The World Around Us
August 19, 2022
Marching towards the brink of global conflict

History provides a powerful reminder of the devastating consequences of war. The world must never forget that war is a great tragedy which unleashes a level of violence and carnage of unimaginable proportions. World War II (WW2), fought from 1939-1945, resulted in approximately 60 million military and civilian deaths, in addition to roughly 25 million battle wounded. Beyond the violence on the battlefield, deaths from hunger and preventable diseases are also by-products of warfare.

As the world lurches from conflict to conflict, with each one seemingly taking us closer to the brink of a major military confrontation involving the most powerful countries, it appears that some world leaders have forgotten about the brutality of war. Yemen, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are contemporary examples of the horrors of warfare.

It is against this backdrop that one must observe with great concern, the growing risk of military conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Such a conflict is likely to bring together the world’s three largest economies – the United States (US), China and Japan; as well as the two most powerful militaries – the US and China.

Writing for Bloomberg in June, Hal Brands asserts that China’s window of military opportunity to invade Taiwan is opening. Last year, Admiral Phil Davidson, then Commander of US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), warned that China might be able to successfully invade Taiwan by 2027 – an assessment which the Biden administration seems to have adopted.

A war over Taiwan is not desirable, but it is not inconceivable, especially in light of China’s recent military activities around the island. Given this possibility, preparation is essential. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan which sucks in the US, Japan and other military powers, is likely to be several times worse than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in terms of broader contagion.

As a top player in the world’s information and communication technology industry, as well as a major supplier of goods across the industrial field, Taiwan occupies an important position in the global economy. Similarly, as the supplier of 15 per cent of the world’s goods and the second largest economy, China’s global position is also critical. Furthermore, as the pre-eminent global economic power, whatever affects the US will invariably affect the rest of the world.

Even more profound, the Western Pacific Region is the most economically dynamic region of the world. It comprises 37 countries and areas with more than one quarter of the world’s population. As much as one-third of the world’s shipping goes through the Western Pacific.

It therefore stands to reason that a war in that region would bring the world’s economy to a near standstill, cutting off much of the world from vital supplies of food, energy and industrial goods. Net importers, especially net food and energy importing countries (countries which import more food and energy than they produce locally), will be most severely affected.

Given the shock that is likely to accrue to food and energy markets, countries have to expedite efforts towards food and energy security.

Domestic food production, especially in small island developing states (SIDS) would need to be expedited. Similarly, there would need to be a greater reliance on renewable energy over fossil fuels. At a minimum, such measures could lessen, although not remove entirely, the impact of a war over Taiwan.

However, while a war is no longer inconceivable, it is not inevitable. One can only hope that reason and diplomacy would prevail to maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

The issue is also bigger than just Taiwan. Normalising the use of force for a country to have its own way in international affairs sets a dangerous precedent, especially for countries without the capacity to defend themselves militarily.