A shooting war between the strongest states in the international system has not taken place since the end of World War II in 1945. Nuclear weapons have not been used against human beings since the American attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of that year, and a war between two countries armed with nuclear weapons has never been waged, with the arguable exception of the limited skirmishes between India and Pakistan in the Himalayan region of Kargil in 1999. Neither kind of conflict is likely in the near future, but both are possible and unfortunately becoming less unlikely. The potential combatants are the United States and China. The issue over which they would, in the worst case, go to war is the status of the island of Taiwan, which functions as an independent country but which the Communist authorities in Beijing assert is part of China and that they therefore should govern it. That makes the Taiwan Strait, the one hundred miles of water separating the island from the Chinese mainland, the single most dangerous place in the world.
Taiwan’s status as a potential cause of U.S.-China armed conflict stems from two wars fought seven decades ago. In the Chinese Civil War, the losing side, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, fled to the island in 1949, contending that it, not Mao Zedong’s victorious Communist Party, was the legitimate government of the country. The Communists claimed the right to rule the island and were planning to launch an attack to capture it, but in June 1950 the United States went to war on the Korean Peninsula and interposed the American Seventh Fleet between the island and the mainland as part of its military operations in East Asia. This thwarted Mao’s designs on Taiwan. Ultimately, Washington signed a security treaty with Chiang’s government. Mao sent troops to fight against the American forces in Korea, and Beijing and Washington had no official contact for almost two decades.
In 1972, however, a U.S.-China rapprochement took place. The United States established diplomatic relations with Beijing and at the same time terminated them, along with the security treaty, with Taiwan. An American connection with Taiwan persisted, however, through the congressionally mandated Taiwan Relations Act, and the island retained its de facto independence. While Beijing continued to insist on its right to govern the island, cross-Strait relations were remarkably stable for almost half a century.
This stability rested partly on deterrence—the prospect that the United States would support Taiwan militarily in the event of an effort by the mainland to seize it forcibly—but also on China’s post-Mao emphasis on fostering economic growth, which involved expanding economic ties with the rest of the world, especially the United States. An assault on Taiwan would have severely jeopardized those ties. As China opened its economy, the volume of trade and investment between the island and the mainland expanded. Beijing promised Taiwan a future of “one country, two systems,” in which the authoritarian Communist regime had nominal sovereignty over the island but Taiwan kept its distinct political system, which in the 1990s became a fully democratic one. (The Taiwanese government also dropped its claim to govern the mainland.)
The assumption of supreme power in Beijing by Xi Jinping in 2012 has shaken the post-1972 status quo. Under his leadership, the People’s Republic has conducted a far more aggressive foreign policy, claiming the South China Sea as its own territorial waters, expanding its armed forces, and initiating border skirmishes with neighboring India. By cracking down on Hong Kong in violation of the agreements it made when taking control of the former British colony in 1997, it has destroyed any faith the Taiwanese might have had in the promises inherent in the “one country, two systems” policy. The vast majority of the island’s inhabitants have no wish to be governed by Beijing.
China has also increased its economic, political, and military pressure on Taiwan, and Xi has made it clear that he is not prepared to defer Communist rule over the island indefinitely. Fueling the increasing urgency with which he apparently regards Taiwan’s status is the ongoing decline in the Chinese rate of economic growth, on which the Communists have relied for three decades for the domestic political support they have enjoyed. In need of an alternative method of generating popularity at home, Xi seems to have settled on an ever more aggressive nationalism for this purpose, and gaining control of Taiwan epitomizes this strategy. The island also poses a political threat to the authorities in Beijing as a vivid demonstration that Chinese people can establish a vibrant democracy, which is precisely what the Communists seek to prevent on the mainland. Xi surely does not want a war over Taiwan, but a belief that seizing it has become politically and militarily feasible, or domestic political pressure, or both could lead to Chinese initiatives that would start an armed conflict with the United States.
This is so because America could not regard with indifference a Communist effort to subdue Taiwan. While no longer obligated by treaty to defend the island, the United States has a considerable stake in preserving its de facto independence. The annexation of the island would increase Chinese power in the region at American expense, which is an incentive for Beijing to pursue it. More concretely, America’s longstanding if informal relationship with the island means that should the Chinese Communist Party take control of it, all American commitments in East Asia would come into question. The peace of the region continues to depend, at least in part, on the confidence of South Korea, Japan, and other non-communist countries that, in the event of an attack on them, the United States would come to their aid.
Without that belief these countries would, at the very least, actively consider new arrangements to protect themselves, including the acquisition of their own nuclear weapons. The end of Taiwanese independence would certainly make East Asia a less predictable place and probably a far more dangerous one.
Such a development would represent more than a serious geopolitical setback for the United States and its friends and allies. It would be a political tragedy as well, for it would subject a people now governed by democratic norms and institutions to autocratic and probably oppressive communist rule.
The Taiwan question presents the United States with the kind of strategic problem familiar from the Cold War. The 21st-century rivalry between America and the People’s Republic of China differs from the 20th-century conflict with the Soviet Union in that the Chinese are not actively seeking to spread throughout the world political and economic systems radically dissimilar to those of the West, nor is China, as was the Soviet Union, detached from the Western-based international economic order. To the contrary, China plays a major role in the global economy. Still, in confronting China over Taiwan the United States faces a familiar dual challenge: threatening the use of force to protect a friend while avoiding a disastrous shooting war that could turn nuclear with the country that makes such protection necessary.
How can this be accomplished? In a useful, and usefully alarming, report issued last month by the Council on Foreign Relations entitled, America, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy to Prevent War, Robert D. Blackwill and Philip Zelikow, both experienced practitioners of foreign policy, offer some suggestions.
First and foremost, they assert, the American government must take the Chinese threat to Taiwan more seriously than the United States seems currently to be doing and engage in intensive planning to cope with it. They advocate more extensive military cooperation with Taiwan while emphasizing that preserving the island’s independence depends, above all, on greater efforts to that end by the Taiwanese themselves. The authors regard active American cooperation on this issue with other friendly Asian countries, Japan in particular, to be indispensable. They delineate possible responses to three kinds of initiatives Beijing might launch in order to impose its control on the island: a Chinese seizure of small islands near Taiwan; a quarantine of the island by the mainland designed to compel it to submit to Beijing; and a direct assault across the Taiwan Strait. They discuss the appropriate tactics for fighting a war with China, while keeping it limited both geographically and in the weapons employed. They stipulate the need for the United States and its allies to spell out clearly the political and economic losses Beijing would suffer if it sought forcibly to subdue Taiwan.
Blackwill and Zelikow also believe, however, that securing American interests in East Asia requires that the United States and Taiwan continue to observe some restraints in their relations with Beijing. They do not favor a more explicit security guarantee to the island or a Taiwanese declaration of independence. They propose serious consultations with Beijing about Taiwan and other issues, providing that Washington enters them from a position of strength, which necessitates “enhancing [American] military, diplomatic, and economic power projection into the Asia-Pacific; intensifying interaction with allies, partners, and friends; and helping build up their economic and military strength.”
Blackwill and Zelikow are clear, finally, that American policy toward Taiwan and China will have to be flexible, adjusting to changing circumstances. What is needed is sober, effective statecraft. In the Cold War the United States managed to muster enough of it to see the conflict through to a successful conclusion. Nothing less is required now.
Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and author of The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth (2019).
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