Could the US and China go to war over Taiwan? China regards the nation 90km off its coast as a renegade province, and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) raised the issue at the recent 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Although Xi said he prefers reunification by peaceful means, his objective was clear, and he did not rule out the use of force.
Meanwhile, in Taiwan, the share of the population identifying as solely Taiwanese continues to exceed the share that identifies as both Chinese and Taiwanese.
The US has long tried both to dissuade Taiwan from officially declaring independence, and to deter China from using force against the nation. However, Chinese military capabilities have been increasing, and US President Joe Biden has now said on four occasions that the US would defend Taiwan. Each time, the White House has issued “clarifications” stressing that the US’ “one China” policy has not changed.
China counters that recent high-level US visits to Taiwan are hollowing out that policy. China responded to US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Tapei in August by firing missiles near the coast of Taiwan. What would happen if US Representative Kevin McCarthy becomes speaker of the new Republican-controlled House in January and carries out his plan to lead an official delegation to the nation?
When then-US president Richard Nixon went to China to meet Mao Zedong (毛澤東) in 1972, both countries shared an interest in balancing Soviet power, as both saw the USSR as their largest problem. Today, China has an alignment of convenience with Russia, as those countries see the US as their largest problem.
Still, Nixon and Mao could not agree on the Taiwan issue, so they adopted a formula designed to postpone the matter. The US would accept the claim that people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait were Chinese, and it would recognize only “one China” — the People’s Republic of China on the mainland, not the Republic of China on Taiwan.
The two sides bought time for what Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) called the “wisdom of future generations.” It recalls the fable of a medieval prisoner who delays his execution by promising to teach the king’s horse how to speak.
“Who knows?” he said. “The king may die; the horse may die; or the horse may speak.”
For five decades, both China and the US benefited from the time they had bought. After Nixon’s visit, the US’ strategy was to engage China in the hope that increased trade and economic growth would expand its middle class and lead to liberalization.
That goal might now sound overly optimistic, but the US policy was not totally naive. As reinsurance, then-US president Bill Clinton reaffirmed a US security treaty with Japan in 1996, and his successor, George W. Bush, improved relations with India.
Moreover, there were some signs of liberalization in China at the beginning of this century. Xi, however, has tightened CCP control over civil society and regions such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as signaling his ambition to regain Taiwan.
US relations with China are now at their lowest point in more than 50 years. Some blame former US president Donald Trump, but, in historical terms, Trump was more like a boy who poured gasoline on an existing fire. It was Chinese leaders who built the fire with their mercantilist manipulation of the international trading system, theft and coercive transfer of Western intellectual property, along with militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The US’ reaction to these moves has been bipartisan. Not until the end of his second year in office did Biden meet face to face with Xi — at last month’s G20 summit in Bali.
The US’ objective is still to deter China from using force against Taiwan, and to deter Taipei’s leaders from declaring de jure independence. Some analysts refer to this policy as “strategic ambiguity,” but it might also be described as “double deterrence.”
In the months before his assassination, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was urging the US to commit more clearly to defending Taiwan. Other experts, however, fear that such a policy change would provoke a Chinese response, as it would eliminate the ambiguity that allows Chinese leaders to placate nationalist sentiment.
How likely is a conflict? US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday said that China’s growing naval power might tempt it to act soon in the belief that time is not on its side. Others believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failure in Ukraine has made China more cautious, and that the country is likely to wait until after 2030.
Even if China eschews a full-scale invasion and merely tries to coerce Taiwan with a blockade or by taking one of its offshore islands, a ship or aircraft collision could change the situation quickly, especially if there is loss of life. If the US reacts by freezing Chinese assets or invoking the Trading with the Enemy Act, the two countries could slip into a real — rather than a metaphorical — cold war, or even a hot one.
In the absence of the Taiwan issue, the US-China relationship fits the model of what former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd called “managed strategic competition.” Neither country poses a threat to the other in the way that Hitler’s Germany did in the 1930s or Stalin’s Soviet Union did in the 1950s. Neither is out to conquer the other, nor could they, but a failure to manage the Taiwan issue could turn the conflict into an existential one.
The US should continue to discourage formal Taiwanese independence, while helping Taiwan become a difficult-to-swallow “porcupine.” It should also work with allies to strengthen naval deterrence in the region.
However, the US must avoid openly provocative actions and visits that might cause China to accelerate any plans for an invasion. As Nixon and Mao recognized long ago, there is much to be said for strategies and diplomatic arrangements that buy time.
Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard University and a former US assistant secretary of defense.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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