Modeling might be real: Taiwan and the Falkland Islands

A few weeks ago I was in class and Dr. Sterken asked me a question I don’t remember, which I had no answer for because I hadn’t been following the discussion at all. Obviously, I’m a great student. I had a pretty good reason, though: I was extremely distracted by this paper.

I may be overselling it some, but this is arguably the coolest academic/policy publication I’ve read. That includes a paper on cereal pricing, and I love cereal.

To make a long story short, Goldstein argues that China visualizes the Falkland Islands conflict between Argentina and Britain as a proxy for the tensions involving itself, Taiwan, and the United States. Going further, the paper provides rather substantial evidence that China actively models a great deal of its military planning regarding Taiwan on Argentinean action in 1982. This is not entirely unexpected, given the relationships between the relevant states and how China thinks of itself in the context of global power projection.

Why am I so enthralled by this? That’s a good question. I came across the paper while doing preliminary research for debate nationals, in what ended up seeming like a wasted day; our governing body selected a different set of potential topics which had nothing to do with either China or the Falklands. But the 30th anniversary of the Falklands war (and the evolving tensions over oil fields in the area) made the usual chafing and rhetorical posturing a little more aggressive between Argentina and the UK during February and March, so the risk of some sort of conflict seemed to be rising. If you paid any attention to this sort of thing, you would have seen a few bizarre headlines, including some of my favorite which proclaimed the rise of “squid wars,” as Argentina encouraged its fishermen to capture Illex squid in their hatching grounds in Argentinian waters prior to their arrival in Falklands territorial waters, so UK-backed fishermen would be cut out. Nevermind that adolescent or young squid are functionally useless; if British economic interests in the area were crippled, concessions might become more likely. Alternately, things would just escalate, and everybody would have a bit of a mess on their hands. That seemed intriguing, so I pocketed the idea for later.

Debate is strange. Much of the activity is oriented around comparing policies, and the best way to do that is to evaluate what good effects something causes, or what bad effects a plan inevitablizes. Logically, these comparisons become something of an arms race between teams: what is the most significant good or bad thing we can link to the proposed action? Wars are a vital part of this calculus, and small wars are typically pretty insufficient. So if some action leads to a second Falklands war which causes several billion dollars in damages and a few thousand casualties, at least within the context of the round nobody would really notice.

So what if, instead, this type of conflict could be leveraged to cause a much larger one elsewhere? Rather obviously, China vs the US is a more substantive showdown. So if a compelling story can be told that China might invade Taiwan if Argentina succeeded in capturing the Falklands via military action, we’re golden. Sound silly so far? Maybe.

But it turns out, not so much. Apparently Britain isn’t especially confident regarding it’s ability to win a second time around, because much of the weaponry it used in 1982 has been decommissioned. Harrier jets have been liquidated, Britain’s carrier fleet has been largely shut down, and it has little forward operating capabilities for such a distant conflict.

So if Argentina wins, why does China notice? Well, to borrow from Goldstein:

First, China lacks modern combat experience, especially in the naval and air dimensions. From observing the First Gulf War and the later Bosnia and Kosovo campaigns, Chinese strategists have become keenly aware of the significance of airpower for modern warfare. The fact that many of China’s security concerns lie on its maritime periphery also fuels keen interest in naval warfare.

Naval conflicts globally, especially between developed nations, are no joke to the Chinese. They are extremely cognizant of the skills differential between their own forces and the United States’. The best way to mitigate that, other than routine war games (which they do anyway) is to study conflicts that arise elsewhere, and especially those which use weapons systems much like ours.

A second reason is the asymmetric nature of the Falklands War. China generally continues to view itself as a weak country challenged by much stronger states, a notion fed by the deep shame of China’s ‘century of humiliation’. The asymmetric warfare tradition is strongly visible in almost all People’s Liberation Army (PLA) actions and initiatives. As one Chinese analysis concludes, ‘for countries of the third world … the Falklands War already offers the most essential solutions’.

Nobody wants to face the US military straight up, even in our current era of budget cuts and overstretch. The PLA knows full well a victory would rely on playing to its strengths, which is precisely what the US is not especially good at anyway, as Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed: asymmetrical conflicts. A victory in Taiwan, should the US intervene, would necessarily involve a similar strategy.

The analogy is twofold: like Taiwan, the Falklands are a group of islands not far off the coast of a major regional power which claims sovereignty over them, and in both cases a major Western power serves as ‘protector/violator’ of the disputed sovereignty. Like the Falklands War, the putative Taiwan conflict would involve major air–sea–amphibious combat, and both pit a strong Western power against a weaker but closer regional power.

So 1982 is relevant, but what about this time around?

Even more significant is the 2007 revelation that the Nanjing Naval Command College had initiated, over the previous several years, organised teaching and research teams to study naval forces, naval strategy, sea defence and blockade operations in the Falklands War with the goal of understanding future naval warfare. Chinese military technical writings also draw on the Falklands experience, and the special importance of the case has been recognized in various PLA doctrinal materials.

Plausible. It’s probably unlikely that an Argentinean victory would be the catalyst for a Chinese invasion, but it would almost certainly increase their confidence, and also expand the range of tactical options visible to them.

So this type of thing is what was running through my mind that day, and for quite some time afterward; it was too good a scenario – and too unique – to not develop it as best as possible in the event it came up. It came up.

The topic for quarterfinals at nationals was “The United Kingdom should cede sovereignty of the Falkland Islands to Argentina.” Obviously, this was a scenario we were going to use, and of course the other team wouldn’t see that coming. A funny thing happened: they didn’t have to. It didn’t end up mattering all that much.

Again, debate is strange, but not that strange: it’s fairly similar to the rest of our lives. You can’t succeed unless you make the right strategic choices and pick your battles. Unfortunately, people have a tendency to become sentimental about things they’ve invested a lot of time in, and sentimentality often blinds you to good decisions. Travis and I chose to go all in on the narrative described above, and while it is largely correct (or at least correct in the context of a debate round, which is primarily a set of marginally compelling fictions), it was also less strategic than our other options. We lost on a 6-1, and the team that beat us went on to win their second, and quite deserved, national championship.

 

Not to draw too sweeping an analogy, but mistakes get made on the basis of imperfect information and stubbornness all the time. Taiwan, the Falklands, and the unfortunate underdeveloped squid are all possible victims of that, not to mention Travis and I. We should all do a better job avoiding those mistakes.

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