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Avoiding War Over Taiwan

Authors: 14 Task Force Members on US-China Policy
Organization/Publisher: 21st Century China Center, University of California San Diego
Date/Place: October 12, 2022/ USA
Type of Literature: Policy Brief
Word Count: 4500
Keywords: China, Taiwan, US, Taiwan Strait, One-China Policy, Geopolitics, War, Deterrence,
South China Sea, Communist Party of China
There is no longer any ambiguity in the US policy towards China, as Washington has identified Beijing as its only competitor in the coming times and believes that it “needs to be reined in” to prevent harm to the world’s most powerful economy and military. One of the main measures that Washington has taken in this regard is targeting Taiwan, an island nation with a population of around 24 million. However, this policy paper strongly advises against escalation and warns that “despite rising tensions, it is both essential and possible to avoid war in the Taiwan Strait. None of the three governments wants war. But to avoid war, all three governments must avoid steps that force the other side to launch a military conflict.”
Tensions between Taiwan and mainland China were exacerbated when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made an unannounced visit to Taiwan in August, despite strong objections from Beijing, which does not want Taiwan to be recognized as a separate entity. The US formally recognized China in 1979 and moved its diplomatic mission from Taipei to Beijing, adopting the “One-China Policy” under which Taiwan is considered part of mainland China. This policy was also adopted by the United Nations. However, Taipei has maintained its independence since 1949.
The Taiwan Relations Act, which was enacted in 1979, has governed US relations with Taiwan. The Three Communiques, a series of bilateral agreements, have also influenced these ties.
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China, marked the first time in 25 years that a sitting speaker of the US Congress traveled to the island nation, located south of mainland China across the Taiwan Strait. This visit was seen as the biggest provocation in recent times, and in response, Beijing conducted massive military exercises in the air and at sea around Taiwan and fired missiles, some of which flew over the island. The rule of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, a nationalist and center-left political party, is also seen by Beijing as promoting independence, and as a result, has faced criticism and actions by the Chinese authorities, including the sanctioning of some of its officials.
As China’s economic and military influence has expanded, more nations have recently switched their diplomatic relations to Beijing, leaving Taiwan with full-fledged diplomatic relations with only 14 nations. However, Taiwan has never been ruled by Beijing, as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was formed in 1949. The military exercises launched in response to Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan were also seen as China showcasing its military might – it has the world’s largest naval fleet – and the armory it deployed almost blocked off Taiwan’s maritime borders.
The US has increased its military activities near Chinese waters, which has led Taiwan to increase its defense relations with the US and place weaponry orders worth $8 billion since the Trump administration. The Biden administration has continued this policy and even ramped up the rhetoric, stating that the US will militarily intervene to help Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. Biden’s reiteration of military support to Taiwan has only reinforced the belief that the US has moved from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity with regard to China. This belief is also supported by the fact that the US national security establishment has targeted Chinese firms, including chip manufacturers, and Chinese citizens, linking them to the Chinese military and intelligence agencies.
However, the 14 authors of this policy paper remind Washington of theorist Thomas Schelling’s belief that “effective deterrence of the PRC requires not only the credible threat of a forceful response to an attack on Taiwan, but also the credible assurance that if the PRC refrains from attacking Taiwan, interests considered vital to Beijing will not be damaged anyway.” When considering Chinese President Xi Jinping’s policy, which many experts describe as the third phase of China’s development since independence, he has insisted on the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of China.
Xi Jinping’s recent re-election as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief for a record third time is also viewed in a similar light, as China would not want to see destabilization in its economic and military progress despite widespread criticism for its handling of Xinjiang, also known as East Turkistan. Western nations, including the US, which have suffered the devastating impact of COVID-19 with tens of thousands of deaths, have heavily criticized China’s strict pandemic policy, which has apparently led to a low number of deaths (only 5,226 according to Chinese official figures). This policy paper strongly argues against turning the current situation into a full-fledged war, stating that the goal for both sides must be “to keep rising tensions from evolving into a shooting war that would be extremely dangerous and destructive for all sides and that could result in the use of nuclear weapons.”
The policy paper also notes that the reunification of Taiwan with the Chinese mainland remains at the core of China’s policy, regardless of who leads the government and the CCP. While Beijing has consistently stated that it prefers peaceful reunification, it has not ruled out the use of force to achieve this goal.
Beijing has also expressed its desire to control Taiwan under the “One country, Two systems” mechanism. Xi’s recent interactions with military commanders, focusing on combat and war preparedness, show that Beijing’s consistent policy is to fully modernize the People’s Liberation Army by 2027. The policy paper also highlights the different governance models pursued by Beijing and Taipei. While the CCP is the single party that has ruled China since its independence, Taiwan underwent a transition to democracy in 1986 and has a vibrant presidential, legislative, and local elections system.
The paper notes that “this is at odds with the Chinese identity that an earlier generation of leaders on Taiwan endorsed, and which Beijing has sought to perpetuate,” citing a June 2022 survey that found 63.7% of respondents in Taiwan identifying as Taiwanese rather than both Chinese and Taiwanese (30.4%). At the same time, the paper states that Beijing has “emerged from a period of strategic caution to assert its interests more strongly by, for example, reclaiming land and building military installations atop seven reefs in the South China Sea, sending coast guard ships daily into waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands whose ownership China contests with Japan, and enrolling many of its neighbors in its Belt and Road Initiative to tie their economies more closely to China’s.
The paper adds that “China appears convinced that the United States seeks to prevent China from ever achieving what it sees as its legitimate national objectives, and that US policy on Taiwan is part of that strategy. The US appears convinced that Chinese pressure on Taiwan threatens US values and interests. Taiwan, for its part, has done what it can to consolidate its distinct democratic identity at home and to cultivate de facto international status as an autonomous political entity.” The authors suggest three steps to avoid a war, including asking Taiwan not to declare independence, urging Washington not to recognize Taiwan as an independent state, and preventing Beijing from using military force against Taiwan to compel unification. However, in Washington, many believe that allowing China to control Taiwan would “render impossible the defense of US allies in Asia.” The authors note that “strategic clarity is hardly necessary because (Chinese) Mainland leaders and the PLA already fully expect and plan for US intervention if China acts militarily to take control of Taiwan.” In addition to suggesting an upgrade of its weaponry, including warships and aircraft deployed in the region, the authors argue that Taiwan “must demonstrate its ability to maintain resilience during a blockade and impose high costs on an invading PRC force” and create “deeper reserves of strategic resources like fuel and food in case the PRC elects to blockade the island.” They urge Washington to focus on peace in the Taiwan Strait and reiterate its stance against Taiwan’s independence, and also to involve allies in discussions about “their own stake in peace and stability in cross-Strait relations and the need for them to contribute to a moderate and responsible US strategy to deter mainland belligerence.” The authors also argue against making any “politically advantageous but strategically damaging statements about Taiwan” by US officials and politicians.
By: Riyaz ul Khaliq, CIGA Non-resident Research Associate



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