pacific engagement and remove existing constraints on Japan's ability to supply its war effort can be seen as a rational calculation, albeit one that proved to be misguided. In light of that outcome, any Chinese strategy that calculated as Japan did would indeed be irrational.

--Monday morning edit: There's an interesting column by Oriana Skylar Mastro in the NY Times today that looks at reasons the Party may not only see a potential gain in seizing Taiwan, but see an active peril to its legitimacy in not doing so. She highlights the cumulative effect of changes in the US posture towards Taiwan that I had not considered before.

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Robert... agree with your argument. "Containment" for China from the west might well mean keeping the Chinese economy going enough to keep the CCP in power... this is weird kind of thinking, but it might be true. Conversely and for ideological reasons..the CCP seems to be working really hard to ruin their own economy. This is also weird. I guess this is the world we live in today.

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Neat reworking of "containment," Rahul! Noah has suggested that the economic mess in China is largely a matter of incompetence. I don't know to what degree he may be right, but it does seem to fit what we're seeing.

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Robert,

Well.. incompetence is correct to some degree. However, more accurate is that their actions are focused on monopoly control of the power, and the natural consequences are incompetence relative to economic development.

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Agree- war means a world wide depression. China with no energy no food and no economy means revolution in the country. Doesn't mean war will not happen. Tactically makes more sense to do a cyber war. Attack infrastructure and financial systems. Deny responsibility. In such a scenario what would USA/Japan/Tiawan/AUS do? Do not prepare for the last war.

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Maybe maybe not If you can anticipate a lack of energy or economic hardship, your legitimacy is based on prosperity (as is the case for the CCP) and you have a lot of angry unemployed young men (and no women), starting a war so you can blame external forces for your problems makes a lot of sense. If you’re the CCP and staying in power is your main objective it might actually be your best option or at least seem like your best option.

At the end of the day Xi will ultimate decide.

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Well then they expose themselves to retaliation, and I don't see why China should feel confident that it will suffer less from coordinated govt cyber attacks than they can inflict.

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Not if they win

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Oct 16, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

I am desperately scrambling to find *some* kind of silver lining in this thundercloud, so here goes:

Since the US needs to up its capacity to produce artillery shells/ships/drones/etc., is there a potential for some kind of win-win here where a massive weapons buildup is pitched both as a patriotic program to keep our nation secure AND a way to provide lots of jobs for non-college-educated folks in the American heartland? You know, the salt-of-the-earth Real Americans who are disrespected and looked down upon by the coastal elites? If enough Democrats threw their support convincingly behind this plan, would it suffice to break Tr*mp's stranglehold over white working class America?

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Oct 16, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Could you make this a free article?

Also, perhaps you could write something about how Ukraine and Israel conflict reveals how defense is now (apparently?) easier than offense... eg one anti-ship missile or a swarm of cheap drones can take out a large ship. Rapid fire guns can take out any number of concentrated soldiers. .. i don't know much about this, but the ukraine coverage on dailykos has other recent examples.

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Oct 15, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Conceding that no great power can be ready for a major conflict in every respect, there are many ways in which the US (and its allies) is (are) in fact ready:

1. An attack on US facilities would probably result in US/allies counter-attacks on key port facilities of the attacking country; and using small nuclear weapons is not out of the question.

2. The existing SK/Japan shipbuilding capacity alone is almost as large as China's. If you add US, Holland, Italy, France, etc., in a peacetime environment, there is no reason existing capacity can't keep matching China's military output if funds are devoted to building more naval assets across all those shipyards.

3.. The actual existing naval tonnage of US/SK/Japan/Australia/Canada is about 5 times the tonnage of the Chinese navy. Even the number of blue-water ships is larger. What this actually means is that whereas China might be able to establish short-term dominance over its immediate region, in the longer term, without overseas bases, its navy would be swept from the wider ocean. This is a recipe for strategic defeat.

4. The sensible Chinese objective should be to acquire Taiwan intact. It's an economy about the size of Switzerland, at $800 billion. Destroyed and unable to trade it's not worth much. This posits a blockade approach, but such an approach can't involve attacking US bases, etc., since this would force a (legitimate) US response to break the blockade, which would then escalate to a shooting war, which would then take us back to points 1,2, and 3.

5. Short of a Pyrrhic broad nuclear exchange, neither China nor the US can be defeated, so neither power can come close to risking such an outcome, and any action over Taiwan comes too close to that undesirable outcome. So we're not, and they're not, going there -- by necessity.

6. The ultimate solution here (if there's any such thing) is a negotiation involving a transition time frame. Taiwanese subjects ought to be given the time to decide where else to live and take their assets, if they so wish. A great many would probably not mind becoming normal mainland Chinese subjects. Others might want to relocate, including assets owned by foreigners (TSMC is almost entirely owned by Western companies). This is the kind of thing that might be possible to negotiate between great powers, with all due respect to the sensibilities of the Taiwanese people, but sorry, it's a better solution than almost any other for all concerned. It's also something which can be put in place even without any agreement from China.

7. So there are many possible outcomes to this impasse with a limited restructuring of supply networks. There are millions of people to be employed across Asia ex China, Africa and Latin America where there are already suitable governance conditions to create an economic situation more favorable to those countries as well as to the US and its allies. As a good example, Brazilian elites aren't happy at all about the relative de-industrialization of the country even as it has gained a favorable overall balance of trade with China, based on commodities exports. They would like to change that.

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Oct 16, 2023·edited Oct 16, 2023

The entire western world hasn’t been manufacturing enough shells for Ukraine to match Russian artillery figures.

Naval dominance might not matter much to China beyond the initial invasion. It has a land border with Russia and land routes to oil producing regions in Asia.

What does the naval tonnage comparison look like once you remove the US, British and French carriers, which are very heavy and seem unusable in a peer conflict?

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