Dangerous Brinkmanship Over Taiwan

How to avoid US-Chinese military conflict in the Western Pacific.

In recent weeks, the airwaves have been full of inflammatory rhetoric over Taiwan, increasing the risk that tensions over the island’s status could provide the spark for a military conflict, even a catastrophic war, between the United States and China. On October 10, President Xi Jinping of China called on the Taiwanese to merge with the mainland in a peaceful fashion, but warned of unspecified dangers if they chose otherwise. “Those who forget their ancestors, betray the motherland, or split the country are doomed,” he said of Taiwanese “separatists.” A day later, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan avowed that her country must “resist annexation or encroachment upon our sovereignty,” and would negotiate with Beijing only “on the basis of parity”—a stance wholly unacceptable to the Chinese leadership. On this side of the Pacific, politicians from both parties were quick to condemn Xi’s foreboding threats and to offer support for Tsai’s uncompromising posture. Many Republicans demanded an ironclad US commitment to defend Taiwan in the event it was attacked by China, and President Biden, when asked by Anderson Cooper of CNN whether the United States would defend Taiwan under those circumstances, said, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”

Biden’s handlers at the White House were quick to walk back his statement, noting that under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1980—the governing legislation in this field—the United States would consider any attempt to alter the island’s status by military force a matter “of grave concern,” but not one that would automatically trigger US military intervention. White House officials have insisted that US policy has “not changed” in this regard—saying that, while Washington is prepared to aid Taiwan through arms transfers and other such measures, it has no legal obligation to defend the island. For many in Congress, however, this is insufficient: Members of both parties are championing the “Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act,” under which the president would be pre-delegated the authority to employ force against China if it attacked the island, without requiring further approval from Congress.

This talk of formalizing a US defense commitment to Taiwan is generating increasingly hostile and threatening comments from Chinese officials, who consistently describe Taiwan as a renegade province and warn against any foreign involvement in resolving its status. “The Taiwan issue is entirely China’s internal affair, and no external interference can be condoned,” Xi stated in his October 11 address. Taiwan is part of China, he insisted, and “no one should underestimate the Chinese people’s determination, and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he added. Global Times, widely considered a mouthpiece for ultra-nationalistic forces within the Chinese leadership, was more specific, saying that China’s military “has an overwhelming advantage over the military on Taiwan island, with full capacity to cause unbearable results to US troops if they dare ‘defend’ the island, and even to wipe them out.”

It is safe to predict that this war of words will continue in the weeks and months ahead, and will only grow more heated as we approach the 2022 elections—in which the Republicans have pledged to use the Taiwan issue as a cudgel to attack Biden and make him look weak and indecisive. Top Chinese officials are also likely to keep the issue alive as they struggle to cope with a slowing economy, widespread energy shortages, and growing public concern over the governing capacity of the Chinese Communist Party. And, in Taiwan, Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) seeks to gain further public support through its tough stance on autonomy. All this means that talk of a possible Chinese invasion, and the need for a credible US military response, will remain a major source of news bulletins.

This battle of words has significant implications because the entire fabric of US-China relations rests on a certain understanding of Taiwan’s political status. Under the existing “One China” policy, adopted by US leaders when recognizing the People’s Republic of China in 1979, the United States acknowledges that Taiwan and the mainland are both part of China, with the relationship between those two segments to be settled between them in a peaceful fashion. This somewhat nebulous framework has allowed the US and China to establish mutually beneficial trade relations over the years and to avoid a war over Taiwan. But many in Taiwan and the US now want to abandon the One China concept in favor of outright support for an independent Taiwan—a position that can never be accepted by Beijing. The more US politicians seek to actualize such a posture by guarantying Taiwan military backing if it moves toward independence, the greater the likelihood China will feel compelled to preempt such a move through full-scale invasion, whatever the risks.

It’s Not Just Words That Are Being Hurled About

It would be troubling enough if we just had words to worry about. But these brawls at the diplomatic level are being accompanied by military moves that make the onset of conflict over Taiwan that much more likely.

Consider this: Between October 1 and 4, China’s air force repeatedly sent waves of its combat planes into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone (ADIZ), its outer defense perimeter. All told, some 150 aircraft participated in these actions, including advanced J-16 stealth fighters and nuclear-capable H-6 bombers. The unprecedented Chinese air incursions raised tensions in the region and sparked angry denunciations from US officials. The Biden administration was “very concerned” by China’s “provocative military activity near Taiwan,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on October 2, adding that “[it is] destabilizing, risks miscalculations, and undermines regional peace and stability.” The talk was even more ferocious on Capitol Hill, where many lawmakers called for immediate action to bolster Taiwan’s defenses.

What none of these irate officials mentioned is that the US Navy was conducting its own military maneuvers at that time, and in the same general area. Participating in that exercise, held over the October 2–3 weekend in waters southeast of Okinawa, were three aircraft carriers (two American and one British) with a combined air complement of 200 warplanes—far more than the number deployed by China in neighboring airspace during that same time period. Also unmentioned in Washington is the fact that the United States regularly sends its combat ships through the Taiwan Strait—a body of water claimed by Beijing as lying within its territorial waters—with the most recent such missions occurring on September 17 and October 14. Even more absent from official conversations and media reports is the fact that on October 2, at the height of the Chinese air incursions, a US nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Connecticut, was disabled after striking an underwater object in the South China Sea, another heavily contested area in the region. The Connecticut, it turns out, had been on secret operations in the Western Pacific since May 27, when it left its base in Washington state.

These events represent just the most recent expressions of a growing tendency by both sides to employ their military forces in “show of force” operations in the South China Sea and areas near Taiwan, both to exhibit their own combat capabilities and to warn against aggressive moves by the other side. According to a tally maintained (with my assistance) by the Committee for a Sane US-China Policy, there have been 50 such maneuvers in the Qestern Pacific since January 1 of this year—30 initiated by the United States and 20 by the PRC. These range from the deployment of a single US warship on a so-called “freedom of navigation operation” (FRONOP) patrol through the Taiwan Strait to the deployment of large air and naval squadrons, including multiple combat planes and one or more aircraft carriers.

These activities may have a primarily political intent—to demonstrate the capacity and will to carry out the respective party’s major objectives—but they possess an inherent risk of unintended or accidental escalation with potentially devastating consequences. It is not uncommon for Chinese ships and planes to shadow their American counterparts during these maneuvers and, on occasion, to interfere with them in a dangerous fashion. In October 2018, for example, a Chinese destroyer, the Lanzhou, nearly collided with the USS Decatur as it was conducting a FRONOP near the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. Similarly, the PLA Navy has claimed that another US destroyer, the USS Mustin, came dangerously close to its vessels while they were conducting maneuvers near Taiwan in April of this year.

None of these encounters have, as yet, triggered a shooting incident, but it is not too hard to imagine how such a disaster could arise. When Chinese planes enter Taiwan’s ADIZ, the Taiwanese normally scramble their own jet fighters, which have relatively little airspace to maneuver in while driving off the interlopers; one miscalculation by pilots on either side could lead to a midair collision or the use of onboard munitions, resulting in combat deaths and a cascade of violent encounters between the contending aircraft. Likewise, a future collision or near-collision between a US and Chinese warship could easily provoke one or both of the vessels to open fire on the other, producing human casualties and triggering the same sort of escalatory spiral. Unless halted by senior officials at a very early stage—no easy matter—clashes of this sort could quickly evolve into a major regional conflagration.

And while most of the dangerous air and sea encounters we’ve witnessed so far have involved nonnuclear forces, both the United States and China have employed their nuclear forces in a provocative fashion, suggesting an inherent capacity for catastrophic escalation. On several occasions, China has included its dual-capable (that is, equipped to carry both nuclear and conventional munitions) H-6 bombers into Taiwan’s ADIZ, while the US Air Force has repeatedly flown dual-capable B-1 and B-52 bombers on simulated strike missions over waters claimed by China. Even though it is unlikely that these aircraft actually carry nuclear weapons on such occasions, the other parties involved can never be absolutely certain of this and so must prepare for that possibility by putting its own nuclear forces on high alert—a danger that is bound to increase as regional tensions grow.

Avoiding Armageddon

At one time in history, Berlin constituted the focal point of thermonuclear perils, with both the United States and the Soviet Union prepared to employ nuclear munitions in defending their nonnuclear forces in and around that heavily guarded city. Today, Taiwan is coming to play that role, with Washington and Beijing adopting uncompromising positions on the island’s status and preparing to buttress their claims with ostentatious displays of conventional and nuclear firepower. As a result, we could soon face a severe nuclear crisis for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

To avert such a crisis and reduce the danger of war, policy-makers in all three capitals—Washington, Beijing, and Taipei—must take steps to stabilize cross-Strait relations and eliminate potential flash points. This is a complex agenda and involves many components, but, at the very least, it must include efforts to minimize the risk of unintended escalation through the adoption of mutual limits on the scale of military maneuvers in contested areas and rules governing the allowable distance between ships and planes of the contending sides. To further reduce the risk of miscalculation, the use of dual-capable aircraft, such as B-1, B-52, and H-6 bombers, should be prohibited in such exercises.

Ultimately, the resolution of the Taiwan issue will have to be determined by the Taiwanese people themselves, in consultation with their counterparts on the mainland. From a peacemaking perspective, the ideal solution would be one in which Taiwan acknowledges some sort of association with the mainland while retaining its existing political system, and China pledges to honor the arrangement and eschew the use of force to alter it. This will require arduous negotiations between Taiwanese and Chinese officials, but it should be possible to hammer out a “win-win” outcome in which both sides achieve their basic objectives. Once this has occurred, the United States could scale back its military presence in the Western Pacific and refrain from aggressive military maneuvers there.

In the hope that such an outcome can someday be achieved, progressive activists should call on the president and their representatives in Congress to oppose any change in the One China policy governing Taiwan and foreswear any guaranties of automatic US military intervention in the event that Taiwanese leaders take impetuous moves that could risk a Chinese military response.

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