In modern conditions, aggression rarely pays, as the real winners are the bystanders
This post ably captures the tension in understanding or predicting future major international events. On the one hand, there is the cool logic of rational decision-making. On the other hand, there's the messy nature of what actually happens in the world, along the lines of Harold MacMillan's "events, dear boy, events" analysis of what would drive his policy.
A rational PRC would see the correlation of forces mostly moving in its direction and, as Noah lays out, bide its time while building its strength. In the real world, the ego of Xi might drive the nation to a possibly impetuous decision to invade. Similarly, unleashed nationalist fervor in Taiwan might lead to a President who decides to throw caution to the winds and declare independence, virtually forcing the PRC to respond militarily.
The sad truth is that nations usually don't go to war after logically analyzing the situation. We invaded Iraq because the nation was seized with fervor after 9/11 and, in the words of Thomas Friedman (and helped by him!) wanted to throw some pissant country against the wall. Hitler's declaration of war against the US was catastrophic for him, but blinded by his early successes and contemptuous of what he thought American society was like, he jumped into the fire and committed national suicide. One could go down the list and find it hard to list wars that *weren't* driven by exogenous or internal circumstances that forced the decision when logic argued the other way.
Don't mean to nitpick this most excellent post, but I do suggest a corrective edit to
"America’s war in Iraq was launched [on] with the explicit plan [not] to win quickly and not stick around"