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Are the US and China destined for war over Taiwan?

When the powers faced off in the 1990s, American military might forced Beijing to back down. Now they are more evenly matched.

By Katie Stallard

As the US House speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, on 2 August, for a 19-hour visit with a congressional delegation, cyber-attacks took down several government websites and railway station display boards. In 7-Eleven stores across the island, messages flashed on television screens saying: “Warmonger Pelosi, get out of Taiwan!” China suspended imports of hundreds of Taiwanese products and sanctioned Pelosi, but the most serious actions started once the speaker had left.

From 4 to 7 August the Chinese military carried out an unprecedented series of live-fire exercises in the waters encircling Taiwan. The Chinese state news agency Xinhua released a map and coordinates for the drills to illustrate the extent to which they had surrounded the island, openly rehearsing a blockade that would cut off Taiwan from outside help. For the first time, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fired ballistic missiles over Taipei, according to Japan’s ministry of defence, which said five missiles had landed in waters that are part of Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Chinese fighter jets and warships repeatedly crossed the midway point of the Taiwan Strait, known as the median line – which Beijing does not officially recognise but had for the most part previously respected. Chinese aircraft had crossed the median line 23 times in the two years preceding Pelosi’s visit. In the week that followed it, they did so more than 100 times, and have continued to fly across the line in the days since. Beijing also cancelled talks with the US on issues ranging from military communication to climate change.

[See also: Uyghur detention camps: a special report on a culture under attack]

The last major crisis in the region, the third Taiwan Strait crisis, took place in 1995-96 after Taiwan’s then president, Lee Teng-hui, visited the US. It was the first time a Taiwanese leader had done so, albeit in a private capacity, since Washington had cut formal ties with Taipei in 1979 and established diplomatic relations with Beijing instead. Then, as now, the Chinese government was furious, warning the US that it was “playing with fire” over Taiwan, just as Xi Jinping warned Joe Biden the week before Pelosi’s visit. Then, as now, the Chinese military fired missiles close to the self-governing island, which Beijing claims as its own.

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In the mid-1990s, however, the PLA was relatively weak, and China was forced to back down after the US sent two aircraft carriers to nearby waters. But that humiliation helped spur two decades of military modernisation. China now has three aircraft carriers of its own (two of which left port as Pelosi headed to Taipei), along with an arsenal of specially developed “carrier killer” missiles. This time they have no intention of backing down.

“We are in the Fourth Taiwan Strait crisis,” Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Asia programme at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told me on the New Statesman’s World Review podcast following Pelosi’s visit. “The only reason the US hasn’t sent their aircraft carriers closer to Taiwan is because today the Chinese can use their missiles and aircraft to put those carriers at risk. In 1996 they did not have that capability, so we could fly and sail anywhere with impunity.”

Pelosi’s visit may have been the spark that ignited the present crisis, but tensions in the US-China relationship have been building for years. Beijing accuses Washington of shifting its position on Taiwan and reneging on its past commitments, while the US accuses China of increasing pressure on the island and trying to change the status quo.

“The message the Chinese are sending is that they believe their red lines are quite close to being crossed by the US and Taiwan,” Glaser said. “They see the US as ‘salami slicing’ its ‘one China’ policy and they believe the US may be on a slippery slope towards recognising Taiwan.” Beijing has made clear that any move by Taiwan to declare de jure independence would trigger an immediate military assault, and the island’s future remains the most obvious issue that could plunge the US and China into conflict. As one Chinese scholar warned recently, “Mainland China has repeatedly stated that ‘Taiwan independence’ means war.”

[See also: Is China preparing to invade Taiwan?]

When Chiang Kai-shek and his defeated Kuomintang forces fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party declared victory and founded the People’s of Republic of China (PRC). For the next three decades, however, the US continued to recognise the Republic of China (ROC) government as the legitimate representative of China. (The ROC held a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council until 1971.) While in January 1950 the then US president, Harry Truman, had declared that American troops would not defend Taiwan against an invasion by the PRC, he changed his mind after the Korean War began five months later.

Fearing a “domino effect” in which communism would advance around the world, Truman deployed the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet to deter an attack on Taiwan and US troops to help roll back the North Korean attack. After the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953, and following the beginning of the First Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1954 (when the PLA shelled two outlying islands), the US signed a mutual defence treaty with Taiwan that held from 1954 until 1979, with thousands of American troops stationed on the island.

But the US position began to shift in 1972 when President Richard Nixon travelled to Beijing to meet Mao in what he called the “week that changed the world”. Both leaders sought to cultivate better relations with the other to protect against what each viewed as the more dangerous threat: the Soviet Union. The status of Taiwan, however, threatened to derail the entire process.

By the end of Nixon’s visit the two had agreed a position that allowed them to sidestep the issue of Taiwan and move on towards their real goal of normalising US-China ties. The key formulation, which became the basis of Washington’s “one China” policy, declared that the US “acknowledged” the Chinese position that there is “but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China”, but declined to explicitly endorse Beijing’s sovereignty over the island.

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

The United States and China established formal diplomatic relations seven years later, on 1 January 1979, when Washington switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing as the legitimate government of China. Yet the US and Taiwan continued a robust unofficial relationship, and, under the Taiwan Relations Act, passed the same year, Washington was required to provide Taiwan with arms. Successive US presidents, however, maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” by declining, for the most part, to say whether American troops would defend Taiwan.

This diplomatic balancing act held for decades, allowing the US and China to develop their relations and become significant trading partners. Beijing joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and became a phenomenal engine of global trade. Taiwan, meanwhile, became a thriving liberal democracy and a high-tech manufacturing hub that is now the world’s leading producer of advanced semiconductors, including to China. Yet the fault lines remained.

Driving the present crisis is the breakdown in US-China relations, a process started during Donald Trump’s presidency as trade negotiations soured and the two countries began a tariff war in 2018, while the US stepped up engagement with Taiwan. Despite Joe Biden’s calls for the US and China to establish “common-sense guardrails” and several conversations with Xi, ties between the two remain strained. In June Nicholas Burns, the US ambassador to China, said diplomatic relations, defined by “seemingly unremitting competition, were at their lowest point since Nixon’s 1972 visit.

Three times in the past 12 months, Biden has stated publicly that the US would defend Taiwan with military force if it was attacked – appearing to break with the previous approach of strategic ambiguity – and in November 2021 he referred to Taiwan as “independent”. Each time, his aides have downplayed these remarks and insisted that he is not changing policy, but this has done little to reassure officials in Beijing. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi has accused the US of pursuing a “fake one China policy”.

In recent years Beijing has increased pressure on Taiwan. The Chinese government has attempted to strip away the island’s remaining diplomatic partners and employed a range of intimidating “grey-zone” tactics. These included fighter jet intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone, cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns.

Xi has called “reunification” with Taiwan a “historic mission”, although in fact the PRC never governed the island. In service of this goal, he has stoked nationalism at home, to the extent that after Pelosi landed in Taipei, Chinese social media platforms lit up with complaints that the PLA had failed to stop her, with some insisting that her plane should have been shot down. Whereas post-Mao leaders such as Deng Xiaoping advocated a “hide our capacities, bide our time” approach to foreign policy, Xi has revelled in showing off China’s strength. During his near-decade in power, he has positioned himself as a strong leader who is reclaiming the country’s rightful place in the world, declaring the start of a “new era” when China should “take centre stage”. As he prepares to embark on a third five-year term this autumn, analysts have suggested that he may be tempted to try to seize Taiwan and secure his legacy.

During the last Taiwan Strait
The commander of the US Eighth Army in Korea with Chinese Nationalist troops in Taiwan, 1955. Photo by Bettmann / Getty images

Senior US officials have warned that a window may be opening when China will have the military capabilities to credibly contemplate an invasion. In March 2021 Admiral Philip Davidson, then the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, warned that Beijing could attempt a military assault on Taiwan within six years. Avril Haines, the director of US national intelligence, told a senate hearing in May 2022 that the threat between now and 2030 was “acute”. These assessments are based more on a perceived gap between US and Chinese capabilities in the latter half of this decade before a new generation of American weaponry comes into service, rather than on any specific intelligence. “It’s important to make the distinction here between capability and intent,” said Jessica Drun, a scholar at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington DC. “The marker is one in which the PLA will reportedly be able to successfully launch a full-scale invasion, but it doesn’t mean that one will be pursued at that point in time.”

The military campaign alone would be extraordinarily challenging, requiring an amphibious assault over more than 100 miles of water, against an enemy that would almost certainly be backed by the US military, and potentially other regional powers such as Japan. Invading Taiwan would be significantly more difficult than Russia’s land-based offensive in Ukraine, which has already stalled. In April a wargame of a fictional conflict set in 2027, staged by the US think tank the Center for a New American Security found that while China was able to land an invasion force in the south of the island, after a week of fighting, the Chinese troops had failed to reach the capital Taipei and were facing a protracted conflict, not to mention the task of then subduing a hostile population of more than 23 million people. As a US Department of Defense assessment put it in 2021: “Large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated and difficult military operations, requiring air and maritime superiority, the rapid build-up and sustainment of supplies onshore, and uninterrupted support.”

[See also: The pointlessness of Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan trip]

Xi has been careful to avoid setting a deadline for “reunification” with Taiwan, instead linking it with the “Chinese dream” of achieving the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by the centenary of the PRC’s founding in 2049. This is sufficiently far away that it gives him, or more likely his successor, room to manoeuvre. Instead, Xi has stressed that “time and momentum” are on Beijing’s side. A new white paper released by the Chinese government after Pelosi’s visit said that military force would only be used as a “last resort taken under compelling circumstances”.

“Before, they couldn’t do it, so they weren’t going to do it,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University and the American Enterprise Institute, of a Chinese offensive against Taiwan. “People ask, ‘Why would China risk everything for the sake of Taiwan?’” Mastro said. “But that’s what countries do; they have certain goals beyond prosperity.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Beijing’s coercive behaviour towards Taiwan in recent years, Taiwanese public opinion is hardening against the PRC. Just 1.3 per cent of respondents in surveys conducted by National Chengchi University between January and June 2022 said they supported “unification” (Taiwan rejects the term “reunification”) with the mainland “as soon as possible”. More than 80 per cent supported maintaining the status quo in some form. More worryingly for Beijing, however, more than 63 per cent of respondents said they identified as Taiwanese, with just over 2 per cent identifying as Chinese, the lowest proportion since the survey was first carried out in 1992. This undermines Xi’s argument that “time and momentum” are on China’s side. There is also very little interest in Beijing’s proposed “one country, two systems” model for Taiwan after the destruction of civil society in Hong Kong demonstrated how the approach has worked in practice there.

Taiwan’s government is also paying attention to Russia’s war in Ukraine, said Wu Tzuli, an associate research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a think tank in Taipei. He told me that Taiwan was learning from the invasion – in particular, the need for more asymmetric weapons systems and reserve forces. “Taiwan is strengthening the capability of civilian mobilisation,” Wu said, along with its “ability to withstand the first wave of attacks, which includes disinformation and cyber-attacks, as well as missile attacks on critical infrastructure”.

Domestic political sentiment on all sides is hardening. As Xi prepares for his third term, with the domestic economy slowing, relations with the US deteriorating and nationalism surging, he has little incentive to compromise and every reason to continue acting tough. On 14 August, less than two weeks after Pelosi left Taipei, another US congressional delegation arrived and Beijing embarked on a new round of military drills, as did Taiwan. The president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, has avoided direct discussion of independence, but she will be replaced by a new leader, who may be more hawkish on China, in 2024.

The US has its own presidential elections in 2024, in which Trump, or a Trump-like figure, could try to outflank the Democrats by appearing tougher on China, and therefore more voluble in their support for Taiwan. Even before that – as soon as this autumn – Congress could consider lesiglation that would designate Taiwan a major non-Nato ally, a status given to Israel, South Korea and Japan, among others. The Republican House leader, Kevin McCarthy, has already said that if he becomes speaker after the mid-term elections, he intends to visit Taiwan.

Watching all this unfold in the region, Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, warned his citizens on 8 August that they should prepare for a less peaceful and stable future. US-China relations were worsening and mutual suspicions becoming intractable, Lee said. “Around us, a storm is gathering.”

[See also: The perils of autocracy – Lawrence Freedman]

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This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine