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The growing peril of war with China over Taiwan

Paradoxically, the louder the U.S. becomes in defense of Taipei, the more China is apt to invade it.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

This article has been adapted from a lecture delivered to the Committee for the Republic.

Taiwan is an established American foreign policy success story that appears to be nearing the end of its shelf life. Management of the Taiwan question has long been the key to peace or war – possibly nuclear war – between the United States and China. Now, the door may be closing to peace. 

The essence of the Taiwan question is what political relationship should and can the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have with each other? This question is a legacy of the Chinese civil war, the Cold War, the strategically dictated rapprochement between Washington and Beijing, the U.S. habit of substituting military deterrence for diplomacy, and the American attraction to strategy-free, values-based foreign policy. Given the stakes for Americans, the question of how best to balance relations with Taiwan and the China mainland demands informed judgments and adroit statecraft. 

But the issue’s history is widely forgotten or misunderstood, and the dilemmas it presents get almost no attention. Americans seem to have achieved herd immunity to both situational awareness and strategic reasoning. The United States risks sleepwalking into a war with China it does not want and cannot now win. Such a war would likely end U.S. primacy in East Asia. It certainly would poison prospects for great power cooperation on planetwide problems.

Taiwan is an island a bit larger than Maryland but with four times the inhabitants. When it was seized by Japan in 1895, it was a province of Qing China. Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China recovered it from Japan in 1945. When Chiang lost the civil war in the rest of the country in 1949, he fled to Taiwan and moved the capital of his Chinese government from Nanjing to Taipei. 

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the United States intervened militarily to prevent either Chiang or his communist rivals on the mainland from attacking each other across the Taiwan Strait. The idea was to confine conflict to the Korean Peninsula. Our intervention frustrated an imminent communist invasion of the island but did not end the Chinese civil war, which sputtered on both militarily and politically. Beijing still views Taiwan through the lens of this unended civil war.

For two decades, the United States backed Chiang Kai-shek, championed regime change on the mainland, and insisted that Taipei, not Beijing, was both the legal capital of China and entitled to represent China internationally. That this misrepresentation of reality survived as long as it did is testimony both to U.S. prestige in the Cold War and to the skill of America’s diplomats. In 1971, the world rebelled against its absurdity, overcoming American opposition to seat Beijing in place of Taipei as China’s representative in the UN Security Council and other international organizations. In 1972, President Nixon sought to recruit Beijing as America’s partner in the containment of the Soviet Union.

In 1979, in furtherance of this objective, the United States followed its allies in transferring diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. To make this switch, we met Beijing’s terms that we withdraw American forces and installations from Taiwan and terminate our defense treaty with the island. But, with the mainland’s reluctant acquiescence, we retained all our other relationships with Taiwan on a low-profile, “unofficial” basis. Beijing simultaneously set aside its loudly proclaimed determination to “liberate” Taiwan by force and began a sustained effort to end the division of China by peaceful means.

The long-term results of this subtle set of Sino-American diplomatic bargains were truly remarkable, although, as always, success bred new problems. Beijing’s alignment with Washington helped to bring down the Soviet empire and system. China opened itself to America and the world. After a while, it became the greatest engine of growth in the global economy. Concerns about China’s poverty and weakness were succeeded by worries about it outcompeting us at our own capitalist game. Meanwhile, the relaxation of Sino-American tensions enabled Taiwan to evolve politically and economically, becoming the freest and most prosperous Chinese society in China’s long history and the only democracy ever to take root on Chinese soil. 

This singular success was built on a collection of diplomatic fictions. The lawyers in this audience will be familiar with the concept of a “legal fiction.” This is a means of preventing controversies or resolving them by stipulating that something known to be factually incorrect is for at least some purposes unassailably true. An example is the adoption of a child. The law overcomes biology by making the persons adopting the child its parents for legal purposes while declaring its birth mother and father to be unrelated strangers. Just so, diplomatic fictions can set aside problems by establishing something that is not factual as an unchallengeable stipulation or “truth.” This sort of finesse is not limited to the courts or diplomacy. It is also useful in charged social interactions. 

Thus, when Teddy White, the Time correspondent in wartime Chongqing, finally got the invitation to lunch he had been seeking from Zhou Enlai, he found that Zhou had prepared a banquet featuring a suckling pig. As an Orthodox Jew, he felt he had to tell his host that his religion would not permit him to eat pork. Zhou famously responded by saying, “this is not a pig. It is a duck. You can eat duck, can’t you?” Once it was established that there was no piglet on the table, White was able both to acknowledge his host’s hospitality and enjoy the repast without undue remorse. 

But I digress.

America’s Cold War support for Chiang Kai-shek as the legitimate ruler of all of China, including outer Mongolia, was a diplomatic fiction of great utility to the United States when we sought to isolate its actual rulers, the communist victors in its civil war, and to buttress Chiang’s control of his Taiwan bastion against them. But patriots on the mainland saw U.S. policy as a humiliating extension of past foreign frustration of the Chinese people’s aspirations for national unity. From their point of view, part of China had been forcibly carved off by the U.S. 7th Fleet, incorporated into an American sphere of influence, and garrisoned by U.S. troops. Even worse, in the 1950s, American officials, like John Foster Dulles, openly toyed with the idea of permanently separating Taiwan from the mainland. Chiang Kai-shek blocked this and sent a letter to Zhou Enlai taking credit for doing so. 

Eventually, the diplomatic fiction that Taipei was the capital of China succumbed to the implacable realism of the international community. We needed a new framework to prevent the re-ignition of the Chinese civil war. China was de facto divided between Taipei and Beijing, but both were adamant that there was, should, and could be only one China, of which Taiwan was a part. In the early 1970s, this consensus was translated by American statecraft into a stipulation that there was only “one China.” When he visited Beijing in 1972, President Nixon solemnly declared in writing that the United States did “not challenge” the cross-Strait consensus on this. 

Beijing accepted Nixon’s declaration as a renunciation of any ongoing American intent to divide China by creating "’one China, one Taiwan,’ ‘one China, two governments,’ ‘two Chinas,’ an ‘independent Taiwan’ or [by advocating] that ‘the status of Taiwan remains to be determined.’” Almost seven years later, in late 1978, a reiterated U.S. commitment to “one China” – this time accompanied by recognition that China’s capital was in Beijing rather than Taipei – facilitated Chinese agreement to both US-China normalization and the continuation of American substantive relationships with Taiwan on an unofficial basis. 

The perceived American retreat from attempting to partition China made it possible for the Chinese Communist Party to turn its attention from opposing American interference in China’s internal affairs to exploring how it might negotiate an accommodation with its civil war opponent, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (or Chinese Nationalist Party). The “one China” stipulation of a single “Chinese” sovereignty on both sides of the Strait took the urgency out of the Taiwan issue. It enabled Beijing to act as though a reunified China was inevitable and Taipei to pretend that it either agreed with that or might eventually be persuaded to do so. As anticipated, Beijing deferred action while Taipei played for time. 

The fact that the United States officially ruled out actions to “split China” lessened Beijing’s apprehensions that it might have to go to war to prevent such a split. This, in turn, reduced the need for U.S. deterrence of a mainland attack on Taiwan. Despite a blip or two, tensions in the Taiwan Strait subsided. The diplomatic fiction of “one China” eventually enabled the two sides to avoid arguments about sovereignty while they facilitated cross-Strait trade, travel, and other connectivity. 

In 2005, building on the precedent of talks before Chiang’s flight to Taiwan, the chairmen of both the Communist and Nationalist Parties met in Beijing. They agreed on both the “one China” principle and a remarkable range of practical connections between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. By 2009, where Communist and Nationalist fighters had been engaged in aerial dogfights 50 years before, the airlines of the two sides were conducting 370 scheduled flights a week between cities in Taiwan and the China mainland. In 2015, Taiwan’s then president, Ma Ying-jeou, met in Singapore with his mainland counterpart, Xi Jinping. Sadly, that meeting appears to have marked peak détente between the two sides

Over the nearly 50 years since the Nixon administration first embraced the notion of “one-China,” it served as the essential underpinning of Sino-American peace and the absence of armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait. But it was constantly chipped away at by opponents of Sino-American normalization, advocates of Taiwanese self-determination, American single-issue activists, bureaucratic advocates of less contrived and untidy arrangements, anti-communists, and – more recently – advocates of great power rivalry and confrontation with China. There is little left of the original construct. It’s hard to see how this foundational subterfuge can now sustain the many useful bargains built on it. 

There are at least three reasons for the withering of the crucial “one-China” stipulation. Each is understandable but rests on increasingly dubious presuppositions.

First, most Taiwanese have now decided they do not want to associate themselves politically with the communist regime across the Strait and would prefer either sustained autonomy or outright independence. The mainland has presented them with no vision of a joint future they might find attractive. Whatever appeal association with the rest of China might once have had has progressively evaporated as the mainland has become an ever-more abusive police state. Like the protesters in Hong Kong, partisans of independence in Taiwan imagine that foreign sympathy and alignment with their cause will guarantee intervention to help them realize it, despite passionate opposition from the mainland. This is quite a gamble, to say the least.

Second, most Americans find aspirations for self-determination compelling and are unaware or dismissive of the risks entailed in an attempt by Taiwan to achieve it. As our own war for independence shows, peoples seldom achieve separation from a larger polity without having to fight for it. And very often their attempts fail. Ask American Southerners, the Basques, the Chechens, Biafra’s Igbos, the Kurds, the Palestinians, or the Tibetans about this.

The desire of Taiwan’s inhabitants for self-determination should be and is no surprise. In 1895, China nonchalantly turned them over to the Japanese Empire. For 50 years, the Japanese both abused and partially assimilated them. When Chiang Kai-shek and his two-million-man entourage of draftees and carpetbaggers took refuge in Taiwan, they severely oppressed its residents, while subjecting them to a process of re-Sinification that was not significantly gentler than what the Uyghurs in Xinjiang are currently experiencing. Taiwan’s indigenous Chinese were enlisted as frontline participants in America’s containment of China and the Soviet Union before being diplomatically disavowed by the United States. 

The people of Taiwan built the rule of law and the democracy they now enjoy pretty much on their own, though with quiet, unacknowledged American support. They know what control by outsiders feels like and they have no desire to feel it again. On the other hand, they have had many decades to pursue a strategy toward the mainland that might preserve their autonomy without American military backing. They have not done so. Instead of facing the ineluctable realities of their dilemma, they have counted on a Hollywood-style rescue from it by the naval equivalent of the U.S. Cavalry.

Taiwan separatists know they can neither persuade the mainland to grant them independence nor win a war of secession with it. So, they have convinced themselves that the United States can be relied upon to intervene to defend their defiance of “One China” or help them formalize its de facto partition. This belief enables them both to keep defense spending low and to shift the risks of provoking a bloody rendezvous with Chinese nationalism onto the United States. But China is a great power, and, in Taiwan, Beijing would be fighting in what the world – including Washington – has formally acknowledged is Chinese territory, not a third country like Korea or Vietnam. Americans might well think twice about going to war with a nuclear-armed China to detach territory from it.

Third, the mainland’s ability to coerce Taiwan was long limited by its own military incapacities, a convincing American deterrent capability, and Taiwan’s readiness to mount effective resistance to invasion and occupation. But, beginning in 1995, escalating assertions of an identity separate from China by Taiwan’s leaders and sympathetic endorsement of such aspirations by American politicians kicked off a major program of modernization by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aimed at being able to conquer the island over American military opposition.

The PLA, according to some U.S. military and intelligence experts, could now destroy Taiwan at will and take it in as little as three days. Retaking the island – if that were possible – would take many tens of thousands of U.S. casualties. It would also require air and missile strikes on the Chinese homeland that would justify counterstrikes on ours. If U.S. recovery of Taiwan were successful, the mainland would just bide its time, rebuild its strength, and try again. As was true of Hanoi, Beijing is a determinedly nationalist opponent that enjoys the balance of fervor in its struggle to end the American-backed division of its country.

To normalize relations with Beijing, successive U.S. presidents gave specific commitments in three carefully negotiated joint communiqués. These documents – issued in 1972, 1979, and 1982 – are the foundation of Sino-American relations. In them, the U.S. government promised that it would no longer maintain official relations with Taipei, that it would have no troops and military installations on the island, and that it would sell only carefully selected defensive weapons to Taiwan on a restrained basis. In the third communiqué, the United States agreed to limit the quality and reduce the quantity of its arms sales to Taiwan.

Over the succeeding decades, Washington has progressively eroded or set aside every one of these strictures. Members of the U.S. Cabinet now meet with Taiwan officials and travel to Taiwan. There they are supported by a newly constructed $250 million quasi-embassy guarded by U.S. marines. The United States has returned to Cold War-style championing of Taipei’s diplomatic relations with third countries, punishing those that switch relations to Beijing. There are reports that there are once again American military personnel in Taiwan teaching its armed forces how to conduct operations against the mainland. Taiwan has reemerged as a major purchaser of U.S. weaponry. On November 12, 2020 (nine days after the U.S. presidential election made his boss a lame duck), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo completed the trashing of the “one-China” stipulation by declaring (inaccurately) that “Taiwan has not been part of China.” 

In 1979, as the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) noted, the United States “terminated governmental relations with the governing authorities on Taiwan.” The TRA was enacted to enable Americans to sustain our ties with the people of Taiwan without “governmental relations.” But it is hard to argue that, in most respects, such relations have not now been restored. 

U.S. policy, enshrined in the TRA, has been to assure that “the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.” But by deviating from the understandings that have been central to that objective, the United States has helped to ensure that virtually no one on the China mainland believes a purely peaceful resolution is still feasible. 

The TRA declares that the United States should provide “Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.” But there is now no such filter applied to arms sales to the island. 

The TRA, which is a domestic law, not a treaty, calls on the United States to maintain the capacity to deter “the resort to force or other forms of coercion” to “jeopardize the security … of the people on Taiwan.” But the United States no longer has the sure-fire ability to defend Taiwan against a use of force by the mainland and the military balance in the area is increasingly disadvantageous. The credibility of U.S. military deterrence has declined even as Washington has withdrawn the reassurances that once persuaded Beijing that it would not need to use force. China, Taiwan, and the United States are locked in a dance of reciprocal displays of military capability and will. The logic of the situation implies willingness to escalate from shows of force to skirmishes and thence to battle. It’s been a long time since the danger of war over Taiwan has been as great as it is now.

The irony is that the arrangements Washington and Beijing put in place in 1979 to preserve the peace, including the unilateral U.S. enactment of the TRA, worked far better than even their authors hoped they might. After the switch in diplomatic relations, tensions with the mainland diminished and Taiwan’s security improved. The island was able to do away with martial law and to democratize. Taiwan became one of the most prosperous societies on the planet. Its per capita GDP is lower than ours but its median wealth of $70,191 is now greater than our $65,904. The “one-China” framework that produced these admirable results wasn’t “broke,” but successive administrations in Taipei and Washington nonetheless “fixed” it. It is now out of order.

By progressively going back on its word, Washington has established a reputation in China for faithlessness that precludes anyone there trusting further American commitments. Pro forma protests that the United States stands by the “three joint communiqués” fool no one but amnesiac Americans. The resulting distrust precludes new Sino-American understandings about how to manage differences over Taiwan. But without such understandings, the escalating contradictions between Chinese nationalism and Taiwanese identity politics are taking us toward conflict

All three parties – Beijing, Taipei, and Washington – are nearing the point at which we can no longer avoid very unwelcome choices. 

Beijing now sees no credible prospect that the issue of Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland can be resolved by peaceful means without at least some element of military coercion. The military balance in the Taiwan Strait increasingly favors the PLA and deters U.S. intervention. Even so, the Chinese leadership faces a hard choice between using force and abandoning the century-old dream of a united China free of foreign spheres of influence. In making its decision, Beijing must weigh the risks of a costly war with the United States that could draw in Japan and escalate to the nuclear level against the domestic political consequences of accepting humiliation on the core issue of Chinese nationalism.

As long as the people of Taiwan continue to believe that they have a blank check from the United States that they can fill out in American blood, they will free feel to temporize. Removing ambiguity from the U.S. commitment would just encourage them to push the envelope even more than they already have. Meanwhile, whatever they do, the military balance in the area will continue to shift against them. So, Taipei must decide whether to seek a negotiated accommodation with the Chinese across the Strait or risk a war with them that – even with American backing – would destroy the island’s democracy and prosperity without gaining independence for it.

By opting for exclusive reliance on military deterrence, unaccompanied by diplomacy to encourage cross-Strait détente, rapprochement, and accommodation, the United States has delegated the choice between peace and war to Beijing and Taipei. It has never been clear whether Washington has been bluffing or serious about going to war with China over Taiwan. Confronted with a choice between a potentially ruinous face-off with China and standing aside as a democratic antagonist of our now officially designated Chinese adversary goes down, what would the United States do? 

To declare that we would go to war would encourage risk-taking by Taipei. To say that we would not go to war would encourage adventurism by Beijing. So, there is no advantage to dispelling the current ambiguity. But surely, we must base our management of the Taiwan issue on a considered judgment about what we are and are not prepared to do to reduce the danger of war over it, even if we keep that judgment to ourselves.

A shifting balance of power, stiff-necked nationalism in Beijing, delusions of immunity from harm in Taipei, and a strange mixture of bravado and inattention in Washington provide all the ingredients for a tragedy. I see no easy answers for any of the participants to halt their march toward catastrophe.

US President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai toast, February 25, 1972.
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