Game theory and the US-China war

I’m not what you would call a devotee of Generational Dynamics, but it’s an interesting perspective and I have read it from time to time. However, I was a little troubled after reading his post last month concerning the recent Pentagon report on China:

There’s never been any doubt that China has been focused for years on invading and taking control of Taiwan. They said that themselves many times, as I’ve reported in dozens of reports on this web site. Furthermore, the Chinese consider a preemptive invasion of Taiwan to be a “defensive” military action.

But the difference is that China now has the military capacity to do that, despite defense by the U.S., according to the report:

“Although the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] is contending with a growing array of missions, Taiwan remains its main strategic direction. China continued modernizing its military in 2010, with a focus on Taiwan contingencies, even as cross-Strait relations improved. The PLA seeks the capability to deter Taiwan independence and influence Taiwan to settle the dispute on Beijing’s terms. In pursuit of this objective, Beijing is developing capabilities intended to deter, delay, or deny possible U.S. support for the island in the event of conflict. The balance of cross-Strait military forces and capabilities continues to shift in the mainland’s favor.”

The reports describes deployment of thousands of missiles specifically directed as U.S. naval capabilities in defending Taiwan, including numerous ballistic and cruise missile programs that can attack Taiwan and attack and disable any aircraft carriers or other U.S. naval vessels in the region.

China has deployed dozens of surface and submarine naval attack vessels, supported early-warning aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and other surveillance and reconnaissance equipment, capable of launching nuclear missiles from the sea.

China has also deployed space and cyber warfare capabilities. China has developed the capability to attack and kill America’s communication satellites. Each week there are news stories about Chinese “hackers” stealing enormous amounts of military technology and defense-related secret information.

In addition, China is developing a number of capabilities that can directly attack the U.S.:

“China is modernizing its nuclear forces by adding more survivable delivery systems. In recent years, the road mobile, solid propellant CSS-10 Mod 1 and CSS-10 Mod 2 (DF-31 and DF-31A) intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have entered service. The CSS- 10 Mod 2, with a range in excess of 11,200 km, can reach most locations within the continental United States.”

This is the fulfillment of several threats made by China in years past. In 2005, top-level Chinese army officer General Zhu Chenghu threatened America with nuclear war if America interfered with Taiwan:

“If the Americans are determined to interfere [then] we will be determined to respond. We … will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian [a city in central China]. Of course the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds … of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”

In 2005, Zhu’s remarks were an empty threat. Today, they’re a real threat.

I was idly wondering why Generational Dynamics would read this report and conclude that “an attack within the next 12-18 months is a reasonable expectation”. So, as I usually do when contemplating these things, I put myself in the perspective of the players and mentally gamed it out.

USA: War makes zero sense. We’re already engaged in six smaller conflicts and are facing an economic depression and a financial crisis. Correct strategy: avoid if possible.

China: War makes zero sense. The long-term trend of the balance of power is in China’s favor. Why start a war now when one can be fought on more favorable terms ten years from now? Correct strategy: avoid if possible.

The problem is that there is a third player.

Taiwan: The ability of the USA to fight a war over the Straits peaked in the 1990s and is now rapidly trending downward. The relative military might of China vis-a-vis the Americans is increasing. Fighting a war now would be dreadful, and yet is probably much more winnable/survivable than fighting one five or ten years from now, especially if the USA ends up melting down due to its economic depression and loses its capacity to project power across the Pacific.

Correct strategy: provoke war as soon as possible.

Fortunately, it’s not up to Taiwan, right? They can’t just attack China to kick things off. However, they can declare independence, which China has always vowed will be met with a declaration of war. So, Taiwan presently holds both the means and the motive to launch a US-China war, and game theory suggests that they should do so as soon as possible. That doesn’t mean they will actually do it; the natural human tendency is to put off the unpleasant as long as possible even the prospects for the future look worse.

But if there are any influential game theorists in Taiwan these days, I tend to suspect that they have been observing events in the USA and China over the last decade and have advised a declaration of independence as soon as the defensive preparations for the promised retaliation are ready. I’m not making any specific predictions here, as I don’t have anywhere nearly enough information to do so. But I will say that the “reasonable expectation” of war in the Taiwanese Straits in the next two years is, in fact, alarmingly reasonable.