A U.S. China War over Taiwan ?

A U.S. China War over Taiwan

China insists it will « reunify » with Taiwan. The people of Taiwan say they don’t want that. The US says it would defend Taiwan against attack. As we enter 2023, this three-way tension is approaching the breaking point. The Taiwan dispute has festered since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when the defeated nationalists fled to the island. The victorious Communists have been determined to take it ever since. Now, the threat of war has seemed closer than at any time in decades. In August 2022, China launched its largest military exercises in a generation, seen by many as a rehearsal for a blockade or even invasion. In last december, a team from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a hefty report entitled « The First Battle of the Next War: Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan »[1]. It is jam-packed with insight.

The report details the design and results of an unclassified wargame set in the Taiwan Strait in 2026, toward the end of the much-discussed « Davidson window, »[2] which postulates a Chinese attack on Taiwan by 2027. The game overseers ran twenty-four iterations, changing different variables, political and strategic decisions, alliance politics, strategy and operations, weaponry and sensors available to the combatants, to identify cross-cutting themes, and to compile findings and recommendations applicable across a variety of likely circumstances. The US would prevail in defending Taiwan from China, but at a heavy cost that would leave it ill-prepared for new threats. China will not attempt to invade Taiwan before the end of the decade because it understands the high cost, the senior Pentagon official in charge of Indo-Pacific security said last january. “Deterrence is real; deterrence is strong” today and tomorrow, said Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary for the Indo-Pacific. The United States can likely deter Beijing from attacking the self-governing island 100 miles off the Chinese coast, he said. Speaking at a Hudson Institute event Thursday, Ratner cited the administration’s position that the Peoples Republic of China “is the only country with the capability and intent to overthrow the international order.”

But in the past year, Washington, its allies and partners have built-up capabilities to “ensure that kind of coercion and bullying” – from threats of attack to interfering with transiting aircraft and shipping – doesn’t succeed, he said. Ratner termed what’s happening regionally “as a breakthrough year for alliances and partnerships” in countering China’s military and territorial ambitions. He pointed to Japan’s decision to ramp up defense spending and work on counter-strike weapons, the agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines on establishing four new sites in the island republic for U.S. forces and the progress on the technology sharing agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. He also cited the “new technology dialogue” with India that will lead to more co-development and co-production activities “that make our defense industrial bases more compatible.” Ratner’s comments come after Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl testified before the House Armed Services Committee that he does not think China will attempt to invade Taiwan before 2027. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also does not see an imminent Chinese threat to Taiwan, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said last january during a press briefing.

Because of the threats from China and North Korea, the U.S. is increasing the number of exercises it conducts in the region. The Marine Corps’ Marine Littoral Regiment formation and the Navy’s distributed forces will be key to increasing regional security and cooperation, he said. Ratner also mentioned steps the U.S. Army has taken to update its mission in the Indo-Pacific and the Air Force’s search for dispersed bases for its operations. In an online meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping in November 2021, US President Joe Biden proposed guardrails for the US–China relationship. His proposal reflected deep concerns about the potential for a military confrontation due to a miscalculation or an accident. More than a year has passed since then, so have such guardrails have been established? Is the relationship between the two countries less likely to fall off a cliff than before? The answer, unfortunately, is no. Guardrail-building has largely remained rhetorical and the US–China relationship is now closer to a historic breakdown than it has been before.

Russia’s war against Ukraine further complicated efforts to stabilise the relationship. Despite external and domestic pressure, China opted for neutrality. China did not endorse Russia’s military operations in Ukraine because they violated the UN Charter. And China did not join the West in condemning Russia because it would alienate Russia at a time when the United States is increasingly hostile toward China. Despite the fact other countries, including India, also subscribe to neutrality, the United States sees China’s position as collusion with Russia. US congressional activism on Taiwan has made things even worse. The more than 30 draft bills and resolutions related to Taiwan before the US mid-term election have had one thing in common: to shore up support for the Taiwan authorities amid rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

In 2016, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took office. It challenged China’s sovereignty over Taiwan and abandoned the « 1992 consensus » — an agreement between the Taiwan Authorities and the Chinese Government on Taiwan’s political status in 1992. This led to Beijing increasing its political, economic and military pressure on Taiwan to deter any push for independence. Worried that Taipei might cave to Beijing’s pressure, the US Congress passed legislation and resolutions requiring the US government take stronger actions to reassure Taiwan. Confronted with a ‘tough-is-right’ consensus on China in Congress, the Biden administration chose not to challenge these bills and resolutions despite the fact that they clearly undermine China’s claims of sovereignty over Taiwan. To many in the United States, the war in Ukraine made a Chinese military takeover of Taiwan appear more likely. Some in US Congress, including former speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, chose to visit Taiwan personally. At the time of the visit, in August 2022, Pelosi was the third-highest ranking US politician. China saw Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan as a challenge to its sovereignty and territorial integrity and issued warnings to prevent the trip. Pelosi’s visit sparked strong reactions from Beijing. China’s military undertook exercises in the Taiwan Strait. There was even speculation that China would use this opportunity to take over Taiwan. The visit also highlighted the storm brewing in the Taiwan Strait. The DPP’s goal is Taiwan independence. Because Beijing believes that Taiwan is China’s inalienable territory, it will do whatever it takes to deny Taiwan’s independence. Washington sees Taiwan as a litmus test of its alliance credibility and ideological integrity. The United States believes it has no alternative but to help defend Taiwan.

The three-way interactions in the Taiwan Strait are likely to produce two unpleasant outcomes. One is war in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing’s perceptions about Taipei’s independence-driven provocations and Washington–Taipei collusion have made it increasingly likely that Beijing may take the island by force.

The other outcome is a potential downgrade or even suspension of diplomatic relations between the United States and China. Washington has largely reneged on its commitments related to Taiwan it made in 1979, including not having formal diplomatic relations, abrogating the mutual defence treaty with Taiwan, and not stationing military personnel in Taiwan. To Beijing, these commitments were the political foundation for its diplomatic relationship with Washington. After all, the two countries could not establish diplomatic relations largely because of their disagreements over Taiwan for 20 years after the People’s Republic of China was founded. Despite this context, the Xi–Biden meeting on 14 November 2022 in Bali did offer some hope for potential improvements in relations between China and the United States. Both leaders agreed to resume contact and dialogue on several fronts. Beijing and Washington have since followed up with some pragmatic gestures. But fundamental differences between the two sides remain and US Congress is unwilling to change its hard-line approach toward China. As the world enters 2023, the relationship between the two world’s most consequential powers is likely to remain in choppy waters.

In conclusion, the United States should also avoid symbolic political gestures that needlessly aggravate Beijing, focusing instead on substantive measures that make Taiwan and forward deployed U.S. forces in Asia stronger and more resilient. That means U.S. officials and politicians, including members of the U.S. Congress and those campaigning for office, should refrain from making politically advantageous but strategically damaging statements about Taiwan[3]. Recent calls for clarity in the U.S. defense commitment to Taiwan are unnecessary to enhance the credibility of threat because the PRC leadership already anticipates that the United States would intervene in a cross-Strait conflict, although Beijing does not know how intensively or effectively Washington would do so. An unconditional U.S. defense commitment would, however, likely undercut the essential component of assurance in deterrence by appearing to restore the U.S.-ROC alliance relationship and providing a blank check to future politicians on the island advocating for de jure independence. Similarly, calling for formal recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state as has former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or for the stationing of significant U.S. forces on the island in peacetime, as has former National Security Advisor John Bolton, or for Taiwan to be designated as a “non-NATO ally” as did the original language of the Taiwan Policy Act, may all sound like ways to bolster deterrence of a cross-Strait conflict. But if these policies were adopted, they would undercut assurances to Beijing that are an essential element of deterrence and thereby greatly increase, rather than decrease, the likelihood of conflict across the Taiwan Strait.


[2] Davidson: China Could Try to Take Control of Taiwan In ‘Next Six Years’- USNI News

[3] Chris Murphy, Now China has changed its policy towards Taiwan, America should too, The Economist, Sept. 1, 2022.