In 1981 and 1982, Argentina was mired in its deepest economic slowdown in 20 years. The military junta that came to power in a coup five years earlier after inflation hit 300 percent was beginning to lose popularity. Trying to adapt, the junta switched out its leadership, bringing to power officers who saw the potential for a conflict with the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands (known in Argentina as Islas Malvinas) as a way to mobilize nationalistic fervor among an increasingly unrestful population.
A key Argentinian newspaper speculated on planned actions that would assert sovereignty over the island archipelago situated in the South Atlantic, some 300 miles to the east of the Argentinian mainland. Soon after, on March 19, 1982, Argentine marines, posing as scrap metal merchants, raised their national banner over South Georgia Island, a sparsely populated U.K. territory some 800 miles east of the Falkland Islands. On April 2, the Argentinian military landed on the Falkland Islands in force, seizing the territory that was home to some 3,000 English-speaking people.
For a few weeks, the junta in Buenos Aires were national heroes. But, the British response under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was unexpectedly strong and swift. By June 14, the British had recaptured the islands, inflicting 1,300 casualties, capturing 11,000, mostly drafted Argentinian soldiers, and sinking an Argentinian cruiser and submarine. Only four days later, General Leopoldo Galtieri, the leader of the Argentinian junta, was removed from power. Argentina transitioned back to democracy and the junta leaders were arrested the following year.
China’s economy is likely in recession. Official economic statistics, never reliable, are reporting the slowest growth in 28 years. This slowdown is likely due to a reassertion of Chinese Communist Party interference in the economy as President Xi Jinping acted to reverse decades of market reforms.
This news comes at an especially delicate time for the People’s Republic of China as President Xi has centralized power around himself to an extent not seen since Mao. As a result, the ability of the Chinese Communist Party to share responsibility for the pending debt bomb and economic implosion has been crippled. For better or worse, Xi is the Party and the Party is Xi.
Thus, mounting public displeasure with a regime that has effectively signaled an end to its experiment in capitalism and is instead actively imposing Communist Party controls on the economy can only be satisfied with Xi’s removal—something that isn’t likely to happen voluntarily or in an orderly and peaceful fashion.
On Monday, January 21, Xi convened a meeting of China’s top leaders at which he cited challenges to the maintenance of the Party’s “long-term rule” including from a nebulous “external environment.”
The Chinese Communist Party has learned much from the conditions that gave rise to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, with June 4 marking the 30th anniversary of bloody crackdown on democracy activists there, making full use of modern surveillance technology, much of it supplied willingly by, or stolen from, America’s Silicon Valley giants.
That said, what if the Chinese Communist Party’s new social credit system backed by the threat of arrest, forced labor, reeducation, and execution isn’t enough? What if Xi views his lifetime appointment as president as being under threat? Might he strike out in a move to unify a nation whose population has been taught from infancy to nurse historic grudges against America and the surrounding nations?
There are several obvious flashpoints that might divert a restive Chinese population from its mounting woes: the South China Sea, the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Korea and, of course, Taiwan.
To be of the greatest utility to President Xi, a potential conflict should maximize patriotic fervor while minimizing the possibility of a high-intensity war with a sophisticated enemy.
Most of the potential for conflict over the South China Sea involves nations for whom China has more contempt than hatred, the exception being Vietnam which China invaded in 1979, losing half as many soldiers in almost one month of fighting as the U.S. lost in 12 years of the Vietnam War. The challenge with the South China Sea is that there are no compelling enemies to be had short of a direct confrontation with the U.S. Navy—something China may not be willing to risk as of yet.
As for the Senkaku Islands, a group of unoccupied rocks long claimed by Japan, a challenge here would likely bring a united naval response from both Japan and the U.S.—both of whom possess highly capable naval vessels with well-trained crews and sophisticated doctrine.
A conflict in Korea isn’t as likely to be viewed positively by the Chinese people, given the increasingly erratic nature of the dynastic Kim regime. Further, South Korea’s military, backed by the U.S. Army, present a well-equipped foe. The looming threat of a North Korean nuclear attack followed by an invasion is likely more useful to China as a distraction aimed at tying down American and Japanese assets than its actual deployment in combat.
This leaves Taiwan. Instigating a conflict with Taiwan has compelling advantages over the other three potential areas in the South China Sea, the Senkakus, or the Korean Peninsula.
First, China maintains that Taiwan is and has always been a part of China. Its claims of territorial sovereignty are the strongest over Taiwan.
Second, bringing Taiwan and its increasingly democratic and independent-minded populace under control of the Mainland will serve to both stoke patriotic feelings, it will also dampen down domestic agitation for greater human rights by dousing hopes for reform. Further, Taiwan’s vibrant democracy provides a living rebuttal to the claim made by Chinese communist propagandists that self-governance is a Western concept, alien to Chinese culture. As such, Taiwan’s continued existence as a separately-governed polity generates an existential threat to the legitimacy of the unelected regime in Beijing.
Third, China believes that, as has been said by senior ranking People’s Liberation Army officers, America will not risk losing Los Angeles for Taipei—an explicit threat of nuclear attack should U.S. forces intervene on behalf of Taiwan.
Due to weather and ocean conditions, the best time for a cross-straits amphibious assault is in April or October for a period of about four weeks each. Many analysts believe that Western intelligence agencies would detect large scale preparations about 60 days in advance of an actual assault.
This means that that, if President Xi authorized an attack on Taiwan in response to a deepening domestic economic crisis, he’d likely have to give the orders no later than early February or early August.
Adding additional impetus for Xi’s decision to engage in military adventurism is the likely specter of impeachment proceedings against President Trump brought by a U.S. House of Representatives held increasingly captive by the radical left of the Democratic Party.
Similar to Imperial Japan’s decision to conduct a surprise attack against the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, President Xi may decide that the U.S. would be incapable of mustering the political will to impede a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Further, unlike the case of Pearl Harbor, an attack on Taiwan would not necessarily involve U.S. forces at the onset, presenting the U.S. President with a decision to wage an “optional” war. In this context, one wonders what the U.S. response might have been to a Japanese attack on the Philippines combined with the subsequent seizing of the oil fields in Dutch Indonesia. One can easily see a scenario that didn’t end with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Other than a handful of keen observers, few in London or Washington foresaw Argentina’s attack on the Falkland Islands. They utterly missed the rationale for action: military adventure in support of national unity.
China’s once-unstoppable economic boom is now meeting the cold reality of renewed communist party central planning. As China’s economy contracts and its multi-trillion dollar debt bubble bursts, President Xi may come to believe that only military action can save his president-for-life tenure.