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Will China invade Taiwan? A panel of superforecasters considers the likelihood of an imminent global conflict

Credit: Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Credit: Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)


July 6, 2021   6 mins

We’ve been lucky, for the last 70 or so years, to live through an essentially unprecedented period of world peace. It doesn’t necessarily feel like that, because there are always enough small wars and conflicts to fill 24-hour news channels – but there have been no direct conflicts between major powers since the Korean War of 1950-1953.

Since then, while there have been proxy wars (notably Vietnam) and local conflicts, no big, powerful countries have gone to war with one another. But there are still tensions, and if you were betting on a war between two great powers now, China and the US would again be the most likely.

The Korean peninsula is probably not where you’d bet on it starting, though. Instead, you might look to Taiwan, the self-governing island off the south-east coast of China. Just this week, a Chinese magazine published a video showing a simulation of a ballistic missile attack on Taiwan, disabling its defences ahead of an invasion. A week before, China sent 28 warplanes, including nuclear-capable bombers, into the air defence zone around Taiwan. At the same time, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping gave a speech promising to “utterly defeat any attempt toward ‘Taiwan independence’.”

The US is an ally of Taiwan’s; it would be expected to defend it, should China attempt to invade. But just as in Korea, two-thirds of a century ago, the question is: would it? And will China invade?

Recently, a group of anonymous superforecasters have tried to answer that question, and shared their work with me. They previously had a go at forecasting the outcomes of the rise of various Covid variants; now, they are interested in whether we ought to worry about Chinese aggression over Taiwan.

Most people are rubbish at actual, falsifiable forecasts. If you ask questions like “Will there be a conflict between China and Taiwan in which at least 100 people are killed before 2026?” or “Will the US defend Taiwan in the event of a conflict between Taiwan and China?”, and ask them to give percentage likelihoods of each eventuality (60%, 20%, 99%), then most people do no better than random guessing. But some people do a bit better, and superforecasters do exceptionally well.

My six forecasters who were considering what would happen with Taiwan were asking several questions, but the key one is probably the one I mentioned above: how likely is it that we will see a conflict between China and Taiwan in which at least 100 people are killed?

The first thing they do is to look at base rates. This is also known as taking the “outside view” on a problem, as opposed to the “inside view”. In a classic example: you’re at a wedding and you’re asked whether the marriage will be a lifelong one. If you look at the couple and think “they look very much in love” and base your answer on that, then you’re taking the inside view.

If, instead, you look at how many marriages in general end in divorce – about 40%, in the UK – and start from there, you’re using the outside view. You then use the inside view to adjust from there: if you know that the couple are well-suited to each other, you adjust your estimate up; if you think they’re not, you might adjust it down.

Regarding Taiwan, one wrote: “An elementary application of base rate thinking means that we have to put the probability of China going for Taiwan within the next five years at below 50 percent.” Since 1949, when the nationalist government was defeated in the Chinese civil war and its leaders fled to Taiwan, mainland China has never invaded the island. If the odds of an invasion in any given five-year period were above 50%, then the chance of making it to 70 years without one would be about one in 16,000.

But, then, they take inside-view considerations into account. For instance: China is catching up on the US in terms of military might. It “is serious about taking control of Taiwan”, which it sees as a threat, and is making more aggressive noises. 

Taiwan itself is very badly defended and the defence it does have is ill-suited to the task (its military has “pursued a suicidal procurement strategy of expensive boutique US kit that will be no use in the crisis, like fighter jets that will be killed on the ground by the opening Chinese missile barrage”). The US military is aimed at fighting the War on Terror, not defending overseas territories against invasion. US public opinion might not support shedding blood over defending Taiwan. 

On the other hand: a war would be a huge risk for China; “every Chinese leader has an incentive to leave such a risky endeavour to his successor,” another forecaster writes. In the short term, the balance of power is still with the Americans, and China can afford to be patient and wait until the middle of the century. The forecasters use facts like these to adjust their initial base-rate estimate. 

The six forecasters estimate the likelihood of a significant China-Taiwan conflict at between 8% and 23% in the next five years, with a median estimate of 14%. That doesn’t sound all that bad, but it’s worth adding something.

If we’ve learnt anything from Covid, it should be that preparing for the most likely outcome is not enough. The odds of a global pandemic in any given year is probably only about 1%. But if one happens, it turns out, it’s really bad, and it would have been worth investing a significant amount of resources to avoid or mitigate it. One of the superforecasters told me that  “a 14% chance of a proper conflict by 2026 is quite a big deal. If someone says there’s a 10% chance of a really bad outcome, the expected value [the impact multiplied by the probability] is still really bad.” So you might not think a particular bad outcome is very likely, but if it’s bad enough, then you ought to prepare for it anyway.

In the case of Covid, it’s understandable that the UK government didn’t foresee in February that a global pandemic was coming in March. Lots of people were saying it was, others were saying it wasn’t. But they should have foreseen that a global pandemic was highly plausible, that there was a non-trivial chance of complete disaster, and that quite drastic early steps to prevent it would have been justified.

And a Chinese invasion of Taiwan has the potential to be really bad. The superforecasters put together some conditional forecasts as well – that is, predictions of the form “How likely is event X if event Y happens?” So, for instance, if there is a conflict between China and Taiwan, how likely is the US to come to Taiwan’s defence, and how likely would China be to preemptively attack US forces?

The median estimate for how likely the US is to come to Taiwan’s aid if there were an invasion is 83%. So we are talking about a very high probability that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would lead to armed conflict between the world’s two superpowers. They also think it’s about 75% likely that the US would try to sink Chinese invasion ships, and say it’s reasonably likely that China would preemptively attack the US forces in the region if they did attack.

What might the knock-on effects be, if the world’s largest economies end up in a shooting war? Well: the US imports about $470 billion’s worth of goods from China a year. The superforecasters’ median estimate is that that would drop by 20%, or, roughly speaking, $100 billion. That’s the equivalent of the entire economy of Ecuador or Kenya. It would mean a huge blow to the world economy and probably push millions of people back into poverty. Huge US firms such as Nike or Apple would most probably stop manufacturing goods in China, again undoing decades of economic growth that has driven the rise of the Chinese middle class.

And what’s more, it’s very far from obvious that the US would win. If a war were to break out over Taiwan before 2026, the median estimate is that there’s a 57% chance of Chinese victory; if the war were to break out between 2031 and 2035, when China has had another decade to build up its military relative to the US, the estimate is 66%. “Once committed, China would need to prevail in order to save face and not have their government topple,” writes one. “I don’t believe China will start a hopeless war, so the likelihood of winning is over 50% if they start it, says another. 

I asked the forecaster I spoke to if they’d talked about how likely it would be that a US-China conflict might escalate to a full-scale war or even nuclear war, and they hadn’t; they may readdress the question in future. 

The Korean War started because great powers misjudged other powers’ willingness to defend allies and honour their treaty obligations: China and North Korea didn’t think the US would defend South Korea; the US didn’t think China would enter the war directly if the 8th Army crossed the 38th Parallel. It could easily happen again.

And the experience of that war shows that even a limited conflict between two great powers can be terrible – millions dead, years wasted, a country devastated for decades. Taiwan probably won’t spark a US-China war in the next five years, but it might, and if it does it would be a disaster.


Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.

TomChivers

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Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
3 years ago

Ordinary people are no good at forecasting, but superforecasters are – spare me this nonsense. Are they the equivalent of Ferguson, Whiity and Vallance? The question not being asked is what can we do to ensure peace throughout the world.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
3 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

Look at what they were forecasting in 2000 for now. Way off.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
3 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

They aren’t quite equivalent, as least as far as I can tell, and I hope we hear more about these people from Tom in future.
Prof Ferguson and his ilk are different from superforecasters in a few ways.
One is that superforecasting is all about assigning actual probabilities to different scenarios. If you read epidemiological papers carefully you’ll find they often don’t do this: instead they present a range of scenarios without assigning probabilities to them. There may (or may not) be uncertainty intervals within a scenario, but usually not between them.
A related problem is modellers refusing to make falsifiable predictions at all (which means they aren’t scientific, hence your gut reaction). One example is how early on Ferguson predicted 20,000 deaths within some time span, and then in a media interview changed it post-hoc to be “could be 20,000 or much lower”.
Another way it’s different is that as Tom explains, superforecasters pay close attention to the base rates of events. It’s just putting numbers on the intuition that the best way to predict the future is look at the past. Epidemiologists don’t do this: their models are all “blank slate”, often created fresh for every single virus. They don’t seem to ever encode prior experience of epidemics in their calculations. Instead their models are an encoding of primary-school level germ theory combined with lots of curve fitting. The results never track reality but nobody in their world seems to care, and this approach is optimal for producing papers, so why try harder?
A final way it differs is that (I believe) superforecasters like to engage with prediction/betting markets and tend to surface in competitions of various kinds. So they’re much more results oriented and willing to rank themselves and each other, whereas in academia everyone is always excellent and in consensus with each other (supposedly).
That said, superforecasters aren’t doing anything fancy. In theory what they’re doing is a simple form of modelling as well – they “look good” compared to regular modelling only because modelling (of the sort we hear about) is so screwed up by the rock-bottom standards in academia. Superforecasting is a separate community where institutional affiliations aren’t necessary.

Last edited 3 years ago by Norman Powers
Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

Brilliant!

Michael Richardson
Michael Richardson
3 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

There is another difference. The forecasters here are sitting down and using (ok, hopefully using) personal expertise to make their predictions. But modellers like Ferguson use large, complicated computer programs. See here for a sample of potential problems with the code.
https://github.com/mrc-ide/covid-sim/issues/165
A lot of this will not make sense unless you are a computer programmer/software engineer. I am (40 years experience, you will have to take my word for that), and the criticisms made in that link are entirely plausible.
There was pushback against these (and related) criticisms, but I find them entirely unconvincing.
The code might be useful as a research vehicle, but to influence government policies? I would class Ferguson (and co) no better than snake oil salesmen.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

If fairies could dance on the heads of pins, How many Chinese fairies, compared to American Fairies would the Superforcasters figure would dance on each? We all love a good game of ‘What If’.

Anyway, I would like MacArthur being quoted on the Korean War, 1950 – 1953 when the Chinese streamed across the Yalu river into Korea and MacArthur was in charge.
“(MacArthur Fired): MacArthur differed with the Truman administration on three major points: 1. MacArthur wanted to use nuclear weapons, which the US possessed in far larger numbers than the Soviets. However, Truman ruled this out because the US possessed too few nuclear bombs, the mountainous terrain would make them largely ineffective, and world opinion would not support such a move. 2. MacArthur wanted to bomb Chinese bases and factories in Manchuria, and destroy the bridges crossing the Yalu River from China to North Korea. He believed this would allow him to destroy enemy troop concentrations, prohibit enemy armies from entering Korea, and destroy the enemy’s source of supplies. But Truman believed that the Chinese might bomb US airfields in Korea and aircraft carriers in Korean waters, and bombing China might increase Chinese hostilities and bring the Soviet Union into the war. 3. MacArthur wanted to allow Chiang Kai-shek’s forces to invade mainland China which he hoped would trigger a revolution against the Communist government, or at least draw Chinese troops out of Korea. Truman opposed this plan for fear it would involve the US in a land war in Asia — the ‘wrong war at the wrong time, the wrong place, and against the wrong enemy.’ ” (and so he fired him)

Remember those days? When serious talk was of Taiwan invading China? But it shows some resolve anyway.

Here is how I see it, being a student of War and history. China can take Taiwan as it has a huge navy and vast numbers of civilian shipping made suitable for the role. Taiwan could mobilize half a million soldiers, so China would need a couple million invading troops. Results would be both unknown, and terrible. China would not fail as they would just embargo Taiwan if bogged down and keep going and going, I imagine losses of 50% would be likely… ‘Pyrrhic victory’ is likely the outcome.

China could just embargo Taiwan and demand they yield. China would have its economy wrecked by the world who did not like it and not doing as much business. ‘Pyrrhic victory’ likely as they would win after a long time.

I just cannot see a victory where the losses = victory instead of Pyrrhic victory. But one day even a Pyrrhic victory may be good enough for China, who knows, they have different logic to us.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Sounds like a very sensible analysis to me – and fortunately the CCP appears to be relatively sane compared to, for example, Adolph Hitler as far as respecting the fulfillment of treaty obligations etc

John Riordan
John Riordan
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

The present state of the CCP under Xi Jinping increasingly looks as if it thinks pyrrhic victories are as good as any other kind.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 years ago

It is a terrible scenario to consider, especially if the US enters the fray. But would they? If the latest US army recruitment video is anything to go by they should stay at home and play with their toys.

Last edited 3 years ago by Lesley van Reenen
A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago

Don’t confuse these atrocious recruitment drives with those who have actually decided to serve. Much like British soldiers recoiled in disgust at our most recent ones, the vast majority of serving Americans will have no truck with that horsesh*t

Last edited 3 years ago by A Spetzari
Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

The Serving soldiers aren’t the ones being targeted. In any case organisations can change pretty rapidly internally based on these kind of hiring practices.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago

Is toys a euphemism?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

Today’s Daily Mail says Japan will sign with Taiwan if Taiwan invaded – as Japan knows it (Okinawa) would be next. Synchronicity….

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
3 years ago

The further out this forecast goes, the less credible it becomes. What happens if the Chinese leadership changes? Does it become more or less likely to attack Taiwan? If the Taiwanese military is not CURRNETLY capable of repelling a Chinese assault, what happens if they get a new C in C who knows his job and makes the Island unattackable, on the Swiss model, say? The Democrats are attempting to destroy their own country NOW, but what happens if Americans finally wise up, have had enough and make a serious, deep-seated and long lasting commitment to strengthening the US, both morally and militarily? Suppose they sweep the Republicans — and I mean the YOUNG Republicans, the ones who are getting right up into the faces of the Democrats out on the stump, not the “controlled decline” bunch in Washington — into power? Too many imponderables here.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
3 years ago

I think any potential right wing reaction in the US would be anti imperial.

David B
David B
3 years ago

Defending allies is not (necessarily) imperialist. Honouring treaties such as the US has with Taiwan is imperative IMO.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
3 years ago
Reply to  David B

Sure it is. It’s imperial over reach. You have to be an empire to have the agreements with an ally on the other side of the world to begin with. The founding fathers wouldn’t approve. Pre WWII US opinion would he hostile as well.

China is a bridge too far for the US. A cold war against a China that was communist could be won but the US is the country with the debilitating ideology now. Equity – ie equality of outcome – for groups is as impossible as equality of outcome for individuals, which is communism.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
3 years ago

That’s why they make it concrete by saying “within the next five years, in which >100 people die”. It scopes it and eliminates disputes that could arise in case of very minor skirmishes caused by e.g. a rogue naval patrol.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
3 years ago

I’ve participated in super-forecasting as part of an IARPA  Geopolitical Forecasting challenge & I’ve worked with covid modellers – and I would not trust any of them further than I could throw them … which ‘aint far.
To be fair the super-forecasting challenge was interesting & you are correct in some of your analysis of how they work. We achieved very successful results from statistical analysis of twitter feeds! (Wisdom of the crowd)
But the covid modelling community has been consistently more inaccurate and unreliable than economic forecasters or weather reporters.
All men with more spreadsheets than sense.
(And, yes I’m worried about Taiwan, just I would not ask a modeller for the answer)

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Wise

It’s a bit unclear from your phrasing if you hold epidemiologists and super-forecasters in equal disdain, or if you’re saying super-forecasting works much better.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago

So superforecasters use stats instead of gut feeling guesses? Has the US invaded directly or via proxies other sovereign states throughout its history. 100%. Does the US restrain its proxies or allies from occupying territory or, for that matter, from rape, robbery, murder and torture. 100% it does not. Is China an ally or proxy of the current Democrat executive and its puppet Biden? Yes in the sense that both are committed to state capiltalism and totalitarian control of language, belief and even thought. So the numbers look worse for Taiwan that at any time since 1948, and only SCOTUS annulling the 2020 election can make those numbers better.

Andy Hughes
Andy Hughes
3 years ago

I’d be interested to know if they took Russian action in Crimea and Ukraine into account, and Chinese action in Hong Kong – none of which has resulted in much of a push back from the West. Taiwan is a next level up – but, I’d argue, hardly unthinkable given the current trend. Also, as a rule of thumb, if an authoritarian leader says they want to do something – I’d always take them at their word.

Peter Mott
Peter Mott
3 years ago

It is becoming less likely because (at last) states are waking up to the possibility that it might happen and are beginning to develop a deterrent stance. Indeed this little article by Tom Chivers is a part of that process!

William Tallon
William Tallon
3 years ago

”It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future…’ Yogi Berra

Kevin Dee
Kevin Dee
3 years ago

 â€œI don’t believe China will start a hopeless war, so the likelihood of winning is over 50% if they start it, says another.
You lost me right there.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
3 years ago

Taiwan, the self-governing island

sounds like we’ve already lost if we adopt that phraseology. What next? “South Sudan , the self-governing enclave” on through the Balkans, the Baltic states, the Caucasus – the south Pacific, Australia, NZ?

John Hicks
John Hicks
3 years ago

Super forecasters using “inside/outside views” sounds like a very subjective “wokey” technique to establish anything; particularly when modern statistical/probability analysis continues to apply Bayes’ Theorem that has been around for 300 years or so!

Antony Hirst
Antony Hirst
3 years ago

I doubt the US has the competence or capability to defend Taiwan. They certainly won’t have the will, as the social ramifications will be unmanageable.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Antony Hirst

USA could very easy defend Taiwan. The problem is where that stops once it begins.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

NEXT:
Five top Astrologers give their forecast on war with China wile the top UK darts champions use a map of the world dart board to decide on Taiwan’s chances in fight. Which is more correct? Superforcasters to work out which team more likely to be correct in the outcome. Imperial War College to study the results.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
3 years ago

When NATO attacked Serbia to separate Kosovo and Russia attacked Ukraine to take Crimea you could at least argue that majorities in the areas justified exceptions to the normal rule that borders should not be changed by force. There is no such exception for Taiwan, where an overwhelming majority is understandably opposed to rule by the CCP, whatever their views on reunion longer term. And where would China stop? Tibet, Taiwan, Senkaku islands, Korea, Japan, Australia? Appeasement will not work. Taiwan should be defended against forced merger.

Al M
Al M
3 years ago

If such a conflict comes to pass, might polite American society come to value the (overwhelmingly) young, working class males who will be called upon to risk or give their lives?

Conversely, will these young men even be willing to serve an administration that regards them with utter contempt?

Earl King
Earl King
3 years ago

The best way to stop a war is to make sure the price paid is too high. I have no idea what the current US posture is regarding the protection of Taiwan. The initial strike would be very damaging to the population and the Taiwanese military. However, assuming Taiwan has done the minimum low flying hard to hit anti ship missiles. I suppose the Chinese could drop paratroopers….Not sure how many they would need. So do the Taiwanese have anti aircraft batteries that would survive a first strike. On the question of whether the US supports the lose of dozens of ships and hundreds of aircraft and sailors and airman who would die? IDK…But I ask the question of Lithuania. Is Article 5 valid for the Baltic States? I doubt Germany would be willing to sacrifice not sure about the others.