Beijing is irrevocably committed to regaining control of Taiwan, an island about 100 miles off China’s coast. But the US and its allies are committed to the opposite: helping Taiwan maintain its status as an independent county. Something’s got to give.
To put the problem in context, Taiwan was part of China for over 200 years, until it was ceded to Japan in 1895 when China lost the first Sino-Japanese War. Taiwan was returned to China at the end of World War II, but then taken over by the Nationalist Chinese forces after they lost their civil war to the Communist Party in 1949.
As recently as a few weeks ago, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters that: “China’s position on the Taiwan question is consistent and clear. There is but one China in the world, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory.”
Zhao is certainly correct that the Chinese have been both consistent and clear. Nearly 50 years ago, when President Nixon visited China in 1972 to reopen relations between the two countries, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s “principal goal was to persuade [US Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger to agree to ‘recognize the PRC as the sole legitimate government in China’ and ‘Taiwan Province’ as ‘an inalienable part of Chinese territory which must be restored to the motherland.’”
In 2019, on the 40th anniversary of the US establishing diplomatic relations with China, President Xi Jinping gave a speech explaining how the need for re-unification with Taiwan remains critical. Xi also emphasized the need for a peaceful solution, repeating a line from a 1995 speech by former Chinese president Jiang Zemin that “Chinese will not fight Chinese.” But Xi also went on to say that Beijing ultimately “reserves the option to take any necessary measure,” and that the problem “should not be passed down generation after generation.”
Xi described the re-unification of Taiwan as part of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a phrase often used when referring to China’s “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers, and its current rise to true superpower status. As a New York Times article summed up the situation a few weeks ago, “to Beijing, Taiwan continues to be a source of embarrassment, the island where the losers in the country’s civil war fled in 1949 and whose government is propped up by foreign powers.”
In his provocative book Has China Won? (p. 94), former president of the UN Security Council Kishore Mahbubani concluded that “the one issue where the Chinese leaders cannot bend and compromise is Taiwan… [this issue could even] trigger a war.”
The American position is quite a bit muddier. In 1979 Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act which stated in part that the U.S. will consider “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
More recently, in one of his fist major speeches on China, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned that “when China uses coercion or aggression to get its way… We will push back if necessary.”
Both statements are consistent with the US’ longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity.” As a New York Times article recently explained “Under a longstanding — and famously convoluted — policy derived from America’s ‘one China’ stance that supports Taiwan without recognizing it as independent, the United States provides political and military support for Taiwan, but does not explicitly promise to defend it from a Chinese attack.”
So, to sum it up, if China takes aggressive action on Taiwan, the US will consider it a matter of “grave concern” and we will push back “if necessary.” Any questions?
I suspect that nobody knows exactly what the US would do in response to a direct threat to Taiwan, not even in Washington.
When the Senate Armed Services Committee recently reviewed the nomination of Adm. John Aquilino to lead the US military’s Indo-Pacific Command, one Senator asked was why the US should defend Taiwan at all. Aquilino replied that “Washington’s credibility as an ally to places like Japan and the Philippines is at stake if the island were to fall to Beijing.”
In a Bloomberg opinion column ominously titled “A Taiwan Crisis May Mark the End of the American Empire” Niall Ferguson added several other reasons, notably that “Taiwan in recent years has also gained a greater strategic importance as one of the world’s leading producers of semiconductors — the high-tech equivalent of oil in the emerging supercomputing showdown between the United States and China, which faces microchip supply shortages.”
An article in Asia Times about the microchip shortage noted cynically that the US used to be a leader in “all forms of high tech, especially semiconductor chips, [but] now spends its time redesigning chocolate chips.” Meanwhile, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) has become “pretty much the only place to get processor chips fabricated, unless you’re Intel.”
Often missing from discussions of this diplomatic stalemate is a discussion of what the 24 million people who live on Taiwan want. This is unfortunate since “it is the people of Taiwan who will suffer if American actions provoke military responses from China.” (Has China Won, p. 98)
One way to answer this question is to look at the results of Taiwan’s most recent presidential election. “Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen won a landslide election last year on a promise of defending the island’s democracy and standing up to China.” The Unionist Party, which favors re-unification with the mainland, got just 0.23 percent of the vote.
The implication is obvious, according to Taiwan News: “the majority of Taiwanese do not believe Communist China can peacefully coexist with a free society, and voters rejected China’s ‘one country, two systems’ framework by casting a vote for the presidential candidate who opposes it.”
A few weeks ago, Taiwan’s foreign minister said that if China attacks “We will fight a war if we need to fight a war, and if we need to defend ourselves to the very last day, then we will defend ourselves to the very last day.”
What are the chances of winning? One way of estimating this, and of refining military strategy, is to look at the results of simulated war games conducted by military officers. According to David Ochmanek, a former senior Defense Department official who helps run war games for the Pentagon “the results are sobering and the United States often loses.” In an article in Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria was more specific “The Pentagon has reportedly enacted 18 war games against China over Taiwan, and China has prevailed in every one.” Hmm.
And therein lies the conundrum: What should the US do? And when?
If Hu Jintao (President 2003-2013) or Jiang Zemin (President 1993-2003) or any of China’s other recent leaders were in power, I believe that they would try to bring Taiwan under control the same way that they gained control over Hong Kong, patiently and without major violence. As Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War in the 5th century BC, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” The result has been, in the words of the Washington Post “Hong Kong’s fall from a relatively free, boisterous territory to an Orwellian place that resembles the repressive mainland.”
But current president Xi Jinping may be on a faster, more aggressive path with Taiwan.
Interestingly, Niall Ferguson has reported that, “I was told by one of Xi’s economic advisers that bringing Taiwan back under the mainland’s control was his president’s most cherished objective— and the reason [Xi] had secured an end to the rule that had confined previous Chinese presidents to two terms.”
Since January, China has significantly increased flights of military aircraft violating Taiwan’s airspace, in “attempts to intimidate” the Taiwanese government. Two weeks ago, China “conducted simultaneous military exercises to the west and east of Taiwan… [which] showed that the People’s Liberation Army is capable of surrounding the island of Taiwan, isolating its troops and leaving them nowhere to run and no chance to win.”
The clock is ticking. When Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, was asked by the Senate Armed Services Committee about timing he replied that “The threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.”
Similarly, a New York Times article two weeks ago entitled The New Taiwan Tensions quoted Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic “that a Chinese invasion ‘could happen at any moment.’”
The article’s conclusion was a bit more optimistic: “a military conflict still seems unlikely. Then again, military conflicts often seem unlikely until the moment they begin.”