The Taiwan Conundrum

Peace Advocate August 2021

"Social movement in Taiwan" by Varbow is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

by Jim Hassett

Beijing is irrevocably committed to regaining control of Taiwan, an island about 100 miles off China’s coast.  But the US and its allies are committed to the opposite:  helping Taiwan maintain its status as an independent county.  Something’s got to give.  

To put the problem in context, Taiwan was part of China for over 200 years.  The island was ceded to Japan in 1895 after the first Sino-Japanese War, and then taken over by Nationalist Chinese forces after they lost their civil war to the Communists in 1949.    

When President Nixon visited China in 1972 to reopen relations with the US, according to Stanford fellow Niall Ferguson Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s “principal goal was to persuade [US Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger to agree to ‘recognize the PRC as the sole legitimate government in China’ and ‘Taiwan Province’ as ‘an inalienable part of Chinese territory which must be restored to the motherland.’” 

In the five decades since, Beijing’s position on Taiwan has remained clear, consistent and unyielding.  In 2019, on the 40th anniversary of the US establishing diplomatic relations with China, President Xi Jinping gave a speech explaining that the need for re-unification with Taiwan remains critical. Xi also emphasized the need for a peaceful solution, repeating a line from a 1995 speech by former Chinese president Jiang Zemin that “Chinese will not fight Chinese.” 

As Sun Tzu wrote in the 6th century BCE in The Art of War, “The highest victory is to defeat the enemy without ever fighting.” That philosophy is still alive today.  In the Chinese best-seller The China Dream, “The competition between China and the United States will not be like a ‘shooting duel’ or a ‘boxing match’ but more like a ‘track and field competition.’” 

But capturing Taiwan without the loss of life is far from a sure thing.  This July, at a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921, Xi Jinping, the Party’s leader, said that any efforts to assure Taiwan’s long-term independence would meet with “resolute action.”  In case you’re not sure what he meant exactly, Xi went on to say that “the Chinese people will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us. Anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

What do the 1.4 billion people who will actually form this “wall of steel” think?  The only data comes from a survey reported in the Global Times, a paper published by the CCP, and which the New York Times has referred to as “China’s Fox News.”  For what it’s worth, that survey found that 70% of the Chinese people strongly support using force to unify Taiwan with the mainland.  37% say it would be best if this happened within the next five years.

As a New York Times article summed up the situation recently, “to Beijing, Taiwan continues to be a source of embarrassment, the island where the losers in the country’s civil war fled in 1949 and whose government is propped up by foreign powers.”

The American position is quite a bit muddier.  In 1979 Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act which stated in part that the US will consider “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”  

More recently, in one of his fist major speeches on China, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned that “when China uses coercion or aggression to get its way… We will push back if necessary.”  

Both statements are consistent with the US’ longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity.”  As another New York Times article recently explained “Under a longstanding — and famously convoluted — policy derived from America’s ‘one China’ stance that supports Taiwan without recognizing it as independent, the United States provides political and military support for Taiwan, but does not explicitly promise to defend it from a Chinese attack.”

So, to sum it up, if China takes aggressive action on Taiwan, the US will consider it a matter of “grave concern,” and we will push back “if necessary.”  Any questions?

It may sound tempting for the US to simply stand aside if mainland China acts to seize control over Taiwan.  After all, the situation is really a continuation of the century old civil war between the Chinese Communists and the Chinese Nationalist Party.

When the Senate Armed Services Committee recently approved the nomination of Adm. John Aquilino to lead the US military’s Indo-Pacific Command, one Senator asked why the US should defend Taiwan at all.  Aquilino replied, in part, that “Washington’s credibility as an ally to places like Japan and the Philippines is at stake if the island were to fall to Beijing.”  Simply walking away could de-stabilize the entire region.  How would Japan and South Korea react if we violate our treaties with them and allow their most powerful neighbor to seize territory by force?  Would China become more aggressive in the South China Sea?  

In a Bloomberg opinion column ominously titled “A Taiwan Crisis May Mark the End of the American Empire” Niall Ferguson added several other reasons why the US should defend Taiwan, notably that “Taiwan in recent years has also gained a greater strategic importance as one of the world’s leading producers of semiconductors — the high-tech equivalent of oil in the emerging supercomputing showdown between the United States and China, which faces microchip supply shortages.”

And what about our support for the 24 million Taiwanese who have developed one of Asia’s most successful economies and democracies?  In last year’s Taiwanese presidential election, Tsai Ing-wen won a second term in a landslide, in part by rejecting the “one country, two systems” framework and vowing that Taiwan will stand up to China. The Unionist Party, which favors re-unification with the mainland, got just 0.23 percent of the presidential vote.  

Are the Taiwanese people prepared to fight to the death?  Yes, at least according to Taiwan’s foreign minister who said in April that if China attacksWe will fight a war if we need to fight a war, and if we need to defend ourselves to the very last day, then we will defend ourselves to the very last day.“

Suppose China does invade Taiwan, and the US mounts a military response.  Could we win?  Questions like this are usually answered based on the results of simulated war games conducted by military officers.  But, according to an article in Foreign Affairs, “The Pentagon has reportedly enacted 18 war games against China over Taiwan, and China has prevailed in every one.”  Hmm.

So what should the US do to avoid a nuclear bloodbath over Taiwan?  Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions.  

The future of Taiwan ultimately will depend more on mainland China than on the US.  We are playing defense and must react to their moves.  The US government must try to be prepared for anything, and respond to any verbal or physical threats in a sophisticated way that is aimed at preserving world peace.  

If this analysis is correct, it is tempting to suggest that the US identify a crystal clear “red line.” As long as mainland China stays behind that line, peace will be protected.  But that approach probably won’t work with a country like China because they are likely to proceed directly to that red line, and then repeat what they are doing now:  testing the limits of US resolve. 

Perhaps the best hopes for peace comes from Sun Tzu’s philosophy of doing everything possible to avoid a fighting war and from leadership’s oft-repeated line “Chinese will not fight Chinese.” These certainly do not guarantee peace, but they do provide an opening for negotiators.

Of the many challenges to peace around the world, Taiwan is one of the most problematic. It is largely outside American control.  

One of the key goals of Massachusetts Peace Action is “educating voters and candidates on just and peaceful foreign policy options.”  Since so much of US Taiwan policy must remain secret to protect national security, in this case that means helping to elect politicians who are committed to peace, and sophisticated enough to fight for it effectively through diplomacy.

Jim Hassett writes the blog Understanding China, five minutes at a time.  He has a PhD in Psychology from Harvard University and is the author of thirteen books and over a hundred articles.