Taiwan: The Most Dangerous Flashpoint in the U.S.-China Cold War

The Peace Advocate, July 2021

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) conducts routine operations May 18, 2021, in the Taiwan Strait. (MC3 Zenaida Roth/Navy)
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) conducts routine operations May 18, 2021, in the Taiwan Strait. (MC3 Zenaida Roth/US Navy)

Taiwan has become the most dangerous flashpoint in the new U.S.-China Cold War. Neither side wants war, but accidents and miscalculations are not uncommon. While U.S. support for the island’s liberal democracy is a profound source of tension with authoritarian China, two geostrategic realities are at the heart of the great power tensions. Like Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida where the 1962 introduction of Soviet missiles sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis, Taiwan is 100 miles from the Chinese mainland. It is thus seen as a source of Chinese military vulnerability.  Taiwan is also the world’s leading source of advanced semiconductors on which both the U.S. and Chinese economies depend. These make the island a coveted strategic prize.

Despite right-wing and Pentagon exaggeration of an impending Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the reality is that unless Taiwan crosses the red line of declaring de jure independence, China is unlikely to embrace the danger of a devastating – potentially nuclear – great power war. In addition to the immediate, unpredictable, and devastating costs of such a war, Beijing is not about to embrace the massive disruptions to its economy and armed Taiwanese resistance that would inevitably follow an invasion.

But the red line is real, and Taiwanese support for independence is growing, especially among younger generations. Donald Trump and now Joe Biden have been playing with fire. At the close of his disastrous reign, Donald Trump exacerbated U.S-Chinese tensions over Taiwan by approving more than $3 billion in new arms sales, including potentially offensive missiles, and by sending high level administration officials to the quasi-independent Chinese entity that China sees as a last vestige of its century and a half of colonial humiliations. 

Joe Biden and Anthony Blinken made matters worse. For the first time since the renewal of U.S.-Chinese relations in 1979, based on the One China policy, Taiwan’s functional ambassador to the U.S. was invited to attend the presidential inauguration. Contrary to the decades-old “strategic ambiguity” policy regarding U.S. commitments to defend Taiwan, Blinken has stated Washington’s ”rock solid” commitment to Taiwan’s defense. This, when polls indicate that increasing the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan fuels Taiwanese support for independence and thus presses against Beijing’s red line. Biden has repeatedly dispatched warships to the Taiwan Strait, and dispatched an “unofficial” delegation of former top officials to meet with senior Taiwanese officials. Guidelines that long restricted U.S. diplomats from meeting their Taiwanese counterparts are being revised to encourage such meetings which have begun. And discussions are proceeding for the likely deployment of a permanent U.S. naval presence near Taiwan.

Refusing to be intimidated, the People’s Liberation Army has engaged in repeated shows of force, sending warplanes into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone on a near-daily basis and warships into Taiwanese waters, increasing the opportunities for accidents and miscalculations. Marking the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary, General Secretary Xi stressed the importance of “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan under the one-China principle to China’s “national rejuvenation.” 

We ignore history at our peril. Like other border lands, Taiwan’s history is complex. Its indigenous population, Formosans, settled the island five thousand years ago and now constitute 2% of its population.  Taiwan was colonized by the Dutch in the 17th century, soon followed by immigration from the Chinese mainland and the island’s integration into China’s Qing empire. China’s defeat in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War resulted in Taiwan becoming a Japanese colony and its modernization to serve Japanese imperial interests. With Japan’s defeat in 1945, the Kuomintang (KMT) Chinese “nationalist” government assumed control over Taiwan, and it was to the offshore province that Chiang Kai-shek and his defeated nationalist forces retreated  after the defeat in China’s civil war in 1949. With murderous brutality Chiang established a dictatorship committed to reestablishing KMT rule over all of China. 

With the Korean War in 1950, President Truman dispatched the 7th Fleet to the Taiwan Strait prevent a possible Chinese Communist invasion of Taiwan. One-sided nuclear crises followed in 1954 and ’58 in response to Chinese shelling of offshore islands. Another crisis came in 1996, when Taiwan held its first direct presidential election. Warning Taiwanese voters against opting for the independence oriented Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), China bracketed Taiwan with rockets launched into the seas north and south of the main island.  The Clinton Administration responded with two nuclear-capable aircraft carrier fleets sent through the Taiwan Strait. That panicked Chinese leaders, triggering Beijing’ military modernization which now includes potent area denial capabilities, including the possibility of sinking U.S. aircraft carriers. Today the DPP, with support from younger generations, is the dominant party. The KMT has reversed course by having encouraged massive investments in China and is now associated with support for reunification on the mainland’s terms.

Since the renewal of U.S.-Chinese relations in the 1970s, Taiwan has remained a potential flashpoint for possible U.S.-Chinese conflict. Weakening the commitment to the One-China policy carries the potential of catastrophically unravelling the diplomatic fabric that has been the foundation of U.S.-Chinese relatively peaceful coexistence. In the run up to President Nixon’s strategically calculated 1972 visit to China, after a two-decade hiatus in relations, the president withdrew the 7th Fleet from the Taiwan Strait and began the gradual withdrawal U.S. military forces from Taiwan. U.S. commitment to “One China”, meaning that Taiwan is part of China, and to Taiwan’s eventual reunification with China – was established in the 1972 U.S.-PRC Shanghai Communique, and was reaffirmed in the 1979 in the agreement to resume formal diplomatic relations. Deng Xiaoping reluctantly tolerated but did not endorse U.S. insistence on continuing to supply Taiwan with defensive weaponry as the cost of securing the tacit U.S. alliance targeted against the Soviet Union. 

Establishing U.S.-PRC diplomatic relations required ending those with Taiwan. The island’s Congressional allies in Washington responded with the  Taiwan Relations Act which remains in force. It requires the U.S. to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons and to maintain U.S. capabilities to prevent reunification by force of arms or coercion. The U.S. and Taiwan maintain informal embassies in their respective capitals.

The U.S. is not alone in acting in support of Taiwan. In June, as part of Biden’s commitments to alliances to augment U.S. power, the G-7 summit expressed concern for Taiwanese as well as Hong Kong human rights. Japan subsequently reinforced that commitment and prepared the Japanese public for possible military action when its Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign and Defense ministers issued statements warning that “The peace and stability of Taiwan is directly connected to Japan”, and that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would trigger a “survival-threatening situation” for Japan. Taiwan’s independence is recognized by 15 marginal nations – countries including the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Nicaragua, and Palau, most of whom are U.S client states and receive financial assistance from Taipei.  

Part of the U.S. imperial calculus is that increased Chinese control over the Taiwan Strait would seriously impact Japan and other nations. In addition to its effects on Taiwan’s 24 million people and the world’s supply of advanced semiconductors, it would threaten the shipping lanes essential for the transport of oil for Japan’s and South Korea’s economies.

To prevent this and other threats to U.S. regional hegemony, the Biden Administration is increasing the Pentagon budget, including billions for its “Pacific Deterrence Initiative”. In the face of debilitating domestic political polarization, Biden seeks to build national unity with anti-Chinese rhetoric.  Congress is joining in with the Senate’s Strategic Initiative and Competition Act and the House of Representatives’ similar EAGLE Act, which passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee July 15 . More dangerously, the pervasive belief in Washington that the threat of devastating China with nuclear weapons is the only way to defend Taiwan militarily, Daniel Ellsberg predicts that to defend Taiwan at any cost, the Biden Administration will resist adopting a nuclear No First Use doctrine in its Nuclear Posture Review.

Preventing accidents or miscalculations (political as well as military) that could trigger armed conflict and escalate to nuclear war must now become an urgent priority. Taiwan is the most dangerous flashpoint for great power and potentially nuclear war, followed by the South China/West Philippine and Baltic Seas. With the contradictory forces of popular Chinese backing for Taiwan’s reunification and growing support for Taiwanese national independence, as well as the inevitable tensions between rising and decline powers, a nervous sailor who pulls a trigger or a Taiwanese political leader who makes a reckless statement could ignite a nuclear World War.

The Philippine anti-imperialist scholar/activist Walden Bello wrote that “while Hong Kong and Taiwan are indisputably part of China — a fact not disputed by the international community… China must be cognizant of the right of the peoples of these areas to have a say in the way they are governed, especially given the unavoidable issues of national identity created by their long separation from the rest of the country by colonialism.” What, then, must be done?

  • The U.S. must firmly uphold the one-China formula.
  • All sides must halt provocative and dangerous military shows of force.
  • The U.S. must end arms sales to Taiwan.
  • The U.S., China, and the region’s nations must commit to pursuing Common Security diplomacy while encouraging Chinese-Taiwanese negotiations.

Joseph Gerson is a member of MAPA’s board and co-founder of the Committee for a SANE U.S.-China Policy