Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 11, November 2019
By Grant Newsham
Whether anyone actually ‘wins’ a war is a philosophical debate. The Germans and Japanese in 1945 might have thought wars do indeed have winners. But perhaps it’s better said that in most conflicts some parties ‘lose more than others.’
Such would be the case if Beijing attempted to militarily subjugate Taiwan. And Xi Jinping just might do so. He declared in a January 2019 speech that “we (China) do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures (to take Taiwan.)”
The Battle for Taiwan would have truly global consequences, akin to the invasion of Poland by the Soviets and Germans in 1939.
However, much of the debate over a Taiwan Strait conflict focuses on preparation for and conduct of the PRC’s attack: whether Beijing will or won’t attack, what an attack might look like and Taiwan’s ability to defend itself, whether the US will or should get involved and whether it ought to sell Taiwan ‘this or that’ weapon. Such discussion is useful, but the actual consequences and longer-term ripple effects of a fight over Taiwan deserve much more attention.
This paper examines key aspects of what happens once the shooting starts, and the follow-on global economic and political effects. The envisioned scenario is a full-scale PLA assault against Taiwan, but it’s worth noting that even a ‘limited’ assault–such as against one of Taiwan’s offshore islands–may not stay limited for very long: given Beijing’s oft-stated determination to take all of Taiwan, an off-shore island assault would only constitute a tactical objective in the march on Taipei, and would also have serious and wide-ranging political and economic consequences.
Of course, Beijing hopes to defeat Taiwan without a military conflict: its immediate strategy is, through relentless political warfare, to scare and psychologically batter Taiwan into submission. But President Xi seems willing to use force. He increasingly sounds like a resentful drunk talking himself into a fight in a South Boston bar at 1:00am. And People’s Liberation Army (PLA) generals–-flush with massive and increasingly sophisticated new weaponry–are eager to prove their allegiance to achieving Xi’s “China Dream” of “The Great Reunification”.
If it comes to a cross-strait shoot up, China’s powerful military with its arsenal of missiles, long-range rockets, ships, aircraft – and apparent ability to use them – can certainly hammer Taiwan, and just might seize the island. But such a victory would come at an immense cost in lives, money, and reputation. It would be a Pyrrhic victory that would result in the PRC’s isolation and genuine ‘decoupling’ from the civilized world.
And an assault on Taiwan won’t be something started on Thursday and finished on Monday, or in other words a ‘short sharp war.’ Nor will it be “business as usual“ after a couple of weeks, with everything forgotten and US-bound shiploads of iPhones and plastic Santa Clauses resuming, and American soybeans going the other way.
For starters, Taiwan can resist an assault even though the military balance now heavily favors the People’s Republic. Taiwan’s military is competent and bolstered with so-called ‘asymmetric’ weapons and operational concepts. Further, it is aided by formidable cyber-warfare capabilities. It can inflict heavy casualties on PLA forces, and there is the added morale heft Taipei can leverage: these are free people fighting for their lives. 
However, even if fighting tooth and nail, Taiwan will suffer immensely, regardless of whether the PLA actually manages to capture the island and eliminate organized opposition.
It requires little imagination to get a sense of the destruction and loss of life from a Chinese assault on Taiwan, particularly once civilian targets are hit. China will likely want to terrorize the civilian population into submission early with its initial missile and air strikes, but it just might only target selected military and government capabilities at this point. However, once fighting starts in urban areas casualties will be in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands, infrastructure (transportation, power, computer networks) will be destroyed, and the society and economy will be brought to its knees.
And should the Chinese assault succeed, there is the horror of Communist occupation awaiting the survivors. As repeatedly demonstrated by the Chinese Communist Party since its inception, it remorselessly inflicts cruel (often fatal) retribution on the many people who resisted the Chinese takeover (as well as on many of those who secretly supported the PRC’s efforts).
Conflict not confined
A fight over Taiwan will most likely not be confined geographically to the Taiwan Strait area–nor restrained in the level and scope of violence. And the US will likely get involved. Once that happens, the possibility of eventual nuclear escalation cannot be ruled out.
Indeed, the prospect of US involvement is near 100% once Americans on Taiwan are killed. Nothing unifies Americans more. Even worse for Xi, despite a 45-year track record of appeasement of China’s ambitions, the United States is finally waking up to the threat faced by the island democracy, as evidenced by recent National Defense Strategy documents, passage of the Taiwan Travel Act and other Congressional declarations calling for increased support for Taiwan. Notably, support for Taiwan appears to have overwhelming bipartisan support, including politicians who loathe and resist President Donald Trump on every other matter.
Whether this stern approach to China will survive a change in US administration and the potential return of a ‘PRC engagement’ faction in business, academia, and officialdom is an open question. Indeed, former US State Department East Asian Affairs acting director, Susan Thornton, advised Chinese Communist officials several months ago to just wait for another more accommodating administration.
Moreover, after too many years of US leaders (military and civilian) dismissing the Chinese military threat, a fight won’t be easy for the US. Even ‘getting in close’ to support Taiwan militarily will be difficult and costly. The PLA has had two decades to upgrade its military and is, unfortunately, a match for the US in certain areas – or even superior.
That said, the American military is still powerful. Although it requires urgent improvements, the U.S. military can still take on the People’s Liberation Army.
Chinese submarines, ships, and aircraft will go down, together with the “only-children” sons manning them. The sorrow of the thousands of mainland Chinese families who were allowed only “one child” may not bother senior CCP officials, though, as there is a large ‘spare’ unmarried male population. In pursuit of Xi’s “China Dream”, Beijing may be less concerned about casualties than one imagines.
Rather, the bigger worry for Beijing might be the simple embarrassment of losing troops, ships, and aircraft in such numbers that the CCP leadership appears clueless about what it has gotten into. As important, economic difficulties caused by the conflict might add to such perceptions on the part of the Chinese public.
Nations often rally around leaders once the shooting starts, even as casualties, hardships, and expenses mount. With Beijing’s firm control over its propaganda and internal security apparatus, it is possible that the PRC will become a fiercer, even more implacable enemy after losing tens of thousands of military personnel, and (foreseeably) some number of civilians. Still, it is entirely foreseeable that the Chinese public and Xi’s rivals might blame ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ for their problems.
But for Beijing it still might be worth the costs given Taiwan’s value from a ‘strategic geography’ perspective alone. Seize Formosa and the PRC has breached the so-called ‘First Island Chain’ that effectively hems in Chinese forces and prevents unfettered access to the Pacific Ocean. PLA forces operating from Taiwan will undercut the entire US (and allied) defense posture in the Western Pacific. It would be a huge psychological blow to American prestige, along with Japan’s confidence in its ability to survive a similar assault.
A shock to the American nervous system
Despite 18 years of the “Long War”, in reality the US has gotten used to relatively painless wars in recent times. The immediate human costs alone of a war arising over Taiwan will be a shock. A few years ago four US Special Forces soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger, and it was considered a national catastrophe. One wonders how the American public and its political class will respond to losing 5,000 sailors and Marines in an afternoon.
Even the US military will be jolted. Recall the surprise of British forces (and the public) when Argentine bombs and missiles started sinking Royal Navy ships during the Falklands War in 1982. A fight with China will be much worse. US leadership spent too many years ignoring or denying the possibility. One US Pacific Command (PACOM) commander even declared in 2013 that climate change was a bigger threat than the PLA.
As a result of the bloodshed, the US and PRC relationship will be hostile for decades to come. You don’t kill thousands of each other’s citizens and just ‘forget about it.’ Not even long-time “Friend of China” Henry Kissinger and Hank Paulson (former CEO of Goldman Sachs), who played key roles in paralyzing the U.S. strategic response to China’s increasingly antagonistic rise, will be welcome in Beijing–and one hopes would not be inclined to visit in any event.
For most ‘average’ Americans, the allure of cheap Chinese goods at Wal-Mart will fade as the first casualties are announced, and even Wall Street bankers (some of them, at least) will realize they are, after all, flag-waving Americans. In the case of those with less patriotic and pro-democracy instincts, financial sanctions will likely prevent them from doing business with the enemy.
There is an added risk for Beijing. What if Tokyo publicly admits what it has long thought: that Japan’s first line of defense is Taiwan?
The Japan Self-Defense Forces are professional, well equipped and (in some cases) formidable–-particularly the Japanese navy with its submarine and anti-submarine warfare units. It is hard to imagine a Taiwan Strait conflict not expanding to include Japan: it will either be compelled to support the US for fear of breaking the Japan-US alliance or it will be forced to respond to a Chinese attack on its territory, and seizure of certain of Japan’s southern Nansei Shoto islands as part of the PLA’s campaign against Taiwan.
So while Japan has spent decades pretending it is exempt from war and the serious requirement of preparing for it, conflict just might come its way, unbidden. Tokyo either assents to PRC domination and ends its alliance with the United States–-or rapidly improves its military capabilities (to perhaps include nuclear weapons). Most importantly, Japan and its military must be “prepared to shoot” – and that will be a huge psychological shift for the JSDF and Japanese society writ large.
Japan’s defense capability is less than it appears on paper, owing to decades of pathological dependence on the United States. But a crisis is often necessary to spur Japan’s ruling class into action. A shoot-up over Taiwan just might be crisis enough for Tokyo.
And while all this is happening around Taiwan, what does North Korea do? One plausible scenario is an attack on South Korea – both as a distraction to benefit Beijing’s efforts against Taiwan (and the US), and as an outright effort to topple the ROK government and unify the peninsula on Pyongyang’s terms. Even launching a handful of missiles against the South or towards Japan would stir things up considerably, and stretch available US forces for the Taiwan front.
A fight over Taiwan would also force other countries to decide whose side they are on. This choice may come quickly for Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia if the Straits of Malacca are closed. This would signify the end of the convenient (but impossible to continue) global fantasy in which nations have avoided ‘choosing sides’ while pretending the PRC is a benign country, like a really big Canada.
Nuclear weapons might start to look like a necessary option for more than a few countries besides Japan–Australia and South Korea, for instance.
As a logical outcome, one expects the world will split into rival camps, and with a considerable degree of economic disengagement. The US perhaps has the advantage for now, but suppose the PRC prevails (even modestly) in the conflict, and ASEAN nations decide to align with China more than is presently the case. And beyond into Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, the PRC might be viewed as the safer long-term bet.
As noted, there is a possibility of conflict spreading well beyond Asia as the US and partners shut down PRC ‘bases’ and other facilities overseas that are useful for military and commercial purposes, or seize or sink China-bound merchant vessels – and any PLAN ships that present themselves.
The PRC will not sit idly, however. For starters, it is already capable of targeting US bases and forces in Japan and the Central Pacific and presumably will do so, further expanding the conflict and fueling tit-for-tat escalation.
Besides the human toll and physical damage to Taiwan and the likely staggering casualties on all sides, the global economic and financial ripple effects will be immense and long lasting. It is not hyperbole to suggest the world will be unrecognizable afterwards: think of the powerful empires that ruled most of the world in 1914, and their decline into rubble by the end of 1918.
China is so deeply integrated into the world economy – given its position as a manufacturing hub and exporter as part of global supply chains and as a huge consumer of many nations’ raw commodities – that serious disruptions to global economic activity are unavoidable.
Soon after the shooting starts, there will be economic chaos worldwide at least on a par with the 2008 financial collapse, but probably much worse given that it arises from a war involving major powers. And that is by definition more dangerous and frightening than an event ultimately caused by Wall Streeters and others merely looking to fleece the unsuspecting public for as long as possible.
Stock markets will plummet–-and keep plummeting. Economic activity worldwide will slow immediately, shaken as supply chains are cut and demand and business activity slacken. The halt in China trade alone will be damaging enough, but this will have a snowballing effect.
Everything Taiwan produces –-semiconductors in particular –-will be off the market. Estimates vary, ranging from Taiwan producing 30% of the world’s semiconductors – to nearly half of all outsourced chip production and 90% of the most advanced chips. Taiwan’s periodic earthquakes cause disruption enough to semiconductor production. But recovering from earthquake damage is one thing: recovering from wartime destruction and disruption is quite another.
And besides semiconductors, products produced by Taiwanese companies in the PRC for export overseas – iPhones being an obvious example – won’t be moving anywhere.
Shipments of everything to and from Taiwan – and more importantly to and from China – will decline to a trickle or stop. Shipping and air freight companies will be unwilling to enter a war zone and insurance rates will skyrocket. One expects US financial and commercial sanctions (and even military operations) to further interdict or curtail ‘China trade’ worldwide. And expect the PRC to make its own efforts to disrupt US (and partner nation) shipping. Japan in particular, dependent on open sea-lanes for imports and exports, will feel immediate pain – far beyond that experienced after the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami.
Even those nations that have overlooked much of Beijing’s egregious actions over the years in exchange for Chinese money, including the European Union, will feel the effects. That pain just might be galvanized against the PRC–out of principle, embarrassment, fear, or the realization that Chinese ‘Belt and Road’ money will not materialize.
The problems are obvious for foreign companies reliant on China sales, manufacturing, and components. But the problems are even bigger for the PRC, which relies on commodity imports –-including food and oil –-and for exports and foreign direct investment that earn convertible currency (which the Chinese Yuan is not).
So beyond the butchers bill from the fighting, the Chinese economy will be battered. Today’s US-PRC trade war might result in trade reductions; but if the PRC attacks Taiwan militarily, China’s global trade will lurch to a near halt. The PRC’s Belt and Road project and its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will be on hold a long, long while—most likely permanently.
Chinese companies that can produce without US components and technology will be making products nobody will buy. Companies dependent on foreign components, materials, and markets will grind to a halt – and quickly.
Ironically, in line with Xi Xinping’s efforts to revive Mao Tse Tung’s reputation, an attack on Taiwan might move China back towards a Mao-era agrarian economy.
China will also be cut out of the US dollar system, and find itself grubbing for convertible currency. Chinese researchers and students will be sent home from the U.S. and other countries, joint ventures halted, foreign investments curtailed.
Beijing’s firms will be left to do business with such economic powerhouses as North Korea, Myanmar, Cambodia and Russia. Even the Russians will probably strike hard bargains if they sense that China is in trouble.
Indeed, Russia’s response to a Taiwan fight could break two ways; it might offer direct support and assistance to the PRC, and perhaps make a diversionary move against the Baltic States or otherwise keep NATO and the US occupied. Or it might make token pro-Beijing statements but stand back and shed crocodile tears while watching the two nations destroy themselves.
Recovering from a Taiwan conflict
After the disruption caused by a fight over Taiwan, it will take some time for Western economies to right themselves – as the China market and Chinese manufacturing disappears and Western and other producers reconfigure supply chains. It’s anybody’s guess, but a conservative estimate would be five to ten years.
One speculates if the US and free-world allies have better prospects for recovery than the PRC. It is worth remembering they were doing fine until the late 1990’s when the PRC economy took off –-juiced by Western investment and technology and open US and Western markets. China’s “rise” was aided and abetted by America’s CEO class that moved businesses to China to chase cheap labor or even sold their companies to make a quick buck.
Free markets and free enterprises are nothing if not adaptable, but it takes time. Once the free nations have collected themselves, the outcome might be a ‘community’ of free nations standing alone from the PRC. So much for borderless ‘globalization’ and Thomas Friedman’s ‘flat world.’ But this would not be the first time civilization has had to dust itself off after fending off a dangerous enemy.
Beyond the military and economic effects of a Taiwan war, there is the psychological damage – regardless of outcome – to Western (and pro-Western) societies that have thought themselves to have ‘moved beyond’ this sort of war. Such things only happened to earlier, less enlightened generations, or else only in ‘less civilized’ countries; not, in this era, to a “first-world democracy” like Taiwan.
Just as the carnage of the First World War stunned European societies and laid the groundwork for another global war 20 years later, a fight arising from Taiwan may similarly shape the future in ways one hardly imagines. The one certain assessment of the future is that it will not be pleasant.
For example, a decade of global economic stagnation as the free-world readjusts might easily cause social unrest – and might allow extremist politicians (with leftists and rightists not being much different) to take hold as Lenin and Hitler did following WWI. The consequences will be unpredictable, and will occur in ‘first world’ countries, too. It has happened before.
How we got here
One reasonably, albeit reluctantly, concludes that a war in the Taiwan Strait might escalate and spread, with harmful effects on societies, commercial activities, economies, and the entire global structure that has existed since 1945.
How did this happen? The West and other nations wasted decades expecting that by accommodating Beijing, the PRC would liberalize and adjust its behavior to the US-led world system. Yet, it was clear at least 20 years ago that this was not going to happen–that China was a military, political, and economic threat. In effect, the US created and funded its principle enemy.
It is as maddening as it was avoidable. And throughout, Taiwan was given the bare minimum of support in hopes the PRC would appreciate the favor. Beijing did not: it smiled smugly, pocketed the concessions, and screamed for more while turning up the heat on Taiwan.
Such is life. But studying what happened is useful. Not least, it shows what works and what doesn’t when dealing with the PRC. Of course, any study of history going back 2,500 years tells one plenty about dealing with powerful, aggressive, covetous nations.
Avoiding a fight over the Taiwan Strait
One option is to adopt the ‘Czechoslovakia solution’ and to give the PRC what it wants. This theoretically would avoid the carnage from a shooting war. The same thing was said in 1938-1939 when the Western powers allowed Hitler to seize Czechoslovakia piece by piece. It is called appeasement: the outcome is well known.
Also, hand over Taiwan to an expansionist, totalitarian Beijing, and Japan’s turn is next. Further, China will be encouraged to assert dominance farther afield once – or even as – Japan is brought to heel. Additionally, without Taiwan the US position in Asia will collapse by virtue of losing Formosa’s strategic location. And nobody anywhere will value US promises of protection – actual or implicit. Instead, they’ll decide to cut the best deal possible with Beijing.
Yet, there are actions to take now that might reduce the prospects of a future fight. Paradoxically, they depend on the demonstrated willingness to defend Taiwan.
First admit that a war in the Taiwan Strait is possible–and even likely–on the current trajectory, even if a PRC assault on Taiwan is irrational from our perspective.
Unfortunately, authoritarian regimes don’t always behave rationally. It’s all about power and keeping it. Playing to historic resentments and lashing outward unifies and distracts from domestic problems. It’s easy to believe a short, sharp war will stun other countries and present them with a fait accompli they will have to live with.
Second, don’t fret so much over provoking Beijing. Beijing makes its own decisions. To help Xi get the calculation right, the strategy should be: No appeasement. Help Taiwan defend itself. Make it clear that the freedoms Taiwan represents are core interests of the US and the free world – and are worth fighting for – just as Beijing declares it has ‘red lines’ and ‘core interests’.
Towards this end: Provide clear-cut political and economic support for democratic Taiwan, beyond the hesitant, token support provided to date. Immediately end 40 years of military isolation and conduct joint training exercises with Taiwan’s military. Treat Taiwan as a friend and ally.
Third, urgently accelerate the overdue effort to refocus the US military to fight a serious opponent like the PLA – and bring in as many allies and partners as possible, even if it’s just political support for Taiwan. And Washington had better think about its response when Beijing makes ‘nuclear’ threats – as it will.
Besides the ‘big stick’, make it clear to Beijing that the “first shot” will be the end of US-PRC relations: it will trigger the end of all trade and the bountiful supply of convertible currency US companies and bankers have been providing China over the last four decades. Beijing can then figure out how to employ and feed it’s 1.4 billion people.
And credibly threaten the wealth of CCP elites. For years, these elites have been frantically moving their wealth (and ideally a family member or two) into the nation (the USA) – and/or its allies – against which war is contemplated.
Is all this enough to dissuade Beijing? Perhaps not. But it is worth a try, given the alternatives.
To get through the next decade (or for as long as Beijing has regional or even global domination as its objective) will be difficult. But with considerable effort, single-mindedness, nerve, and good fortune, we (the US, Taiwan, and partners) just might be able to deter conflict over Taiwan. And if not, we can ensure that we are the side that ‘loses a little less.’
Time will tell. The United States has never faced an enemy like the People’s Republic of China.
Indeed, America has allowed the PRC and the Chinese military to develop into such an adversary, that if the US and its friends ‘win’ a war over Taiwan it will be, as the Duke of Wellington said after Waterloo: ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.’
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Officer. He was the first USMC Liaison Officer to the Japan Self Defense Force and has spent many years in Asia. He is conducting research in Taipei in 2019 as a Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Fellow. His research topic covers improving Taiwan’s defense by helping the Taiwan Armed Forces break out of 40 years of isolation.
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