Don’t Confuse the Falkland Islands for Taiwan

Don’t Confuse the Falkland Islands for Taiwan

Though the conflict is little known in the United States, Chinese military planners have long obsessed over what lessons can be gained from studying the brief 1982 conflict between Argentina and Great Britain over the small collection of islands in the South Atlantic near the tip of South America—the Falklands—and for good reason. Its location, historical context, and the nature of the conflict between the powers involved more closely mirror the current standoff over Taiwan than any other example in modern war. Drawing lessons from history is a tricky business, however. And while Chinese military planners do well in studying the tactics of the conflict, U.S. foreign policy architects should be far more cautious. As will be presented below, presuming that by doing the opposite of what the British did in the case of the Falklands War that conflict will be averted or made less likely is not borne out in a comparison with the situation over Taiwan.

A hardscrabble collection of over seven hundred small islands, the largest and most predominant among them West and East Falkland, the Falklands lay less just nine hundred miles from the Antarctic circle and were uninhabited when the first European explorers began probing the southern cone of South America. Though the Spanish, English, and French all made various claims to the islands during the seventeenth century, by the eighteenth century Great Britain, with its superb navy, had proven most able to enforce its writ and had claimed sole possession of the islands as early as 1774. The outbreak of the French Revolution and later the Napoleonic wars, however, meant no one was home when the recently liberated Buenos Aires elites decided to stake a claim of their own and assert full authority—the islands being, after all, just three hundred miles out to sea. And so it was from 1816-1832 the islands were under Argentina’s control.

The British returned, however, and after a brief battle drove the Argentinians from the islands, in 1840 making them Crown colonies. With Britain ascendent and on its way to controlling, at its apogee, fully 25% of earth’s landed surface, Buenos Aires could do little but grumble bitterly. But here are the origins of the competing claims to the Falkland islands; claims that would continue to be disputed at a low diplomatic level at varying degrees of intensity over the next century and a half.

Fast forward to the second half of the twentieth century, with Great Britain exhausted by two world wars, its empire crumbling, revolting, or being otherwise abandoned, the Labor governments of the 1960s proved receptive to Peron’s more aggressive reassertions of Argentina’s claims over the islands. Discussions were slow, however, dragging on into the 1970s unresolved—hampered in large part by existing commercial interests on the islands and by a perception among U.K. voters of the essential Britishness of the Falklanders as part of “Greater Britain,” sharing a common language, culture, way of life, and other customs.

Economic realities were such, however, that by the late 1970s Great Britain had all but ceased involvement in the South Atlantic region and scrapped its only ship devoted to patrolling the area without replacing it. Having, then, in the years preceding the conflict, signaled a willingness to at least allow for the Falklands to fall into the Argentinian orbit, and then neglecting to maintain a forceful and visible presence, it is generally undisputed that the military junta that had seized power in Argentina in 1976 believed Thatcher’s government would do nothing were it to move to reclaim the islands. Therefore, facing rapidly declining popularity in the face of economic mismanagement, the junta decided the best way to offset the growing social unrest was a nice, short patriotic war in defense of a long-besmirched national honor.

Reasonable though this line of thinking was, it was all based on the premise that the U.K. leadership would not go to war over the Falklands: and this turned out to be a mistake.

For though the junta were correct that the British had been signaling apparent ambiguity regarding the fate of the islands, that they were completely unimportant militarily and economically to the home island. But what the Junta failed to understand was how their actions would impact the political incentive structure facing the embattled Thatcher government. Unpopular and struggling, whatever Thatcher’s actual feelings towards the Falklands, an election was just around the corner and the press and popular opinion made it impossible for her to do anything other than fight in defense of what was left of the empire. After being assured by the British military establishment that the islands could be retaken, Thatcher ordered a task force assembled and dispatched.

And so the war came.

As innumerable books on the play-by-play of the military conflict describe—many of which were authored by participants in the events on the ground—even though the Argentinian armed forces were something close to a joke, its soldiers under-trained raw conscripts, and its military hardware equally substandard, the campaign was very nearly a disaster for Great Britain. They were unaccustomed by now to projecting force, and needed civilian ships to serve as transports. Approaching the occupied islands, the Royal Navy lost multiple ships to airstrikes launched from the mainland in the form of sorties, as well as Exocet missiles in the week and a half it took the British to both establish dominance of the surrounding sea and land significant numbers of troops. They ultimately succeeded in doing so after the Argentinian navy and air force abandoned the islands. Their comrades, now marooned, were left to face the British special forces alone. The rugged terrain meant the series of sporadic engagements that followed were of the running sort—with only a few pitched battles in alland Great Britain retook the islands just 74 days after the Argentinian forces had invaded.

In short order the junta was overthrown, Thatcher was reelected, and the Falklands remained inside the British sphere.

In the case of the Falklands, it is almost certain that had Great Britain made its intention to defend the islands clear ahead of time the Argentinian junta would not have invaded. At the time, then-Senator Joe Biden was among the most vocal supporters of British military intervention. As a close observer of the conflict, and with a hawkish foreign policy team behind him, the lesson the Biden administration seems to have drawn as applied to Taiwan is that by making its intentions clear it will thereby avoid conflict with China. This shift away from the prior tactic of “strategic ambiguity” was evidenced by Biden’s statements following the botched Afghanistan pullout. Speaking to reporters about whether or not allies could still count on American security guarantees, Biden included Taiwan on a list that included the NATO countries and Japan.

The evidence suggests Biden is quite serious about this commitment. From the immediate high-level meetings between his administration and the countries of the QUAD, arming the Australians with submarines capable of snooping for long periods in China’s backyard, and arms sales to Taiwan, the message couldn’t be clearer: we’ll fight you so don’t even try. Key differences between the Falklands and Taiwan, however, cast serious doubt on this shift in tactics.

First, Argentina’s military hadn’t planned for a British counter-attack while the Chinese most certainly will have.

Second, Taiwan is much closer to mainland China and its missile batteries and airfields than were the Falklands to Argentina. Furthermore, the missiles China would be launching at American, Japanese, Indian, and Australian forces would be satellite guided and far more accurate and deadly.

Third, it is China that has the territorial claim and grievance. Granted, Beijing’s claim on the island is questionable, as it hasn’t been ruled by Beijing in over a century and was only added to the Chinese Empire in the late eighteenth century. But all that aside, it isn’t recognized by the international community as an entity outside China proper.

Fifth, the Argentinian population weren’t committed to a fight over the Falklands in the same way the Chinese are to Taiwan.

Sixth and finally, the Argentinian junta needed the signal of ambiguity from Great Britain because they rightly suspected they couldn’t stand up to it in a fight. China does not feel that way—if anything U.S. belligerence only serves to provoke a proud Chinese government and people into aggressive action in defense of their honor. Afterall, it isn’t a secret that in CCP propaganda Taiwan represents the final remnant of the “century of humiliations.”

In short, Biden’s shift in tactics from strategic ambiguity to a policy of strategic clarity represents a misapplying of the lessons of history. Doing what would have prevented a similar conflict in the past is no guarantee of success in the here and now. If U.S. strategy is aimed at maintaining peace in the region, its change in tactics seem likely only to undermine it.

Joseph Solis-Mullen is a graduate of both Spring Arbor University and the University of Illinois, and is a current graduate student in the Department of Economics at the University of Missouri. An author, blogger, and political scientist, his work can be found at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Sage Advance, Seeking Alpha, and his personal website. You may contact him at theauthor@jsmwritings.com or follow him on Twitter.

The Phony Threat of Chinese Dominance

The Phony Threat of Chinese Dominance

While the US has its problems, future global Chinese supremacy won’t be one. Far from being in a position of overwhelming strength, China and its Communist leadership face imminent multifront domestic crises that will threaten the existence not only of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) but the existence of the Chinese state as a unified whole. Further, there are several insurmountable obstacles to it seriously disturbing core US interests or expanding its influence much beyond its own coasts before this happens.

First, China’s geography is terrible if projecting power is a state aim. Endless flatlands running into Mongolia and Siberia to the north, deserts and mountains to the west, more mountains and dense jungle to the south, while its eastern coast is ringed by states terrified of an expansionist China. Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, along with other affected regional actors such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and India will work hard to keep China boxed in. One of the most trade-dependent countries of the existing order, China faces hazardous supply chain access in the event of any conflict in the South or East China Seas.

China’s internal geography breeds its own problems. For one thing, it is seriously strapped for foodstuffs. A shocking statistic: on a per capita basis it has less arable agricultural land than Saudi Arabia. What farmland China does have requires enormous amounts of petrochemical fertilizers and laborers to keep even moderately productive. Further, lacking interconnected east-west-flowing waterways, moving mass amounts of produce around internally is expensive and inefficient over the vast distances that locally produced foodstuffs must travel to the highly populated eastern seaboard provinces. The world’s largest food importer by far, it is heavily reliant on the continued stability of global supply chains and access to markets.

In terms of maintaining its internal stability, China’s sheer vastness creates ethnic and regional problems as well. With large populations of Uighurs and Tibetans inconveniently located in strategic areas far from Beijing, as well as a variety of much smaller ethnic groups in the mountainous jungles to the south, the CCP faces multiple permanent secessionist dangers far from its core. Further such threats follow directly from the geography of the country, with wealthier eastern coastal provinces such as Jiangsu and Zhejiang wanting and having far more to do with wealthier Japan and Korea and the rest of the outside world than with the hinterlands of China’s western barrens. Such provinces have historically resisted Beijing’s control, and the CCP’s most recent moves against the Shanghai-centered tech sector and its billionaire class ought to be understood in this light; so, too, its decision not to try and duplicate the US shale revolution because of the location of Chinese shale deposits, large, wealthy, and culturally distinct Sichuan.

On the demographic front, the CCP’s social engineering projects are going to add to its problems. From a combination of more or less forced mass urbanization, state-induced famine, and two-child, then one-child policies, the CCP faces demographic collapse. Specifically, it is going to run out of taxpayers, laborers, and consumers. Even worse, not only did changing to a one-child policy in the 1980s amplify the severity of the coming crisis, but it led to an epidemic of selective sex abortion. Basically, right about the time China’s economy collapses in on itself, it is going to have tens of millions of young men unable to find a job or a girlfriend—this while by 2030 China will have four retirees for every two workers and child. Ouch.

About that coming economic collapse, because of its unique position over the past twenty years as a mass global exporter, the CCP has managed to stave off any potential economic slowdowns with boundless state credit, industry subsidies, and dumping, thereby maintaining near-full employment. However, decreasing returns on additional debt and continued overproduction, combined with domestic underconsumption and low-cost labor competition in its region, mean the bill is about to come due. It’s going to be enormous. Total debt is now three times the output of the Chinese economy annually, and the expansion of debt and credit has accelerated in recent years. Until the past year, the Chinese financial system was creating five times the money supply of the Federal Reserve System per month. According to Citigroup, for example, in 2018 alone, the Chinese financial system accounted for 80 percent of all private credit creation globally. Because of centrally directed malinvestment, these nonperforming loans total an estimated $7 trillion. For some perspective, the subprime crisis that crippled Western financial markets was saddled with less than a trillion dollars of such bad loans. Further, much of the debt is short term, meaning it is frequently rolled over with new debt. This ongoing practice is yielding ever-decreasing returns. According to The Economist, fully three-quarters of new loans in China simply go toward paying the interest on existing debt. Meanwhile, total factor productivity, which had soared during the first decade of the new century, has more or less flatlined since then.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is only making things worse: spawning even more yuan, which are lent and spent on projects of questionable economic value and equally dubious means of repayment. Again, however, CCP policies that privilege employment and state stability over efficiency and productivity mean China’s industrial overproduction has to have somewhere to go.

To summarize, the BRI isn’t working—nor will the vaunted China 2025. Xi Jinping has already shown repeatedly that the economy can’t be seriously reformed. Most of its high technology was bought or stolen, and as recent evidence has shown, the CCP absolutely cannot tolerate a vibrant and freewheeling Shanghai tech sector. It faces demographic collapse, and is one of the most existing order–dependent countries, relying on global supply chains and open access to foreign consumer markets. It is freighted with restive minorities, resistant elites, trillions in bad debts hidden away in its murky financial system, and at this point can’t seriously float the yuan as a challenger to the hegemony of the US dollar—that too has already been tried and failed.

For all the CCP’s propaganda, fragmentation rather than unity has defined Chinese history. Spanning approximately two millennia, for only three hundred of those years were the borders of more or less today’s China united under a Han-dominated central political authority. Left to itself, locked in the South and East China seas, it would likely face the threat of serious collapse and fragmentation by the late 2030s.

However, in just the last week Biden has publicly accused China of being behind a string of high-profile cyber operations and, in the same speech, said such actions in the future could lead to a hot war. Following on the heels of Biden’s bellicose EU performance, and amid a string of high-level meetings with China’s regional rivals, the new administration’s actions and rhetoric are playing right into the CCP’s grateful lap. Facing imminent multifront disasters, such an openly confrontational U.S. attitude is ultimately only likely to give the CCP its best chance of staying in power as these crises all come to a collective head: by arguing that only it, the CCP, has been able to make China great again and prevent its exploitation by looming foreign imperialists, and that only it can protect China from a United States newly determined to subvert and dominate it.

This article was originally featured at the Ludwig von Mises Insitute and is republished with permission.

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