The Future of the Zeitenwende

Jan 08, 2024

The Future of the Zeitenwende: Scenario 1—China Attacks Taiwan

The United States is already doing much to be prepared in the case of a Chinese invasion of the island. Germany and Europe need to do their bit, especially by supporting Ukraine.

Bild:  Die taiwanesischen Streitkräfte üben (hier im Juli 2023) im Han-Kuang-Manöver die Abwehr einer Invasion.
Dass China versuchen wird, Taiwan einzunehmen, gilt in den USA als gesetzt. Die taiwanesischen Streitkräfte üben jeden Sommer (hier im Juli 2023) im Han-Kuang-Manöver die Abwehr einer Invasion.
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US front-line military officers are now openly sporting “2027” patches on their flying suits and combat fatigues. They refer to the assumption that by that year China will be ready, able, and willing to conquer Taiwan by force of arms. That it is more likely than not to do so is an article of faith across the US military that underpins and animates a comprehensive drive to be ready to meet the challenge. Of course, such a public posture is good for deterrence, even if wiser commanders will be alive to the risks of provoking the very thing one is attempting to deter. Nevertheless, the bipartisan political consensus in the United States is hawkish on China, and, given the extra billions of dollars already allocated to the Pentagon, any commander who is not ready in four years’ time would be castigated, lampooned, and cast out in short order.

The US focus on China has reached an extent that should worry Germany, and all of NATO. There are political voices in Washington that are openly opposed to continuing to support the Ukrainian cause, arguing that Ukraine is Europe’s problem while the all-important action—economic and military—is in the Indo-Pacific region. These voices have found a new attack vector with the current war between Israel and an Iranian-backed Hamas, arguing that that, too, is more important to Americans—“We can’t support everyone, why are we still indulging Zelensky?” is the battle cry. And the argument is getting traction even before the election campaign that may well see a vengeful candidate Donald Trump dominating the airwaves with unfinished business.

The Bigger Picture

If we step back, we might see a bigger and even more worrying picture. But it is one that allows us to merge the views of the substance of the Zeitenwende into an agreed Western or NATO narrative. And so, perhaps, be able to address it. All of the protagonists mentioned so far are linked, and are actively supporting each other in actual conflicts, not contingent alliances. Iran is working with Russia to supply and improve its drones used to attack Ukrainian critical civilian infrastructure. Iran backs Hamas, but also any number of terrorist organizations that are attacking Western interests globally, and directly within Western states themselves. China has declared its special friendship with Russia and is widely believed to be helping it avoid sanctions in areas vital to its war machine. In return it gets cheap energy and the support of a power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. (Though it also usefully holding back any Russian thoughts of using nuclear weapons.)

The epochal change, the Zeitenwende, is likely not any one particular confrontation: the order built after 1945 is under threat across a range of political, military, and economic fronts. Indeed, the way that key allies are prioritizing their commitments is already having a re-ordering effect. Have we recognized this outside of academic discourse and commentariat scribbling?

The Zeitenwende Seen from the Taiwan Strait

One scenario that might get us thinking correctly is the one that is central to current US thinking: a Chinese attack on Taiwan. What might that mean for the alliance of Western nations? We don’t need to waste time and ink on the likelihood of this occurring—that the major partner of our pivotal military alliance must make it a major contingent concern is enough.

It is unarguable that China is deliberately building an amphibious force capable of an assault across the 100 miles of the Taiwan Strait. While we have been long focused on a Chinese navy that is now bigger than that of the United States in terms of the number of warships, Beijing’s air force also been growing rapidly. The investment in hypersonic and other ballistic missiles is not just aimed at holding the US Navy’s aircraft carriers at arms’ length, they are a direct threat to Taiwan, too.

Recent US war games have demonstrated the likely effectiveness of these systems, with the results suggesting that the US would not be able to deploy carriers in the first instance, but that nuclear submarines and long-range bombers would be vital in thwarting any Chinese assault. America would lose many high value assets and suffer significant casualties—one cannot imagine, in such circumstances, that the US would hold back any of its most capable, high-end forces.

Submarines and long-range bombers are part of the force packages ear-marked to defend NATO’s sea lines of communication across the Atlantic and to reinforce NATO by holding critical Russian assets at risk. A Taiwan contingency would, therefore, in drawing on all of the US’ military resources, inevitably draw on those allocated for the defense of Europe. To not have our own contingent plans that recognize that planning assumption would be negligent, and tantamount to saying the US is wasting its time so we can ignore the implications. We need to think about what that means for the European part of NATO and for Germany.

European NATO Needs a Coordinated Response

First, it’s important to recognize that the US military has already pivoted to an extent—even if currently more conceptually and emotionally—in the direction of the Indo-Pacific. That is likely to continue, and so, few of the US assets and enablers on which NATO’s defense of Europe plans depend can be relied upon. Russia’s war against Ukraine has in any case exposed the fiction that Uncle Sam’s arsenal is bottomless and will always be “the magazine of last resort” to bail out European nations that have not invested in war stocks of their own.

In his criticism of NATO’s European wing, Trump was only an outlier among US presidents in that he put it crudely. All his predecessors made polite comparisons, but they were not flattering. Europe does need to put more resources into its own defense—it does not need massively larger armed forces, but they do need to be equipped in depth. In this, the new NATO members, such as Finland, have long led the way. Standardization of materiel would greatly assist NATO, in both cost and logistic ease, and Germany is well positioned in the EU as well as NATO to take a lead on promoting such efficiencies.

Germany’s geography has long made it the pivotal land power in NATO, even if Poland is busily and impressively arming itself. Decades of peacetime calm have allowed administrative drag to build—such as limitations on convoys and rail loads crossing the various federal states, which would hinder efforts to rapidly reinforce the Eastern front should that be necessary. These bureaucratic concerns could be addressed cheaply if the political will was there.

All of the above would free other European partners to do what they do best. The United Kingdom has already been involved in altering the strategic balance in the South and East China Seas via the AUKUS agreement with the US and Australia on the transfer of nuclear-powered submarines and other high-tech capacities. (The UK defense ministry hierarchy is currently getting this a little wrong, as it is seeing the British “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” more as increasing the number of ship visits than the technology cooperation programs that would make a real military difference.)

An immediate impact of any assault on Taiwan would be the loss of the major source of the semiconductors that are the bedrock of digital age manufacturing, including that of military equipment. The EU’s program to build a semiconductor industry in Europe is therefore timely and has major national security overtones. Accelerating this program would have economic benefits likely to cover the costs, and would have security benefits that may greatly outweigh whatever military kit could be bought for a similar outlay. Such a measure is part of deterrence by denial, as it denies China part of the benefits of invasion on which it would have calculated.

The Zeitenwende as Intellectual and Practical Task

Ukraine is a test. Though NATO has not become directly involved, the major Western powers that form the backbone of its political leadership in the North Atlantic Council have all stated a political position in strong support of Ukraine and against Russian aggression. Contrary to some political voices in the US, who argue that Ukraine is a distraction, committing to support Ukraine with “whatever it takes” and then not following through on that, will fundamentally weaken Western credibility.

Russia would see immediately that “the West” lacked resolve and blinked first. China, which sees the challenge it poses to the West as greater than that of Russia, will be looking for weak links. The “Global South" will note whose rhetoric is backed by action. It is, therefore, clearly in Germany’s long-term interest to continue to show leadership in supporting Ukraine, and not allow Russian President Vladimir Putin claim he faced down “NATO.”

The final part of the jigsaw is Iran, a sponsor of terrorism and insurrection against the free world. As the main architect of 2014’s nuclear agreement with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Germany’s policy has evolved while retaining much of the rationale that underpinned it, and Berlin has sought trade and cultural links as part of its positive outreach. Whether this has had the desired influence is moot, but Germany continues to be concerned by human rights abuses within Iran, and externally by Iranian policies that run counter to German interests.

Since the Hamas atrocities of October 7, 2023, Germany has been exemplary in the clarity with which it has declared its values and standards—Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck’s nine-minute video explaining that antisemitism will not be tolerated at all has been widely praised internationally. Might Germany now go further in its condemnation of those who support Hamas and its ilk? If we are to push back collectively against the multi-faceted, “all-court press” currently being exerted against the West, then a tougher stance on Iran would put pressure on one of its main facilitators.

In short, the Zeitenwende is not just about the singular atrocity of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That can now be seen as a part of an ramping up of pressures being felt across the West, all orchestrated by an uneasy but currently effective alliance led by China, Russia, and Iran. The “Global South” is watching with keen interest. How the West responds in making that alliance more costly and less effective will define the global order that emerges and replaces, or not, that which has endured since 1945.

To keep the Western alliance together will require us to understand the multi-dimensional threat. The first part of the Zeitenwende is thus intellectual. Having done so, the second part is to understand how Western Europe can take more of the burden of effectively defending itself, while finding ways as much economic and political as military—of helping the US to concentrate more of its effort on deterring China from attacking Taiwan. A good outcome is where none of the contingent plans are ever used. Attempting to achieve this means making those plans credible, which is the practical part of the Zeitenwende.

Air Marshall (retired) Edward Stringer, EJS, CD, CBE, was Director-General of the British Defence Academy as well as Director-General of Joint Force Development, Strategic Command (2018–2021) of the British Armed Forces.